What or Who Is in Charge?

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Every day we are bombarded by very technological devices created to help us be more effective, stay in touch more easily, and handle details for us. Some of are old enough to recall life before all these “helpers” came along. Our calendars used to be toted around in daily planners we carried with us. Some were small enough to fit in a purse or briefcase, but others were more cumbersome, and we tried to manage them with anything else we needed to carry.

When my parents were growing up in the 1920’s in the midwestern United States, only 35% of homes had a telephone. As a child, I recall the first phone was one that hung on the wall of the farmhouse where my dad had grown up. It was a brown box with the mouthpiece attached and a receiver with a cord you lifted to your ear. There were still telephone operators back then and to cut down on cost, many had what was called a “party line”, meaning that several other households used the same line versus one that belonged only to you. The phone of my childhood was like that and could sometimes tempt me to try to pick up the receiver and listen to the conversations of others – clearly not a good choice.

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People could also use those telephone operators to connect you to a number you did not know even after large telephone books began to be published. In my home, the phone was something my mother enjoyed so she could connect with her parents and sisters who lived in the county next to ours. It didn’t ring often, and I don’t recall ever using it, but I do know that when it was replaced, the phone had a private line so we could access it at any time. That may have started the desire to be able to reach anyone at any time by this device, but it was still a long way from what this invention has become today. Part of that was because all it could do was handle a phone call. It couldn’t keep our calendar, show us a map, take photos, and store them, connect us to news sites, and a host of things our modern-day phones do for us now. We had tasted the convenience of the telephone and our appetites were whetted for more and it seems the taste became insatiable.

In the 1960’s when my husband and I were in college, connection happened by handwritten letters or occasionally a letter typed on a manual typewriter. In the 1980’s when our children were in college, they needed to stand in line to use a pay phone in the dorm, handwritten letters were still common, and electronic and electric typewriters were being replaced by the new computers that were not owned by students but available in the library. Our grandchildren in college have smartphones, computers, tablets, and all manner of devices. They FaceTime or use Polo or any number of apps to stay in touch. These devices track their calendars, routes via GPS, search for resources we used to spend hours looking for in card catalogs in the library, and capture moments of fun with cameras that have nearly replaced a separate camera.

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Most of us will admit we would be lost without these new phones and the valuable tool they have become, but in the process of that is it possible they have had more downsides than we may have noticed at the beginning? Are they now the tool or the master of us? Some of us have begun to see these questions and set some new boundaries on them like not having phones at the table when we are eating at the time we are supposed to have a chance to relate with those who are actually present with us, but is there more we need to consider? There is a real core struggle with our smartphones.

“This is the core struggle with the smartphone. It’s amazing because it allows us to communicate our presence across time and space, but it’s dangerous for the very same reason. It can fracture our presence across time and space until nothing is left. Usually this happens simply by habit, like me talking via phone…whlle doing two or three things.”

Justin Whittle Earley

Our presence is the greatest gift we can give someone else, but these new devices have sometimes gotten us caught up in so many places we are trying to be present that we are not present with anyone and with it, we are less genuine as well.

“Presence is at the heart of who we are, because presence is at the core of our relationship with God. From creation to salvation, the story of the Bible is fundamentally a story of presence. Eden was Eden because the unmediated presence of God was there. God was with Adam and Eve, until sin broke the bliss of that presence.”

Justin Whittle Earley
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Now the device we are holding almost constantly gets in the way of presence and allows us to hide from one another as we are captivated by the screen we hold in our hands. We say we are listening in more than one place at a time, but the truth is that we cannot be present in more than one place at a time.

These smartphones (even if we are limiting them at certain times and places) have become such companions for work, friends, family, entertainment, and more that we feel alone and lost when we try to put them down for any length of time or we experience the panic of losing or misplacing them. That would not only leave us alone but put us into silence and silence gets us in touch with who we really are. For some of us, that can be terrifying. Yet, knowing who we really are is vital.

“Only when we know who we are can we turn to love others, not use others. Only then can we actually listen to them…

Even more, when we cultivate inner rhythms of silence, we become attentive to the value of conscience, to the voice of God’s love for the world, and to the voice of our neighbor’s need.”

Justin Whittle Earley

How do we tackle this issue that challenges us more than we want to often admit? Justin Whittle Earley offers a suggestion in The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction:

“We were made for presence, but so often our phones are the cause of our absence. To be in two places at a time is to be no place at all. Turning off our phones for an hour a day is a way to turn our gaze up to each other, whether that be children, coworkers, friends, or neighbors. Our habits of attention are habits of love. To resist absence is to love neighbor.”

Justin Whittle Earley
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Not Fixable, But Complete

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It would be great if the things in our life that we use or value did not get broken, but they do. Some of those things we may get frustrated about, but they are not something we use often or value highly. Anything else is something we want to find a fix for as soon as we can. It happens to the best of us because accidents happen, or things wear out.

My husband would tell you that if the washer, dryer, oven, stove, or HVAC stops working, I will be an unhappy girl because I count on those things as needed and necessary most every day to help life run more smoothly. I would tell you that if something with one of our cars or the roof of our house develops a problem, I will be concerned but he will be more unhappy as he sees a problem to tackle to take care of us.

If I accidentally let an inexpensive glass drop and shatter, I will be frustrated about the mess and trying to capture all the little pieces of it that seem to go everywhere. If I accidentally break a fine piece of crystal or something that once belonged to my mother, I will be very upset either because of the cost of the replacement or that it will not be fixable or replaceable.

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But other things break and are not easily fixed that may haunt us for an even longer time. What kinds of things? Relationships with others whom we have cared about, organizations we trusted, or leaders we believed in and learned they were not what they appeared to be are a few examples. These sorts of things leave imprints on our hearts that may not be fixable and are difficult to heal.

Our image of ourselves can be broken when we make the poorer choice, act on impulse, or take a risk we knew we should not have taken. Some of these may be small, others may be big and less likely to be redeemed by us or those who care about us.

When things get broken, our response tells us a lot about what we value and how we are valued by those around us who are witnesses to the brokenness.

Our bodies get broken in innumerable ways from a cut that may require a few stitches to a cancer that cannot be cured, from a mild allergic reaction that causes us to be uncomfortable to something that poisons us and takes our life. Our bodies also start breaking down as we age and are not always fixable from the wear and tear of living life.

Many things in the world are broken and despite the best efforts of the brightest minds and most creative researchers much of it cannot be fixed. It was broken a long time ago and the consequences of that terrible day in the Garden of Eden have shadowed us on every level since then. Sometimes our own efforts to fix things have made it all worse. And that can create hopelessness and despair in the most optimistic of us.

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But there is good news in the midst of all the brokenness of all sizes, shapes, and kinds. On that fateful day when Adam and Eve set aside from following what God directed, He already had a plan for the brokenness that would result and multiply century by century. He knew it would never be enough to make sacrifices of goats, lambs, and more. This was too big of a break. It would require Him to make a sacrifice of his only Son who was perfect to set things right.

When Jesus offered himself up as the sacrifice for those who would believe and accept Him, He made us complete even though we were broken and unfixable. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves no matter how hard we might try. Paul shares that great truth with us as follows:

“For the full content of divine nature lives in Christ, in his humanity, 10 and you have been given full life in union with him. He is supreme over every spiritual ruler and authority.”

Colossians 2:9-10 (GNT)

Living in this life will never give me all the fixes that I need. Precious antiques handed down cannot be replaced, a lost relationship may not be repairable, a disease may not have a cure, and we will not be able to halt the process of aging and all that comes with it. Living in this life we will always make mistakes and poor choices even if we seek not to do so simply because we are imperfect and unable to do life perfectly on any level. But the good news is that because of that one perfect sacrifice by Jesus, we can be complete in Him and in the life after our earthly one we will be changed completely.

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Being Mortal

Anyone who knows me is aware that I enjoy reading a great deal and usually find a recommendation from a friend a choice I will pick up. And so it was that someone recently recommended Atul Gawande’s 2014 best-selling book, Being Mortal, as a book everyone ought to read. As I look around my house these days, I need to decide on which books I buy and which others I might borrow from a digital library or listen to as an audiobook. This time I chose the audiobook since it could be a companion on a walk, but I now wonder if I will also buy the book as a reference.

Since it is not a new book, some (perhaps many) of you may already be acquainted with this title and its surgeon author, but it was new to me. It didn’t take me long to be caught up with the excellent audiobook narrator and the contents that brought together research as well as fascinating stories and interviews as this physician brings front and center the subject of our mortality. This topic is not one most of us jump into eagerly because even though we know we are mortal and life as we know it on this earth will end, we step back from talking (or learning) about what happens as we approach the end of what we know. Perhaps that is because the unknown combined with what we may have experienced leaves us uneasy and anxious over the impending loss of control.

The author, Dr. Atul Gawande, brings us front and center into the subject including what he as a physician was not trained to talk about as well as what medicine offers us now in the modern era. He honestly addresses the part medical personnel play in our dilemma about this subject due to the lack of information they give us as we age and become more frail and start that decline we dread. He makes clear that medicine at its best is there to address and fix a problem but aging and becoming more frail is not in itself a fixable problem and when it happens it is not usually one thing that goes wrong but a series of things that happen.

Dr. Gawande’s own history as the son of two physicians and grandson of a grandfather in India who lived until near 110 sets the stage for him to discover what he did not learn through his medical training. And he begins by outlining how medicine has changed over time and resulted in a very different system than those in western societies experienced in our grandparents and great-grandparents’ lifetimes. Back then, old age tended to be uncommon. As an example, in the United States in 1790, less than 2% of the population lived to the age of 65. The discoveries of medical science increased longevity and that was great news, but with it came other challenges like the shift in thinking between young and old and who would have control of places, positions, and ultimately their independence.

Along with that, choices about retirement age, where to live, what to do, and more abound as never before. Some, like the development of nursing homes, came from the medical community. Others came as counters to that choice including assisted living facilities, senior communities, home care, and a growing array of options to allow the seniors among us to retain as much independence and connection to the life they love as possible while providing them with safety and what medical care may be needed. These options grew also because Dr. Gawande notes “age is not a fixable problem” and doctors “have no answers.” Their answers are for specific problems, diseases, and diagnoses while aging is a complex set of systems that begin to wear out despite all we may do to prevent that. At some point the redundant systems our Creator put into our bodies result in too many failures that will lead to a problem that is not so fixable.

Two lenses are used to look at aging: the biological course and the cultural course on how we view aging. How those in the Roman Empire looked at this when the average life span was 28 is radically different no matter what lens is used for the average life span now that nudges us into the eighth decade of life for many (and beyond that for some).

Dr. Gawande takes the reader (or listener) through key topics in eight chapters: The Independent Self, Things Fall Apart, Dependence, Assistance, A Better Life, Letting Go, Hard Conversations, and Courage. In the process, you have a chance to look at the topics we don’t talk about and gain good information about how to go about aging as well as possible with less fear through more solid information and innovative ideas.

Even though the audiobook was to be a companion on my walks, I listened to some parts again as I wanted to take notes on things Dr. Gawande said and explained so well as he shared how what he has learned has changed his practice and life.

One of the things that stood out to me was when he described what he says a physician’s job is in supporting life and he puts it into two key sentences:

  • To provide as much freedom from the ravages of disease as possible
  • To retain enough function for active engagement in the world

Repeatedly, he makes the case for helping the aging maintain purpose and connection with living and the things they value most as keys to a better quality and quantity of life. He uses many examples that show treating the aging frail among us as children is not how to make the decline easier or better.

“The battle of being mortal is to retain the integrity of one’s life so who you are does not get disconnected from who you were or who you want to be.”

Dr. Gutal Gwande

I heartily recommend this book if you are older or if you are looking at helping someone you love who is older. Expect to be validated and encouraged instead of anxious and discouraged. After all, in this life, we must all face being mortal.

Not Just Furniture

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No matter whether our home is small or large, new, or old, most of us will have at least one table tucked inside. For many it will serve a variety of purposes depending on the need or even time of day. It may be where the first meal of the day is eaten and then become a workspace for someone who needs a large flat surface. Later it might serve as the place for study as students also need such a larger flat surface. And if we can do so, we will choose the table with a nod to our expected uses and favorite style.

I still remember the table in the kitchen of the farmhouse where I grew up. It served many purposes. Beyond the place where we had our meals, it was where my mother would carefully lay out patterns tacked onto fabric for her next dress. It was where I attacked my homework after school. During harvesting from the garden, it was often a place where it held freshly filled jars of jams, peaches, cherries, and other yummy things. It was the place she wrapped gifts and frosted cakes or cookies. There was no island so popular now, so it was used every moment of the day for one thing or another.

Of all the things I remember about that table, my fondest memories were when we had it opened to its widest expanse to make room for others to have a meal with us. My mother loved to cook, and I often said that she spelled love, “food.” Her other strong conviction was that those who were alone should not need to be alone to enjoy a meal so those who were single, widowed, or far from other family, were often invited to our table.

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In the hectic-paced world most live in today, how many times does the table serve as a place to come together as a family or in community with one another? Yes, it has always had utilitarian uses, but it has been far more than simply another piece of furniture or a place to hold food or homework, papers, books, or pattern pieces.

Most any special occasion will involve gathering around a table to fellowship and celebrate whether it be in good times or bad. Breaking bread together has become a part of humankind life for a very long time. Some of that may be because eating is central and necessary to sustain human life, but something more than that happens around a table and as I have been reading The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction by Justin Whittle Earley, that has come more sharply into focus.

“The table is the center of gravity. When we see food as fuel, we turn all of this on its head. We aren’t grateful to God; we assume our right to food. We aren’t grateful to each other; we create systems of food that embody the exploitation of our neighbors who grow, transport, prepare, and serve our food. We aren’t grateful to creation; we consume the earth’s food greedily and carelessly, as if it were ours to binge on and trash instead of ours to steward and cultivate into flourishing.”

Justin Whittle Earley

Even with moms and dads working and often arriving home at different times, children going here and there, and meals at dinner not routine many days, most will still value the table (this center of gravity) with care for how it will serve and represent them.

When we do come together around a table over food, it becomes formational for all the things we share and learn about one another in the process. It’s a place we learn about operationalizing love.

“Think of all the ways the values of love are communicated over food. We serve each other. We clean up after each other. We take turns. We share. We fight and forgive. We praise and compliment. We express gratitude. We tell stories and ask questions. We listen. We hear each other pray.”

Justin Whittle Earley
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Dearest memories of the last years of my parents’ lives before they left this earth were times we were gathered around their table. Food was finished and we lingered at the table where we would ask a question that led to hearing my parents (especially my dad) tell stories of the days he was growing up or their early marriage together. Inevitably, one question would lead to another, and no one jumped up to turn on a TV or clear the dirty dishes. We were caught up in the important story of my parents’ life. There would usually be at least one funny story and laughter was common. Those later years were when I learned what a great storyteller my dad was. I think our grandchildren have had that experience with my husband (their grandpa) since he has been known not only to sample warm cookies on our kitchen table but also create fantasies about a year he lived with the Eskimos and more. It was a long time before they were old enough to know it was a story he had created.

For those who are involved with their faith, we find more than one or two times when we see a gathering around a table as we read the Bible. Some of our places of worship may have a painting of Jesus with the disciples coming together for that last Passover before He would be crucified. We remember it each time we come together to remember that sacrifice for the sacrament of Holy Communion. We get invited to that table and that is no small invitation.

“But we don’t get invited to the table because of anything we’ve done. We get invited because of what Jesus has done. This is why Christians regularly come to the Communion table to feast on the body and blood of Christ. It is a reminder that because of Christ, we will commune with God again over food.”

Justin Whittle Earley

Our oldest grandson will be married in a few months, and we look forward to being there to celebrate this wonderful occasion but despite how precious he is to us, we look forward even more to the feast of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb we read about in the book of Revelation 19 when we who believe in Him will be joined with Him at long last as He has always desired. That will surpass any celebration any of us have been part of or can imagine and the great thing for us is knowing we will share that time with those in our family (both present and past).

A table is not just a piece of furniture.

Pesky Places

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As we transition into a new season, whether we are in the northern or southern hemisphere, many of us get involved with the ritual of putting some things away and getting other things out that we need for the new season. Most of us entering autumn are stowing away the summer gear we used over the past few months. We’re shifting our closets from cool sleeveless tops and shirts to long-sleeved types and sweaters. Unless we live in a part of the world where weather remains stable all year long, we will repeat these tasks several more times as winter approaches, spring tiptoes in, and then summer returns.

Grass clippings scattered about the patio will soon be overrun by falling leaves in every shape and color. Apple cider will eclipse lemonade, and many will delight in the option of pumpkin spice lattes at their favorite coffee shop.

These season shifts nudge us to discover pesky places where clutter builds up and dust hides from us. Even if we are a tidy housekeeper, most of us will have those places that are not routinely checked for things that need to be cleaned up or cleared out.

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When I was growing up it was one of two times a year when my mother would do a deep cleaning and touch those untouched places so easily overlooked or ignored. There would be window washing, cleaning under the stove and refrigerator, and moving furniture to discover the dust that had been missed during routine cleaning. Clothes would be pulled out of cedar chests where they had been stored and protected from moths who relished discovering an extra meal if they could find it during those summer months. It meant she would also sometimes discover something she had not known was there. Perhaps it was a few loose pieces of change from a pocket, an earring she had not been able to locate, or a card she had addressed and then could not find when it was time to send it. The season that happened in the autumn was one I seldom was asked to be part of as I returned to school and had limited hours to help, but I enjoyed the benefits and the fragrance of that deeper clean any time I walked in the door.

We have lots of those pesky places in our homes that don’t get addressed as often – kitchen drawers that open and close with less and less organization inside, back corners of refrigerator shelves, and the top shelves of cupboards where our best dishes grow a film of dust from their infrequent use.

But there are other pesky places we often miss that live inside of us as well. Many of these remain hidden and out of view of those around us and some we keep so well covered that we can ignore them for long periods as well. Those are those attitudes that don’t quite line up with our best selves, the nagging habits we accommodate because we like them despite knowing they are not good for us, and our selfish preferences that stand opposite our stated desire to put others first.

Perhaps these are like the little foxes that spoil the vines spoken of by King Solomon by the Old Testament book bearing his name.

These are those little things (sometimes pet sins too) that we accommodate without much thought since we have already labeled them “little” and see them as not so harmless without recognizing they erode and grow if left with that mindset. We forget when they snagged us up in times past because we didn’t pay attention; we were living too close to the enemy who seduces us into such thinking.

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After all, we were busy. We had so many things to do, those meetings at school and church, coffee dates with friends, and a need to just kick back and relax and stop thinking about who we were to be and what we were to be about. We really weren’t being lazy. We just needed a break from all those things.

Sound familiar?

If we are honest, most of us have been there and might be there now as well. Maybe it’s that Newton law thing about a body a rest tending to stay at rest versus a body in motion tending to stay in motion. After all, who would be looking at those places in our home or in our hearts?

As I have been reading through the Old Testament book of Judges again, I see parallels to these ways of thinking and the significant impact on Israel after Joshua had died. The people who had followed those heroes of the faith like Moses, Caleb, and Joshua had let those evidences of what God did and what He required fall into the background and before long they were like pesky places left untouched and unaddressed.

Little pesky places and things became pet habits and God got shoved to the background as little things grew to little idols that soon meant the people were trusting themselves instead of God. Strongholds developed that could only be defeated by One outside of themselves.

By the end of the book of Judges we come to that haunting verse that reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

A note in my study Bible about all this reads as follows: “we abandon God when we do only what seems good to us: creating private religion, abandoning our personal calling, pursuing our individual desire, and choosing personal preservation over justice.”

Doing what is right in our own eyes sounds very much like today despite Judges being written about 550 BCE.

Many of us have been captivated by the images of the death of Queen Elizabeth II – the music, respect, reverence, and awe – and soon a new king will be crowned with more imagery as well. They remind me that Jesus whom we love and revere if we believe in Him is not only Savior, but King. His Kingdom extends far beyond any earthly realm of any period of history. And Scripture says He will return for this of his Kingdom when the world has gone mad, forgotten Him, and living as they please in an ever-darkened way.

Whenever He comes, He will not concern himself with the condition of my cupboards, but rather the condition of my heart. Perhaps it is what we see around us that should remind us that it’s time to take care of those pesky places in our hearts that we have ignored for some time and to prepare our hearts to hail Him when He comes.

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