Use of Artificial Intelligence is on the rise. Sadly, however, making real connections with other human beings is on the decline.
It appears that Alexa and her entourage are now replacing the support groups once fueled by our family, our friends, and our church fellowship.
Dr. Ralph Hillman, my college speech professor, taught me that eye contact and body language both play important roles in the effectiveness of our communication. How can Alexa see the pain in our eyes or the attitude of self-preservation as we fold our arms across our chests?
While advanced technology has enabled us to start our cars from inside our houses and control our home thermostats from our office chairs, this same technology has disabled our ability to connect with others.
We turn to Alexa for knowledge, but can she give us wisdom?
Our knowledge of technology is almost endless, but our society is lonelier than ever.
As a result of our dependence on technology, we are moving away from community. By isolating ourselves from the burden of bonding with other humans, we are losing the blessings that human bonding can provide.
According to “An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America” (Outreach Magazine, 10 April 2018), less than 20% of Americans regularly attend church.
We are becoming like Silas Marner, the Weaver of Raveloe, in George Eliot’s novel. After losing faith in his fellow man and his God, Silas withdraws from society and embraces a life of solitude. His life is reduced to that of an insect: rote, robotic, and connected to nothing more than the web he weaves.
“His life had reduced itself to the functions of weaving and hoarding, without any contemplation of an end toward which the functions tended. The same sort of process had perhaps been undergone by wiser men, when they have been cut off from faith and love.”
Eventually, Silas Marner’s neighbor Dolly Winthrop gently encourages him to come to church and connect with his community.
“If you was to go to church, and see the holly and the yew, and hear the anthem, and then take the sacramen’, you’d be a deal the better, and you’d know which end you stood on, and you could put your trust i’ Them as knows better nor we do, seein’ you’d ha’ done what it lies on us all to do.”
As Dolly tells Silas to receive the sacrament, she serves him lard cakes stamped with the letters I.H.S. Through this act Dolly provides a symbolic form of communion for Silas and feeds his body as well as his soul.
Even though Dolly lacks the knowledge to read the letters on her cakes, she understands the wisdom they represent.
“The letters pricked on ‘em, I can’t read ‘em myself, and there’s nobody, not Mr. Macey himself, rightly knows what they mean; but they’ve a good meaning, for they’re the same as is on the pulpit cloth at church. . . .Whativer the letters are, they’ve a good meaning; . . . for if there’s any good, we’ve need of it i’ this world.”
Ah, yes, we’ve need of good in this world, now more than ever in my lifetime.
“But didn’t you hear the church bells this morning, Master Marner? I doubt you didn’t know it was Sunday. Living so lone here, you lose your count, I daresay.”
Are the majority of Americans so wrapped up in their technology that they’ve forgotten to hear the church bells?
I have many Facebook friends whom I have never met face to face. Yes, we share some common interests, but their emotional support is not the same as the empathy I receive from my relatives, close friends, and church community.
This past week my church community suffered the deaths of four people, and a family lost part of their home in a fire. With a strong and loving community connection, though, the people affected by these losses will better be able to weather their storms.
How can any of us bear the burdens of life without some sort of support group? A loving church family can supply this need.
The letters I.H.S., an ancient symbol of Christianity, represent Iesus Hominum Salvator, Jesus Savior of Men.
I challenge you to get to know Jesus. Go to church. Worship God. Connect with a Sunday School class. Become an active member of a church community.
Put down your phone. Have dinner with your family face to face. Take off your mask. Share your concerns. Care about each other. Show kindness. Seek wisdom.
“Perfume and incense make the heart glad, but the sweetness of a friend is a fragrant forest.”—Proverbs 27:9
“Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.” –Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Hebrews 10:24-25; Matthew 18:20
Nobody plays by the rules anymore.
Why can’t we get it right?
This week I heard a Harvard graduate say, “It’s important to my father and I.”
I cringed recently when I heard Jane Pauley ask, “Are animals smarter than us?” After much cogitation, however, I’m beginning to believe they might be.
On February 23, 2014, CBS Sunday Morning, a show now hosted by Jane Pauley, ran an op-ed piece by Bill Flanagan. He agreed that people have lost sight of the rules.
According to Mr. Flanagan, “People who say ‘I’ when they should say ‘me’ sound like they are trying to be sophisticated, and they’re getting it wrong.”
Yes, THEY’RE GETTING IT WRONG!
We are getting so many things wrong!!
Grammar errors and media mistakes are simply a reflection of our society’s current state of disinterest in the truth. Alas, this state of apathy is nothing new.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who lived from 1809-1892, blamed many of society’s ailments on technology. Because he believed that scientific progress contributed to the degradation of society, Tennyson created a moral hero in King Arthur, a leader worthy of emulation.
British poet Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) was so frustrated with the culture of his day that he called for the healing of a “sick society.”
According to Arnold, “The pursuit of perfection is the pursuit of sweetness and light. He who works for sweetness and light works to make reason and the will of God prevail. He who works for machinery, he who works for hatred, works only for confusion. Culture looks beyond machinery, culture hates hatred; culture has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light.”
Tim Allen suggested in his come-back “Last Man Standing” show that we should turn off the machinery. He reminded us that the world has repeatedly gotten things wrong. When his co-worker suggested that “maybe there’s something in America’s DNA that causes conflict,” discussion turned to the Vietnam War era, the McCarthy hearings, and the Civil Rights movement.
Yes, we have continually gotten things wrong!
A culture that looks beyond technology and relies on wisdom might actually find the Light!
In Exodus, Chapter 31, Moses received “the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God” (verse 18). However, not long afterwards, Moses witnessed the sinning of his people as they “got up to indulge in revelry” (32:6). Moses was so enraged by the actions of his “sick society” that he “threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain” (32:19).
When Moses discussed the actions of his people with his brother, Aaron said, “You know how prone these people are to evil” (32:22).
Then Moses reported to God, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold” (32: 31).
People who are prone to evil, people who worship gold: Does any of this sound familiar?
Later in Chapter 34, God gave Moses a second set of tablets, just like the first ones. God then proclaimed that He is a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin” (verses 6 and 7).
Imagine God’s disappointment in the Israelites then; imagine His disappointment in us today.
Whether we are using improper grammar (perhaps a trivial analogy) or committing the greatest of sins, we are getting it wrong. We need to follow the rules, respect the law, and live in a way pleasing to God.
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)
In her new book Rush, released by St. Martin’s Press in August 2018, author Lisa Patton addresses the need for change. An array of courageous characters reveals the author’s empathy for the plights of young and old, black and white, rich and poor.
While the plot does revolve around sorority traditions on the campus of Ole Miss, readers without knowledge of Greek society life will find the story compelling.
Fans of Leelee and Kissie in Patton’s Dixie series will quickly become champions for the causes of new characters Miss Pearl, Wilda, and Cali. The reader will also love to hate Lilith, a pretentious pharisee whose “rapacious thirst for wealth and power” spurs others to find the courage to change more than one unjust Southern tradition.
Like a rich Southern dessert, Rush contains sprinkles of Harper Lee, Tennessee Williams, Clyde Edgerton, Jan Karon, and Fannie Flagg; but Lisa Patton’s personal wit, sincerity, and compassion rise to the top of this need-to-be-told story. This author has crafted yet another hit as delightful as a ripe Southern peach.
Another school year has begun, and I’m not there. The funny thing is, it’s okay.
Yes, I miss the students and my subject matter, but it’s okay.
I need to find time for life. I don’t think I had time for it before I left the classroom because teaching is (was) (has been) my life.
I am finally finding the time to cull the clutter from my library, and I am being forced to reflect upon the purpose of my life, the person I have been, the person I am to be.
I wrote the following poem mid-way through my teaching career when I saw the paradox of my purpose:
I Am a Candle Who Lights the Way
I am from Homer to Hawthorne And from Tennyson to Tennessee Williams. I delight in sharing pearls of wisdom From the pages of the immortal bard.
My voice is more active than passive. My conjugations are always intense. My moods are not indicative of my emotions. I can be imperative if I need be.
I can be three persons, And I am very possessive Where my apostrophes are concerned. In most cases, however, I can be objective.
I strive to open minds and hearts And point in the right direction. I encourage the reluctant And try to contain the overzealous.
I am from hallowed halls that echo The voices of pedagogues long ago revered. Their influence still lingers inside me And urges me to keep afloat.
I am from confusion to epiphany. I am an English teacher, Consuming myself While lighting the way for others.
As I reflect upon the past thirty-plus years of teaching, I have been blessed with a treasure trove of letters and thank you notes from former students. Not only can I not bring myself to throw these letters away, but I also can’t stop myself from re-reading them. They make me reflect, they make me cry, they make me laugh. Most of all, they make me smile.
My students’ letters remind me of how impactful a teacher can be; they make me realize I have served a specific purpose as a teacher for many years, but they also remind me of the opportunity to continue to make a difference.
I am also having a hard time throwing away books in my library. I don’t think I will ever re-read any of them, but you never know. So why do I keep them?
Like Don Quixote, I may find some new adventures within their pages. Unlike Don Quixote, however, I hope my niece doesn’t throw my volumes into the yard if I lose my faculties. What will happen to them after I’m gone, I don’t know. Maybe someone will write a book about how crazy I was about books.
In the meantime, I’m trying to find my way. I’m trying to serve another purpose.
In the 2011 movie The Letter Writer, written and directed by Christian Vuissa, an elderly gentleman makes a difference in the lives of others by writing anonymous letters of encouragement.
He says, “Within every human being there is a God-given ability that if you find it and nurture it, you’ll be able to bless the lives of others.”
That’s what I’d like to do: bless the lives of others. Through subbing, administering the ACT, volunteering at Good Sam, teaching piano, teaching Sunday School, playing with and reading to my great nieces and nephew, writing, and finding time for new adventures, I want to nurture my God-given abilities and be a blessing to someone each day.
In the words of Cervantes, “Where one door shuts, another door opens. . . .To dream the impossible dream, that is my quest.”
To find my purpose, that is my goal.
I believe I still have opportunities: Psalm 92, verse 14 says that the righteous “will still bear fruit in old age.” (Note: I don’t consider myself old.)
The words of Mercy Me’s song “Word of God Speak” also give me hope. They remind me to let go, and let God.
“I’m finding myself at a loss for words, and the funny thing is, it’s okay. The last thing I need is to be heard, but to hear what You would say. . . . I’m finding myself in the midst of You, beyond the music, [beyond the classroom], beyond the noise. All that I need is to be with You, and in the quiet hear Your voice.”
If you are finding yourself at a crossroad or in the midst of change, take a moment to hear God’s voice. Allow Him to guide your path and bless others in whatever you do.
If you are a teacher, I hope you find the time to allow God’s guidance in your life as you guide your students. Have a blessed school year, and I will be thinking of you all.
Psalm 51:10; Titus 2:7-8
“Broken is beautiful,” a friend reassured our small group Bible study.
She then explained the Japanese art of Kintsugi, which uses gold to repair broken pottery. By dusting the cracked pieces with powdered gold, this art form draws attention to its brokenness. The highlighted cracks and flaws become the focal points of the pottery.
“Thus, the brokenness creates the beauty,” she concluded.
Like the crack in the Liberty Bell, the lean in the Tower of Pisa, the horns on Michelangelo’s “Moses,” our flaws give us character.
Psalm 34:18 states, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” This reassurance continues in Psalm 147:3: “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”
The psalmist reminds us of God’s protection even when we are flawed or troubled or crushed in spirit. His healing hands can pick us up, dust us off, and put us back together again—even better than we were before. We just need to trust in His saving power.
God can use our experiences with brokenness to strengthen our resolve, save our spirits, give us empathy for others, and draw us closer to Him.
In his book The Bard and the Bible, Bob Hostetler writes a devotion entitled “God Uses Poor Tools,” where he references the character of Helena in Shakespeare’s play All’s Well That Ends Well. This character proposes that we can find strength in our weakness. In Bob’s words, “[God] seems to prefer cracked pots and broken tools to do His work, which is good news for anyone who hasn’t yet attained perfection.”
This is universal good news, for everyone is a shade shy of perfection.
As the Master Designer, God maintains complete control of His artwork. He is always ready to fill our cracks, remold us, remake us, and improve our value. Even as wounded vessels, He can deliver us from evil, protect our bodies, and beautify our souls.
Broken artwork repaired by the Kintsugi method results in vessels even more beautiful than a piece of flawless ceramic. Likewise, a broken person repaired by the gift of God’s goodness and grace results in a beautiful and unbreakable Masterpiece.
Allow God to bind up your wounds, repair your cracks, and use your weakness to make you strong.
Embrace your brokenness so that others can see God’s beauty within you.
2 Corinthians 12:10; Psalm 34: 18-20
(The following blog is actually a story written by me and my three great nieces and nephew. Our family had rented a VRBO for the holidays, and the house where we stayed contained many of the elements found in this story. The idea was also inspired by an article I shared with my high school students in the 1980s. In his satirical piece “Learn with BOOK” (Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge), R. J. Heathorn made fun of a society addicted to electronic gadgets. Yes, this non-fiction piece was written in the 1980s!)
THE SECRET SURPRISE INSIDE THE SECRET ROOM
In a castle deep in the woods, a secret door inside a secret room stood ready to be discovered by a prince, three princesses, and a royal unicorn.
Prince Patton guided Maddie as she carried Princess McCullough, Princess Catherine, and Baby Princess Sarah on her back. Maddie stopped in her tracks when she saw the glow of the fire from the castle tower window.
One hundred steps led to the top of the tower. Even though they were weary from traveling all day, Prince Patton encouraged the princesses to climb the tower steps. Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred! Finally, they reached the top of the stairs.
The light from the end of Maddie’s horn pointed directly at a tiny key hole in the middle of a tiny door. As Maddie tilted her head and unlocked the door with her horn, another giant door appeared behind the tiny one.
Princess McCullough and Princess Catherine heaved together to push open the door.
“It’s too heavy,” cried McCullough.
“Maybe it’s locked,” suggested Catherine.
Baby Sarah gave Prince Patton one of her angry looks and simply said, “Help.”
Prince Patton just smiled quietly and pulled a giant key from the pocket of his tunic.
“The key!” cried the princesses. “Prince Patton has the key”!
As he turned the key in the lock, Prince Patton slowly pushed open the door to the secret room. Inside the room were walls and walls and walls of shelves that held mysterious-looking boxes. Princess McCullough and Princess Catherine had never seen anything like these boxes before.
“What are they?” asked McCullough.
“What do we do with them?” wondered Catherine.
When Baby Sarah touched a box, it fell open to reveal hundreds of words printed on hundreds of sheets of paper. She started swiping her finger across one of the pages, but nothing happened.
Even Maddie the unicorn wondered what to do with so many beautiful boxes.
Then Prince Patton removed a box from the nearest shelf and showed the princesses how to turn the pages inside the box.
He explained, “A wise old king told me this secret room beheld something wonderful. When he gave me this key, he said it would unlock a treasure that has been unused for years. He wanted us to bring the treasure back to life.”
“All of these boxes in this secret room are called books,” continued Patton. “McCullough, Catherine, and Sarah, you have been selected by the king as his special messengers to share these obsolete wonders with the rest of the world. It is your mission to take these treasures back to your kingdoms and show your people how to hold them, how to turn their pages, and how to read their words.”
“The king chose us?” asked Catherine.
“We will be his special messengers,” whispered McCullough as she stared in awe at the treasure-filled room.
Baby Sarah smiled as she discovered colorful pictures on top of many of the boxes.
“These books hold the real key to happiness,” explained Prince Patton. “This beautiful tome, the most important book of all, is the King James Bible. There are copies for each of you to share with the people in your kingdoms.”
“What are these books with the golden edges?” asked McCullough.
“Those books contain the words of William Shakespeare, a famous writer who knew King James.”
“These books have the ABC’s on the edges. What kinds of books are they?” asked Catherine.
“They are called encyclopedias,” answered Patton.
“What’s an encyclopedia?” chimed McCullough and Catherine together.
“It’s like Google,” explained Patton, “only better and more reliable.”
Just then Baby Sarah spotted a colorful book with lots of furry characters and the words Sesame Street written on the cover.
“Elmo!” Sarah cried as she pointed to the big guy in the furry red suit.
“Ha, ha!” laughed the others as they saw Sarah smile at Elmo.
“Yes,” Patton confirmed. “This secret room is certainly full of wonderful surprises. The king said the books are ours to share and enjoy.”
“Come on, Maddie. Let’s get you loaded up so you can help us carry these treasures back to our kingdoms.”
Maddie neighed as they began to strap the boxes to her back. The princesses marveled at the beauty of the boxes they held in their hands.
Seeing the furry red creature once again, Baby Sarah pointed and laughed as if she’d just been tickled.
“Knowing that I lov’d my books, he furnish’d me from mine own library with volumes that I prize above my dukedom.” –William Shakespeare
“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”–Psalm 119:105
“Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or swerve from them.” –Proverbs 4:5
I agree with the words of George Eliot: “I desire no future that will break the ties of the past.” With every passing year I seem to long more and more for the “good ol’ days.”
The beginning of summer always takes me back to the Sartain family reunions. Traditionally, my family has gathered together once a year to re-unite, to “visit” with relatives we seldom see, and to decorate graves at the home place cemetery in the “holler.”
These gatherings occur less frequently now than they did when I was a child. I think the younger people can’t spare the time and the older people can’t spare the energy. Nonetheless, those of us who still attend our family reunions share fond memories.
My relatives include a long line of all-day-singin’-and-dinner-on-the-ground believers and salt-of-the-earth good folk. Over the years some memories of our reunions have faded, but others seemed to have happened yesterday. . . .
Our dinner wasn’t on the ground, but we were. The “holler” overflowed with blankets, babies, banjos, and baked beans.
In the mornings the musical relatives unpacked their instruments and began playing under the big shade trees near the back of the cemetery. Cousins danced and swayed to the rhythm of the music, and others stepped to the music of a different drummer. The women tended to the food while the men reveled in the relaxation of the day.
My mother and my grandmother were the best cooks in the world. Sorry, Rick Bragg, but you never tasted my mother’s coconut cake or my grandmother’s fried chicken. In addition to these delights, our table was covered with deviled eggs, corn on the cob, ham and homemade biscuits. Everyone looked forward to the ritual favorites and the “new recipe I just had to try.”
When the dinner bell rang, the music stopped and everyone gathered around the tables. An uncle blessed the food and thanked God for another opportunity to spend time with kith and kin.
Casseroles were uncovered, domed Avon fly screens were removed, and family was fed.
After everyone had over-indulged, the music began again. We must have believed in Shakespeare’s adage, “If music be the food of love, play on.”
My cousins often gave tribute to Johnny Cash with a lively rendition of “Ring of Fire.” However, the afternoon eventually gave way to a slower, sleepy tempo required by the soporific effects of food and heat. “Ring of Fire” turned into “Make the World Go Away” and “Shall We Gather at the River.”
While the music slowed and some nodded off, others began the loving task of decorating the family graves. We could hear Patsy Cline’s “Faded Love” just beyond the cemetery fence as we removed the faded flowers from the tombstone vases.
Bright reds, whites, and blues dominated the hillside. As we re-read the names and dates, great aunts and uncles retold familiar stories.
The day usually ended with watermelon or homemade ice cream on the front porch of the home place. It was a great vantage point from which to see the freshly mowed cemetery adorned with its brightly colored flowers.
Cousins then packed up their instruments, wiped the sticky hands and faces of the children, and began the ascent out of the “holler.” They promised to see us again next year. . . .
These days the next years don’t always happen, but the family members who live near the cemetery continue to be its caretakers. The music may have faded, but the memories are still vivid.
Like Clyde Edgerton’s wisteria vine in his book Floatplane, my great grandmother’s rosebush continues to see all and hear all in the Sartain cemetery. From babies who died after two days of life to great aunts who lived to be over 100, their stories are as rich as the soil that surrounds them; and they are a vital part of my heritage.
In Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” he initially mourns the passing of his own childhood. However, he eventually understands the joy of memory:
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
Then sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
And let the young Lambs bound
As to the tabor’s sound!
We in thought will join your throng,
Ye that pipe and ye that play,
Ye that through your hearts today
Feel the gladness of the May!
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
I’m sure my stories are not the exact stories my sister or my cousins might recall. However, memory does bring me joy. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”
Deuteronomy 32:7 tells us, “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders and they will tell you.”
2 Thessalonians 2:15; Psalm 143:5