Care

Letting Go

Our white cat, Tiger, came to us in 2006 when his previous owner dropped him at our house. Joanne and I instantly saw the man was abusive. When he opened the cage in our foyer, Tiger ran as fast and far as possible. We later found him crouched behind the dryer.

         It took a long time to win his heart; he was so fearful. But, over time, he gradually warmed to us. I think he finally realized we would not injure him. In time, he became vocal and his personality opened like a flower. He learned to express his needs and his affection.

         For example, Joanne and I meet at our game table almost every day for a card game and have done so for years. In that ritual, I’ve pulled the piano bench up beside my chair for Tiger. He would jump up, watch us play a while, and then paw my arm as I tried to play; his searching eyes told me he needed attention. And, of course, I gave it to him.

         And, despite the feline reputation for indifference, Tiger was always attentive to us, mainly to Joanne, a diabetic. If her blood sugar fell or climbed too much, he would lay nearby, fixing his gaze on her. When I appeared, his laser stare told me, “Do something!”

         We became a society; three of God’s creatures leaning into each other within our one-acre corner of Tennessee. We learned the cross-species nuances of affection, reaching, retreating, intruding, and yielding. We stepped on his tail; he threw up on our floors. Through it all, we slowly began to understand the scripture, “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast.”[1] We were effectively the hands of God for Tiger; we had to fulfill the Lord’s care for His creatures.

         We loved and enjoyed him for 13 years. But, these pet-and-people connections never end well. He was, after all, an elderly cat. So, after completing some kidney tests, about 1:00 p.m. on October 1, the vet told us the time had come. We said we’d bring Tiger to her clinic at 3:00.

         Over the next two hours, I watched Tiger interact with his environment, including us. But I knew what he didn’t—that the road to his future had washed out. As I petted him, prayed for him in this new journey, and wept in farewell to a friend, I wondered if that’s how God views us. He sees what we cannot, and He knows we can’t control what is coming. In the end, our weakness will drop us into His kindness.

         Throughout that last trip to the vet, and as we entered the “death chamber,” Tiger was docile, accepting, silent. As he lay on the table, his very full eyes locked on ours. Peacefully. He had moved beyond fear.

         Then we gathered him in his blanket and held him while the doctor administered the drug that would take Tiger from us. As the chemicals carried him from our shoreline, he pulled a corner of his blanket into his mouth and began to suck. He continued to suckle a breast we could not see. Until he stopped.

         In his death, Tiger made his final statement to our little family; go gently. Lay it down, let it go. Rest. Everything will be far better than you ever imagined.  


[1] Proverbs 10:12 (ESV)

Subversive Sabbath

A. J. Swoboda’s Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World (Brazos Press, 2018) is a double gin and tonic in the land of lemonade. Commanding. Bracing. Disruptive.

Like nothing else in all of creation, the Sabbath – a day of rest – reveals God’s love for His creation, including the people. God orders a day of rest because He rested and, as Swoboda says, “built it into the DNA of creation, and it is therefore something creation needs in order to flourish. Humans were made to rest…Sabbath is a scheduled weekly reminder that we are not what we do; rather, we are who we are loved by.”

This book is a well-written, balanced, and persuasive view of the Sabbath, as it applies to all of life. We vividly see the ramifications of keeping (and violating) the Sabbath – on community, health, worship, marriage, sex, children, the environment, technology, animals, and the economy. The book fully illustrates why a “Sabbathcentric” economy is more humane and ethical for everyone.

Christian Amnesia

But, despite the Sabbath’s beautiful patterns and the fact that “Remember the Sabbath” is one of the Ten Commandments, Swoboda reflects that the Sabbath “has largely been forgotten by the church, which has uncritically mimicked the rhythms of the industrial and success-obsessed West…Sabbath forgetfulness is driven, so often, in the name of doing stuff for God rather than being with God.”

Swoboda’s chainsaw continues, “the worst thing that has happened to the Sabbath is religion. Religion is hostile to gifts. Religion hates free stuff. Religion squanders the good gifts of God by trying to earn them, which is why we will never really enjoy a sacred day of rest as long as we think our religion is all about earning.”

Is that why so many Christians, even pastors, so openly admit they habitually violate one of God’s ten commandments?

The author, who is also a pastor, shakes his head at “the nine commandments that, if I choose to break, I might lose my ministry over. But if I did not keep a Sabbath day, I would probably get a raise.” He quotes Barbara Brown Taylor, “We have made an idol of exhaustion. The only time we know we have done enough is when we’re running on empty and when the ones we love most are the ones we see least.”

The Power of No

Swoboda writes, “…every yes takes a little space out of our lives. Soon, after a thousand yeses, we find ourselves exhausted and marginless.” That’s why saying “no” is essential if we are to enjoy healthy margins in our lives. However, “Sabbath is not a culturally acceptable reason to say no.”

When Subversive Sabbath turns to Eugene Peterson for wisdom on how to say no, we learn that he “schedules times for prayer and meditation, dates with his wife, and even time to read books. And he schedules the Sabbath as well.” When someone asks him to do something on those dates and times, he just explains that the calendar will not permit it. Swoboda helpfully ads, “Not everything is everyone’s business.”

Stop!

The very thing that makes the Sabbath so essential in the totality of life is also what that makes us violate it: It is a reminder that we humans are not as crucial as we often believe. We really think we can help God run the world better. For example, we ignore the Sabbath principle of crop rotation. Instead, we gorge the land with chemicals and work it hard and continuously to get more out of it.

Climate change agnostics (like me) get a new view through Subversive Sabbath. For example, he quotes 2 Chronicles 36:21 about the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon: “The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah.” [i]

          Swoboda explains: “When the Israelites were exiled, the land finally got what it needed: Sabbath rest. The land ‘enjoyed’ its newfound lease on life because it kept the Sabbath.” To not give the land a break is to abuse it. That and other biblical passages provide a convincing case against what happens when humans get better ideas on how to manage the earth.

That is why we humans should often just STOP! Don’t analyze, suggest, or do anything. Quit digging. Or, as Swoboda says, “Sometimes the best thing we can do for the healing of creation is nothing at all…Our culture says that healing can only come by doing. Scripture tells a different story. The world is healed by our stopping.”

And, that is a very subversive position.

[i] Scripture from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.Zondervan.com

 

Storm Warning

My friends, Glen and Roberta Roachelle, once sat in a beachside restaurant as a storm moved in. Just as they took their first sip of coffee, a wave crashed over the seawall and against the windows. As diners laughed nervously, Glen told Roberta, “Let’s leave right now.”

When they stepped outside, a larger wave blew out the windows. Water and shards of glass filled the area where they had sat moments earlier.

The Gathering Storm

Storms are essential; they transport water, often across areas of drought, and redistribute temperatures between the poles and the equator. They cleanse the air and land, nourish crops, replenish aquifers, etc.

They also kill. Storm surge, wind, lightning, freezing, and flooding can wipe out human life, quickly and extensively. The Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900 killed 8 – 10 thousand people. In 1970, a cyclone wiped out a half million people in East Pakistan.

A massive (and essential) storm is moving across our land. We see features of it every day; a culture of outrage, random violence, family and friends divided by politics, shocking increases of suicide and opioid usage, escalating vulgarity, and a general loss of decency and decorum.

Despite the transitory pain and disruption, I believe the storm will bring long-term transformation (as storms always do). That’s why I think focusing on Trump, immigration, Islam, sexual identity, or technological intrusions misses the larger picture. Comparatively, they are all mere data points for the massive storm.

Be There

Just as no one can control earthquakes, tornados, droughts, or hurricanes, humans have no power over the direction, intensity, or consequences of the storm pounding our country now. But, we might survive if we take precautions. Here are a few:

  • BE KIND

    Because our social environment is so combustible, words explode as matches dropped in dry leaves. I know conflict screams for engagement, but be careful! Think about it; getting combative over politics, Facebook, or Jesus is not going to change anyone’s mind. But, kindness often shifts the focus to the things that really matter.

  • STAY HOME

    In 2017, I heard an ER doctor tell a high school graduating class, “Trust me; nothing good happens after midnight. Please go home.” Remember, home is (or can be) a sanctuary. You don’t need a reason to go home; you need a reason to leave.

  • BE SUBVERSIVE

    We all live through an insane insistence that we conform to the dysfunction around us. But, the sane person must be subversive—a secret agent of lucidity and stability—in times of insanity. And to be sane today is to live and speak generously. Reach through the fog of politics to connect with people. Serve others. Stop, look, listen. Pray for one another. Give a damn.
  • KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL

    Our cultural storm includes a tornadic swirl of nudges, suggestions, invitations, and demands. Ignore them. Good grief; you’re on home plate and the pitch is screaming toward you. The gnats don’t warrant your attention.

  • REMAIN INSIDE MORAL AND ETHICAL SAFETY

    We are living through a monumental collapse of those who ignored the classic standards of ethics and morality. We should not judge them, but the career destruction and humiliation should be all the warning we need to humble ourselves and increase our moral and ethical vigilance. Run to God’s safety and rest.
  • BE QUIET

    One line of the Miranda warning says, “Anything you say can and will be used against you…” What do we not understand about “can and will?” Stop talking! Pretending you’re mute can save your time, money, reputation, and perhaps your freedom. My brother Vernon, a longtime Kansas Sheriff says, “The right to be silent is one of our most precious freedoms, and so few use it.”

  • TRANSCEND REACTION

    Our culture invests great energies and dollars to goading people to react. And, when we are continuously prodded by anger, outrage, temptation, and other provocations, we tend to become reactive. We wait to be told when to click, buy, get mad, exhibit outrage, what to believe, etc. But, remember, you don’t have to explain anything or make everyone happy. Rise above reaction; live straight ahead.

Look; storms are inevitable. They serve the Creator’s purposes. But, they’re also dangerous. That’s why civilizations develop storm warnings. By taking mindful cautions, you can survive and continue in your life’s purpose. As Coach Dan Reeves said in an old pharmaceutical commercial, “It’s your future. Be there.”

Boundaries

After firing too many personal questions at me, the hospital’s admitting rep barked, “Do you have an Advanced Medical Directive?” When I nodded, she snapped, “We’re gonna need that.”

Having lived my life in God’s loving embrace, I believe I will, when the time comes, walk through the doorway to the other side of life with confidence and peace. I’m also confident that Joanne and our children can make any decisions necessary for my care or my body.

The medical industry loves them because of convenience and efficiency, but no one is required to execute an “AD.” I only have one for my family; they can use it however they wish in the totality of what seems right at that time. I will never give it to the industry.

Rough Answers

The core truth of that episode for me was that a large organization, literally holding the power of life and death, appeared oblivious of my personal space and boundaries. Every day they handle human life. But, in my case, they didn’t show the restraint, respect, or care matching their role and power.

Perhaps my case was unusual. But I felt like I was in an auto body shop; people who did not know or care about me banged, slammed, jerked, and hammered my heart into conformity with their preferences and needs.

Since that day, seventeen months ago, I’ve been increasingly sensitized to a societal disregard or ignorance of boundaries. Our ethos seems to be inching closer to if I see it and need it, I can take it. That leads to the social condition described by an ancient proverb, “The poor man utters supplications, but the rich man answers roughly.”[1]

Too many people live on the receiving end of harsh hands and rough answers.

Do we really not know that the landscape of health, wealth, mortality, property, income, and identity is very personal real estate? If I – regardless of my legal authority or job description – were to ask someone for his or her salary, social security number, credit score, urine sample, or Advanced Directive, I’d do so very gently, carefully, and contritely.

And I would fully understand if they told me to go to Phoenix.

The Restraining Force of Law

Although they were not all Christians, America’s founding fathers accepted the Christian idea of “the depravity of man,” meaning that every human is born with a serious defect, a corruption of thinking and behavior. Because of that, we humans are prone to living a self-centered life, a life that is naturally all about me.

A primary evidence of that “me-ness” is our failure to recognize and respect boundaries. For example, infidelity is far more than a sensual search; it’s also a rejection of boundary lines. How many people, on a sexual quest, pause long enough to consider the terrain of the other person’s health, character, reputation, income, family, or future?

Laws exist because of human depravity; they restrain the rush of anarchy. Today, as so many voices despise and reject law enforcement, I often think of Thomas More’s words to William Roper in A Man For All Seasons: “This country’s planted thick with laws, from coast to coast…And if you cut them down… d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”[2]

We should all pray that the rampant and increasing lawlessness in our society does not become a hurricane of social chaos. And we should all do what we can to stop the removal of the boundary lines that protect people, property, ideas, and traditions.

What If?

Every religion on earth proclaims a version of The Golden Rule – usually rendered “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is the most perfect law ever conceived.

So, what if we all…

  • Do to others what we would like done to us?
  • Live slower, more thoughtfully, and more respectfully?
  • Ask ourselves in every situation, “How would I want to be treated right here, right now?”
  • Teach our children to, first, see and then to respect boundary lines?
  • Wait to be invited across a boundary rather than invading it?
  • Stop wearing steel spikes as we walk across territories of the heart?

 

And finally, what if we all extend kind hands and speak gentle answers?

[1] Proverbs 18:23 taken from the New American Standard Bible® (NASB), Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation Used by permission. www.Lockman.org

[2] Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons, (New York: Vintage Books, 1990). P 66

Who Cares?

Well into her 90s, Mary Chinn, my mother, continued to walk a mile a day, clean her kitchen floor on her hands and knees, and take care of all housework in the Kansas home she and Dad built a half century ago.

A few weeks ago Mom, now 94, fell in her home one evening and broke her hip. After hip surgery and a couple weeks in rehab, Mom returned to her life in her beloved home. But, it was not going to be that simple. An array of services and personnel seemed to move in with her. They were all fine people and they supplied essential services – meals, laundry, physical therapy, etc.

We were all grateful.

But that beautiful care rode in on cold steel efficiency. For example, a simple medical alert button, worn around the neck, came with requirements that would steal some humanity. My brother Carl happened to be at Mom’s when the nurse gave instructions about the button. He explained it all in an email to our brother Vernon and me,

“Paramedics will go straight to the refrigerator when they come into the home of an elderly patient with a button. They want to see medical care contacts posted right there, a calendar of her medical care, and any DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) letter. But in order for all that to happen, a lot of pictures of grandchildren, friends, missionaries, and funny clippings from 40 years ago must be taken away.”

That Ragged Old Flag

Mom was also told that she couldn’t walk into her own yard; the lawn did not provide sufficient stability; she could trip and fall. Of course, we understood.

But then Mom began to get uncharacteristically cranky. She pushed back against her caregivers. She seemed to need to reclaim her space.

And then Vernon noticed something. Her irritation seemed related to the US flag that has flown from its mount in the front yard for several decades. When Vernon told me that I realized that Mom had mentioned that flag in every conversation I’d had with her for several weeks.

Then we all began to get it.

No one will ever understand Mom apart from Dad. And no one will ever understand Dad apart from his service on the USS Princeton in World War 2. He was on board the Princeton when she was commissioned and he was still on board October 24, 1944 when she was bombed and slid under the water to her grave. Dad was one of the survivors. October 24 was almost as large as Thanksgiving in our house.

That flag meant something – no, that’s not right; it meant everything – to Dad. He knew and followed all the rules of displaying an American flag. And when he fell in his last battle, Mom picked up the flag. She had to carry it; in death, Dad’s mission became hers.

And then one day, strangers, 70 years her junior, walked into her home and told her to stop it.

What Are We Doing To Others?

Institutions can deliver services, but they cannot care. Whatever they design will inevitably dehumanize the very people they serve. Care must be delivered in a human way or it will feel imposed. In other words, a “what” cannot care; only a “who” cares.

Jesus spoke the most perfect law of all time: Do unto others as you would have them do to you.

The pure inability to even see that simple law may be why we end up with a health care system that makes a 94-year-old woman gaze at her own DO NOT RESUSCITATE order every time she goes to her refrigerator. And, of course, we understand that it’s an acceptable trade-off, that she must remove a half-century of photos and corny jokes in order to make room for those officious 8 and ½ by 11-inch papers.

We live in an age of professional caregivers. But those who care must first see and engage those in need. And that begins with the simple and very human wonder of making eye contact. Look at the person. See and anticipate his or her true needs. Stand there until you understand the nooks and nuances of another human’s life. Ask questions of them and those near them.

For example, shouldn’t caregivers give enough attention to know if an elderly person would prefer to fall in her own front yard, caring for the flag, than wasting away in a shivering fetal curl at the nursing home when she’s 106?

What if…we could all actually take time to understand other people’s needs, fears, priorities, and values? Do you think that might help us to do unto others what we would like others to do to us?

The Hidden Life of Trees

I think the Apostle Paul gave a good basis for science when he wrote: “By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being…” (Romans 1:20, The Message)

True science reveals hidden mysteries for those who have eyes to see.

And that brings me to an astounding new book, The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books, 2016). Although I’ve always seen trees as “living things,” I had no idea of the sophistication or vigor of their life. Now I will never be able to see a tree or a forest the same way again. This book is a revelation; you see a design for health and wellness at, both, a tree and a forest perspective.

That pattern is deeply relevant to humans and society.

Wohlleben has methodically observed (and clearly explains) the intricate nature of trees and forests. To my great surprise, I learned that trees feel pain (even emitting ultrasonic “screams”), have some capacity for sight, require daily and seasonal periods of rest, possess memory, communicate with other trees, defend themselves when attacked, care for their young, build friendships with other trees, pass wisdom down to the next generation, fight to survive, and extend respect to the other members of their community.

They also ride bicycles and surfboards. Just kidding.

Wohlleben is a very visual writer. You see the patterns of plant and animal life – such as elk, wolf, beaver, aspen, willow and cottonwood populations in Yellowstone National Park – expanding and contracting over decades, almost as though dancing together. His skillful writing helps us to see electrical impulses racing up and down tree trunks, fungi burrowing through the subterranean soil in support of trees, and flirtatious tree scents swelling on the wind.

The Web of Wellness

His visual and detailed perspective of trees and forests reveals a very complex web of wellness. That view of soil, water, fungi, birds, animals, disease, and other trees is just breathtaking. In fact, he gave me a new appreciation, even a sense of awe, of the interconnectedness of all life on earth. And, of course, that brings us to the relationship between trees and humans.

So often, when humans have imposed decisions on forests and other natural resources, they set off chains of disastrous repercussions. For example, he describes what happens to trees planted in cities. By sharing space with water lines, buried cable, and other subsurface objects and systems, and because the ground becomes so trafficked and hardened, city trees are just not as healthy as trees in the wild. They often die young.

Studies have also revealed the illness or death of trees because they were subjected to too much city light. “…at some point, lack of sleep exerted its revenge and the plants, which had seemed so full of life, died.” Yet, Wohlleben is practical and dispassionate about humans. He writes:

“…we use living things killed for our purposes. Does that make our behavior reprehensible? Not necessarily. After all, we are also part of Nature, and we are made in such a way that we can survive only with the help of organic substances from other species. We share this necessity with all other animals.”

Purifying Our Environment

Although unintentional, the book also suggests the Creator’s majestic administration of the planet. You see the cycles of life almost as tides, receding and then rising and rolling back in. Or you see them as starling murmurations… appearing, disappearing, pulsating, morphing. With all due respect for other views, I don’t know how anyone could read this book without seeing a Creator.

I often thought of Thomas Merton while reading The Hidden Life of Trees. In one of the best lines I read this year, he spoke of monks (could be anyone) as “trees that exist in obscure silence, but by their presence purify the air.”

Think of it; they purify the environment. Just by being there.

Could there be a message in this for us…is it possible that we – individuals and society – can be as healthy and as beneficial to our environment as trees are to theirs?

Do You Have an LSO?

Today’s aircraft carriers are small towns (Pop. 5000) that exist only for the purpose of moving their 4.5-acre airport and 80 jet fighters anywhere in the world. But there’s a huge problem. That airport is too small for what it must do. So fantastic (and frankly weird) machines must compensate.

First, a catapult rams a 50,000-pound jet from zero to 165-mph in 2 seconds in order to slingshot it into the air at sufficient speed for flight. Then, when the plane returns, another contrivance reverses the process; the plane’s tailhook snags an arresting cable that slams it to the deck. And this happens while the plane is flying 150 miles an hour and the runway is jumping up and down and rolling from side to side. No wonder the landing is called “a controlled crash.” It’s like a first baseman catching a line drive.

And that is why the flight deck of a modern aircraft carrier is considered the most dangerous working environment on earth. People can be, and have been, sucked through jet engines or sliced in half by the arresting cables.

While spending five days aboard the USS Nimitz in 2005, I saw why the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) is one of the most important jobs on the carrier. Every day, several times a day, he or she is responsible for the safety of a human life and a 40 million dollar piece of equipment. The pilot’s purpose, field of vision, and mental awareness are all so tightly focused that he or she cannot possibly perform the landing without the LSO.

Incredibly, the success of the aircraft carrier’s mission comes down to each pilot completely trusting another human being with his or her life. Survival means a total commitment to another person’s vision, perspective, instincts, wisdom, skill, and personal stability.

Who Cares?

In 1972 I ran into the blinding revelation that life is dangerous. Even though I was 25, married, and had a child, I was like a drunk monkey driving the Indy 500; someone was about to get killed. So I reached out to Glen Roachelle, the most stable and mature man I knew at that time (or today). I asked him, in essence, to be my LSO. But I used the word “pastor.”

I believe that God cares for His creation and that His loving care is built into the whole package of life. The biblical words “pastor” and “shepherd” reveal the expanse of God’s care. That’s why the “LSO” is a fine metaphor of His provision of care. But we don’t get it. We think that needing an LSO is demeaning. We also demand that a “pastor” be an institutional CEO, Director of Sales and Marketing, TED talker, comedian, and funeral and wedding planner.

Totally wrong.

A pastor is simply one who “keeps watch for another”…you know, like an LSO keeps watch. It’s so simple: I can’t see myself clearly. I need objectivity. A pastor can see me with greater clarity and perspective. And he brings wisdom, skill, and maturity to the pastoral role.

I could tell many stories that illustrate real pastoral care. Very few involve Bible studies, prayer, or church gatherings. Most feature cars, kids, health, houses, and financial needs. Glen’s pastoral eye has nearly always seen my need for rest, a raise, or a doctor before I did.

We all need someone who can see who we really are and the vast sweep of our circumstance – someone who can see everything and actually give a damn for both the grand purpose and the individual lives at stake.

Like an LSO. He or she is the point of connecting the grand macro mission of the aircraft carrier with the micro safety and welfare of the individual pilot. The LSO not only sees everything, like where the plane and the deck are, but also instinctively knows where the deck will be when the jet touches it. You think that may be important?

You and I live and work in an extremely dangerous time and place. The casualties are high and so very visible. We all know the tragic stories of business, political, and spiritual leaders who suffered great pain, loss, shame, and even death. And they are simply the most visible. We’re all exposed and vulnerable.

Think about it; your purpose is too panoramic and your life is too important to not give it your very best. Perhaps that means you need someone to watch for you.

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