Another Dan, Long Ago & So Very Far Away


We shared first names. While I’ve known a lot of Dans in my life, I’d never met a fellow Dan like this one.

Something about an unusual question draws me. I don’t know what it is about the asking of something otherwise left unsaid, whether by ignorance or by purpose, but when someone asks THAT question, I notice.

This other Dan asked those questions. Relentlessly. And he thought about the answers. You could see the wheels whirring.

Dan and I worked in ministry together. He was a seminarian, and a year or two older than I was, but it seemed like more. Not from an age standpoint, but from a sense of wisdom. Even in my 20s I was naive, but not my fellow Dan.

That said, he seemed always to be searching, and when we talked, the conversation went deep in a heartbeat.

One day, he called and asked if I wanted to go for a drive.

And some drive it was.

We met up where he was staying in town that summer. I hopped in his old, yellow Beetle, and we took off around I-275 in Cincinnati. Just driving. Talking about deep things, the kind of questions and answers you delved into only when the night was pulled down like a cover around you. Yellow VW Beetle But for these two Dans, neither needed the protective cover of darkness.

So we talked. The Ohio River and Kentucky loomed. We crossed and kept on driving. We crossed them again.

I can’t tell you the details of the conversation. It was 25 years ago. But it was epic. And so was the drive, as we kept pulling that slight arc to the right that took us through the loop of Cincinnati’s encompassing circle highway. When the end became the beginning, Dan just kept driving. Two hours? Three?

Did it matter? We were young. We had ideas. They were good ones too. Dreams that could change the world–if only the world would listen to two Dans in a VW Bug looping around the local metropolis on a hot, late-summer day, the windows rolled as low as they could go, the radio silenced by the ongoing brilliance.

We felt like we’d only brushed the surface, but eventually we ended up back at his hosts’. We still had things to discuss, but they would wait.

Evenings were spent at Pizza Hut with some of the other crew our age on the ministry team. Even when the job concluded, we got together.

If Dan were a baseball diamond, it would consist of nothing but left field, which was why his dry, bizarre sense of humor had us rolling on the floor, laughing, always. Leave it to Dan to say the funny thing no one else dared to utter. And the dude could drink Mountain Dew endlessly, as if the caffeine simply evaporated before it hit his lips.

When he left town for his final year in seminary, we vowed to stay in touch. We did. Just like that I-275 crawl, we would talk long distance for hours. When I eventually moved to Wisconsin, he was one of the few who supported financially my ministry work there. He called regularly too. And the hours on the phone would trip by effortlessly.

It’s like that when you talk to someone interesting, a person overflowing with a tangential way of looking at those aspects of life most see only head-on. Whenever Dan talked about ministry, he saw what others missed. He wanted to know how we got locked into forms and programs that were so obviously ineffective, and what we could do to fix the problems. He challenged the status quo.

Dan got me thinking about the Church in ways  I’d not considered, and I loved that about him. He was that friend who never shied away from “going there,” no matter where there was. You’d be shocked for a minute, and then you’d be glad for the release, because something heavy had gone away in the process.

Heavy accompanied Dan.

We got together when we could. Distance was an issue. Still, there was the telephone. (The Internet was something still in the clutches of the military and braniacs at that point.) Never failed to enjoy the talks.

I think it was at a wedding we both drove back to Cincy for when we agreed to meet up for Christmas at the church for which we’d worked. Agreed on a time and place.

He liked Dum-Dum lollipops and handed me one. He said the name was apt. “A Dum-Dum for a dumb-dumb,” he noted. “Will keep you humble.” Already loaded with enough sugar from the wedding cake, I stuck the sweet in my trenchcoat pocket. Maybe later.

I’d been dating a girl seriously. We met at the Christian camp where I was working full time. One of those infamous camp romances, but it lasted beyond the end of the season, and though she was summer staff and I was year-round, we kept dating.

We planned to drive to her folks’ place for Thanksgiving. I’d never met them, so I was a little anxious. That changed to frustration when she announced the night before that I was “just too nice,” and she was ending the relationship. Out of town, no idea what to do, I drove with her to her folks’ anyway, with me attempting damage control most of the way. I met her folks, we had a tense meal, and I bolted back to Cincinnati to see if I could still make an unexpected showing at my family’s Thanksgiving and nurse my wounds.

The drive back to Wisconsin afterward was interminable.

Checking into the camp office, I had seven phone messages that had come in over the long weekend. The phone number was the same.

The message on each gradually changed as the days passed. The first was a “What’s up?” The middle was “Let’s talk soon.” The last one was “Please call.” The receptionist at the camp had underlined the Please.

I called Dan back. No answer. Left a message. Two, three times.

I figured it had something to do with our Christmas meetup. A change of plans. Something like that. If that were the case, I’d hear in time.

The drive back to Cincinnati at Christmas was a long one. I still hurt from the breakup. Being the nice guy no girl wants is a tough row to hoe. But hey, I was resilient. Besides, I was looking forward to hanging with the crew over the Christmas break. Women, who needs ’em?

On Christmas Eve, I went to church for the evening service and waited on the back stoop as scheduled, under the pale yellow bulb that cast a halo overhead. Snow had begun to fall, tender flakes doomed to vanish when they hit the warmer ground. Inside, the first strains of the organ sounded and others lifted their voices to God. Christmastime was here. Happiness and cheer.

But no Dan.

The first carol ended, and the intro of the second wafted through the door of the full church.

I wasn’t the only one who would enter late; my friend Jeff walked up the back entrance.

“Waiting for someone?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Dan and I agreed to meet here. He seems to be late–as usual.”

Jeff hesitated, and the look on his face lost all meaning.

The snow came down, lighter now. The yellow light tried to warm the scene but instead cast harsh shadows on two men standing alone in the cold.

“Don’t you know?” Jeff said, his eyes betraying an emotion inscrutable to me. “He killed himself a few weeks ago. Over Thanksgiving.”

Please call.

I could feel that Dum-Dum in my right coat pocket.

For all our time spent talking about the deep things of life, I didn’t know Dan was engaged to be married. I didn’t know that he’d just gotten the job he’d always wanted. I didn’t know he had a chronic illness he struggled with.

I didn’t know.

I keep the Dum-Dum in the pocket of the trench coat. I still have both. I didn’t know, but I don’t want to forget.

We are fragile, each of us hoarfrost, vanishing in the warmth of a sudden spring breeze.



If you are unfamiliar with the works of Douglas Adams, particularly his The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of novels, the title of this post will be inscrutable. What it is supposed to represent is the answer to the most basic question of life, the universe, and everything. What does this crazy existence all mean? Well, 42. In one of the books in that series, that’s what a sophisticated computer the size of a planet determined was the answer. Then it complained about the question.

I talked one-on-one with Douglas Adams many times at MacWorld conventions. He was an official “Apple Master,” and oddly enough, he tended to seek me out rather than the other way around, perhaps because I worked for Apple and he was able to get tech info from me. Anyway, we seemed to keep running into each other. At one point, he was my favorite novelist. I also learned he was one of the foremost atheists and often spoke to atheist groups around the world. When I talked with him the last time before he died unexpectedly at 48, he was his usual frantic, overworked self. Too many irons in the fire and none of them heating properly. In short, 42.

As a Christian, I don’t share Adams’s worldview. However, 42 is as good an answer as most people will experience when it comes to trying to find meaning in life.

It’s not that life has no meaning. It’s only that you and I will drive ourselves insane trying to make sense of anything that happens in this life. Meaning is most definitely there, but not a single person this side of heaven will be able to scry it out.

The wisest mortal who ever lived had this to say about the question of what it all means:

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
—Ecclesiastes 2:11-17 ESV

Many people would simply fall into despair at that point. But here’s the thing: While you and I may not understand from our limited perspective, God DOES understand. He gets it.

God says this:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
—Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV

Magic Eye imageGod alone has the perspective needed to make sense of the nonsense you and I experience daily.

We live something of a Magic Eye existence. Our world looks like so much chaos, yet there is order there that may escape us because our perspective is limited by our humanity. Only God sees order in the chaos.

I don’t know why some people seem to experience more than their share of chaos. I used to think those people were receiving an extra measure of character building to make them better than those who didn’t go through repeated trials. I don’t think that anymore.

Some things in life just are—at least from your perspective and mine. Trying to make sense of them will drive us insane, and yet people try. Christians especially try to make sense of life because we feel a need to have to explain everything about how God works to people who don’t know or understand Him. Frankly, we might as well try to blow out the sun, because all the explanation about meaning will only lead us to an answer as profound as 42.

It all comes down to this: The only way to navigate life is to have faith in God, to trust that He knows how to make sense of the senseless. Because He does. Even if He chooses not to share that with us. And knowing that truth is what separates the Christian from the atheist, even if they both ascribe to the same puzzlement about what it all means.



Between the silence of the mountains
And the crashing of the sea
There lies a land I once lived in
And she’s waiting there for me
But in the grey of the morning
My mind becomes confused
Between the dead and the sleeping
And the road that I must choose

I’m looking for someone to change my life
I’m looking for a miracle in my life
And if you could see what it’s done to me
To lose the love I knew
Could safely lead me to
The land that I once knew
To learn as we grow old
The secrets of our soul

–Excerpt from “Question” by The Moody Blues


In searching for some factoid last week, I stumbled into a piece about The Moody Blues and their top songs, one of which is “Question” (shown in the excellent video above).

I always liked that song. The plaintiveness of the question that erupts from the heart of the singer resonates.

Many people are looking at life right now and asking how it is we are where we are. Beyond the questions that afflict us all comes that one individual query, the one that haunts a lot of us who scout our personal situations and ask what happened to that place of refuge and hope from long ago, that “land that I once knew.”

I turn 50 in a few weeks, and I guess that’s good enough time as any to get introspective. Now more than ever, I run into fellow travelers paralyzed by the search for the land they once knew, for someone to change their lives, for some miracle to happen that will forever alter the inevitability of the road they find themselves on, the road that winds through the grey mists of morning that lead into forgetfulness and loss.

How is it that some people seem to find their mission and fulfill it, while other people look and look and yet the road never makes itself clear?

How is it that some people can clearly see where they have come from and where they are going, yet they never quite get to their destination?

How is it that some people find the opposition to their entire journey so strong that it never truly begins?

Where the trouble for me begins is that I know a lot of Christians who are stuck in these No Man’s Land locations. For whatever reason, they’ve been sidelined. All those things they hoped to do now seem less likely than ever. The vision that lit up their early lives now flickers, a cooling ember inside a broken heart. You can see that cool nostalgia in their eyes and hear the tremor in their voices when they tell their stories, especially when they reflect on what might have been.

Some wonder how it was that they had a yearning for foreign missions, yet every opportunity to do those missions blew up or met with seemingly pointless resistance.

Some wanted nothing more than to work with young people, yet the vicissitudes of life kept pulling them away, and now they no longer understand youth.

Some wanted to change the world for Christ, yet they got drawn into the embrace of the American Dream and saw their youth and enthusiasm sucked dry by it.

And some reflect on it all and wonder if they are the ones who put their hands to the plow but then looked back. And they wonder if there is any redemption for that very human failing, a second chance, a ticket back to that land they once knew, where they could start again and do it all right this time.

I think there are a lot of people who found that Someone who changed their life. And yet the finding somehow didn’t shield them from broken hopes and dreams, especially when those hopes and dreams were to be all they could be for that Someone.

There is no joy being caught in that time of discernment yet unable to tell the difference between the dead and the sleeping.  When the road we take from here seems obscured. I don’t know what to say to people when I see them struggling to find how to move on when there appears to be no place to move to. I hope that whatever words come out of my mouth have some of God’s life in them, but I don’t know myself how to answer the questions of how one finds himself here, because I’m not so sure of my own location.

At this point in my life, I wonder about systems and how people end up mired in them. Government, institutional religion, personal expectations, other people’s expectations– they seem to conspire to cloud rather than clarify. And the “land that I once knew” seems farther off than ever.

What do you do when you tried to do everything right by God and yet it led to this far off place that feels so alien and removed from where you think you should be?

I wish I had an answer to that question. I wonder if it lies back in that land we once lived in, but I don’t know how we get back there.


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