March 2008


Just about anywhere, along any road in Mississippi, one sees barns, homes, and former businesses in various states of disrepair and ruin. They might be in a field off the road or right next to an inhabited structure. I’ve even driven past rows of these derelict buildings in some little towns, both along country two-lanes and major national highways. Some are missing merely a part of the roof or a few window panes. Others are falling down, collapsing under the weight of the years. Still more are piles of rubble, the leftovers from fire or storm or demolition. Whatever they look like, wherever they are, they have one thing in common: they have been abandoned. And nobody has cared enough, or could afford, to rebuild them.

When someone’s life is in ruins, there are any number of responses possible, depending in part on the situation, I suppose. We could refuse to help in any way, if the person in our opinion is responsible for his or her own downfall. We might want to offer assistance, but decide we can’t do anything, because our friend or family member is too far gone. We might even contribute to a further downfall, out of spite or revenge or our own sense of justice. Or we could try to help, but then give up after awhile out of exhaustion, frustration or because the person simply doesn’t want our help. Some of these responses amount to intentional abandonment; others, much the same as the owner of a building or members of a community not having the resources to help rebuild.

A much rarer response when the lives of friends or family members are in ruins is to hang in there for the long haul. Be faithful. Do the right thing. Keep in touch. Intervene if need be. Maybe even admit our contribution to their problems by our poor example or our lousy advice. But in any case, be there. Let them know they’re not alone.

“I am with you” is one of the most powerful promises in the Bible. It was the assurance given by the resurrected Christ to his disciples. The same comforting words need to come from us when someone’s life is shattered and in ruins. “I am with you.” You’re not alone. Even if you fall down, you won’t be abandoned.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

I guess it was in the 1980s when I first heard the term “culture wars.” I became very concerned about the bitter divisions in our nation and in the Church, especially my own Presbyterian denomination, about various social and moral issues. It must have been during Lent or Holy Week that my sorrow years later finally took form musically, since the song I wrote was called “Good Friday (Lament for the Culture Wars).”

Most times when I pick up the guitar these days, I end up playing that song, no matter what the season of the secular or liturgical year. That’s because the divisions have only gotten more bitter, the debates angrier, the hatred stronger, and I need to express my grief. The old issues remain, and new ones have been added. But whatever year it is and whatever we claim to be fighting about, everything really comes down to a struggle for control and power. And that in turn is driven by our deep-seated fear that the world we know is falling apart, and we have to hold on to something—an old certainty, a tenured position, a way of looking at the world, a prejudice our parents and grandparents taught and modeled for us.

Good Friday reminds us of the murder we are capable of when we are afraid and “threatened beyond endurance,” as one Presbyterian document puts it (A Declaration of Faith). But it also gives us hope, because even in our violent and angry depravity, God still holds out to us the promise and possibility of forgiveness. Even our most heinous acts cannot dampen his resolve to be gracious.

Here, then, is my song, more relevant today, I believe, than when it was penned:

“Good Friday (Lament for the Culture Wars)”

There’s people out on the street; they’re startin’ to push and shove.
They use their words like swords and not a one is love.
The battle lines are drawn; the war’s about to start.
O my child, my child, you better watch your heart!

You tell me that you’re right, and that means I am wrong.
And so the hatred grows, and we can’t get along.
Your way, my way, no way out, unless we come to blows.
If you ask me what is true, I’ll just say “Who knows?”

We won’t come to a meeting of the minds
Until our hearts are right.
And we won’t see the peace that there could be
Until we live in the light!

Once there was a day when all of time stood still
And people watched a man as he died upon a hill.
“O Father, please forgive, they don’t know what they do.”
I wonder if his words were meant for me and you.

We won’t come to a meeting….

Once there was a day when all of time stood still.

Song © 1994; blog post, 2008 by Tom Cheatham

During the summer of 1778, a British battleship dropped anchor in the harbor of Nantucket Island, off the New England coast. William Rotch, a leader of the Quaker community on the island, knew that the ship’s purpose was to plunder the town.

With the consent of his fellow citizens, Rotch formed a one-man welcoming committee, and greeted Sir Conway-Etherege, the British commander, at the pier. He invited Conway-Etherege home to dinner.

After a pleasant meal, the commander decided to get on with his business. “We’re here to plunder,” he told Rotch. “As you can see, your little hamlet is completely at our mercy. Where shall we start?”

“I don’t know of a better place than here at my house,” said Rotch. “I’m better able to bear the loss than anyone else. We have some silver plate, some good, serviceable blankets, and food supplies in the cellar.”

Conway-Etherege didn’t know what to do. He had never come across this response before! “Tell me,” he said, “are there any more men like you on Nantucket?”

“Oh, yes, many better men,” said Rotch.

“Well, I want to meet them,” Conway-Etherege answered.

So Rotch took him around to meet a shopkeeper who had given 400 barrels of flour to the poor the winter before, and another one who had given away blankets and shoes.

“Would you like to meet more of our people?” asked Rotch.

“Oh, no,” replied Conway-Etherege. “I can hardly believe there are three such men as you in the world. A whole street full of them would be too much.

So Conway-Etherege went back to this ship, and Nantucket was saved.

Sometimes the best way to victory over evil is through vulnerability and risk of loss.

***********

An old man in India once sat down in the shade of an ancient banyan tree. Its roots stretched far into the swamp. After a while he saw a little disturbance where the roots entered the water. When he looked more closely, he realized that a scorpion had become helplessly entangled in the roots. Pulling himself to his feet, the man made his way carefully along the tops of the roots until he came to the place where the scorpion was trapped. He reached down to pick it up. But each time he touched the scorpion, it would lash his hand with its tail and sting the man. Finally his hand was so swollen he could no longer close his fingers, so he withdrew to the shade of the tree to wait for the swelling to go down. As he arrived at the trunk, he saw a young man standing above him on the road laughing at him. “You’re a fool,” said the young man, “wasting your time trying to help a scorpion. Don’t you know it will just keep stinging you?” The old man replied: “Simply because it is in the nature of the scorpion to sting, should I give up my nature, which is to save?”

It’s God’s nature to save. Even if it costs him pain. Even if his own Son must be humiliated, judged unfairly, tortured, put to death on a cruel cross. He will not take his hand away.

When God reaches down for you and me, do we sting and hurt him or do we gratefully accept his offer of deliverance and freedom? What will be our answer this Holy Week?

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to common sense, practical solutions to everyday problems. So when I needed to transport an old metal fence gate to the recycling center, I jammed it into the cargo space of my SUV at an angle. The wooden frame was covered lightly with some kind of green scum, and when I slid the thing in, some of that gross stuff transferred to the upholstery on a headrest. “It figures,” I thought. “No good deed goes unpunished. Here I’m trying to do a little spring cleaning, and I mess up my car instead.” (When I told my wife the story of trying to cram the gate into the too-small space, she said, “Why didn’t you just open the back hatch, let the cargo stick out a little, and tie down the door with a bungee?” See what I mean about my not being too sharp?)

I thought the stain was going to be tough to get out, if not permanent. All the way to the recycling center, I kept thinking of what I would do. Upholstery cleaner? (But I’ll have to clean the whole thing so it won’t leave a ring.) A stiff brush? (But not too stiff or I’ll mess up the cloth.) A wet sponge? (What if I stain the headrest?) Guess what? Once I got to the center, I took my hand and just scrubbed off the stain without any tool or chemical at all!

Some stains, though, are not so easy to remove. Indeed, they appear indelible. I mean the marks, spots, and splotches left on our souls and psyches, our consciences and our reputations, by wrong things we have done, hateful thoughts we have entertained, and malicious speech we have let pass our lips. We can’t undo the consequences of our actions and words, whatever change of heart we may have, whatever resolve we muster to make things right. Someone’s life has been ruined, a friendship or marriage destroyed, a church split, a company or a nation brought to disaster. We ourselves must live with the residual filth of guilt and remorse in a corner of our hearts and souls, a memory that can never be purged, a feeling of worthlessness that persists no matter what our good deeds. The stain is set-in, permanently marring the fabric of our lives.

There is no technique, product or process by which we can remove the stain of our wrongdoing, our sins. Only God has the power. God, who made the garments of Jesus “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3) on the mount of transfiguration. God, whom the psalmist knew could wash him, and he would be “whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7) with a clean heart. God, who in Christ brings a new creation, in which the old has gone and everything is fresh and new (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17). All this was symbolized in the white garment given to the newly baptized in the ancient church. They were now unstained.

I was able to remove what I thought would be a tough stain in my car with a brush of my hand. Imagine what the mighty and gentle hand of God can do with those spots on our souls we thought would never come out.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

In many ways the P-39 Airacobra (pictured) was a very odd airplane. It used tricycle landing gear in a day when every other fighter had a tail wheel. Rather than being designed around the engine, as was the usual practice, the Airacobra was built around a 37mm gun mounted to fire directly through the propeller shaft. So the engine had to be placed mid-fuselage. Even the cockpit arrangement was strange. The pilot entered on the starboard side, rather than the usual port, through a car-like door with roll-down windows!

The plane in American and British service was expected to perform in high-level aerial combat, for which it proved disappointing and unsuccessful. This was mainly due to the lack of a supercharger (removed as an “improvement” early in the P-39’s design life) on the Allison engine. (The same problem plagued early P-51s.) Also, the engine was extremely difficult to service due to its placement.

Through Lend-Lease, the Russians acquired about half of the roughly 9500 planes produced and put them to use as tank busters and ground-attack platforms. In that role, the P-39 performed with distinction. The Soviets recognized that the plane had strengths for their situation and found a niche to use them to best effect. (Source: http://www.aviation-history.com/bell/p39.html).

Sometimes odd, different people are treated like the unusual P-39 was by the USAAF and the British. They are looked on with disdain and cast off because they can’t be easily categorized; they see things differently. They have gifts, but it takes the right situation provided by, and a bit of imagination from, busy parents, leaders, and employers for them to blossom and demonstrate their potential.

A currently-running commercial for an online job service has an extremely tall man walking through a village to a spot where he takes an elevator at high speed to the center of the earth. There he mounts a cycle inside a gyroscope. In the moment it takes him to get started pedaling after relieving the man before him, the whole earth goes off balance. But because he is faithful to the work he has found in his niche, soon everything is back as it should be.

Two weeks remain in this season of Lent. A worthwhile discipline for these days may be to try to recognize and use the unique gifts of someone you had written off. Maybe they’re not much good at dogfighting, as it were, but they can blast the heck out of column of Panzers.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham