Monthly Archives: December 2015

God: The 24/7 Caregiver

God: The 24/7 Caregiver

The neurologist broke the unexpected news to me as compassionately as anyone could, but his brutal honesty hit me hard.

“Your mother has Alzheimer’s disease, with advancing dementia.”  I sat thunderstruck as I listened to the diagnosis.

Some of the tests she had been asked to perform were embarrassingly simple.  I gasped in disbelief when I saw her inability to handle basic short-term memory tests, like being told the words cat, door, moon and asked a few moments later to recount them in that order.  But if asked about something that happened 50 to 60 years ago, she could give you a stunningly accurate account.

I cried later when I was alone because I knew that Alzheimer’s means the agonizingly slow death, not of the body, but of the mind.  I felt heartbreak as I knew it would be my task, as her only child, to preside over her descent into oblivion should the disease follow its normal course.

To provide for her needs, we immediately moved her into an apartment in my city, 100 miles from her friends and home.  In a matter of days, another health crisis occurred; and we tried unsuccessfully to have her live in our home.  As her needs increased, we eventually moved her to a nearby assisted-living center.  Three relocations in three months—packing and unpacking, loading and unloading—were like a recurring bad dream.

I Can’t Believe This!

I allowed my heart to believe my mother was untouchable by something like Alzheimer’s.  I never doubted should would die; I just reasoned that life would never treat her this way.  After all, she was a fun-loving, godly woman who had taught thousands of Oklahoma kids over a 45-year period and had taught Sunday school to age 87.  Until he died, she was my dad’s lifelong sweetheart.  Behind the naïve notion that God owes a Christian a better deal was my error of belief we can obligate God by earning his favor. (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV)

In my head I knew better.  We are all fallen people in a fallen world, trying to live in a broken system in which evil and the wrong choices of men seem to have the upper hand much of the time (Romans 3:23; 6:23).

Looking at life through the eyes of faith, I see that bad things happen to believers and unbelievers alike.  They just do, and God isn’t to blame.  A harsh dose of reality is all that is needed to blow away unrealistic and unbiblical expectations like mine.

Do I Own This?

I was startled by how quickly caregiving was thrust upon me by family necessity.  The “day” that I thought was years away came.  And stayed.  I became one of more than 50 million Americans, many between ages 30 and 50, who provide some level of care for a family member or friend.  Not that statistics matter.   You are the caregiver.  Almost 45 percent of us are men.

After the initial crisis subsides, and you settle into your new role, you begin to take over bits and pieces of the person’s life, and lose a corresponding amount of control over your own life.  It starts in a deceptively simple way:  paying bills, trips to the doctor, and so forth.  But it continues until you are virtually responsible for your loved one’s life.  You weren’t aware you signed on for all this.  And there is no place to resign, not that you would.  But the thought crosses your mind because you didn’t ask for any of this.  Tragically, some shirk the role.

A provider’s role takes many shapes, depending on your relationship to the needy person for whom you assume responsibility.  You may find yourself occupying the parent role with your own parent, as I have, while she becomes increasingly childlike.  Or, you may face a different situation.

I’ll Do It but Not Own It

The caregiving role bullied its way into my already over-committed life.  It’s normal to feel resentment toward such intrusions.  I did, and then felt surprise and guilt that, as a Christian, I was capable of such feelings.   Exhausting, prolonged caregiving has proved an embarrassing way of bring out the worst in me.

I first attempted to provide care by multi-tasking it along with everything else.  It was with a glad heart and no resentment because I loved my mother, honored my father, and wanted to obey the commandment about parents (Exodus 20:12).  But I carefully refused to “own” it.  I would let this new role run parallel with my “real” life but hold it at bay.  I foolishly reasoned that someday the role would end, and I could get back to my so-called “real” life in which I am a serious disciple and want very much to grow and please God.

I’ll Own It and Do It Myself

Because I refused to embrace caregiving, I slipped into handling it myself as a necessary duty.  I acted as if I believe God and discipleship weren’t involved, as if this new role was unrelated to spiritual transformation.

Caregiving made such stressful demands on my time, emotional energy, and state of mind that I felt completely overwhelmed, as if being drowned by the person I was attempting to rescue.  Emotions ricocheted off the walls of my heart like a bullet.

One week I jotted down every erratic emotion I felt as I drove away from each visit with my mother.  I was startled by the crazy moods—almost twenty of them—I was trying to manage:

Grief. . .ongoing sorrow that Alzheimer’s was insidiously stealing her memories one by one, those wonderful souvenirs of yesterday.

Gratitude. . .to be the son of this incredibly gifted woman whose life has meant so much to so many.

Helplessness. . .that, as a lifelong “fixer” of things, I found myself facing something I couldn’t fix.

Anger. . .that there are cruel things like birth defects, cancer, and Alzheimer’s that destroy the people I love.

Intense love. . .resolve. . .depression. . .soaring hope. . .despair. . .loneliness. . .Attempting to provide care in my own strength just about sank me after a few months.  You can already guess this drove me to cry out to God for help.

Okay, God.  I’ll Do It if you’ll Help

Frederick Buechner wrote, “There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him. . .”

The Holy Spirit brought to my mind Scriptures to help me see that refusing to “own” caregiving was also denying God opportunity to be involved.  In my prideful thinking, I was as shortsighted as Peter when he refused having his feet washed by Jesus.  Peter protested, “No.  You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”  Peter repented, “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (John 13:8-9, NIV)

I began to see caregiving, not as an unwanted part of life, but as my life . . . as “real” as every other part, and of as much concern to God.  Where did I get the idea God wouldn’t care about this part?  Like Peter, I repented.

But God wasn’t content to merely “help” me.  I’ve never heard God’s voice, but it was as if he was saying through the Scriptures:  “I don’t want you to own this burden.  I want to own it.  Will you release it and let me be God?  Will you exchange your failing strength for my unfailing strength? (Isaiah 40:31)

Okay, God.  You Own It

Gary Thomas writes, “Life can call us into places where we feel as though we’re being poured out on behalf of others.  If we don’t build a spirit of surrender and sacrifice, we’re liable to grow resentful and bitter during such seasons.”

To receive all the grace God wants to give us, we must surrender to him the “ownership” of burdens we become aware of.  This does not mean we become passive, shirk responsibility, or fail those who depend on us.  It does mean we let God rule and reign over our lives, and we draw the strength we need from him.  Peter advised, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7, NIV).

As I care for my mother, one of the most delightful experiences of serendipity is happening.  I am discovering God as my caregiver. . .the 24/7 kind. . .twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  I sleep with a cell phone near my pillow, on call 24/7.  I do not face this task alone—God is listening for my call, 24/7.

Providing care is becoming more strenuous as the months pass. But every part of this ordeal is an opportunity, a door, through which I can receive massive doses of grace.  The endless trips to the doctor and the twice-daily trips to the care facility are just more ways God demonstrates his wonderful care of me.

Am I grieving?  God has Psalm 23 for my weary heart.

Am I despairing?  He uses my Christian brothers, Jim and John, to encourage me when we meet each week (2 Corinthians 1:4).

The past months have brought two precious truths into my life:

First, with the possible exception of parenting, caregiving is the most spiritually formative experience in my Christian journey thus far.  Character and virtue are not best formed in the calm and ease of life, but rather in life’s great difficulties and struggles in which we must contend.  I have found no better verse to describe this principle than Romans 5:3 (NIV):  “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

Caregiving became a sacred experience when I realized I needed care from God as much as my mother needed my care.  I finally “got it” that God wants to transform me as I face these difficulties.  If we will cooperate with him, God will use any new role or difficult life situation we face to bring about our spiritual transformation.

The second insight comes from watching my mother become more innocent, childlike, and dependent on me with advancing age.  It’s as if God is whispering in my ear, “Don’t you get it, Don?  That’s exactly how I want you to relate to me.”

“Let the little children come to me. . .the kingdom of God belongs to such as thee” (Luke 18:16, NIV).

Don M. Hull   © 2004, 2015

The Good Samaritan Revisited

The Good Samaritan Revisited

Jesus on Compassion:  Still, “Just Do It!”

Twenty-one centuries after telling the greatly loved story of The Good Samaritan, Jesus’ final word to his followers about showing compassion is still, Just do it! Or, in his words, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:30-37, NIV)

You know the story. The Good Samaritan (hereafter referred to as “Sam”) chooses to stop, show compassion, and rescue a dying traveler after two others have refused.

Would you have stopped? Really?

Some may think the point of the story is no more significant than the simple question, “If I see a woman with children stranded in a disabled car on the Interstate, should I stop and help?”

The story goes much further. It’s about what you do with your feelings when confronted by human need.

Jesus never said Sam was merely a character in a parable. I think somewhere in Jesus’ rich background there really was an incident involving Sam that resurfaces in his teaching. What story ever told surpasses it in warmth and tenderness?

The narrow fifteen mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a perfect place for thieves to ambush a traveler in a lightning fast attack, then escape undetected. The unescorted could be easy prey, so many traveled in convoys or alongside a caravan.

Falling behind to help someone could be dangerous. The thieves might reappear or might use the wounded man as a decoy to lure others.

Could the injured man even be saved?   It’s doubtful Sam was carrying the needed tools or medicines, or even possessed the training to give aid. The thought today of a liability suit for negligence still sends chills down your spine, despite our so-called “Good Samaritan” laws.

If the man died and Sam was caught with the body, he could be implicated.

It’s easy for a potential caregiver to get “trapped” in his service. In our present culture, there are many people who can contrive a need for whatever you’re willing to give. Many are perfectly willing for you and me to assume responsibility for them by taking charge of their lives. They want us to eliminate all their exposure and danger, feed, house, and transport them, and make their decisions for them.

There are so many reasons not to help that sound so right. So we leave kindness for others to do.

The officious Levite did just that. After moving in for a closer look, he deserts the gravely wounded man and leaves him to die. This passing worship leader of Israel would be like someone going home after church. He had heard the sermon, sung the songs, and prayed his prayers—yet his heart remained a stone.

The reluctant Priest, who was around God all the time, handled holy things all day long, spoke for men to God, and for God to men. But what this man was inside was very different from what he was outside. If he touched this perishing man it would restrict his duty in the temple for seven days, so he puts ceremonial service above love and concern for a man in pain.

It’s amazing that a pitiful and dying man did not soften the hearts of these two. No level of pain or tragedy can pry compassion out of their hearts.

It took a plain, ordinary man with character to make any difference.

How Did ‘Sam’ Get That Way?

Duty calls and character answers.

Sam did what he did because of who he was, and not for any other reason. What others do or refuse to do is irrelevant. Sam chooses to act in a way consistent with his character. The Scriptures simply don’t provide answers to a hundred questions that tug at our minds about what Sam was like. But it’s my personal feeling there were three elements of Sam’s character tragically missing in the Levite and Priest.

Compassion. The word means to “suffer with. Sam possessed that God-like quality that enables one to empathize with another, to enter into their pain. He didn’t merely observe the man, he identified with him, became part of him.

Sam asked nothing and expected nothing, most of all recognition, thanks, or repayment. There was no hesitation on his part. Nothing to debate or deliberate. There was no attempt to seek counsel or refer the need to someone else passing by. Here was a gravely injured man who doubtless would die if not helped. That was all there was to it.

Courage. Lots of it! There was danger in what Sam chose to do. But he disdained it when another human life was on the line. It took courage to care, and more to act. The others were afraid of anything strange or challenging, fearful of getting involved, and horrified the robbers might come back. Sam pushed those anxieties back and helped a complete stranger, a broken one at that, who would never be able to repay.

There is something strong, noble, and wonderfully uncomplicated about Sam. What a tenderness and gentleness there is in the care he gives, the fruit of great personal strength and depth of character.

Habit. This is no isolated incident in the life of Sam. It is just one more out of many times he had helped. There would be others in the future. Sam didn’t become like that overnight. Over the years, the habit of responding bravely to the needs of others became deeply ingrained. And always at personal cost: money, time, energy. But with great reward.

It’s difficult to conclude who benefits the most: the one helped, or the helper. Some feel compassion is the most healing of all emotions, capable of transforming an entire world.

Compassion, pity, mercy—in the Bible the words are virtually interchangeable and describe the essence of God. Sam has, by choice, taken upon himself the very character of God.

How Do We Get That Way?

If we take Christ seriously, it is through obedience to his words, “Go and do likewise.”

Becoming compassionate will not come through drastic self-discipline, heroic sacrifice, or other well-meaning shortcuts. We should not expect to change quickly. Sam probably didn’t. It will become part of our character through the endless repetition of small efforts as we feel the inward prompting of God’s Holy Spirit and obediently respond when he has providentially placed us in a situation where we can do great good. It is giving a person in trouble a helping hand when it is within our power. Going the “second mile” when there is opportunity. Getting involved in our community and church to make a difference.

What is excellence if not habit? And what is excellence of character if not the predictable habit of behaving every time in a splendid way and expressing the noblest virtues?

Day by day. . .deed by deed. . .the Godly trait of compassion is layered into our lives, and we find our arrogant selfish nature pushed off the throne. We discover new liberty to effortlessly respond to the needs of others. And we become in character, in a larger measure, like the great God we worship.

But, as with Sam, compassion will require of us empathy to feel, courage to care, and a developed habit of responding.

“Just Do It!”

It costs to care, to be compassionate. And it may put us at risk and make us vulnerable as we choose to intervene in the lives of others. Saving the souls of sinful men and women cost God the death of His Son. Compassion always places the highest possible value on the life of another. To be a Good Samaritan is to care as God cares, to be like Him in thought and action.

Feeling sorry for another is not enough. No doubt the Priest and Levite felt a stab of pity as they looked at the man, but they saw him as a nuisance to be avoided. Sam saw him as a neighbor to love, and undertook his care.

Following this incident, Sam probably resumes his life, and never told anyone what he did. But his story is immortal. In every century, think how many across our wide world have been inspired by him to offer a cup of cold water in Christ’s name.

What a high compliment it would be to have the Lord say to others about you and me: “Go, and be just like him.”

Don M. Hull      (©2015)

Forks In The Road

Forks in the Road

  • The Value of Spending a Day With God

Becoming spiritually skilled at making decisions is crucial to every growth-minded Christ-follower. Making right choices is the essence of becoming a mature disciple. Every decision, great or routine, has the potential of moving us toward or away from Christ-likeness.   One can’t simply follow the immortal wisdom of Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

We call them “forks in the road”—those all too familiar experiences when the path along which we are moving diverges into right and left. These choices impose themselves on every believer, often unanticipated, unwanted, and unwelcomed.

Could you use a little help and encouragement today as you face a troublesome decision?

What’s the dilemma you now face?   A new job or career change? Beginning or ending a relationship. Moving your family? Going back to school?

These aren’t the countless decisions we casually make every day—where to have lunch, what to wear, etc. Rather, they are weighty decisions that may define us, or set new directions and have far-reaching consequences.

We can improve our decision-making by learning from one of the most admired people in the Bible: Paul. Here’s my “take” on a page from his life and how he faced a critically important “fork” in his road.

Try putting yourself into his sandals for a few moments as you read in your Bible the 20th chapter of Acts.

Imagine it is late March, and you have spent the cold winter of 56-57 A.D. in Corinth where you have penned a monumental letter of the New Testament, the one we call Romans. You arrived at Corinth having spent the previous year trying to evangelize the large area north of Greece known to us today as war-shattered Bosnia, Croatia, and Sarajevo.

You are age 57. Twenty years have passed since you became a Christian. Behind are years of arduous labor and hardship, founding and nurturing churches, and missionary treks covering thousands of miles. You’ve had immense evangelistic success in places like Asia and Macedonia, and so little among your own Jewish people. The vast West awaits you: Spain, Europe, and Britain.

When the sailing season of the spring of 56 A.D. opens, your plans to sail to Syria are interrupted by the discovery of a plot to assassinate you on the ship. You decide to travel overland and send your companions on to Troas by ship to wait for you there as you make your journey on foot.

As you travel from city to city—Thessalonica, Phillipi, and Troas—believers with the prophetic gift in every church have sounded warnings about Jerusalem. No one has expressly said, “Don’t go!”, but each has sensed in his spirit a foreboding of great danger and possible harm awaiting you there.

The masterpiece you’ve crafted to the Christians at Rome reveals that your heart aches for your Jewish countrymen who, as a whole, have rejected Christ and the gospel of salvation:

“. . .my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is

that they might be saved.”       Romans 10:1, NIV

But you have another heartache, one for the lands where the gospel of Christ has not been taken. You are resolved to go west, to Spain, Europe, and perhaps Britain:

“It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ

was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s

foundation.”                               Romans 15:20, NIV

You arrive at Troas and rejoin your travelling companions—Timothy and Gaius from Galatia; from Thessalonica, Aristarchus and Secundus; from Berea, Sopater; and from Asia, Trophimus and Tychicus. And, of course, Dr. Luke.

A crisis has surfaced in your life, and the time for decision has come. The choice is agonizingly simple. Should you complete your mission to Jerusalem despite repeated warnings from trustworthy people if you do? Or, should you book passage on the next ship headed for Rome, and send your trusted associates to Jerusalem with the offering, a mission they are perfectly capable of competing with no help from you?

On the one hand, there is the strong pull, the challenge and adventure, to take the message of Christ to people who have never heard. On the other, maybe this time, despite all the disasters of the past, you will be heard in Jerusalem and win large numbers of your countrymen to Christ. Maybe.

Both are worthy choices, reasonable and right. It seems plausible God would be pleased with either. Both involve risk and danger. There have been only warnings about going to Jerusalem, not prohibitions.

Luke records in one terse statement Paul’s next movements from which we can gain much insight:

“We went on ahead to the ship and sailed for Assos, where we were

going to take Paul aboard. He had made this arrangement because he

was going there on foot.”             Acts 20:13, NIV

A ship bound for Syria had been secured. In an unusual move, Paul urged his companions to board it for a one-day voyage around the cape to Assos, a town approximately thirty miles south of Troas, where he would rejoin them toward nightfall. Paul proceeded alone, on foot, for this one-day walk, probably overriding the protests of his well-meaning friends.

No doubt his mind was overwhelmed with conflicting information and feelings about what he should do. He had heeded the warnings about going to Jerusalem, yet he was strangely drawn there. The West and its un-evangelized hordes beckoned to him.

What to do? Simple. Take a step back to gain perspective. Get alone with God and sort things out. And he did.

As Paul faced the future, what he needed more than anything else was time to get focused and understand the mind of God if he could.

At this personal crisis point—at this “fork” in his road—Paul checked in with his Master for the direction he must have. What Paul needed, God had. So there were no “opinion polls” taken among his friends. No counsel sought. No urgent meeting at the church. No all-night prayer vigil or period of fasting. Just a simple one-day walk through the countryside, alone and undisturbed, where he could position himself to be wholly at God’s disposal.

He chose to slow the pace, disconnect from the pressure of busyness, allow his heart to cool down, and his mind to sort out the future. He gave God an unhurried opportunity to speak. He got his heart quiet so God’s whispers to his soul could be heard above the clamor of daily life. If this were me, a major disconnect would be needed. I would need to turn off my cell phone, stop all the incoming inane text messages, and intentionally decide not to be available 24/7 to everyone who wants me.

It was probably a glorious spring day. The road was his, with nothing to distract except maybe a passing caravan, or the bleating of nearby sheep accompanied by the hauntingly beautiful tinkling of their bells. The heavens hailed his heart. The earth was alive with flowers watered by the gentle spring showers. The birds offered their song. He was alone with his thoughts as he walked. His companionable companion was solitude. And God.

Was there a dream? A vision? A personal appearance by the risen Christ? We are told of none. Luke tells us nothing of what Paul said when he rejoined the group, what his decision was, or how he was feeling about things.

In the quietness of this day—as Paul thought, weighed matters, prayed, meditated on the Scriptures, considered God’s leading in the past and His promises for the future, and sang praise songs—God spoke to his heart in an unmistakable way. There was likely no audible voice, but only the calm, unshakeable confidence that sweeps over a person when God presses the rightness of a matter on his heart. A smile breaks across Paul’s face, because now he knows. His pace quickens and he briskly walks down to the bay to the waiting ship where his uneasy companions are anxious to get him on board. The course is set for Jerusalem.

“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not

knowing what will happen to me there.”   Romans 20:22, NIV

In this simple story are the elements for spiritually facing a significant decision. It’s about spending a day with God to get His mind, and the direction you need to move ahead.

There is nothing mystical, magical, or obtruse about the story. There is no guarantee God will necessarily do again for you what He did for Paul if you duplicate his actions. God is under no obligation to anything we expect or think. But we can take the vital steps to place ourselves under the guiding hand of God exactly as Paul

Here is what Paul did—what you and I can do—to humbly spend time in God’s presence, and see if it is the time when He will graciously reveal His will:

  • Get focused. Pick a specific time, a full day if possible, to intentionally and singularly engage the fellowship and companionship of God
  • Get alone. Separate yourself from normal routines. Get away from work, cell phones and text messaging, family and friends. Take the obvious: water, light food, your Bible, pen and paper.
  • Get quiet. This day is about solitude, reflection, reading your Bible, praying often, and maybe singing. Most of all, it is about listening. To God. And getting in touch with your deepest thoughts and desires.
  • Get a word. Humbly leave it to God how, when, or even if He will speak. Contrive nothing. God’s leading may be the strong impression of a thought. Or a compelling verse from the Bible. Maybe something you’ve heard or read will be quickened by the Holy Spirit. You seek a word from Him.
  • Get going.   Act immediately on what you sense is His way. Pursue it single-mindedly until you are led differently. Frequently our problem is not that we don’t know what to do, but doing what we already know to do.

No wonder so many of us are filled with anxiety when we face a “fork in the road,” especially if we are fearful and face undetermined risks or consequences. Maybe we lack information, have had poor role models from whom to learn in the past, or bear past scars from decisions poorly made.

Next time you face a difficult question and feel intense pressure to make a decision, try following Paul’s practice of spending a day with God and see how He will direct you.

I have done so. Many times, and always with great profit.

Once, as a college senior about one hundred years ago, I faced in very late spring a tough decision that had far-reaching implications. So I set aside a day (one I really didn’t have, or so I thought) to genuinely seek God’s will in the matter.

Now, a lifetime later, I am still following the trajectory set for my life on that day now almost 55 years ago. Wrapped up in that one decision was a vocation, a calling to which I responded. With God’s guidance I happily took the right fork, and never looked back. Half a century later I can give you the report: God’s promise is true, the one found in Psalm 32:8 (KJV):

”I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go. I will guide thee with my eye.”

Don M. Hull (© 2015)



A Great Quote

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters.  Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”

Colin Powell,  American Statesman and Retired Four-Star General

A Great Quote

“Sometimes it’s the very people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things no one can imagine.”                                          (From the 2015 movie, The Imitation Game)



. . . .a sort of essay

Come on, admit it! You keep them. We all do.

I’m talking about objects that may be of no more value than the stuff left after you’ve taken down the signs, lowered the garage door, and sworn under your breath this was your last garage sale.

We call them “keepsakes,” which probably stands for the strange and wonderful things we keep just for the sake of it.

Why do we keep them? Why do we keep indispensable treasures in boxes for years without letting them see the light of day? It makes no practical sense. After a few years the tonnage we accumulate can become unbearable and yet we drag it with us from move to move.

I have my fair share of keepsakes. Some are worthless and some are priceless. I could part with most of them were it not for the faces, fingers, and feelings.

I watched my mother going through sacks of keepsakes as she faced the painful task of downsizing and moving to an assisted living center. An empty box on her right was for the things to be kept; the one on her left was for things to be given or thrown away.

With once supple fingers and eyes grown dim, she examined one keepsake after another, reverently caressing each prized souvenir from her ninety years of yesterdays. Her eyes filled with tears as she seemed to experience, once again, those happy moments when each article became a valued keepsake. . .like, 3:30 p.m. on a Friday, the last day of school more than sixty years ago, when a grinning second grade student named Roxie proudly gave her the inexpensive vase she now can’t part with.

After an hour I noticed the “give away” box was still empty. This sorting job was going nowhere fast.

Why can’t we let go of keepsakes? Perhaps it has something to do with faces, fingers, and feelings.

Keepsakes still have traces of faces attached to them—faces of people we cherish as much as life itself. Like the Kool-Aid stained face of our preschooler who once gave us a homemade Valentine’s Day card, the one with his misspelled name scrawled across the front. Or maybe the reverent face of a young student who gave her teacher some small trinket, thinking at the time the teacher was heroic. Larger than life. Dispose of the keepsake and you forget the face you want to remember.

Keepsakes also seem to bear the prints of fingers that linger, left by the people who once owned what we now admire. We feel reverence as we envision these keepsakes still in the hands of those who once held them.

Keepsakes act like monuments to lives well-lived. They symbolize for us, if only in our imagination, the laughter, love, and antics of one whose memory we hold dear. These are real people who have touched our lives. Like photographs, our recollections of them fade with time, but keepsakes help us laminate those memories and make them last a little while longer. Dispose of the keepsake and you’ve lost, possibly forever, the unforgettable touch of a friend.

Keepsakes also have feelings attached to them. Our emotions are recorded onto a keepsake like movies on a DVD, and they are available for replay any time we choose to pick them up. Mementos dredge up indescribable feelings. They summon from deep within us what Wordsworth described as “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” The keepsake you lovingly hold isn’t impersonal like something purchased. It is dripping with emotion and value. It has behind it the full force of the one who gave it to you, and the power of your feelings in receiving it. Dispose of the keepsake and you deny the emotions you yearn to feel again.

These sometimes silly relics can embarrass us, because we can never quite put into words why we nurture memories the way we do. The reasons we offer make us feel foolish, as if we really are the hopeless sentimentalists others think us to be.

It begins in childhood—this idea of holding on to keepsakes.

With little boys, it may be a first knife or perhaps a rusty key that opens a vault full of treasure somewhere, if only we knew where. With little girls it may be tickets torn in half, or dolls that are most certainly the prototypes of the family she will someday have. Many mothers collect “first” things—baby’s first step, first word, and first drawing. Fathers may have fewer keepsakes, but look in the closet and you’re bound to find a trophy or two.

A keepsake can be anything we empower with value. I treasure a lovely Civil War locket containing a tinplate photo of my great-grandfather, and a piece of slate from a 300-year old rock fence in England’s storied Lake District where Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Tennyson took walks.

But, why do we do it?

We try to save bits and pieces of our lives, and of the people who enriched ours, as fancifully as we try to save “time in a bottle.” Little by little, we know down deep that time is taking away everything and everyone dear to us. And someday it will take us away, too. Every second that ticks is sounding the solemn reminder that life is fleeting, slipping through our fingers like sand in an hourglass.

Mementos are an attempt, if just for a little while, to extend our own mortality. To hold the relentless passage of time at bay, even though we admit we are powerless to stop it. What are photographs and home movies if not attempts to stop time in its tracks, if only for a split second, so we can relive again a scene from the passing parade we call life?

Mementos conceal this resentment we feel toward time and its heartless burglary of our lives. Time is the thief that picks our pocket clean of everything and everyone we love. Keepsakes may be a subtle disguise for our anger, our vain attempt to strike back at time, if only for a moment. We hang onto some symbol—a ring, a dried flower—of the life of someone we love or highly respect to keep their memory from fading forever. Keepsakes are our way of kicking sand in the face of time.

To talk about our deepest motivations is to dig around in the stuff that makes up the human soul: love and fear, faith and hope, life and death. Keepsakes express a primal instinct, the irrepressible nature of man to believe that life outlasts time. That the memory of life lived is made precious by the people who lived it. That every day of our too few days is pure gift.

Our family history, our genealogy, is a form of keepsake. Alex Haley touched something deep within us with his epic work, Roots, and sent thousands of us digging for answers to questions we didn’t have before: Who am I, and where did I come from? Who were the people that gave me this wonderful gift called life?

As I walked barefoot along the chilly seacoast of Ireland near where my family sailed for North Carolina in 1773, I picked up a stunning pebble worn smooth by countless waves. Almost round, it speckled while and black like the rugged cliffs that face the sea.

I sit musing by my fireplace today, holding that pebble in my hand, and I am years and thousands of miles away from Ireland. But I can revisit that memorable wind-swept day and be moved, if only for a fleeting moment, by the same feelings that I had as I shivered along that beach with my wife, Helen, and daughter, Amy. And as I do, I wonder again, with melancholy, about my courageous family who braved the Atlantic in unworthy ships to arrive in America in time for the Revolutionary War. They, and my English ancestors who came from Crewkerne to Connecticut in 1630, gave me some of their DNA that my grandchildren now carry with them into the 21st century.

How we fear being forgotten! So we pile up keepsakes, like my Irish pebble, as a fragile hedge against forgetting and being forgotten. They are our attempts to keep alive the memory of someone we love and long to see, in the secret hope that someone, someday will miss us, and realize that some of those “footprints on the sands of time” are ours.

If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children.”                                 – Will Durant


Don M. Hull (Copyright 2015)

The Blessed Hope of Christmas

“. . .denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and Godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ.”                 (Titus 2:12-13)

Of all the blessings the birth of Christ brings to us, the amazing hope we have in an eternity spent with Him must be among the best.  The composer of Silent Night added a great line when he wrote, “All is bright. . .,” for indeed our hope is as bright and as secure as the promises of God.  Jesus said, “Because I live, you shall live also,” and to ponder our future with Him, as His friend, staggers the imagination.donhull-page-001

When we pass through this inevitable, annoying thing called death, we leave the rim of our world and enter a stunning future that knows no end.  We do not cease to be; our personalities are not obliterated.  Who we are as a person remains essentially intact and yet gloriously changed when all sinful influence is removed.  Our identity and character traits, our knowledge and skills honed to perfection, the spiritual gifts we were given, the graces (love, joy, patience) we have allowed Christ to develop in us—all these and more are transferable to, and needed in, the kingdom to come.  We will know, even as we are known.  We will re-join everyone we have ever known and loved and lost, who also knew Christ as Lord.

It’s true.  What we know about heaven is a bit scanty.  But, taken collectively, the words of Jesus paint a tantalizing picture that pulls at our heart and fills it with joy.  He talked about preparing a place for us, of unspeakable rewards for the faithful, of ruling and reigning with him forever, of being given “much” for our faithfulness with “little,” of being given authority to reign over 10 cities, or 5, or over “many things” and of endlessly serving our Great God.

Heaven will be an unimaginable experience of endless creativity on a scale beyond our words to describe, new responsibilities to assume with the whole universe as our workshop, and fellowship to enjoy with Jesus and his friends.  Based on our faithfulness in this life, all of us will be given vital work to do and service to perform, consistent with who we are and what are our gifts in this life. . .in a setting of surpassing joy.

Written about our “Blessed Hope,” the phrase from Silent Night is right on the mark:  “All is bright. . .”

I, for one, can hardly wait.

Don M. Hull (Copyright 2015)