January 2012

What is it with people and their cell phones? On Highway 82 Wednesday there was a driver in a pickup doing 45 in the fast lane (speed limit 70). The car coming up behind him/her had to brake hard, then crawl along until the traffic cleared in the right lane. I slowed and tried to signal the other driver to move over in front of me, but there was no response. So I zoomed on past the offending driver. Glancing to my left, I could just see through the darkened windows of the truck that the person was talking on the phone.

To me, this incident is a microcosm of all that’s wrong with our nation today, especially since the advent of cell phones. (And yes, I have a cell phone, but I try to use it appropriately.) We connect with somebody a few miles or a whole country away, but we are oblivious to our neighbors in the car behind us or in the grocery aisle or in the restaurant or theater. So we slow down to a leisurely pace on the highway while we chat or we speak loudly enough for everybody to hear our supposedly private conversations. We have become a nation of disconnected, selfish people, preoccupied with our own little world. A traditional prayer of confession of sin comes to mind: “We walk away from neighbors in need, wrapped in our own concerns.”

Our phone habits reveal our priorities in all of life, namely, that we don’t give a rodent’s posterior about anybody but ourselves and our private agendas and desires. So what if our neighbor is hungry or unemployed or a victim of injustice or lonely or afraid? Just let me have my smartphone on which I yak and download incessantly and check  Facebook posts all day; my big screen TV with my reality shows; my stuffed closets and pantry; along with my prejudices, my narrow viewpoints, and my intolerant attitudes.

How bad this state of affairs has become was brought home to me earlier this week. A New York Times article posted on Daily Beast recounted harsh, even deadly working conditions in an Apple factory in China that makes iPhones and iPads. Apple has a code of conduct for suppliers, but change comes slowly. The choice is between the workers and the demand of consumers for new Apple products. And guess which wins out? An Apple executive said this: “‘You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories, or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards…. And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China’” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/business/ieconomy-apples-ipad-and-the-human-costs-for-workers-in-china.html?_r=1&.html).

Kyrie eleison.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.


OK, this may sound silly, but I got insight the other day from watching microwave breakfast pizza. You know the sort: little pies on a biscuit crust topped with sausage, egg, and cheese. You put them on a flimsy paper platform with a silver surface, a contraption always in danger of collapsing. Anyway, I was watching their progress through the window on the oven door, and noticed that one resembled a mountain being pushed up, with cheese lava flowing over the sides of the platform, while the other remained flat and bubbled only slightly. The same conditions, equal heat on the turntable, but they acted differently.

Isn’t that the way we are? Some of us blow up, reactively allowing circumstances to control our lives. Others under the same conditions are calm, seeking solutions, becoming proactive. The former are typically anxious, while the latter maintain what has been called a “non-anxious presence” or more recently, a “less-anxious presence,” recognizing that no one can be totally free from anxiety. Put another way, with the late family systems expert Ed Friedman, some of us are wired in series, so that we cannot separate ourselves and our actions from those of the fearful, dysfunctional folk around us. Others are wired in parallel, maintaining a measure of independence and acting with more wisdom and insight. If your neighbor’s lights go out, so to speak, you keep on shining like a beacon of peace and hope.

Too much of the rhetoric we hear in the church, media, and government these days is fear-driven, wired-in-series stuff, and the action that arises from it is like the bubbling mess of that pizza in my oven. Wouldn’t we rather have non-anxious leaders who do not let the anxieties of others control their talk and their deeds? Wouldn’t we like to see such serenity in our own lives?

Next time the heat is on, let those of us who are prone to panic take a lesson from the non-anxious pizza.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it (Luke 17:33).

Susan and I just saw a great movie from the middle of the last decade (2005). Maybe you’ve seen it; if not, I recommend it highly. I consider it one of the best theological films of this century so far.

It’s called Elizabethtown, and is about a young man named Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) who fails so monumentally in his work that he wants to kill himself. But then a call comes that changes, and saves, his life.

The story follows the classic, archetypal course of the hero’s journey. Drew must go from his home in Oregon to a strange land (Kentucky, specifically, Elizabethtown) to complete a task for which he is totally unprepared. Along the way he meets a wise guide, Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who helps him navigate both the unfamiliar physical and emotional landscape. Living up to her name, she makes things clear for Drew, but not so much by telling him what he needs to know as by guiding him to discover the possibilities of life—his life–for himself. Drew, so prepared to end his existence, finds in and through his failure new possibilities.

One of the key themes of the film is remembrance and the different ways we do that. The climax of the story is a memorial, which features different characters recounting their experiences with the deceased. Earlier, Claire speaks an enigmatic line, which somehow feels to me central to the tale: “I’m impossible to forget, but I’m hard to remember.” What is the difference between not forgetting and remembering? I’m still trying to figure that one out!

Another theological theme is the Holy Spirit, present in unpredictable ways and at odd moments. I love the scene in the Brown Hotel ballroom where a special effect goes awry as the band Ruckus plays “Free Bird.” A gigantic white dove catches on fire as it flies across the room, setting off sprinklers, then crashes to the ground. Most people run. But Drew’s sister Heather (Judy Greer) stands under the shower from the sprinklers with oransher hands in the orans position (see picture for an ancient example) , eyes closed, as if being baptized. Is this rebirth what she has been yearning for? How do you and I respond when the Spirit comes in crazy ways?

It’ was interesting to see this movie while I’m reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, which also has to do with the hero’s journey. Rohr points out that it is through suffering that we move into the second half of life, our further journey. “One of the best kept secrets, and yet one hidden in plain sight,” he writes, “is that the way up is the way down. Or if you prefer, the way down is the way up.” He continues: “The supposed achievements of the first half of life have to fall apart and show themselves to be wanting in some way, or we will not move further. Why would we?

“Normally a job, a fortune, or reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured. The pattern is in fact so clear that one has to work rather hard, or be intellectually lazy, to miss the continual lesson” (xviii-xix).

The lesson from Rohr and from Elizabethtown is that God comes to us sideways, from sources we don’t expect, on a journey we did not or would not choose. He is not absent from suffering; in fact, it may be through the experience of loss, failure (even fiasco), sadness, and strangeness that his greatest lessons of the soul are taught and learned. As Claire urges Drew: “I want you to get into the deep, beautiful melancholy of everything that’s happened.”

God give us grace to receive what he gives.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

“I’ll be a dentist…” (line from Little Shop of Horrors).

On a December trip to Georgia to see my mom, I stopped at a rest area in the middle of nowhere in Alabama. (A good place for a rest area!) The three staff members—two women and a man—were all sitting inside behind the reception desk. When I came out of the restroom and was leaving, one of them said she had a question for me: was I a dentist? How odd, I thought, but I said no, I was a minister. Her smile and “I-told-you-so” glance at her co-worker indicated that she was pleased by the answer. “You just looked like you might be a dentist,” she said, and I took that to mean that I had a kind of professional bearing. Of course, I had no idea what qualities she actually associated with a dentist, and I didn’t hang around to ask. I had to get on the road.

During the visit with my mom, a story came on TV about the shooter at Virginia Tech. “Such a nice looking boy,” my mother observed. I responded with a cliche: “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” But for her, someone who looked nice couldn’t possibly commit a crime. Presumably only shabby, ugly or dirty people do that.

I shouldn’t and can’t be so hard on my mom, though. I judge people by how they look all the time. And, I suspect, so do you. I guess it’s the nature of the case. If we are just meeting someone and barely know their name, what else do we have to go on to make a judgment as to whether we would like to have the person as a friend, colleague or romantic partner? It’s like the old saw that a man’s shoes display his character. The way we present ourselves to others can speak volumes about our choices, our viewpoints, and our morality.

But, as Shakespeare said, “the devil may assume a pleasing shape.” Not everyone who looks nice is a saint, and not everyone whose external appearance is off-putting is a sinner. Just think of all the men and women in 2008 and since wearing expensive clothes and watches and riding in fancy cars who plunged this country into its current economic crisis. Their well-kept appearance was no indicator of the state of their consciences and hearts.

Perhaps the best advice in all this comes from a bumper sticker I saw recently: “Change how you see, not how you look.”

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.