Wisdom

Living With Killers

Have you noticed it’s difficult to find perspective when you face an armed robber, earthquake, or deadly virus? Trying to be philosophical in a hurricane reveals insanity.

         But after disaster strikes, we should return as quickly as possible to the equilibrium of truth and wisdom. We’ve now met coronavirus, taken protective measures, and settled into new social patterns. So, where are we now? Who are we now? What do we see? Will we move on?

         This new virus takes me back to the tsunami that slammed into the coast of Sumatra on December 26, 2004, killing a quarter million people and leaving a half million homeless. That quick sweep of death and destruction brought human anguish into clear and global focus. Convulsive grief became the only proper way of the soul.

         Then, just days later, New York Times science writer William Broad delivered a magnificent perspective to his readers, “Powerful jolts like the one that sent killer waves racing across the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26 are inevitable side effects of the constant recycling of planetary crust, which produces a lush, habitable planet.”

         He also quoted University of California geochemist Dr. Donald DePaolo: “…the type of geological process that caused the earthquake and the tsunami is an essential characteristic of the earth. As far as we know, it doesn’t occur on any other planetary body and has something very directly to do with the fact that the earth is a habitable planet.”[1]

         Incredible; “essential characteristics” of the “lush, habitable planet” kill many who live on it. Think of it, we live across a vast and variegated terrain, comprising geological, spatial, chronological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. Like a murmuration of sparrows, life rolls, billows, shrinks, and swirls across mysterious undulations of our Creator’s design.

Is the Coronavirus Evil?      

In August 2018, Christianity Today carried an interview with a molecular biologist. Dr. Anjanette Roberts, who had worked on the SARS virus at the National Institutes of Health, brought the same kind of stunning perspective to viruses.

         As a Christian believer, she knows viruses are not the result of Adam’s fall into sin. She explained, “Bacteria are absolutely essential to the life of everything on planet Earth. Bacteria are primary producers.” But right there lies a problem; bacteria can reproduce so rapidly they can double their population in 20 minutes. In the ecological balance, viruses keep that explosive growth in check. According to Dr. Roberts, if viruses did not control bacteria populations, “…there would be no environmental resources and no ecological space for other types of organisms to life on Earth.” [2]

         In March 2020, the same magazine returned to the same theme with Editor-in-chief Daniel Harrell’s article, “Is the Coronavirus Evil?”

         Harrell wrote,“…unless God’s creation defies every characteristic of biological reality, bacteria and viruses are not bitter fruits of the fall, but among the first fruits of good creation itself. If the science is right, there would be no life as we know it without them…Death itself is required for organic life to exist.”[3]

         So, the beautiful perfection of our ecosystem means we live with killers. Our planet is wild and dangerous. But that danger is precisely what makes earth a “habitable planet.” Water—which we cannot live without—brings death as quickly as life. The same is true of wind, shifting plates, and viruses.

         Perhaps we find a clue about our home planet in what the Psalmist David wrote about the planet’s Creator, “darkness and the light are both alike to thee.”

What Matters Most            

The awesome forces of fire, water, wind, disease, or migrating tectonic plates will always shake the order of built things. Societies take decades, sometimes centuries, to build great and essential places. And wild natural forces can knock them down in a few minutes.

         So we live with killers. OK; we need to deal with it, then get back to what matters! We’re all batters in the box; it’s no time to consider earaches, getting new tires, checking Netflix, or cleaning the gutters. Keep your eye on the ball.

         And hold to what matters most—family, faith, friendship, love, joy, humility, peace, generosity, and gratitude.

         This killer will pass. Others will take its place. But we will go on.


[1] William J. Broad, “Deadly and Yet Necessary, Quakes Renew the Planet.” New York Times, January 11, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/11/science/deadly-and-yet-necessary-quakes-renew-the-planet.html?_r=0

[2] Rebecca Randall, “Why Zika, and Other Viruses, Don’t Disprove God’s Goodness.” Christianity Today, August 14, 2028. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/august-web-only/why-zika-and-other-viruses-dont-disprove-gods-goodness.html

[3] Daniel Harrell, “Is the Coronavirus Evil?” Christianity Today, March 17, 2020.   https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/march-web-only/coronavirus-evil-covid-19-disease-theology.html

Leave It Where You Found It

“In racing…your car goes where your eyes go. The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet that wall; the driver who looks down the track as he feels his tires break free will regain control of his vehicle.”[1] 

         That is how Denny, the race car driver, explained the race in the splendid novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain. In other words, keep your eyes focused on the road ahead. If you look at the wall, you will hit the wall.

Let It Go

The introspective impulse of our age insists that we focus on the wall. It tells us to walk backward, always focused on the past. Appreciating the past is healthy; fixating on it can be deadly.  

         It really all comes down to a question: How important is your future?

         All the time and energy spent excavating the past, reacting to others, or getting angry represent an enormous waste. Could that drive could be better utilized in moving us forward in our own life’s purpose?

         Kimi Gray was a lifelong tenant of Washington, DC’s public housing. But she had an idea; what if tenants managed, even owned, their units? Could they begin to build equity? Would that translate into greater care for the property?

         As a lifelong Democrat, she pitched the idea to everyone she knew in her camp. When her passion failed to ignite anyone there, she dared to reach out to “the enemy.”

         President Reagan’s HUD Secretary, Jack Kemp, listened. After they talked, he introduced her to his boss. To make a long story short, Reagan signed a bill allowing tenant ownership of public housing. He then handed Kimi the keys to her own public housing unit. Her resident management corporation would administer the transfer of units to residents.

         A few days after that ceremony, I spent an afternoon with her. After talking of many things, I asked Kimi how she had been able to navigate all the personalities and polarities of “Washington” and do it so successfully for so long.

         Her voice, spoken from the language of her street, carried wisdom for everyone: “I always leave shit where I find it.”

         “What do you mean?”

         “Some folks gotta analyze it, play with it, or throw it on others. Not me; I see it, I keep walking. Leave it where you found it.”

         So simple, so intelligent. Keep walking. Leave it where you found it.

         Later, she told me about her encounter with a famous Washington power broker soon after the White House ceremony. After deriding the whole idea of resident empowerment, he said, “Kimi, don’t you know the Republicans are using you?”

         She replied, “But, I got the keys!” Her answer perfectly modeled her motto.

Ignore the Wall

We don’t have to engage, explain, or react to everything. We have no obligation to make sure everyone is happy. Our economy invests great energy and dollars to pushing people to do something. And, when we are continuously prodded by anger, outrage, bargains, and other provocations we tend to become reactive. We wait to be told when, where, how, and why to click, buy, be afraid, exhibit outrage, etc.

         But, to do that keeps your eye on the wall, not the track. We don’t have to live like that. Your life does not belong to marketers, politicians, news media, or any other power center. You can ignore the wall and keep your eyes on the prize.

         Just walk away. Leave it where you found it.


[1] Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain (New York: HarperCollins, 2008)

God According to God

Gerald Schroeder, the author of God According to God (HarperOne, 2009) holds a Ph.D. in physics and earth sciences from MIT. He is also an Orthodox Jewish theologian (and lives and teaches in Jerusalem).

Furthermore, Schroeder clearly understands time, space, and matter as finite concepts floating in the sea of eternity. That’s probably why he sees no conflict at all between the Bible and science. To him, the Big Bang and Genesis 1:1 are just two, and quite accurate, descriptions of the same thing.

Although he is immensely knowledgeable, wise, and articulate, Schroeder is an humble man. As a writer, he never draws attention to himself or distracts his readers away from God and the universe. For him, God seems to be the plumb line, against which science is measured, not the other way around.

 

“A Very Special Planet”

In Chapter 3, The Unlikely Planet Earth (which is easily worth the price of the book), Schroeder delivers a grand and dazzling tour of the 47 billion light-years-wide universe. We catch a glimpse of 10 trillion galaxies in the universe, which he calculates into 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars!

And what if each of those stars, like our own solar system’s sun, holds a few planets – say 6 or 8 – in its orbit? Now, out of that brain-exploding number of planets, how many could possibly support life, as we know it?

How many could possibly have the right combination of temperature, water, tectonic plates, mountain ranges, dry land, right size and placement of other planets and moon, the right balance of gravity and centrifugal force, and other essential factors?

Just one.

Schroeder sums it up nicely: “…we reside on a very special planet at a very special location within a very special stellar system, formed at just the right position within the right kind of galaxy. The earth’s distance from the sun, for the right amount of warmth, and its mass and gravity, for the ability to retain a proper atmosphere, put us in the only habitable zone within the solar system.”

 

Something Out Of Nothing

Although he doesn’t quote it, Schroeder would surely agree with the Apostle Paul that God “gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.” (Romans 4:17 NASB)

In other words, the reason anything exists is because God is Creator. His spoken word produces life; He causes nothing to become something. Indeed, Schroeder flatly announces, “Wisdom is parent, and matter is the offspring.” One of his core truths is that “the totality of the physical world, our bodies included, is made of the light of the creation.”

Naturally, he thinks Stephen Hawkings is, and Carl Sagan was, nuts. Both contributed to the intellectual goofiness of the materialist view of reality. Rather than seeing a God Who, by His spoken word, creates something out of nothing, they have promoted a view that “if we can’t see it, weigh it, touch it, it’s not there.”

Because Schroeder’s view of the universe is so vast and magnificent, his theology seems to reflect Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made…” (NASB)

 

The God Who is God

Schroeder’s view of and insights about God are refreshing. For example, he says that when Moses asked God for His Name in Exodus 3:13-14, “God said to Moses, ‘I will be that which I will be…” Schroeder carefully explains the history that produced the erroneous “I am Who I am.” This carries great significance; God can never be boxed or defined. He is the unpredictable, wholly sovereign, Creator and Lord of all.

To my surprise, he sees God’s view of the world in universal (not Jewish) terms. His view of Balaam as a gentile prophet, representing God’s whole world vs. Jewish view is beautiful.

But the most beautiful part of the book to me was his contemplation of God’s relational integrity. Think about it; God is the Supreme Creator of, and Presence in, the entire 47 billion light-year-wide universe. Yet, incredibly and unfathomably, He chooses to have an authentic relationship with humans.

For example (and it’s only one of many), in Exodus 32: 9-14, God decided that the whole Jewish people must be destroyed. But, Moses interceded for the people. And out of His friendship to Moses, God “changed His mind” about the planned destruction.

As I finished this magnificent book, I was painfully aware that I didn’t have the intellectual horsepower to really scale its heights or rappel into its depths. So, if you read it, please let me know what you see…and I missed!

Life After Loss

Over the past 18 months I’ve been working in a laboratory of loss. Through our son Paul’s death, my participation in a study of education in American, my knee replacement surgery, post-surgical recovery and rehab, relocating, political realignments, and global immigration dynamics, I kept being drawn to the issue of loss.

Through all of that, I’ve come to see that loss is not to be feared or rejected. It is a normal and essential part of life’s cadence. If we regard losses properly, they can bring renewal for the next season of life. Here are some of the details:

  • Loss is not personal. Yes, I know that it sure feels personal. In the moment, it seems unique, even historic. But loss is rarely personal. The simple truth is that everyone dies, financial tides rise and fall, relationships get injured, trains go off the rails, etc. The old bumper sticker (sanitized), BAD STUFF HAPPENS, captures a simple, but large and inescapable truth.
  • Life requires that we deal with it. The species cannot continue if humans are immobilized by loss.
  • Loss (a.k.a. ruin, failure, death, destruction, etc.) is always painful and disruptive; it never comes at a good time. So we must learn to accept and navigate it.
  • Loss is short term. Most people tend to view the whole journey through the keyhole of the present moment. But almost nothing we see through the eyes of grief is accurate or helpful in the long term.
  • Loss is an illusion. It might lash, boil, invade, injure and steal from us; it may even leave us face down in the gutter. But it cannot destroy the core of our true identity. For that reason, we don’t have to fear it. Nothing significant is taken away by loss.
  • Loss is a myopic interpretation of a larger change. An old “Far Side” cartoon showed two men fishing on a lake as a large mushroom cloud boiled up over the horizon. One fisherman said to the other, “I’ll tell you what it means, it means screw the limit.” People inevitably view global realignments through the lens of their personal needs and desires.
  • Loss calls us to greater maturity. Living in a culture that encourages emotional indulgence, we tend to welcome grief and offer it a big easy chair. But maturity pushes the grieving out of bed, into the shower, and to the office. And it makes sure that he or she does that every day for the rest of his or her life.
  • Loss passes by. Glen Roachelle once said, “When you go through a storm, don’t become an expert on storms. Just get through it.” It comes. Endure it. Loss moves on; you should too.
  • Loss reveals a higher path. Crises always bring me to see that my “Edness” is insufficient. For me, I can only proceed by faith in God’s total reliability. I’m not assuming this is (or should be) your response, but I have to get up above the big muddy me and ascend into a higher and clearer view.
  • Loss is not The End. Although it appears to be apocalyptic, loss the usually just the end of a season or a way of thinking. What appears to be great loss can be a gate to a brand new future.
  • Life surpasses our earth existence. For me, where I live is not a big deal. Living in God is the real objective. From His place, I am able to more clearly see the vast sweep of the whole journey. And seeing loss from the high ground give a completely new perspective and releases people to accept and bless it.
  • What about loss on a national scale? It seems to me that conservatives tend to view every loss as an assault on our foundations and liberals tend to see losses as threats to progress. Both views are power grabs. In truth, when seen from the high ground, the losses brought by war, disease, economic tremors, social injustice, technology shifts, and even immigration crises are often servants of renewal and redemption.

 

The losses suffered by individuals, families, business and industry, and nations mean old things are blowing away and new things are arriving. Life after loss is much like the land after a thunderstorm. The scent of rain and the purity of the air suggest new beginnings.

Let’s step into the new. We have more to gain than we ever lost.

The Taste of Silence

In 1988, Bieke Vandekerckhove was a 19-year-old university student in her native Belgium when she was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Although the average life span after diagnoses is two to five years, she lived 27 years with it (she died four months ago).

Her only book, The Taste of Silence (English translation from Liturgical Press, 2015), is a beautiful, candid, sometimes searing, but deeply wise view of her journey into ALS. Like so many others in history, she found that vast and pure view in prison. For Bieke, that prison was her body.

What do you do when a lightning bolt explodes out of a clear sky, blowing your body, soul, and spirit apart? Do you collapse into a pile of smoking rubble? Escape into chemicals, fight to regain control, choose suicide? Or, surrender to the One Who “directs the steps of the godly” and “delights in every detail of their lives?” (Psalm 37:23 NLT).

Vandekerckhove surrendered.

In her submission, she tumbled into great silence. I understand that; it’s what happens when a painful loss pushes you beyond the walls of language. I could so identify with Bieke as, in the silence, she found profound gratitude, even for her diagnosis and for “the collapse of all my beliefs.” ALS took her beyond what she knew and preferred, and into the beauty of “not-knowing.” In that place beyond thought, she “discovered the art of waiting in the dark.”

In the dark, Bieke found “the God of the Bible, and not the god who is…bound by the contours of logic and morality.” She also discovered that God meets those who live real life. That is a place beyond information. As I read this book, I often thought of Hebrews 11:34, which speaks of those who “became powerful in battle.” They found success as it was forged in the heat of life, not through knowledge or credentials.

Just as Bieke found triumph through ALS.

What Do You See?

She learned that so much of life boils down to what we see. The deeper she went into the illness, she found that she suffered “more from an eye problem than from a muscle disorder.” Bieke seems genuinely grateful for the “great powers of suffering, death, and mourning” that “work a simplification in us that makes us see things differently. Perhaps making us really see for the first time.”

“All Things”

Although she was certainly Christian, Vandekerckhove’s journey through ALS gave her a great appreciation for Buddhism and other religions and perspectives. For that reason, I’m sure many Christians will reject this book.

I think her perspectives are valid and valuable.

She quotes the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon 7:24: “Wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.”

God is so large and so pervasive throughout His creation that His word can push through anyone, anything, anytime, anywhere. He owns it all; any or all of it can carry His voice. Just as His voice once (at least once!) animated a donkey, so it “pervades and penetrates all things.”

It is not a stretch for me to believe that a woman, sliced and diced and pulverized by the beautiful and terrible mercy of God, saw evidence of Him everywhere.

I deeply appreciate The Taste of Silence. It carries a ring of truth on every page. And I am moved by, and grateful for, a young woman who dared to tell her harrowing but hallowed journey into the largeness of God.

To summarize that journey, she wrote that when she surrendered to the mystery, and thought she lost everything, “remarkably my grip loosened and I rediscovered everything in a new way. Life was everywhere, in the midst of death, even as life slipped away from me…Everything became a gift.”

In her book, she passes the gifts on to readers whom she does not know. I and many others are grateful that she did.

Finally, although I loved the book, I must be fair and tell you that (to me) this short book burned bright for 15 chapters, or about 85 pages. The final 60+ pages felt like wet firewood; they just wouldn’t burn. But, those 85 pages were more than enough.

When You Cannot See and Do Not Know

Imagine that you’re riding a high-speed train. From your seat you gaze out the window at the screaming blur of images.

But then you get up and walk to the rear of the train, where you stand on the platform. From there you can see a flowing river of steel tracks, a vast landscape of corn on both sides of the tracks, and a distant mountain range.

The view from the window presents raw information; the platform gives perspective.

That metaphor is not original with me. A journalist (who I cannot remember or find) wrote something similar many years ago to describe the difference between journalism and history. Journalists try to make sense of the blur; historians observe the wide panorama from the rear of the train.

High-tech is necessarily high speed, and speed favors raw information. As a result people, institutions, and nations are losing a sense of perspective.

Our turbulent times pull many toward the side windows. Watching the blur of colors and shapes, they try to report on What It All Means. But it’s futile. Speed makes the view unintelligible and meaningless.

Peter Marshall, the famous Washington, DC pastor and US Senate chaplain in the 1940s, told a story from the early days of ministry in his native Scotland.

Deeply troubled about his own calling and future, he went for a walk late one night. As he walked across unfamiliar ground, the fog closed in around him. But he kept walking. Then out of the dark he suddenly felt a gentle hand stopping him. He froze.

Falling to the ground, he saw that he was crouched at the edge of a deep rock quarry. One more step would have hurled him to his death. That moment became a reference point for his whole life.

We all have moments when we are blind; we cannot see the path ahead and do not know where we are. I think many of us stand at such a point now. So what should we do?

I don’t know.

But I know that some attitudes and actions are appropriate in any and every season:

  1. Stop
    When everything around you seems to demand sound and movement, resist it. Like Peter Marshall, just stop. That may be counterintuitive, but it’s always wise.
  2. Humble Yourself
    Pride is a thief. It steals leadership, integrity, and wisdom every day. “Humble yourself” is always appropriate. But it is crucial in navigating crises. Real confidence is never proud.
  3. Meditate
    This is the “walk to the back of the train” component. Turn away from the blur; withdraw into the sanctuary in your heart. Be alone with God. Step into the timeless dimension. See everything from that higher place. Stay there a long time before returning to your window seat.
  4. See
    We all want to know more stuff. But knowledge is overrated. The real issue is: what do you see? After you spend time meditating in the secret place, look with “new eyes” at your surroundings. Ignore your emotions; they are lying to you. View everything as objectively as possible.
  5. Live
    I wish I had more education. But, as a friend recently reminded me, life contains its own training. Get up every morning and walk fearlessly into your day. Report for duty. Do the mundane and the marvelous with the same attitude. Allow real life to convert your experiences into wisdom.
  6. Be Here…Now
    Most of life happens within a few feet of where you stand. Yes, planning is important. But, more often, we should just focus on right here, right now. This age tends to pull us all away from our life. It teaches us to focus on “out there” and “tomorrow.” That is often just a mirage. Ignore it.
  7. Build RelationshipsAnd most of life happens at face to face. What you think of lesbians, African-Americans, Republicans, alcoholics, or Muslims is abstract. The actual person sitting across the table is real and important. Build relationships with those in your path. Disregard the categories.

 

Here’s a secret: in times of convulsion and crisis, most of life stays the same. We still shower, get dressed, pay bills, eat some food, and clean the cat box. We do not need to move around or make noise in order to validate our worth.

That’s why, even in bad times, you can and should “Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11)

Sandfish Lizard

The Sandfish and Me

The sandfish is a lizard that lives in the deserts of North Africa. Its name reflects its nature of diving into the sand and then pulling its legs close to its body to “swim” (like an eel) through sand. It does that in order to hide from predators or find cool relief from the heat.

As I watched a recent television feature about the sandfish, I was struck by how that lizard models conformity to God, Who “made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation.” (Acts 17:26, NASB)

Although the sandfish is not part of “mankind,” it is clearly content in, and adapted to, its assignment to a time and a place. It seems delighted to live in the Arabian Desert – and not in the Artic, the mountains, swamps, South Pacific islands, the tundra, or Tokyo.

Our Creator could have placed that sandfish – or me – in any time of history or any place on earth. But He designed both of us for specific times and places. So, why have I been unable to adapt to my own habitat as freely and fully as the sandfish? Why do I live in a continual critique of my “desert” and its problems?

Perhaps if I humble myself that little sand creature can teach me a vital truth: I am here and I cannot change anything about here. I am also God’s workmanship. He made me; I didn’t. So why do I struggle with all of that? I seem to live in continuous anxiety; I feel the need to change my place, my times, and myself. I imagine a need to live so “prophetically” that “sinners” will fall on the ground and writhe in repentance, or that my government will change or collapse.

Why do I live in an assumption that I must emulate people who lived in other times and other places? I seem strangely compelled to live in, maybe, the Congo (or in the first century). Anywhere but here, anytime but now. I seem to think that He cannot lead His creatures in the times and places that He chose. So I work very hard to be an excellent “witness” of Him.

But wait a minute; He said His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Perhaps living prophetically and excellently should be fun. I never think about the need to live as a Chinn or with green eyes. He chose all of that for me. He also chose and appointed me to go (into my time and place) and bear fruit (John 15:16). All of that is a natural process. Oak trees don’t grunt to push acorns through their branches.

Real life is a thousand miles from religious life. Our simple acts and real words bear fruit. Routinely. Effortlessly. Those ordinary human words and acts leave an eternal and living gift in our time and space. But the gift comes from God, not me. I am a mere conduit; I can’t do it and I can’t control it. He chose that for me. Just as He chose the Arabian deserts for the sandfish.

Could that be why Jesus told his disciples (and us) to take no thought for what they would eat, drink, or wear? Since all of that has already been chosen for us, we are free to live fully, joyfully, and without worry. Kind of like the sandfish.

For example, consider how most people relate to problems. We react, get depressed or angry, fixate, or self-destruct. Yet consider how the sandfish continually copes with a life and death issue of heat; it just dives five inches from the surface to where the temperature can be fifty degrees cooler. Do you think, if we have eyes to see, salvation may await us just inches away?

The same Mind that created the sandfish also created you and me.  So can we find the same freedom and delight in our Creator as that lizard?

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