A return to the story

Walking through the grocery store, I heard a ping, then another, then another. I looked toward the sound and saw a woman grabbing her phone, looking at the screen, then smiling. She put the phone down and continued pushing her cart down the aisle. I saw her several more times as I made my way through the store. Each time, it was because I heard the ping first. Her phone was calling her attention, and it caught mine, too.

As I pulled into campus where we live, I drove past a half a dozen teenagers who had just finished rowing practice on the river that flows behind our house. Waiting for their rides, they sat in a silent clump, all hunched over their phones.

I get lost in my phone, too. In fact, as I sat next to my mom yesterday, watching a football game, I was scrolling mindlessly — looking at social media, checking email, Googling to fact-check.

We’re on our phones all the time. We’re always taking in information– seeing what’s going on in the world– trying not to miss anything. We read, we post, we comment. Much of our daily life revolves around our phones.

My attention has been drawn to our phones over the last few days as I’ve simultaneously been hearing a narrative in the settings I’ve found myself in. From a collection of very diverse voices I am hearing the same words in a resounding cacophony: The world we live in today..so much violence.. hurricanes… fires…total destruction… racism… sexism… broken systems ..crime… poverty… corruption…. what can we do? It’s terrible…

Terrible…

Terrible…

And you know, I think the fact that we are continuously scrolling through our cell phones (or sitting in front of our televisions), is related to this narrative –this growing societal anxiety. If we are frantic — about the weather, the environment, crime, money, scandal — then we continue to scroll. When we scroll, our anxiety increases. What can be done? It’s terrible!

The cycle is self-perpetuating.

And we’re becoming a culture of reeling, hand-wringing, panicking worriers, chanting with the masses, “It’s no use! We’re doomed! This is surely the end of the world!”

And, to be fair, these issues are real. and significant. and scary.

I’ve found myself reeling and worrying, too.

Friday morning, as I was writing out three pages of mind-dump, I cried out, “Lord, help! Lord, lead! Lord, please!”

Not long after, I was listening to a sermon I missed recently, which centered on the text in Exodus 1-2 where Pharaoh was ordering that the Israelite slaves be beaten and that their babies be murdered, a time when certainly the people were reeling, wringing their hands, and panicking. As I pictured the slaughter of innocents, I heard our pastor read these words:

We read scripture in order to be refreshed in our memory and understanding of the story within which we ourselves are actors, to be reminded where it has come from and where it is going to, and hence what our own part within it ought to be.”

NT Wright

I got kinda choked up, and I leaned in.

As I listened to the rest of the sermon, I remembered how God had shown up for the Israelites, how He had miraculously delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians, how he had saved even little baby Moses as he bobbed down the stream in a basket made of reeds. I felt a peace wash over me as I remembered that the God who rescued Moses and the Israelites is the same God who hears me as I “cry out” on the pages of my notebook.

The same God who heard David and Hannah and Mary and Peter.

I am part of a bigger story — a story that was written before the beginning of time, a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

An end! Guys, we already know the end!

Last weekend, my granddaughter wanted me to watch a “scary movie”. When I told her that I don’t like scary movies, she said, “It’s ok, Oma, I will sit next to you and cover your eyes if you get really scared.” So, figuring that I’d probably be ok if a four year old was coaching me into bravery, I agreed. Throughout the movie, whenever a scary part came up, she put her little hand on my glasses so that I wouldn’t get too frightened. Toward the end of the movie, the scariest part of all, she narrated for me ahead of time exactly what was going to happen so that I would know in advance that everything was going to be ok in the end.

And guys, we already know that even if it gets pretty darn scary, it is all going to be ok in the end.

“See, Oma, I told you!”

Sometimes we need to return to the story, remind ourselves how it all turns out, where the story has come from, where it is going, and what our part within it ought to be.

So I listened to that sermon. Twice. (Click here if you’d like to hear it.)

Then, I turned on Pandora and heard these lyrics:

The weapon may be formed, but it won’t prosper.
When the darkness falls, it won’t prevail.
Cause the God I serve knows only how to triumph;
My God will never fail.”

“See a Victory” Elevation Worship

Hundreds of times during the day, I check my phone — for texts, for calls, for updated news, for weather reports. Just once every morning, I return to scripture as I drive into work. And I wonder why I feel a bit unsettled and somewhat frantic. My dosage is off. I’m taking in too much frenzy and not enough fact. And when I do that, I can forget.

I can forget that:

I was lost, ’til You called me out by name
And I was down, ’til You picked me up again
And I was wrong, ’til Your love it made me right
I was dead, ’til You sang me back to life.”

“Garments” Cory Asbury

When I return to the story — not only the story of scripture, but the story of God’s faithfulness in my own life — when I see where it has come from and where it is going, I start to wonder what my role within this grand story might be. I wonder if my role is to join the masses in frantic scrolling, hand-wringing, and worrying, or if it is to continue to return to the story, to remember that I already know the ending, and to live a life a hopefulness — a life that knows that times get dark and scary, but it’s going to be ok in the end.

Because guys, we live within a story that has been crafted by the Author and Creator of life. He has designed for each of us a life of hope and significance. Each of us matters before Him, and we have the great privilege to live into that truth and to share that truth with all of our fellow scrolling, hand-wringing sojourners.

We are not a people without hope.

We are a people who know the story of how God has been kind and merciful to His people over and over again — in the direst of circumstances: famine, flood, subjugation, tyranny. We have seen Him provide for us, connect to us, and lead us.

We know how the story ends.

Death is all around us
We are not afraid
Written is the story
Empty is the grave.”

“This Dust” Kip Fox

Let’s keep returning to the story; we’re gonna be ok.

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The Sum of the Lesson

In education, when teachers have identified a learning objective, they design instruction in such a way that the student encounters the content in multiple settings using multiple modalities so that the student’s likelihood of achieving mastery is increased. For example, when a child is learning the alphabet, he might see the letters, say the letters, and sing the letters.  He might write the letters with his finger on his desk or in the air before practicing with a pencil on paper.  In life, I have found that the lessons I most need to learn are presented to me across various contexts through various means until I finally throw my hands up and declare, “Ok, Ok, I see what’s happening here!”  At that point, I typically sit down and write about these observations so that 1) I can fully process them,  and 2) I can create a public record of my learning in an attempt to hold myself accountable.

Today’s Lesson: Time, Tension, and Technology

Sometime last fall, I discovered that I often felt anxious around bedtime.  I would lie down and begin to have restless thoughts about stuff that hadn’t crossed my mind during the day or even during the past several months or years.  I’d begin to wonder if I had been a good enough mother — if I had made enough home-cooked meals, had enough candid conversations, or provided my kids with the lessons and assurances that breed confidence and independence.  Then I’d move on to wondering whether I’d been a good enough wife, friend, sister, daughter, teacher, etc.  I would fuss and stew over conversations and decisions that had taken place years ago, coming to no peace, of course, but rather escalating my anxiety further.  I wouldn’t say I ever had a full-fledged anxiety attack, but these anxious thoughts were keeping me awake at night.

About this same time, I started seeing studies and reports about the increase in anxiety among teens, children, and young adults and some researchers’ theories that such anxiety was tied to the amount of time that kids spend on social media now that practically everyone always has a Smartphone in his or her hand. I got to thinking — I have a Smartphone in my hand most of the time, too.  In fact, I often play Words With Friends, scroll through Facebook, read my Twitter feed, and check emails right up until bedtime.  What if I took a break from that habit to see what impact it has on my bedtime anxiety?

To answer that question,  I began to conduct some rather informal research of my own — a private and inconsistent case study.  It didn’t take long for me to come to the conclusion that I feel less anxious when I don’t use my phone right up until bedtime.  I know, I know, this is a mind-blowing discovery.

In the midst of my ‘study’, I kept finding myself encountering content reinforcing my conclusion.  I heard a podcast that, among other topics, talked about the need for boundaries in the use of technology.  I had a conversation with my therapist about technology addiction. A friend shared a YouTube video about the impact of devices on our sense of peace. I read articles.  I examined my life. I was convicted.

However, although I realized the benefit of using my phone less, I routinely fell back into old habits. And I’ve continued to have anxious thoughts.

One thread of anxiety I have been experiencing is related to growing older. At 51 I am hardly old, but I’ve begun to have thoughts (late at night when most unsettling thoughts plague me) that I’ve already lived more than half of my life, that my body will never again be as fit and agile as it once was, that other people must look at me, seeing my gray hair and aging body, and think thoughts about me that I probably thought about people older than me when I was much younger.  I’ve begun to think about what I want to do with “the rest of my career” and to discuss retirement options with my husband.  For some reason the thought that time is running out and the realization that life actually comes to an end sometimes pop up even when it is not my bedtime.

Ironically enough, one thing I do sometimes to ‘quiet’ the anxious thoughts is to get out my phone, play a game, check social media sites, and respond to emails.  It’s a Catch-22.

For Christmas, one of my children got me a book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman.  The other night before bed, I lay down and opened to the first tale. Reading stories has always been  a calming way for me to end the day.  Much of what I read at bedtime is what I call “candy bar fiction” —  stuff I can consume and forget about.  The goal of such reading is not to get deep; it’s to fall asleep.  To that end, I opened the book and began to read the two-page tale “Sum”.  The tale suggests that when we die we relive all of our life experiences but that they are re-arranged so that similar events are clumped together.  “You spend two months driving the street in front of your house,” it says, and “six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line.”  As I read, I started thinking, If this really happened, how much time would I spend scrolling through Facebook, playing Words With Friends, having a cup of tea with my husband, reading good books, appreciating the sunshine?  

It wasn’t a particularly good story to read for falling asleep, but it was an excellent concluding activity to nail home this learning objective, which is not that all technology is evil or that I (we) should shun all forms of social media but rather that if my (our) days and minutes are numbered, I want to consider my choices wisely.  I am still going to check social media and play Words With Friends, but I am also going to be intentional about turning off my phone at day’s end, I’m going to engage with the people in the room, I’m going to have a cup of tea with my husband, I’m going to read good books, and I’m going to appreciate the sunshine.

 

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12 NIV*

 

*I finished writing this blog and went to find the address for this very verse on Biblegateway.  To my surprise, it is the verse of the day.  Perhaps this lesson, too, will be ongoing.