July 2011


You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times (Jesus, Matthew 16:3b).

Borders Books is beginning liquidation of all merchandise in its 399 stores as the chain prepares to cease operations. Over 10,000 employees will lose their jobs, though I suppose those in the 30 stores being considered for purchase by Books-a-Million have a chance of retaining theirs.

The executives at Borders blame the economy and the e-book revolution. A long-time employee tells a different story. If I recall correctly, he said he had seen the writing on the wall for some years, and that the executives were slow to act on new developments in the book world. This, while Amazon was coming out with Kindle and Barnes and Noble with Nook.

Better dead than read, I guess.

Over and over the story is repeated in organizations from the government to the church to businesses of various kinds. Ordinary working people pay the price for the incompetence and intransigence of top “leadership.” I’ve heard it over and over: CEOs blame some other factor, some outside circumstance, and never their own poor skills and lack of vision.

True, no one can foresee every new development or control forces in the marketplace or politics. But leaders with vision can and should give up their hold on power and the status quo, be nimble, and develop and insist on systems and procedures that respond quickly to new possibilities. Being proactive is always better than being reactive.

What did Jesus say? “Those who try to save their lives will lose them.”

I guess the folks at the Borders headquarters didn’t read those Bibles they had in stock, now 40% off.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

There are plenty of things we want to keep. Pictures and videos of that special vacation or of the kids and grandkids growing up. Love letters. A special or rare book or musical instrument. A kitchen tool we don’t use very much, but is an essential for that one recipe we like to make on occasion. Clothing and shoes that had a high up-front cost, but are classically styled and are thus useable over a lifetime.

But then there are some folks rather like Helen in When Harry Met Sally, about whom Harry comments “the woman saved everything.” So there are piles of old newspapers or paperback books stacked floor to ceiling or boxes of who knows what filling the former room of the adult child who is now out on her own. Knick-knacks covering every inch of every piece of furniture and even large areas of the floor. Clothing that is never worn hanging stuffed in closets and on racks on the backs and fronts of bedroom doors. 

Sometimes keeping everything, however useless, reflects a scarcity mentality which took hold during a childhood of poverty, whether economic or emotional. Or it may reflect the notion that surrounding oneself with things gives and communicates worth. Could be that there is some huge hole that like Sheol, Abaddon, and human eyes is never satisfied (Proverbs 27:20).

In my experience, folks who hoard like that also hold on to feelings. They keep their anger and hold grudges for a long, long time. They repeat hurtful conversations, almost as if they derived masochistic pleasure from pouring salt in their own wounds. And they are stingy with affection or have a warped idea of how to show love, mistaking smothering and overprotection for that emotion.

Consider how much energy it takes to keep anger locked inside. Think about the emotional reserves expended that are no longer available for use when a crisis comes. Reflect on the loneliness of someone we might call a “feeling hoarder" with whom no one wants to talk anymore, because it’s too exhausting to hear those same stories over and over, in the same words.

Better to channel our anger, harness our emotional energy, expend our reserves for something positive and life-enhancing. To save life, instead of losing it. Better to trust God to keep us. Then we don’t have to hold on to anything, because our Lord’s powerful hand holds us fast (Psalm 139:10).

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

“…when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11)

I wasn’t precocious as a kid, but I do remember reading some books as a “tween” that my peers may not have been interested in. One was Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse. (I can’t remember a thing about it other than the title.) Another apparently was The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, which has continued to be a favorite. Judging from the copyright date on the edition I have, and the childish signature inside the front cover, I bought it when I was 11 or 12. It cost 45 cents.

I reread the story recently, and I wondered how I ever understood it as an early teen. Not only did it have words in it I had to look up even now, but the theme surely could not have been appreciated by someone with no life experience. Maybe I simply saw it as an adventure story.

Of course, it’s so much more. The Time Traveller is sorely disappointed to see that human civilization had progressed as he had expected it would by the year 800,000+. Instead, “the too perfect security of the Upperworlders had led them to a slow movement of degeneration, to a general dwindling in size, strength, and intelligence.” What can a kid know of having hopes dashed in such a fashion? And then of course, there’s the social commentary on the relationship between the idle rich and those in the laboring class who support them, at a horrific cost to both. Without a knowledge of history or an experience of working for a living, I could not have appreciated Wells’ point. And then there was the abject loneliness (a “horror of…great darkness”) of the Traveller as he sat on a beach near the end of Earth’s life. Well, maybe that a young teen can understand.

It’s one of the ironies of education that we read lofty works like Shakespeare and the Bible (for example, the Book of Job or Ecclesiastes) and yes, H.G. Wells, at a time when we can scarcely fathom what they’re saying. Then, when we grow older and can bring our experience to bear, we have little time for serious reading, the kind in which we savor the words.

I’m grateful that lately I have had some such time. As I reread the tale, two passages particularly struck me.  One was this, as the Traveller commented on the indolence of the Eloi, the dwellers in the upper world: “We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity, and, it seemed to me, that here was that hateful grindstone broken at last!” Without challenges to keep our skills sharp, to interest our minds, what are we? What would we become? We may indeed wish the “hateful grindstone” to stop turning, but once freed of need, would we not then eventually become the vapid, uncurious, uncaring people the Traveller encountered, an “idiocracy,” as a movie title has it?

The other is the comment of the storyteller in the epilogue. The Time Traveller has disappeared, apparently never to return. From the future world, he had brought back some flowers, given him by his friend Weena, whom he had rescued from drowning. His friend now reflects on the Traveller’s experiences and his own hopefulness: “And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers—shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle—to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.”

I could not have understood that passage or appreciated it without years and years of life and pastoral experience. You have to know pain and loss in order to be able to rejoice in the persistence of hope, in order to be able to affirm that in spite of everything, there is cause for thankfulness. And not only that, but love lives on, along with its companions faith and hope.

And that is timeless truth.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

A case here in Starkville within the last couple of months continues to trouble me. A local businesswoman was out on a two-lane rural highway riding her bike with a friend, who was next to the shoulder. They were on a stretch of road with an unobstructed view for drivers. Nevertheless, the biker was struck by a car, flipped in the air, then run over by the driver as she (the driver) attempted to flee the scene. The biker was severely injured and is now in a rehab facility.

Investigation and interviews with witnesses failed to find cause to charge the driver, who may have been talking on her cell at the time she struck the biker, with any crime under Mississippi law. This, despite public outcry and outrage. Instead, if any damages are collected and punishment meted out, a personal injury lawsuit will have to be filed and won by the biker’s husband.

A local TV station asked people on the street whether they thought the driver should be charged with a crime. One comment has stuck with me, because of the utter ignorance and moral ineptitude displayed by the speaker. “It was an accident. I think [the driver] should be forgiven and not charged.”

Such a comment confuses justice and forgiveness. Someone can be forgiven by you or me or God and still be responsible for the consequences of their wrong actions. Does forgiveness mean that a person is no longer morally or ethically accountable? Should a perpetrator of a wrong not be required to make any kind of restitution or even be inconvenienced? Is this what “forgiveness” means?

I think not. For example, I may be forgiven by you for my hurtful comment, but it still lives in your memory, and our relationship is damaged. If I value you, I must work hard then to heal, if possible, the brokenness. It’s not up to you; it’s up to me. I must deal with the consequences of my wrong.

It makes me wonder what sort of cheap grace is being taught in churches when someone thinks forgiveness costs us nothing and should cost nothing even for someone who ruined another person’s life and nearly took it away. Bonhoeffer said: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” On the other hand, costly grace is “the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a [person] must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ” (The Cost of Discipleship; emphasis mine).

God save us from moral ineptitude and grant us clear vision to know how to be both loving and just, demanding and forgiving, and the courage to act on our convictions.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it…” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden).

“‘Sleeper, awake, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’” (Ephesians 5:14)

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b).

*****

I know what you’re wondering. Shouldn’t that be “Barrow, Alaska”?

Not today. Marrow, AK isn’t a place; it’s an attitude. On our trip, my wife Susan quoted the Thoreau passage above, letting us know she was as determined to get everything from the beauty and wonder of the state as the poet was from his experience in the woods.

And indeed she did suck out the marrow, relishing everything that happened, because she was in Alaska. So did Jeff and LuAnn (Susan’s younger brother and his wife) who particularly on the return leg of a glacier cruise stayed on the bow of the ship scanning for wildlife while so many of the other tourists (including me) were in the warm cabin napping. Their vigilance paid off, too. Jeff spotted Dall’s porpoises pacing the ship as it cut through the water.

If we sleep or sleepwalk through life, we miss so much. Instead, why not be present to the moment, eyes and mind and heart open, not afraid to express the full range of emotions, “putting to rout all that [is] not life”? Why not adopt as our goal the one my niece Page has set for herself: “I want to explore every inch of the world and when I’m done, go back and see how it has changed” (http://laddertothesun.tumblr.com)?

“Living is so dear.” Indeed, let it not be said of any of us that when we came to the end, we not had fully lived.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham