Sunday, February 25, 2024

Focal Point


Keeping in focus
For over six decades I have used corrective lenses. Lenses in frames to be specific. During the childhood years, frames of steel would have been preferred. I had numerous configurations of tape, glue, and fasteners holding my lenses, bows, and frames together. Proper repairs were not only expensive, but time consuming. With the changes that accompany growth my vision changed, as well. Adulthood brought with it bifocal lenses. Those who have experienced bifocal lenses know how the neck muscles become stronger through the continual head movements in order to focus clearly. Now my head is adorned with progressive lenses held by light, sturdy, spring assisted frames. The need for gross head movements have lessened to the point of slight tilts or nods. Many times I can manage visual clarity with eye movement alone. Progress is a great thing!

Changes over the decades have affected more than my vision. The focal point of my attention has ranged from Air Force fighter pilot (no go because of vision correction), to physician, to teacher, to navigating retirement. At one time everything was in the distance. Now it is immediate and quickly behind me. What was envisioned for my career trajectory is now a gliding descent with a hoped for soft landing. The understanding of myself along with a clearly defined system of how the world should operate was once 20/20. The prescription has changed. The lenses through which I understand my beliefs and actions have produced a new focal point. While it is clear to me, others say I need to get my eyes examined (possibly my head, too)!

The insightful author of Ecclesiastes writes, "God has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, God has put eternity into human hearts, yet humans cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also everyone should eat, and drink and take pleasure in their toil - this is God's gift." (3.11-13, English Standard Version)

Flowers were nice decorations, but they were secondary to the vegetables in the garden. The flowers provided a bit of diversity, but in the long term they were of little value. As I began pastoral ministry, my focus was on well written and properly delivered sermons which had a liberal, if not excessive use of the 

Wrong focus?

name, Jesus. It could almost become an incantation to help people move beyond the trivial concerns of their lives. The other focus was numerical growth. Bring in new members, activate the inactive, swell the offering plates, and count the saved souls. Eternity was the destination. It was my mission to get people there, no matter what. The day to day stuff was sideline distractions for the greater calling of eternal salvation. My youthful focus was clear!

During the first month of clinical training to earn national certification as a chaplain my vision became blurred. I was requested to visit a couple who birthed their first child. Upon arrival on the nursing unit I was informed the child was stillborn. In conversation with the young couple, they expressed their desire to have their baby baptized. The standard theological and sacramental practice was not to baptize a deceased person. Standing alone in a small room with their stillborn daughter, I provided a baptism using the name the parents had given her. It was an unseen ritual. Seeing the profound relief on the parents' faces when I returned to their room provided a brief glimpse of clarity. I did nothing for their daughter, but what I unknowingly provided for them was significant. It had little to do with eternity, but weighed heavily with immediacy. Theological doctrine was being blurred as pastoral care came into focus. 

Focus on people
Eternity is no longer an interest. All I have each and every day is immediacy. I eat many vegetables, but I intentionally spend more time appreciating the details of flowers. Our cultural and political climate focuses on rigid, long held beliefs which divide and ferment anger while overlooking people on the borders, in the clinics, seeking housing, and desirous of an immediate sense of safety. This climate is fed as much by churches as it is by political parties, governmental legislation, and judicial decisions. Eternity is meaningless when immediate needs are neglected. Doctrines and laws are good talking points. They provide both distance and self satisfying safety. Currently my focal point is much closer and responsive to the specific needs of people. My vision is not 20/20. Friends have advised me to get examined and change my prescription. Sometimes my blurred vision is personally frustrating. But for myself there is nothing better than to eat, drink, and cherish personal interactions which are a gift for today.

Thank you for reading!  

Also, at the end of March, I will no longer post notices or links to the blog on Meta platforms. Bookmarking the blog is one way to see new posts which usually occur every two weeks. 

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Is Nothing Sacred?


In the late 1970s, this cartoon by Gaham Wilson was published in Playboy. I remember that it not only brought a chuckle, but it made me think about its paradox.I then went on to look at more illustrations and photographs in the magazine. No, I did not read the articles!

My online search for this cartoon was spurred by an episode of 1A from WAMU, a public radio station from American University in Washington D.C. The episode which aired on February 6th was entitled, "The Art of Doing Nothing." It focused on the negative image given to "doing nothing" in our current culture. We are a 24/7, always connected, seeking monetary benefit, and frightened of not knowing the latest trends society. The old adage, "don't just sit there, do something" has become so ingrained that many people never get away from email, scrolling, and feeling anxious and afraid about the world they inhabit. One of the show's guests was Jenny Odell. She is the author of, Saving Time: Discovering Life Beyond the Clock (2023), and How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019).

A personal struggle ebbs and flows; that being a decision to "fully retire." I have pondered the phrases used in describing this later portion of life. Am I "semi-retired?" Am I still "working?" If I don't get a W-2 does this indicate full retirement? Because clergy are deemed self-employed by the IRS, can I retire from myself? At the foundation of these intellectual questions is the aforementioned stigma of doing nothing. If I am not receiving compensation, if I am not producing something tangible for the benefit of others, if I am not leaving the confines of my dwelling, do I have value? Many people come up with simple answers to these questions. I struggle to find and accept an answer that satisfies this inner yearning.

Mixture of elements
"It's better to do nothing than to waste your time." was a poignant sentence from the WAMU broadcast. In the exploration of this statement, doing nothing could range from lying on the ground looking at the sky to structured meditation. Scrolling through social media feeds was not seen as doing nothing.  Scrolling may seem mindless and relaxing. As I conclude a scrolling session, I do not feel enlightened, relaxed, or satisfied. I feel used and dirty. I have wasted my time. A ten minute shower, 5 minutes of exploring what pops into my mind, or a walk around the apartment building would provide greater benefit. Social media is capturing our attention, monetizing our data, and softly infecting our outlook in order to promote the idea that we can never be enough. In a capitalist economy, sales cannot be sustained by reinforcing personal wholeness. Doing nothing, being satisfied, meaningfully connecting with other people and communities, all of which is falsely 
Is this nothing?
being promoted by the purveyors of social media, does nothing to sustain a consumer driven economy. Currently the answer to Gaham Wilson's cartoon question is, "Nothing isn't sacred. Nothing is evil and nothing needs to be destroyed."

The sacredness of nothing is a pilgrimage I desire to begin. How it unfolds in the weeks and months to come is uncertain. Setting aside decades of busyness which overall has been beneficial will take dedicated effort.  I will label this pilgrimage as "Intentional Nothingness." My desire is to embrace the everyday, natural surroundings. I want to interact with the beauty which surrounds me, as well as the beauty which is within me. It has beauty not because it is experienced as pleasing, but simply because it is. Experiencing pain and discomfort and sitting in it can enlighten my perspective. Instead of labeling and judging, I would rather observe and incorporate. Is nothing sacred? I intend to plunge into its manifold dimensions.

Please bookmark this address if you want to continue reading future posts. New posts drop every two weeks. At the end of March, I will no longer be using Meta (Facebook and Instagram) to post links to this blog. Thank you for reading!