The Pager

Dear Friends:

This is the eighth message in a series on the artifacts that symbolize the spiritual importance of events, gifts and people in our lives.

ar-ti-fact n. An object produced or shaped by human workmanship; especially, a simple tool, weapon or ornament of archeological or historical interest.
We come to the place where it is not enough to be saved–we want to share the salvation life. We take on responsibilities inherent in the saved life and find ourselves assigned to positions in our neighborhoods, in our communities, where the ways of God and men and women intersect. People show up at these crossroads lost, discouraged, fatigued, and confused. The task of Christians assigned duty at these intersections is to give direction to people on the way, encourage and exhort them, provide information about the weather and the road conditions and serve up refreshments. It is an incredibly busy place, traffic hurtling this way and that, and there are a lot of accidents, a lot of injuries, and therefore much caring to be done (Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997], p.154).

The one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life. So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith (Gal. 6:8-10, The Message).

My pager is a 3″ X 2″ X 3/4″ black plastic cube of trouble. The pager opens up like a clamshell to reveal a screen and a keyboard suitable for a gerbil on which text messages can be sent to and received from colleagues who have identical devices.

The pager is standard issue to the physicians, administrators and employees of the Loma Linda University Medical Center where I serve as General Counsel. Before I began to represent the Medical Center, my life, as is true of most attorneys, was pager-free. I long for those days.

The Medical Center long ago succumbed to the tyranny of the urgent. Sick patients and trauma victims need fast treatment so it makes sense to be able to call in the surgical team members on short notice. There is a certain excitement and drama in that call. Everyone is so busy anyway that the pagers shortcut the need for telephone calls and face to face conversations about operational matters. Like email and instant messaging, the text pagers have accelerated communication, but have sacrificed thoughtful deliberation and privacy.

To be fair, the care-givers and employees of the Medical Center are dealing with life and death issues that cannot wait for a leisurely intervention. Human nature is such, however, that the temptation of the power of immediate communication leads to a broader rationalization that every aspect of the business is a matter of life and death.

In the culture of text pages and electronic mail, information, demands, invitations, solicitations, commands, criticisms, requests, instructions, jokes, and sermons flow crazily like storm clouds in time-lapse videography. A steady stream of messages arrives as electronic adrenaline bringing word of problems and crisis.

Pager users who want to appear important often set the shrill alarm or beeper functions so that they can break off conversations in mid-sentence with the excuse of supervening, urgent communications. The more circumspect and tactful users place their pager on “silent vibrate” mode. Sometimes you can close your eyes in department head meetings and hear what sounds like an approaching swarm of baritone bees.

Two years ago, I took several weeks off and left my pager with our office administrator. Even though, I was in the distant wilds of British Columbia, my waist band twitched for five days with sympathy vibrations left behind by the absent pager.

There are philosophical ramifications to the possession of a pager. If you work at the Medical Center and no one pages you, do you really exist? Is the number of pages you receive in a day determinative of your value to the enterprise? I met with a physician colleague this week who was trying to get a new pager with a larger memory to hold messages. If one’s pager has a long memory, should one be concerned about the state of his or her soul? I think so.

On the original pagers only phone numbers appeared accompanied by a beeping notice. The newer text pagers opened up new possibilities for management communication. It is even possible to control the outcome of a difficult matter in a committee without openly expressing your personal opinion by paging sympathetic colleagues around the conference table with messages soliciting their support. This subverts open communication and enables the passive-aggressive participants to avoid being “outed” on their true thoughts and feelings. The text pager can change the dynamics of meetings and reduce the transparency of motivations and rationale.

My colleagues are stressed. The pages are often a cry for help in some kind of dilemma with legal ramifications. That’s no surprise, because the healthcare business is kind of  “Alice-in-Wonderland” existence where the cost of a medical procedure and the actual price billed for it bear only an arbitrary relevance to each other and the Byzantine regulatory scheme carries an eerie resemblance to government efforts to infiltrate and contain organized crime.

If you operate a hospital or a clinic in the United States, you are routinely presumed to be doing something illegal, unethical, unfair or incompetent by government authorities and an avaricious plaintiff’s bar. The pharasaical and illusory premise of the prevailing public policy driving American healthcare is that good health (a complex result of physical, genetic, environmental, psycho-social and spiritual conditions) can be legislated, regulated, litigated and audited to perfection.

Government and health insurance reimbursement plans and rules mandating open access to hospital care enable a utilization that is prioritized more in theory than practice. Demand exceeds resources. In our area there is inadequate funding and critical shortages in the healthcare workforce even while patient load increases exponentially.

The healing process itself is rarely miraculous. It mostly consists of skillful surgical repairs or commencement of drug therapies followed by a long, arduous exercise in perseverance. Many details must be monitored and attended to and the stakes are high. Care is always grueling to the care-givers if it is done well.

The pager is a necessity of communication within this complex milieu. For me and three of my attorney colleagues this means we rotate week-long, 24-hour on-call service, returning pages to answer the legal questions of physicians, nurses, social workers and administrators.

Within this milieu I use the pager for spiritual encouragement and prayer for my colleagues. Every Friday morning, I page about forty colleagues with a Scripture text to bless them in the conclusion of their difficult weeks. These are all people who I work with. I share their struggles and goals as their legal counsel and advocate. I have a relationship with each one of them.  We work through tough issues together. Sometimes we disagree, but for the most part we have learned to trust the desire for the right thing to be done in each of us and for each other.

Years of experience working with church institutions have taught me to take nothing spiritual for granted. Jesus doesn’t live in bricks and mortar, articles and bylaws, budgets and policies, any more than he dwells on a license plate frame or a bumper sticker. He comes alive in the hearts and minds of his children… that is… if he is received there. There are constant institutional demands for rationale, order, conformity and justification for action and existence.

Unfortunately, the kind of ambition that feeds off comparison and appearance is what is often rewarded even in “faith-based” institutional cultures.  The temptation is ever-present to let fear rather than love be the prevailing institutional motivation. This fear must be resisted and attacked with acts of loving kindness at every opportunity lest the hoarding of power and resources usurp the generosity of grace in hearts and in treasuries.

In this spirit, I prayed some years ago about the terror so often conveyed to me by the pager and I was inspired to make its communication the ground of battle for mercy to triumph over judgment (Js. 2:13).

The pagers were issued at considerable expense to enable calls for help, or, at least to share the misery of trouble. To use that same instrument to pass along the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, the Mighty Counselor, the One on whose shoulders the governance of all things rests (Is. 9:9:6) seems to be the most relevant and subversive thing that I can do with the device to make a difference of love on a Friday morning when exhaustion has set in and the collective strength has ebbed to its lowest tide.

On that particular Friday morning I had sent out this word from the Psalms:

Pushed to the wall, I called to God; from the wide open spaces, he answered me. God’s now at my side and I’m not afraid; who would dare lay a hand on me…I was right on the cliff’s edge, ready to fall, when God grabbed and held me. God’s my strength, He’s also my song, and now He’s my salvation (Ps. 118: 5-6, 13-14, The Message).

I rarely receive replies. Although I have never been told this, I imagine that there are recipients of my Scripture pages that yank the buzzing thing off their belt and think, “Kent’s slinging Bible verses again. Doesn’t he know I’ve got too much on my mind for this.”

In a matter of minutes that morning, I received this reply page, “Thank you. This means more to me than you will ever know.”

The person responding was a bright, attractive professional who I knew was doing her job well. I also knew that she’d been suffering a grinding, heart-breaking, personal problem of long standing, but I knew nothing of recent developments. The Holy Spirit stirred in my mind when I read her reply.

I paged back a prayer, “Abba: I lift up my friend to your arms and ask you to carry her through the rough place she is facing. Cover her with your protection and fill her with your love and blessing. In the name of Jesus, Yes!”

Then another reply buzzed at my belt. I took the pager from its holster and flipped open the screen. The same person wrote, “Early this morning I pled with the Lord for some sign, some word, that he was still with me. Your page brought the answer. I am thankful.”

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote, “Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:12-13, emphasis added).  The Greek words that are translated “evil, unbelieving heart” mean thoughts and feelings that are influenced and directed by sources outside of God and acted out on human strength alone without faith or belief that God can and will make a difference in what concerns us. To be honest, don’t we all find ourselves with that kind of heart sometime in our work week?

Jesus warned that the distractions of the world’s agenda and the attractions of wealth would stunt our growth in God (Mt. 13:22). Hebrews carries the same thought in the expression of concern that the deceitfulness of sin will harden the heart and reign in the absence of the encouragement of love. Our obedience in listening to the truth expressed in the encouragement of love from our brothers and sisters and acting on that truth ourselves is what keeps us faithful and aligned with God.  In fact the author of Hebrews took care to further explain how our assured access to God through Jesus enables us to encourage and strengthen each other in love even as the day of God’s judgment nears.

And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. . . Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near (Heb. 10:19-25, NLT).

It is too easy to forget in the welter of job descriptions, evaluations, strategic planning, budget requirements, and delivering the performance expected of us who we really work for and that every worker, patient, client, student, guest, dollar, piece of equipment and facility belongs to Jesus Christ who made us (John 1:1-4, Eph. 1:3-4, 2:10, Heb. 1:1-3), saved us (Jn. 3:16, Eph. 2:4-10) and is coming back for us (Jn. 14:1-3, Ac. 1:11,  1 Thess. 4:13-18, Rev. 22:14, 20).  “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit, soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The One who calls you is faithful and he will do this” (1 Thess. 5:23).

The assurance of Abba’s love and Christ’s faithfulness to us bless us every day of our lives because, in spite of our anxieties and ambitions and judgments, we are loved. Jesus has made a gracious way for us into a future without limit.  We don’t have to preserve ourselves by scrambling over and exploiting other people to survive which is exactly what we’d do in desperation and competition if all there is ever going to be is what we can grab and possess right now.

We are free to love and accept love without reservation. I don’t know about you, but when I forget this, which is often, I live badly. But blessedly, Christ’s light keeps shining even when I turn my back on him, and when I turn again, frequently with the kind aid of a companion on the journey, I see my way to move on again.

The Apostle John wrote a truth that always brings me back to the center of my relationships when I read it. “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is completed in us” (1 Jn. 4:12). All the possibilities of the present and eternity are encapsulated in those words and belong to you and me if we accept Jesus Christ as both our means and our goal of living. The novelist Romain Gary wrote, “Life is a prayer that love alone can fulfill.”

My paged texts of Scripture are a small thing really, probably not worth all the words that I’ve given them here. Using the pager that is meant to summon by demand to instead convey love and hope is one way to tell my friends who are locked with me in the struggles of the day that, “You really do belong in the Kingdom of God and the invitation of Christ wasn’t mis-addressed to you.” This email to you is another way to say it. Read this message and know that you are loved by your God and that’s no mistake.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 34:8)

Under the mercy of Christ,

Kent

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