A Ship on Dry Land

By faith, Noah built a ship in the middle of dry land. He was warned about something he couldn’t see, and acted on what he was told. The result? His family was saved… Hebrews 11:7[1]

The classic story of Noah’s ark weaves through many cultures around the world and across millennia. But beyond the saga presented on movie screens, through Bible studies, and in a big tourist attraction, that epic pulls heaven and earth together in a tight braid of timeless wisdom vs. moral goofiness and invisible vs. visible truth. 

 Noah’s Ark also presents a towering example of how things are rarely what they seem. Let’s look at that.

The focal point of the story is a ship sitting on dry land. Look at how it imposes a silent but disruptive image. Profoundly countercultural—out of sync with, and challenging to, everything—Noah’s ship had no flow with its environment. None. It was built in one time and place but would only work in a distant future no one had seen or considered. As we zoom out, we see a massive disaster racing like a tsunami below the surface. It’s moving toward us and all we cherish. 

Since no one could see the storm coming, a farmer building a 500-foot-long ship in his pasture probably suggested he was insane. He was apparently the only person on earth who built a ship “in the middle of dry land.” His neighbors probably joked about how he would drag that thing to the beach. 

I guess no one thought about water rushing to the ship.

Corrupt to the Core

God’s assessment of the earth was stark: “As far as God was concerned, the Earth had become a sewer; there was violence everywhere. God took one look and saw how bad it was, everyone corrupt and corrupting—life itself corrupt to the core. God said to Noah, ‘It’s all over. It’s the end of the human race. The violence is everywhere; I’m making a clean sweep.’” (Genesis 6:11-13)

If the Creator, who so loved the earth, held those thoughts, you know it was bad. Very bad. Beyond bad. No breezes of spiritual renewal, no prophetic voices, no fresh thinking, and no hope. “Corrupt to the core.”

 We too live in a sewer. The toxic streams of injustice, poverty, violence, lust, nihilism, etc. all flow into our water supply. So, why doesn’t God just “fix it?” Maybe because He thinks in terms of generations, eons, seasons, and seeds. Every seed carries entire orchards or forests. The Lord plays the long game. The very long game. 

Seeds of the Future

Genesis 6:8 says, “Noah was different. God liked what he saw in Noah.” Because God liked the guy, he warned him about things coming that could not be seen. And Noah acted on that. So, of all the people on earth, God only disclosed his heart to one person, a man who lived by faith—total confidence in God’s purposes and promises

God seemed more interested in saving Noah and his family than in rescuing the corrupt world. He would have a conduit for His seed that would produce a magnificent future. So, in His conversations with Noah, His words fell as seeds into Noah’s fertile and willing heart. 

When those seeds came up, they caused the man to complete a grueling, audacious, and historic construction project. As a true visionary, he built something that had no apparent purpose. Because Noah aligned with the heavenly country (Hebrews 11:16), he had to build with none of the earth’s cultural and financial support. 

The lines of conflict were dramatic, literally “earth shaking.” The population of the earth comprised one team. God and Noah formed the other one. Then the future dropped into the soil of one human life. Even as neighbors mocked Noah, seeds cracked open below the surface. 

Then, suddenly, one day, rain revealed the only sane person on earth.

[1] All scriptures quoted are taken from THE MESSAGE: THE BIBLE IN CONTEMPORARY ENGLISH (TM): Scripture taken from THE MESSAGE: THE BIBLE IN CONTEMPORARY ENGLISH, copyright ©1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.

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When the Fog Lifts

Patty knew she was dying. When she and Fred met us in Palm Springs, Patty talked openly and with good humor about living with cancer, facing death, losing hair, and the weirdness of well-meaning friends.

         I can still hear her North Carolina drawl and laughter as she told us, “Look, I love our church friends, but they have worn us out, praying for me. So, most evenings we kill the lights in the front part of the house so they won’t drop in to pray some more.”

         Have you noticed that people caught in the grip of death often radiate a deeper serenity and confidence? It seems the further they walk across that bridge, the more their eyes adjust to the new light. Then they relax, breathe deeper, and settle into a profound measure of trust.  

         My father-in-law was certainly not a religious man. But when he suffered a massive stroke, he suddenly became confident and peaceful about death. He asked me to pray that he could go on. His new vantage point banished all fear.

Through the Fog

Some eyewitnesses of the great London smog in December 1952 said it was so dense they could not see their own shoes. So, think of death as a heavy fog or smog bank settling over a town. The sheer thickness of that gray floating mountain frightens many in its path; they don’t know what it brings.

         But those already swallowed by the fog know a secret—it’s harmless. And, although they may not see more than three feet in its darkness, they know they can walk all the way through it, three feet at a time. Death is probably like any other journey; you don’t complete it at once. Rather, just one step at a time.

         Our fearful imagination presents death as an overwhelming terrorist. But, that may be a simple fear of the unknown or of losing control. My own studies and meditation have convinced me that death arrives with the kind and gentle graces of an old friend.

         I think that’s true, even if death comes through great trauma. In his landmark book, How We Die, Dr. Sherwin Nuland described the violent murder of 9-year-old Katie Mason by an insane man. Her mother, who held Katie as she died from multiple knife wounds, spoke of the sweet release, warmth, and peace that flowed through daughter and mother as death carried Katie away.

         Dr. Nuland explained that the body’s endorphins “alter normal sensory awareness.” In fact, according to Nuland, “Endorphin elevation appears to be an innate physiological mechanism to protect mammals and perhaps other animals against the emotional and physical dangers of terror and pain.”[1]

         Could that “mechanism” be a gift from our Creator? That may be why those who are dying often seem to have more peace and poise than those who gather around them. I suspect the dying find themselves enclosed in a protective bubble, completely safe and peaceful as they pass through the fog of death. That certainly reflects what Katie Mason’s mom wrote.

Beyond Fear

The fear of death is worse than death. That fear, like fog, causes people to injure themselves. So much of human misery is self-inflicted. The worst traffic accidents in history—up to 300 vehicles—were caused by fog. Everyone could have remained safe had they just stopped and waited for it to clear.

         When I once mentioned a friend’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Pastor Glen Roachelle gently reminded me, “He doesn’t have dementia; his body does.” Those seven words threw a floodlight on the great lie behind the fear of death. We assume death means THE END of everything. But, that’s a little like thinking the moment we cross a national border, say from the US to Canada, we cease to exist.

         When the renowned professor and author Dallas Willard learned he faced imminent death from prostate cancer, he said, “I think that when I die, it might be some time before I know it.”[2] What a brilliant observation. The border we cross from this life to the next will probably hold no drama, no pain, no regret, and no shocking changes. Just the next step in a long and continually unfurling life.

         And we will probably look back in total amazement, wondering, “Why was I ever afraid of death?” Seeing so very clearly, perhaps we will, for the first time, understand 1 Corinthians 15:55:

         “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”

[1] Sherwin Nuland, How We Die (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)

[2] John Ortberg, Dallas Willard, a Man from Another Time Zone, Christianity Today, May 8, 2013  https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/may-web-only/man-from-another-time-zone.html

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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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Will You Find The Onramp?

A friend of mine swears that he once got so lost on back roads that his GPS actually announced, “You have now arrived beyond all knowledge.”

I often think of that as I see the rapid spread of serious crises and the parallel collapse of human ability to even understand them. Most of the “smartest guys in the room” seem stupid and powerless. Maybe we really have arrived at a place that is beyond all knowledge.

If so, wouldn’t such a moment call for humility? I mean, think about it. If great calamities surround us and we do not know what to do, shouldn’t we look up? After all, true wisdom comes down. Why not admit that we need that wisdom? Why pretend to be clever and powerful? Wouldn’t it be better to concede that we’re exhausted and empty?

Can we at least get still and quiet? So far, that pervasive hum of human voices – talk radio, broadcast news, blogs, Facebook, the Internet, award ceremonies, even bumper stickers – has only produced harshness and division, but not one flicker of hope or insight. Yet, it seems that most people are, weirdly, charging ahead in loud and strident arrogance.

Let’s face it; “the issues” are not the issues. Living in an adversarial culture or under Trump’s administration or with illness or facing any other condition is like living in the Sahara desert or Antarctica – you acclimate, engage, collaborate, and live a full-bore, straight-ahead life of joy and gratitude. A hostile terrain does not justify a hostile heart.

Humility is always appropriate.

An Era of Wicked Problems

At some point in our recent history, America (and much of the world) crossed a border separating a safe and known territory from an unmapped and dangerous one. Whereas we once had a deep and sufficient base of knowledge for living in the old country, we are now “beyond knowledge.”

Our new landscape features a major shift in the very nature and shape of problems. In his book, “Change Your Space, Change Your Culture,” Rex Miller wrote:

“‘Wicked problems’ are, by definition, social or cultural issues that are difficult or impossible to resolve because of incomplete, contradictory, or changing requirements…They are complex, vague, vexing, and shifting; we are never sure when, how, or if we have solved them.

“…we have left the age of ‘solving problems.’ Today, problems must be navigated. To ‘solve’ a problem means that you can walk away from it. To navigate a problem or dilemma means that we must find a path between competing pressures.” [1]

         That could be why so many are caught in hyperventilating and convulsive reaction. Clearly, old concepts and approaches are just not working.

The Only Path To The Future

Perhaps our times and places require new eyes for, and new responses to, “wicked problems.”

The Bible reminds us that “the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.” (James 3:17, NKJV)

Since the “wisdom” that comes “from around these parts” always leads to disappointment, this would seem like a good time to lift our eyes. I know this is counterintuitive for many, but what if the onramp to the future is “controlled access,” and can only be found by the pure, the peaceable, the broken, the quiet, the gentle, the helpless, and the humble?

If so, will it ever permit you and me to find it? That may be the biggest question any of us will ever face.

[1] Rex Miller, Change Your Space, Change Your Culture. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2014. P. 31

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We all ride a ball that is 8 thousand miles in diameter and moves 67,000 miles an hour in its perfect orbit around the sun. Our whole solar system is traveling about 45,000 miles per hour through our galaxy, a galaxy that is 100,000 light years wide and contains about 200 billion stars. And all those stars move in their own orbits. And never bump.

How was or is it ever considered wise (or cool) for humans to swagger around our planet, insisting that the vast and synchronous universe, darnedest thing, just came blowing in one day? Just as a great martini doesn’t just happen, most people know they and the universe didn’t either. They are instinctively confident about a creator. Of course, individuals have the right to deny it, but how could belief in creation ever be viewed as stupid or scandalous?

Let’s look at another issue, sex. Consider that people are born male or female. The mosaic of sensuality, desire, love, compatibility, lineage, and the transmission of values and identity through family is obvious and sweeping. That some may dispute sexual design or choose to live in same sex relationships does not invalidate male and female sex as pivotal in civilization.

Come on, folks; it is not ignorant to assume a Creator of the universe or the familial pattern of society. It is fine for individuals to dispute or deconstruct such ideas. But for a whole culture to do so is like losing confidence in gravity or osmosis.

This is not a free expression issue. And I don’t have a problem with the contrarians. My real question is, “how does a society lose confidence in reality?” For example, gender is no longer assumed. People in academia, psychotherapy, sociology, and other professional areas know they can lose everything by writing or speaking in “male” and “female” terms. How does that happen?

To answer that, we have to first look at the basic units of a society – human beings.

Humans have wondrous capacities – moral, ethical, spiritual, physical, intellectual, computational, etc. A mature person is one who keeps them all in some kind of balance and perspective; after all, they are gifts, not sources of identity. They are adjectives, not nouns. We would never call a person “an ethical” or “a spiritual.” Uh-oh. It seems that one of those, intellectual, did somehow become a noun.

And “intellectual” does have a weird effect on those who take it on as an identity, similar to the grotesque human sculptures of extreme bodybuilding. To overemphasize anything creates an aberration.

Now, I know people who handle their intellectual gift with grace and humility. But they are like a stripper at a family reunion; they keep it on a chain. That gathering is just not the appropriate arena for showing their stuff.

Family reunions and other micro-societies should reveal and reflect the Apostle Paul’s words to the Philippians, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3 NIV). Too many intellectuals do not seem to know that. They and other elites (like journalists, politicians, and entertainers) pretend to possess “secret knowledge.” So they grab the microphones and presume to become our guides into their esoteric wisdom.

But, wait a minute. Life’s big question is “Who am I?” It is not “How do I display dazzling logic?”

Stephen Covey wrote, “People cannot live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them. The key…to change is a changeless sense of who you are, what you are about, and what you value.” Restoring cultural confidence requires that we first know who we are. That solid foundation is essential to navigating change.

Change comes through many voices, even those we call intellectuals. Yes, of course, Rachel Carson changed the way cultures and nations view the environment. We will always need those voices, but those voices also need to think, write, and argue within cultural confidence. That is a “keel.” It keeps our vessel from capsizing in strong winds.

Joanne once had a doctor who assumed that his area of expertise gave him the right to intrude on our territory. When he grew visibly irritated that we didn’t properly react to his dire assessment, we corrected and bounced him back to the small “box” of his value. In complying, he became a valuable voice. He even admitted later that he was wrong; he saw an illusion.

Over the past few years, we have witnessed a parade of illusions (in all disciplines and across a wide spectrum of philosophical and political views). All were championed by elite voices that should have been tested first. Perhaps a renaissance of recalling our foundations would equip us to better manage the voices.


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How Music Changes our Brain

I’ve been in a very intense travel/work schedule, so have not posted here in a while. But I think I’m back now.

Just read an absolutely fascinating piece in Salon: “How Music Changes our Brain.”  Sample quotes:

“…noise is the second greatest pollutant in the world today. Environmental noise affects cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment in kids, sleep disturbance, tinnitus, not to mention just plain annoyance. If it’s too loud, whether it’s classical music, rock, whatever, it’s not good for us. And the numbers are just beyond me. The study said noise cost up 45,000 DALY [disability-adjusted-life years, meaning 45,000 years of “healthy” life worldwide are taken away by noise] per year.

“I just returned from a week in New York City, and I have a little decibel app on my iPhone. On the subways it registered way over 100 decibels. When I was outside, I found myself covering my ears and needing to use my noise reduction headphones.

“…a background rhythm will help and assist somebody with dyslexia or autism to speak and read in rhythm. Exposure to different kinds of patterns — high range, mid-range, low range, slow tempo, medium, high tempo — can help bring order to their thinking. In a 2001 study, one researcher found that brain activity changes when there is soothing music, and there is biological evidence that we can actually remove a great deal of the tension in frustrated children by exposing them to more soothing sounds.

“Our hearing decreases radically after the age of 60, and often by the time we are in our 80s we don’t hear high frequencies and some sounds become more annoying and more confusing. Under different kinds of medication, tinnitus becomes more frequent. It’s a symptom, not a disease. By learning to tap a rhythm as one speaks with an elder, to use a drum, a simple hand drum, the size of a tambourine, to be able to translate and transfer the organization of speech and thought becomes much more effective. There’s a company called Oval Window that produces floors that vibrate, so elders they can literally hear better through the vibrations.

“Silence is part of the brain’s pattern. It helps it reintegrate, like sleep, but we can’t shut our ears like we shut our eyes…I love exploring iTunes, but you only get 20 seconds of something to see if you like it. It’s like an all-you-can-eat food bar, but you need to understand the nutrition of it. If you’re changing music every 30 seconds, then be sure to have 2 minutes of real silence in there. It goes back to chew your food so to speak before you swallow it.”

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To Hear

Moving from blindness to sight or deafness to hearing (or even poverty to wealth) is one of the great human stories.  That’s why John Newton’s simple lyric, “Twas blind, but now I see,” has been so everlastingly evocative to so many, and in so many times and places. Six one-syllable words describe life change. You live in one dimension and then you crash through a barrier into a brand-new one.  Your former self vanishes. A new life emerges. It’s probably somewhat like being killed in a car wreck and then your spirit — the real you — rises from the wreckage to continue living in the boundless expanse of immortality.

This 1:30 minute YouTube video of a young woman hearing for the first time certainly tells its own story. In that sense, it is dramatic and irresistible.  But it is also a very moving metaphor of total life change.

Few things are as spirit-dulling as politics and religion. That’s probably because they are two sides of the same coin. They both represent the best human ideas on how to create and control a safe place in the cosmos. Both are antithetical to trust. Both are located somewhere along a sliding scale — from mild to severe — of doubt.

I personally believe that no points, no elevations on the political spectrum or the religious one represent “high ground.” Every inch of the sliding scale falls on the same horizontal plane. Nothing on that plane will ever become airborne.

I’ve seen what happens when people (even religious ones) finally “hear” for the first time. They throw off the shroud of death, scream, laugh, dance, hug everyone within a 3-mile radius, and/or collapse in sobs of gratitude for something they never heard before. What they hear subverts every human idea, order, and structure.

Everything changes.


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