Don’t Tell Me I Can’t

Cole Summers’ parents knew he was exceptional when, as a 3-year-old, he changed a tire on their truck. At 4, he tore down (and helped rebuild) their truck engine. After watching YouTube videos of Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, and others explaining how to gain wealth, he started his first business (breeding and selling rabbits) at 7. At 9, he bought a 350-acre ranch. A year later, he bought a house.

He never attended school, watched TV, played video games, or accepted pessimism. In May 2022, at 14, he self-published his autobiography, Don’t Tell Me I Can’t, An Ambitious Homeschooler’s Journey. The book pulls readers into a view of living that few people can even comprehend today: A family that believes in freedom, responsibility, play, hard work, family love, and letting life teach its own lessons. 

       While his dad’s confinement to a wheelchair and his mom’s blindness might have shaped a fearful and overprotective parenting style, they took the opposite path. They encouraged independence, risk, and reaching for the dream. Cole said he has used nail guns, power saws, and other power tools for as long as he can remember. 

       I really enjoyed watching Cole press life’s limits. The book’s title captures his attitude. Who says children cannot own land, vehicles, and businesses? He has owned them all. As a child. 

       As an 11th birthday present to himself, he bought a John Deere tractor with a front loader, forklift, backhoe, disc harrow, and other tools. For his 12th, he dug a well. A dry one. Cole chalked that up to “education.” As he wrote, “When I measured the well when I was buying my ranch, I measured late in the fall. Had I known better and measured it in the summer, it would have been dry, and in the two years since I measured it, extreme drought led to two years of the water table dropping six feet both years.” 

       His education wasn’t finished. His business depended on his rabbits ending up on restaurant menus. So, with restaurants shuttered, COVID-19 killed his business. Part of the astonishment of this book was in watching the way the family faced crises. Repeated hospitalizations for Cole’s dad, a bone dry well, hauling water from the neighbors for 9 months, car and pickup breakdowns. But what resilience! When Cole got hit with a big tax bill, he got mad and made researching corporate tax law his 5th grade math class. 

Although it obviously was not included in the book, his story ends with a true gut-punch. A month after his book hit the market, Cole died in a kayaking accident. He was 14. At the time of his death, he was working on a plan to preserve the depleting aquifer beneath his Great Basin Desert ranch near Beryl, Utah. 

The book is not great literature; it’s easy to believe a 14-year-old wrote it. But I hope thousands of kids and their parents will read it. Don’t Tell Me I Can’t reveals the power and confidence of a straight-ahead life. And Cole’s death does not invalidate bold living. His was not a “life cut short;” he did not leave us “too soon.” He filled up a life, his life, just as it was designed and destined by his Creator. 

Of course, Cole was an astonishing kid. But, as I read his book, I kept wondering if his creativity and success are just normal reflections of what it means to be human. Maybe he stood out because he avoided the constraints of dismal bureaucracies, entertainment, addictions, and negativity.

For me, the real message of this book is that experts are overrated, fears are overblown, and thousands of audacious young builders are overcomers. The dawn of their day is breaking.   

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More Than A Story

In November 2001, Jason Chinn drove out of Saratoga Springs, New York, headed west. Hauling all his earthly possessions, he settled into a 28-hour drive to Colorado to marry his lovely Erin. When his old Toyota died east of Buffalo, he ditched it like a bag of snakes and jumped back on the road in a rented car. 

         As a man on a mission, he drove straight through to Colorado Springs. Eight states. No meals, motels, or roadside naps. Just bathrooms, burgers, and fuel. If you knew Erin, you’d understand. 

         I love my nephew’s story. It confirms our Jack and Mary Chinn family culture—we love our mates. We see them as God’s gift, not just to us as individuals, but to our unfurling estate. We know grand passion because we know grand purposes—marriage, family, nation, faith. It’s all threaded through our walk with God. 

         It also reveals life in focus. How long since you knew that kind of single-mindedness; you know, the unrelenting, damn-the-torpedoes, “get-outta-my-way-Sheriff,” or pointing the car west and moving like a bullet?

The Real Story

Have you noticed we all now live in the grip of “the story?” As an editor, publisher, and writer, I understand and love that (it pays the bills). But I’m also concerned about it. 

         Over the past few decades, too many stories have become polluted by the big lie of ME! Insisting that our life experiences, whatever they are, dignify us, the personal story has turned into a tacky float in a long parade of human exhibitionism.

         Any story of enduring value connects us to a higher purpose and pulse. A circular drama that begins and ends in my navel is not only soul-deadening but eye-rolling dull. We need more than our vaccine philosophy, sexuality, religious opinions, political preferences, or self-promotion if we hope to tell a story that inspires others.

         Face it; people may want to hear your story, but they are looking for more than you in it. They want to see through you to the magnificent drama behind all of life. They all want to learn something about their own origins, purpose, and destiny. If they don’t connect with that in your tale, they move along. 

Can We Get Beyond the Templates?

Stories have formed personal, familial, tribal, even national identities for millennia. They pulled people around dinner tables, campfires, road trips, bars, and churches, and opened windows on life’s possibilities. 

         As a publisher and editor of many books, I’ve never heard the same story twice from those who lived it. They are all original. Yet every published, filmed, or staged story seems to conform to the templates formed by media empires. And too many original stories have been hammered into clichéd narratives about contemporary issues. 

         TV coverage of tornado stories, for example, seems to feature the Sunday morning church service following Tuesday’s tornado. Parishioners remind the reporter that the church is people, not this pile of bricks. As we watch a B-roll of teddy bears and hymnals in the weeds, uprooted trees, and splintered pews, the voice-over questions the very idea of a loving God. Not just a stale and tiring angle, but gouge-your-eyes-out-with-a-fork bor-ring.

         What would happen if they let those who survived the tornado tell their own story? Perhaps they would tell one that spins, pops, jumps, and surprises.  

Just Live!

Now, you do have a story. Everyone does. 

         But here’s a secret: living precedes story. A real story does not come by planning; it sneaks up on you. Jason Chinn did not storyboard his cross-country trip. Like him, we all stumble into great stories. 

         That’s because our life (body, soul, spirit) is a true mystery. Somewhat like a murmuration of starlings—it swells, shrinks, oozes, and balloons far beyond the boundaries of our physical self or even our consciousness. 

         Live that life! Live as The Message Bible interprets Romans 12:1— “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering…”

         Do that, and who knows? Somewhere down the road, you may share what happened that night with a stranger on a plane. And he or she will cry like a rainstorm or laugh till a lung pops out. 

         When that happens, call me! 

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Who Are Those People in Your Life?

As for the saints who are in the earth, They are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight. Psalms 16:3

What would it take to really see the mysterious bundles of flesh and spirit in your spouse? Your kids? Or your parents, siblings, friends, or neighbors?

God chose to bring magnificent people into your life, just as He did into mine. I would like to know yours, but I’ll go first; let me tell you about mine. Because I did nothing to earn these friendships and do not deserve them, I can only stand in silent awe.

The Majestic Ones

Let me introduce you to some human treasures among my friends.

  • First, we stop at my lovely Joanne. Although she buried her parents, her son, and two sisters, and has endured serious illness and pain, her laughter thaws frozen rivers. She passionately loves her kids, grandkids, friends, and flowers. Her husband knows he only lives because God likes Joanne.

  • When diabetes took his leg, Dan settled into a wheelchair as regally as a naval captain commands his ship. His gentle Oklahoma drawl and easy humor convince listeners it’s all going to turn out fine. And, to see him at a formal event is to understand why civilization devised tuxedos.

  • Glen, a true force of nature, listens carefully, weighs the words and the spirit behind them, and then drops a plumb line down through the room. His view leaves nothing else to say. It’s time to repent or lawyer up. And, his Roberta loves every person, plant, and animal she ever touched… with her hand, eyes, or shadow.

  • Gerrit and Himmie speak and move in musical cadence, exuding southern charm. When our son died, they drove to our house. They brought no sermons or songs but stepped into the abyss with us.

  • Daoud and Robin walk through their very wide world like royalty. Yet, they taught us a timeless and life-altering lesson in vulnerability, humility, and kindness.

  • Doug, a prophet, spreads the love of God over the world, enjoys fine steaks and wines, fires a cannon on his ranch, and scares the hell out of religious people.

  • Steve and Beth welcome stray cats and people to their home. Like the Good Samaritan, they pull them to health and pay the bills to do it.

  • When Morris touches a keyboard, he rips a hole between Heaven and earth and ushers the outcasts into God’s living room.

  • Many years ago, Chris and Linda walked out of the church house and into the high call of serving their neighborhood and city. In that call, they flow with Muslims and Mormons as easily as they do with Methodists.

  • Beverly, a child psychologist, continues to work past retirement age because the children in her remote Georgia county would have no other advocate or helper if she quit.

The Truth About Friends

If I knew just one of those people, I’d be rich. But, I know many. I hope to introduce you to others—our kids and grandkids, my parents and brothers, and the vast sweep of artists, teachers, preachers, cops, outlaws, orphans, and outsiders who enrich my life.

            Through these and other majestic ones, I’ve learned some things about friendship:

  1. To cherish other humans means I must first recognize their Creator.

  2. Love and respect should be spoken. Plainly. Face-to-face. Heart-to-heart. Don’t let those you love wonder where they stand with you.

  3. I cannot change the terms, the temperature, or the territory of friendship. I can only accept (or reject) what was offered.

  4. Friendship builds a sanctuary, a sacred and safe place for heartsounds.  

  5. Real friends offer a wondrous mix of total acceptance for who you are and encouragement to be more than you are.

  6. People will disappoint you. Forgive them.

  7. When the time comes, release them to go on into their destiny, even if that release involves a funeral.

Finally, what is the proper response for such majestic ones? After all, we didn’t create them or invite them. God fashioned the moment, the intersection, and the eternal resonance between two hearts. Gratitude is the only proper deportment.

            But, according to the professor and author Richard Beck, “Gratitude implies a gift, which in turn implies a giver.” In other words, gifts do not tumble down from outer space.  Gratitude cannot exist by itself. It unavoidably assumes a Creator, the one who gives.  

            We are grateful for and we are grateful to.

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The Voice in the Night

Early in the morning of August 7, 1930, three African-American teenage boys—Abram Smith, Thomas Shipp, and James Cameron—were arrested in Marion, Indiana. They were charged with shooting Claude Deeter, and raping his girlfriend, both white, as they parked on a local lover’s lane. Throughout the day, the news flashed across (and beyond) Indiana.

         Deeter died that afternoon. By nightfall, thousands gathered at the Marion jail. They ordered Sheriff Jacob Campbell to release the young men to them. When he refused, men with sledgehammers tore the jail apart. They pulled Smith and Shipp from their cells and through the mob. The people beat both men with bricks, boards, and crowbars. Then two ropes sailed up into the night air, creating pulleys around large tree limbs. Minutes later, Smith and Shipp died at the end of the ropes.

The Voice that Changed Everything

A shocking photograph of that scene reveals a defiant and angry mob, individuals swaying to the music of murder and swaggering in their own righteousness. They appear caught in a wild pandemonium, a demonic possession they could not escape. Surely those swirling in that maelstrom will never know kindness or humility or empathy.

         Until they do. That terrible dark story somehow veered into a transcendent moment.

         After Shipp and Smith died, the mob returned to the jail, pulled James Cameron to the same tree, and placed a noose around his neck. But, suddenly, from out of the night sky, a voice rang out. It proclaimed Cameron’s innocence and ordered his release. The lynch mob fell silent. Many eyewitnesses believed they heard the voice of God. Cameron told me that, after the voice spoke, “Everything changed. Hands that handled me so roughly were suddenly so gentle.”[1]

Above the Silos

Most people view their god solely within a silo, a closed system, isolated from all other groups or structures. What happens in the silo stays in the silo.

         That’s why the scene in Marion that night was stunning in its utter simplicity: an angry and violent mob heard a great voice in the dark, and that voice turned rough hands into gentle ones. No temples, no leaders, no liturgies, and no religious assumptions or expectations.

         At its best, religion is a collective effort to obey God and transform His will into a “voltage” that can be used on earth. But, for the same reason, the religious impulse inevitably builds silos. And, that creates a problem; the God Who is God simply cannot fit inside a manufactured cylinder. So, belief systems work very hard to whittle the immeasurable, undefinable, inconceivable, and unruly God down to a deity we can measure, define, imagine, and control.

         That’s why the Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and all other silo deities are inadequate. They are all, ultimately and merely, human projections of their “God.” Look, as a Christian, I embrace the full sweep of Jesus as King of all created order. Still, I’ve long been uneasy about identifying myself as “Christian.” The moment I do, I step back into my Christian silo, thereby requiring outsiders to talk to me in my safe zone. It’s like a 7-year-old telling his new friend, “I’m sorry; Mommy won’t let me go outdoors, but if you accept her, you can join our family and then we can play in our house.”

Let’s Go Outside

I think many seekers of God yearn to play outside, to leave the cramped and cultic house and play with all the neighborhood kids under the vast canopy of God’s great sky. I often wonder if the great exodus from local churches simply represents those who want to rise above the noise and connect with the God Who is God?

         After all, His Voice—all by Itself, unplugged from enhancements and unbound by interpretations—changes everything and everyone. He didn’t need anyone in that Marian mob to do or say anything. And, He wasn’t waiting for the town’s holy people to humble themselves and pray. That God knew what to do.

            And, He still does. He’s not puzzled or distraught about uproars or mobs. Perhaps, if we get quiet, we might hear His Whispers for our times and places.         

[1] Cameron lived another 76 years. He founded and lead America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, wrote a book, and received an official apology from Indiana Governor Evan Bayh. This story is compiled from my interview of Cameron and research at America’s Black Holocaust Museum and Rare Historical Photos.

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Is the Universe a Friendly Place?

In August of 1996, 10-year-old Taylor Touchstone went swimming with his family in a Florida panhandle creek. Minutes later the mildly autistic boy, known for having no sense of fear, vanished. His family members reacted immediately; they knew that the creek emptied into a vast and dangerous swamp.

A massive search quickly came together. Boats and helicopters with high-tech tracking systems, and more than 200 volunteers, covered the area. Everyone felt they were in a race with death. The swamp was home for alligators, rattlesnakes, and water moccasins. One year earlier four Army Rangers had died while training in the same swamp.

After covering a 36-square-mile area over three days, the search effort came to a sorrowful end. The boy was presumed dead.

But early in the morning of the fourth day, 14 miles away from where Taylor was last seen, a fisherman saw a child calmly bobbing in the water. He knew immediately who the boy was, pulled him into his boat, and full-throttled to the dock. The boy was naked, sunburned, hungry, thirsty, and had some minor cuts and bites. Beyond that he was fine.

Taylor has never provided details of his incredible journey; no one knows how he survived – or travelled 14 miles. But photos of alligators made him very excited and happy.

Albert Einstein once asked a crucial question: “Is the universe a friendly place?” The only possible answers, “yes” or “no,” are both true. In a mysterious and eternal reciprocity, the one who replies receives the full cargo of his or her answer.

The structure of the universe tends to give us what we ask. We eat what we speak. In other words, we are all farmers. We plant the seeds, and then live by the crop that comes up out of the soil. Plant a yes; reap a yes. Is the universe a friendly place? Answer wisely; you’ll live by your response.

Taylor Touchstone had no sense of fear; he trusted his environment. And apparently his environment gave him full support. That is so like children. Bright eyes, quick smiles, and eager to go. Except for those who live in dark and dangerous places, most children instinctively know the universe – at least their part of it – is safe and pleasant.

Several years ago my second cousin moved to Los Angeles. Jennifer, so young and excited, wanted to break into the entertainment industry. But, in an old story, she found the road more difficult than expected. At one point she ran out of money. She told me, “I literally had no money in my account and no gas in my car to make it to work.”

Her desperate need drove her to call her mom. When Dorothy heard her daughter’s voice, she said, “Oh, Jenn, I was just about to call you. Have you checked your bank account today?” She had not. So Dorothy told her that Jennifer’s grandmother awakened after a troubling dream. Concerned about Jennifer’s welfare, she began praying for her granddaughter. When morning came, she arranged for a cash gift to be deposited in Jennifer’s bank account.

Jennifer had been walking past ATMs every day; her cash was that near. When she told me that story, I wondered how often I walk on, by, or around strong support from the God of the universe – support that is just a few steps away.

Yes, I know that people die in swamps and some lose everything and end up living on the street. But I also know that joy, faith, and vulnerability help young people to greet the universe with joyful expectancy. And so often the universe responds with strong support.

When author and professor Dallas Willard was diagnosed with cancer, he said something quite profound, “I think that when I die it might be some time until I know it.” In other words, the membrane between this life and the next one is very thin. We are all moving through a much larger and friendlier terrain than we ever imagined – the vast universe of the Creator’s design and generosity.

The universe is friendly. You can enjoy the journey, especially if you travel through it like a child.

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Living on the Roulette Wheel

I went to visit an old friend in his new home a few days ago. I found “Fred” sitting in a semi-circle of 12 other people gazing at a TV. The others drooped, drooled, gaped or groaned in various depths of indignity.

But Fred, true to his nature, sat tall and regal, ignoring the TV and silently pumping hand weights; at 77 he still resists the inevitable trajectory of aging. He continues to fly above the lowlands.

Some would say that Fred lives “in community.” But he really doesn’t; he lives in a warehouse with other unique characters who all happen to fit into a box called “Alzheimer’s.” I understand; the system does not have time to get to know everyone. Of necessity, it looks past the person and focuses on the category.

Over recent decades the pace of American life seems to have become a centrifuge, spinning all of us away from a quiet, local and personal life. Like a roulette wheel, the centrifugal force throws us into the outer rim pockets of group identities – liberal, conservative, Muslim, paraplegic, gay, Gen-X, African-American, etc.

That force squeezes individuality, creativity, privacy and freedom as our larger institutions – government, business, media, religion, health care, etc. – press us into conformity with “higher” objectives. One result of that dynamic is that we are losing sight of the people right in front of our eyes. We all tend to see group labels.

When and why did that happen?

It seems to me that once upon a time, and when the pace and cadences of life were slower, our shared community values assumed that the universe was created. We didn’t “believe;” we knew that people and animals and plants and seasons and orbits did not just happen. It was self-evident; it required no proof or reasoning.

We also knew that every human bears the signature of God. And we granted respect to people because of the God Who created them. However subtle and silent, that respect recognized that the person beside you was created, and is loved, by God. The wise heart sought to find the true value and beauty of God’s design and love in that very distinctive person.

I think the loss of that assumption is a large part of why we no longer take the time to get to know people as individuals. We’ve all moved from the organic to the organizational, from relationship to productivity. Things move so fast that we have to make snap judgments; you know, for the common good. So we just identify them according to their group pocket on the roulette wheel.

Systems seem to say to us, “Yes, we know that your mother is a very distinguished lady and has a beautiful story. But we just can’t take the time to get to know everyone like we wish we could. Please understand; it’s just more efficient this way.”

David wrote an opus of our origins in a few simple lines.

You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place… (Psalm 139:13-15 NIV)

Everyone should soak in that Psalm. Those words will help us to take time to really consider the beauty of God’s intimate and elegant creation of people. I think it also helps to turn it outward. “God knit you in your mother’s womb…you are fearfully and wonderfully made…your frame was not hidden when God made you in the secret place.

Think about those verses the next time you look at your spouse, children, parents or siblings.

Meditate its meaning as you spend time with your neighbors, friends, associates, or the police officer writing you a speeding ticket. Remember it when you see the President or Sarah Palin on TV.

Get off the roulette wheel; take time to get to know people as individuals. Ignore his or her politics, race, religion, age, illness or other labels. Interview her; find her story.

From that place you just might find the road back to the high ground of human respect.

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One Man

Stephen Talty’s book, Agent Garbo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012), tells a spectacular story of one man’s enormous contribution to the Allied victory in World War 2. Viewed through the lens of today, this story is unbelievable.

Here’s the short version.

In 1941 Juan Pujol Garcia was a 28-year-old chicken farmer in Barcelona. Unalterably opposed to Hitler and the Nazis, he walked into the British embassy in Madrid and asked for a job as a spy. Of course they rejected him. So he went to the Americans. They were not impressed with him either.

Then Pujol asked the enemy for a spy job!

After hearing his emotional and bombastic profession of love for Hitler, the Germans accepted him…if he would relocate to England. Instead, he moved to Portugal and convinced the Germans that he was writing reports from England. When they told him to hire some agents, he created a fictitious network of 27 spies.

At that time, British Intelligence was an oxymoron (they were seriously considering staging the Second Coming of Christ as a means of defeating the Germans). But they soon had enough intelligence to realize that a very proficient Nazi spy was undermining the Allies. Finally, Pujol had gained the respect of British Intelligence!

When he went back to them, they accepted him as a double agent and code-named him “Garbo,” for he was surely the best actor in the world. He was theatrical, emotional, daring, and brilliant. And maybe nuts.

Agent Garbo’s greatest role was his support of D-Day. To create the illusion of an Allied strike 200 miles from the real one, he contrived a completely fabricated million-man army, led by General Patton. Under Pujol’s direction, the British built thousands of wood or inflatable decoys of tanks, boats, airplanes, hospitals, and other wartime necessities. Patton, like an actor, even made a speech in his fictional role.

The Germans bought it. Furthermore, Pujol had the audacity to convince the Germans that the real D-Day invasion was a scam. Even after D-Day! Although they assigned an army to Normandy, they kept a far larger force at the fake site. Clearly, without Pujol’s masterful deceit, D-Day would have cost thousands more lives than it did.

It is one of the most astonishing stories I’ve ever read.

How was it even possible that a man who had no training as a spy and failed at everything else in life became an essential voice to, both, Hitler and Churchill? He, a double agent, is the only spy to be honored by both Germany and England.

So many contributed to the success of D-Day. But Juan Pujol Garcia probably achieved more than any other individual.

Beyond my high recommendation of the book, Agent Garbo really challenged me. Could one person achieve such bold and sweeping things today? I don’t know. But it’s an important question.

It seems that today we live inside a screaming wind tunnel that blows everything into conformity with acceptable patterns. As a result, the distinctives of individuals are contoured into the most “aerodynamic” uniformity possible.

Progress seems to take as much as it gives. I love living in this age; I would not want to live in any other time or place. But it does seem that we’ve lost our view, and our honor of, grand individuals. We all seem to identify with our group.

That is why Agent Garbo is such a mesmerizing artifact. It gives the reader a clear view of a time when individuals sure seemed to matter more than they do today.

Perhaps the leveling of structures in our time will release individuals to achieve great things again.

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In the summer of 1992, while driving a dirt road in Pratt County, Kansas, my 70-year-old dad saw his own tractor, driverless, rolling across a field pulling a land leveler. He felt a chill; he knew his brother Harold had been driving the tractor and leveler rig up to his place near Pratt.

Dad soon saw Harold lying on the ground beside the road. Frantic, he stopped his pickup and ran to his brother. Harold was fully conscious, but Dad could clearly see that was going to be a real bad day.

Harold’s death was an earthquake in the Chinn family. Youngest son, playful and funny, and the spark of life in every family gathering, his death left a wide wound across our landscape. But it blew a deep and ragged hole right through Dad’s heart. He never recovered.

From that day it seemed that Dad’s strong mind began to melt. The distinct shapes of his personality began to droop and dissolve. His confidence tottered. He still went to his beloved shop, but he stopped repairing and making things. He just stood amidst his tools and cried; he didn’t know why.

Dad served on the aircraft carrier, USS Princeton, in World War 2. He was on board for every day of her 19-month existence. Her sinking on October 24, 1944, in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, was the central moment of his life. From that day Dad seemed to live in the shadow of the Princeton.

Dad and Mom made their last visit to our home in Northern Virginia in the spring of 1995. In preparing for their visit I wanted to find something that would engage Dad again, some spark that would animate his wonderful and vivid personality.

In 1995 the very colorful Admiral Arleigh Burke was one of the last living commanding officers from the Pacific theater of the war. And he had participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Two weeks before my parents’ visit, I learned that the 93-year-old Admiral lived in nearby Fairfax, Virginia. So I found a phone number for his home.

When Roberta “Bobbie” Burke answered the phone, I introduced myself and told her about Dad. I told her that Dad would be there in a couple weeks and asked if “the Admiral would be open to a visit from another sailor.” Bobbie immediately exclaimed, “Oh, yes, he would so love that! Please come.” She gave me their address and we agreed on a date and time.

When my parents arrived, I handed a new biography of Admiral Burke to Dad. He thanked me, scanned through it and told stories he recalled of “31-knot” Burke. Then I told him that we had an appointment with Admiral Burke the next day. Dad’s smile revealed his anxiety; he had never met an Admiral. Even after 50 years of civilian life he still thought like an enlisted man.

Dad asked too many questions about protocol and social courtesies as we drove from our house in Reston over to The Virginian apartments in Fairfax. He grew silent as we entered the building. Finally we stood at the door. I knocked. Very quickly, an elderly man, standing with a walker, opened the door and smiled. “Jack,” he barked and grabbed Dad’s hand. Dad relaxed; he heard an invitation to a safe place.

We spent two hours in the Burke living room. Bobbie gracefully vanished from the distinctly male gathering, as I’m sure she had often done in 72 years of marriage to a Navy man.

I watched in astonishment. A former Chief of Naval Operations, a major player in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, an Admiral who had a class of destroyers named after him sat with an enlisted man, a Kansas railroader, a Sunday School teacher. But their eyes glistened at the same heartsounds of battle, loss, and heritage. And they burst into synchronous laughter at the same details and nuances of Navy culture.

I’ll never forget Dad’s face as Burke told him of watching Dad’s beloved Princeton, through his binoculars, explode and sink.

The 20th century had taken these two men to vastly different places, but as children of God they shared an enormous familial heritage. I saw them touch their shared bond as brothers. Class distinctions blew away like dust; they were sailors.

As we prepared to leave, Bobbie bid us farewell with a deep glowing sadness. Admiral Burke, with his walker, escorted us to the elevator; he clearly wanted to extend the moment as long as possible. He and Dad shook hands, “Come back anytime Jack.” They both knew they would never meet again.

Admiral Burke died 7 months later. Two thousand people attended his funeral; President Clinton delivered the eulogy. Burke’s tombstone at the Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis carries a one-word epitaph, “Sailor.”

Dad lived another 10 years. The slide that began with Harold’s death continued. But that incredible day was a clear announcement that human value has nothing to do with the illusions of rank, class, wealth, or productivity. Our value, our royalty, flows from the Fatherhood of God.

Far more than we realize, we are all His children. We have infinitely more in common than we have in conflict. May we all discover our shared family bond…even with those who may seem so different or so far away. They really aren’t.

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The Authentic Swing

Steven Pressfield (The Legend of Bagger Vance, The War of Art) just published a new book; The Authentic Swing (Black Irish Entertainment, 2013) examines the twin tracks of golf and writing.

Here’s the deal: golf and writing (and probably every other artistic expression) come from the same place – our unique design by God. They are just part of who we are. Just as my eyes are green and I cannot change that, so are my golf swing and my writing. God gave them. They are authentic, part of the bundle called Ed Chinn. I can work on improving both, but I can’t change the original design.

Pressfield’s most profound insight is the very simple line, “The golf swing is not learned, it is remembered.” We get in trouble when we try to become something or someone else.

He also writes, “The philosophy that underlies…the Authentic Swing contradicts the Western ideal of education, training, and evolution. It rejects the axiom that ‘you can be anything you want to be.’ …we can only be who we already are.”

Pressfield really camps out in that mysterious realm of art and creativity. To write or sing or act or sculpt or dance is to live in the intersection of flesh and spirit, heaven and earth. The biggest part of the art seems to come from another realm. The writer is a scribe. That’s why I’ve never been able to really identify with anything I’ve written.

It may have passed through me, but it certainly did not originate in me.

My song-writing friend Morris Chapman said that being a songwriter is much like being an oil refinery. God makes the “oil;” Morris is just a place where it gets boiled, distilled, etc. Nothing possessive (or glamorous) about that.

Finally, Pressfield writes, “…you think you’re crafting a story, but in fact the story is crafting you. The story is like a dream, in that it bubbles up from some deep internal source. The story is wiser than you…it is trying to tell you something about yourself. That’s why it hooks you…You think that your story is private, unique, idiosyncratic. You believe that no one will be interested in it but you. But the more deeply you enter into your story, the more you perceive its universality. The story is never about what you think it is. It’s never about someone. It’s always about everyone.”

He also knows what all writers know: “You have not chosen the story. The story has chosen you.” That is so wise. When I read this (and other lines) I found myself thinking…Pressfield, you are not far from the Kingdom of God. (Mark 12:34)

This very short and readable book also serves up very nice insights on caddies, why golf is so hard and harassing, movie making in general and the making of The Legend of Bagger Vance in particular.

If you write or golf, The Authentic Swing will find traction in your heart. If you pay attention and take notes during your walk through the earth, you may be startled to hear this book whisper your name.

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The Power of Your Story

According to the play, “Papa,” Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a story using only six words.

He wrote “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

If you have a pulse, those six words should stop you in your tracks. You have just been arrested by the power of story.

Producers and Curators

A story is a like a seed. It carries a power that is mysterious and enduring. When it falls into the ground of a human mind, it takes on a life of its own. That’s why the classic stories – from “The Prodigal Son” to “Treasure Island” – have been told in every culture and time since their first telling.

Eugene Peterson wrote that, “we live in a world impoverished of story; so it is not surprising that many of us have picked up the bad habit of extracting ‘truths’ from the stories we read: we summarize ‘principles’ that we can use in a variety of settings at our discretion; we distill a ‘moral’ that we can use as a slogan on a poster or as a motto on our desk.”[1]

We have the choice to become either a producer or a curator of a story. Producers clean the story up, polish it, and shape it into something – a song, a play, a novel, or a sermon – that will satisfy a market or a need. In other words, they turn it into a product; they extract or emphasize what will serve that purpose.

Curators have a much greater respect for the story and knowledge of its true value. They are not interested in the story as a product; they want to preserve it exactly as they found it. They care about passing it on, intact, to future generations.

What About Your Stories?

Some people love stories…as long as they belong to someone else.  They are simply too scandalized by their own life and heritage.  They may be totally ashamed of the famial history of alcoholism, gambling, debt, drugs, illicit sex, or other transgressions.

But, we cannot choose our family stories anymore than we can choose our ancestors.

Our family stories carry the imprint of God’s destiny and love. When we back up and look at the whole panorama of our ancestors’ lives – including the shameful – we can often discover the threads of our life’s tapestry.

For example, my maternal grandfather was a moonshiner. As a result of his clandestine career, he spent time with law enforcement officers and as a “guest” in their facilities.  Naturally that was traumatizing to his family.

The whole family moved (suddenly and in the middle of the night) from Missouri to Kansas.  The complete story of this quick relocation is murky, but apparently had something to do with Grandpa avoiding prosecution.

After they were settled in Kansas, their daughter, Mary, met a new friend. And that girl had an older brother named Jack. Eventually, Mary and Jack met. They were married in 1944. I was their first child.

So, a man fleeing the law is a crucial part of my biography. This story is not scandalous to me; I love it and celebrate it – I wouldn’t be here if grandpa hadn’t been “called” to the moonshine business (and quickly called to jump across the nearest state line).

Is it possible that God has a different view of family and heritage than we do? Could that be why the Bible contains some very nasty stories – like adultery and murder – in the lineage of Jesus?

Sometimes people allow shame, ignorance or political correctness to “improve” or “air brush” family stories.  But, doing so can rob the story of its unique gift to the future.  I know for a fact that the real story carries enormous power on future generations.

My grandpa’s story may have appeared as disgraceful to those who were immediately impacted by it. But, over time and in the hands of a loving God, the story has become a prized family heirloom.

Keep Faith with the Story

Most modern approaches to story telling tend to be too cold, mechanical, controlling, or product-driven. They focus on issues like the audience, the “message,” what the storyteller wants the audience to do, the importance of having “a beginning, a middle, and an end,” etc.

All of those are “producer” issues. A curator approaches a story differently:

  1. Know the story.If there are audio or videotapes of the ancestral stories being told, watch or listen to them over and over.  If you can find newspaper articles or other written records, make copies and read them over and over.Ask any living participants to tell you the stories. Ask them again. Next year, ask them to tell it again. Listen to the way they tell it, watch what happens in their eyes and to their mouths when the story comes out. How has the story changed since you heard it last? Why did it change?
  2. Love the story.Even if the story contains details of darkness or corruption, try to see it from a higher vantage point. How was your own life assisted, improved, or even made possible by that story?Love the whole story – honor your ancestors by learning to love it.  Don’t react to the negative aspects of the story. Again, remember the genealogies recorded in the gospels. Apparently, God didn’t flinch at any details of his own canonized family stories.
  3. Tell the story.Don’t tell the story you wish had happened or that contemporary society would prefer. And, don’t tell a sermonized version. Keep faith with the real story.  Moses (the author of Genesis) told the story of the great father of faith – Abraham – offering his own wife, Sarah, sexually to Pharaoh.  A religious mind might have expunged that from the “holy book.” But, Moses kept faith with the story.


Your story is a conduit of the marvelous spiritual “estate” which flows down to you across the centuries.  Protect it from the ravages of time and culture; tell it exactly as it was given to you.

Release its power to others in, and beyond, your own time.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), p. 48

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