February 2008


Monday of this week was mild, so rather than go to the indoor track at the facility on campus to walk, I made the circuit of several blocks in my quiet neighborhood. To add time and distance to my exercise, I decided to go down a randomly chosen cul-de-sac. I soon wished I had stayed on my usual route, given the composition of the “welcoming committee” on the new street.

Vultures.

They were perched on the roof of a house at 2:00 o’clock on the street’s ending three-quarter circle. One extended his wings to full span—ominously, I imagined. The others just stared at me. I wondered: Do they know something I don’t? Am I going to drop dead of a heart attack in the street? Why did I watch The Birds on TCM? I considered turning on the cell phone in my pocket right then to save a step in case I had to call 911.

Nothing happened, but seeing those vultures during this season of Lent reminded me of my mortality as much as the ritual words of imposition on Ash Wednesday (“Remember, you are dust”). When I start to think of myself as at the top of the food chain, I need to recall that I could be some scavenger’s next meal. (See Romans 12:3 for a more refined way of putting the matter.)

I don’t know if the big, creepy birds will be there next time I turn down the little street, but I think the impression they made will be with me for a long time.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

We live in a flight path. Thankfully not of an airport but of birds who nest at a nearby wildlife refuge. Many days we can look up and find a flock of cattle egrets, shining silvery-white in the sun, commuting to the fields to work in their symbiotic relationship with cows. Or maybe we get to see and hear Canada geese heading for Goose Lake on the refuge, flying in their classic “v” formation, honking loudly.

The other day, though, my wife was surprised on her way to work to see a bald eagle flying low over a field near our home, heading for the same place as those egrets and geese. As soon as we got the chance, we drove out to try to catch a glimpse of this magnificent bird, which neither of us had ever seen in the wild. We did get a good look, thanks to being in the right place—the deck of the visitor center—at the right time, namely, when the male eagle was perched high up on a dead tree, some distance away, but visible through binoculars.

The experience got me thinking once again about the sort of time and timing that the New Testament in its original language calls kairos, “the right time.” Kairos is gift. Grace. Serendipity. The unexpected meeting of two old friends who just “happen” to be walking on the same street at a particular moment. Picking up the phone and calling someone you haven’t thought of in awhile, who tells you she or he was longing at that moment to hear a friendly voice. Being there to witness what turns out to be an historic event on what began as an ordinary day. The confluence of streams of time to make circumstances just right for a Savior (Galatians 4:4) or for us to be open to hearing the gospel (2 Corinthians 6:2).

If my wife had been one minute earlier or later, she would have missed the eagle. If she and I had lingered longer at Goose Lake or not gone to the visitor center, we would probably never have gotten even a glimpse of the iconic bird we sought.

So it is with opportunity. To do good. To say a kind word. To embrace salvation. Today’s the day. Now is the kairos.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

Not too many evenings ago, our old miniature dachshund went to sleep on her back while cradled in my wife’s arms. The dog was totally relaxed, in a posture that communicated her complete trust that she was safe, even in so vulnerable a position. It was a confidence gained in over 16 years of tender care received from us.

Experience with a surpassingly tender God enables believers to give themselves over as utterly and confidently to the Creator as our dog did to my wife. “… I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother,” said the psalmist (131:2). And “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety” (Psalm 4:8).

What would the Church be like if its leaders trusted God that way and became vulnerable and open? I like what Tim Keel, pastor of Jacob’s Well, has to say: “In order to be creative we need to learn to trust God more—or differently. We must believe that what we are doing is not so much dependent on us as it is on God. In order to see God at work, we have to reposture ourselves. We cannot see God at work in his creation when we are crouched defensively behind a carefully constructed wall. When we trust that God is out ahead of us and seek out his life in and around and outside our walls, we engage with freedom and passion the creative possibilities that arise as God engages his creation for his purposes. But mostly what we do is strive to catch up and join him….What if we developed a posture of trust that helped us move from defensiveness to creativity? (Intuitive Leadership: 246, 247; emphasis in the original).

Our old dog didn’t have to learn a new trick to trust us. That’s simply how she’s always lived. So she could totally relax.

Are we ready to fall into the arms of God and let go? Young pup or old dog, it’s not too late.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

Take one part carelessness and combine with two parts poor judgment. Add a generous splash of mistaken perception. Sprinkle with resentment. It’s a toxic cocktail that can damage lives beyond repair.

That’s one conclusion to be drawn from the amazing and moving current film Atonement. Our choices—made in a context which includes family members, friends, and acquaintances who may not always understand or benefit from what we decide—can haunt or delight us all our lives. They may harm others just as readily as they help them. And do what we might when indeed we have brought hurt and ruin, we can’t put things right though we devote years to the effort.

How can we live if our best and most worthy sacrifices are not good enough to atone? We might fall into a despair so deep that we render ourselves helpless to do even something that could make a little difference. Or we become disinterested in anything but wallowing in our self-pity. More productively, we might try to do some deeds of sustained kindness—to those we hurt or for others as their surrogates—that will ease pain or bring some other benefit. We can speak words that heal. Even if the scope of our good actions never approaches that of our bad ones, even if our words never fully glue together the broken pieces again.

Atonement reminds us of the power of words (spoken or written, truthful or deceitful) and of actions (helpful, hurtful, indifferent, careless) to affect and effect events in human lives. The Gospel reminds us of the power of words—indeed, a single Word—to bring the reconciliation for which we and all creation long. And of one action, namely the gift of Christ on the cross, truly to bring atonement.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

On US 82 eastbound between I-55 and Starkville there is a big, old, ugly house painted a particularly disgusting shade of yellow. But its color is not what caught my attention about the place the first time I saw it as I zoomed past on my way home after a preaching assignment. Rather, I was dumbstruck by the piles of junk in the dirt yard. Old appliances. Furniture. Miscellaneous bits of this and that. Even an old bus. “How can anyone live in the midst of such squalor?” I asked myself. “How can anyone care so little about the appearance of their home?”

But then on subsequent trips, I began to change my opinion. Despite the absence of a sign, the place was in fact a business. People were browsing through the assorted debris on a Sunday afternoon looking for a special treasure, acting out the old adage about one person’s trash. I had jumped to judgment about a family’s attempt to make a living in a part of the country where sometimes options are limited.

How often do we draw conclusions about someone we meet or a situation we encounter before we have enough information, as I did with the junk dealer’s home? Who knows what “junk” someone’s “house” is surrounded by, and whether all the stuff is integral to their survival, collected without thought over the years or thrown into their yard by someone else?

A colleague snaps your head off the moment she comes in the office door. You are tempted to respond in kind, but then remember she has a sick child, with whom she may have been up all night. A friend seems distracted, barely involved in the conversation at a long-planned dinner; it turns out he is in danger of losing his job. A customer service rep does not immediately respond to my demands for compensation for a bad experience in her business, then I find out there were circumstances beyond her control in another department.

Rarely do we know the complete picture about someone. Isn’t it better then not to rush to judgment, but to seek to gather all the facts we can before making that remark or sizing up someone’s character? Or maybe it’s better not to decide at all, but to move on and mind our own business. There’s always plenty we need to tend to.

Like our own junk.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham