Above All Else: Keeping First Things First

As another semester comes to a close, this devotional from Dr. Joy Greer is a great reminder about placing our work and studies in proper perspective.

Part of my daily Bible reading this morning was from Ecclesiastes 12.  Verses 11-14 really struck me today as an important reminder of where our priorities need to be in the midst of our academic pursuits (course work and upcoming exams, clinical practice, and research–even when we’re working as unto the Lord)…and a challenge for self-examination.

“The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.  My son [daughter], be aware of anything beyond these.  Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.  The end of the matter; all has been heard.  Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

While we need to work and study hard to glorify the Lord and help our patients, we cannot lose sight of our primary aim.  “The most important [commandment] is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” (Mark 12:29-30)  Without this priority, all our academic efforts are in vain and misplaced.  I pray for each of you that the Lord, through the Holy Spirit, will awaken new passion to love Him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength during this Christmas season.

The Proverbs 31 Family: Swanson Or Scripture?

As a kid, I grew up with Swanson, “TV” dinners.  Each microwaveable meal had four sections, each quarantined from the others by a wall of black, lifeless plastic.  Although the individual meals varied, you pretty much knew what you were getting: a “meat”, starch, vegetable and dessert.  While it was anyone’s guess as to whether the TV program or Swanson would induce sleep first, it was this safe, predictable quality that made them so popular with parents and kids alike.

Today, the lives of many Christians look a lot like Swanson, TV dinners.  Our lives are tidy and predictable, but a bit boring.

Take the challenge of figuring out which parents will work, and how much, in a family with children, for example.  The “meals” vary, but – so we think – there are only a few options to choose from:

  • Dad works full-time, Mom stays home with the kids.
  • Dad and Mom both work full-time, while the kids go to school and/or are cared for by a nanny or family members.
  • Dad works full-time, Mom works part-time and cares for the kids on her days at home.

There are variations on these basic paradigms, of course, and I’m not arguing for or against any of them here.

It’s easy, though, to look around and think that we have to choose from among the most obvious options.  When our family doesn’t fit into one of the culture’s models, it can be discouraging, or, guilt-inducing.  Alternatively, if we feel like our family “fits the mold”, we can become prideful and subtly judge others who may not.

This post is part of an ongoing series where I’m looking at Proverbs 31 and gleaning insights into men, women, children, work and how they relate.  It’s interesting to note that the idealized woman the chapter portrays is not what you’d expect in that culture.  This woman obviously spends a good deal of her time working: she produces, and then sells, various goods (see verses 19, 24 for example).  She also “considers a field and buys it” (verse 16), indicating a degree of business acumen and financial independence not commonly seen among women at that time.  This was no ordinary woman!

So, the issue of someone’s, or, a family’s (the passage shows she was married with children), relationship to work is not whether or not it fits into one of our culture’s models or “boxes.”  The issue is how well it meshes with the principles God sets up in scripture.  We’ll begin taking a look at some of those principles next time.

For now, I want to invite you to reflect with me on the following questions:

  • As you think about your family growing up, did it fit one of the models above?  How do you think that may influence your views on your/your family’s relationship to work now, and, in the future?
  • Regardless of whether or not your current relationship to work fits with one of those models, are you charitable in how you think towards others who don’t share your views?  Do you make scripture, rather than your convictions, the reference point?

Obviously, lots more can be said on this topic, so we’ll keep moving forward next time.

Men, Women & The Workplace: A Fresh Vision For An Old Problem

Every now and then, a tempest seems to rise up around the issue of women in the workplace.  Partly because medicine is so demanding, the debate surrounding work-life balance in this field tends to be particularly acute and emotionally-charged.

If you follow these sorts of discussions, you may be familiar with an article by Dr. Karen Sibert in the New York Times (June 11th) entitled “Don’t Quit This Day Job.”  In the article, Dr. Sibert argues that, given the importance of patients and relative shortage of physicians to treat them, medical schools can’t afford to train providers who will only work part-time.  Since women tend to work reduced hours far more often than men, her comments are primarily directed toward them.

The closing paragraph to her article summarizes her position well:

Patients need doctors to take care of them. Medicine shouldn’t be a part-time interest to be set aside if it becomes inconvenient; it deserves to be a life’s work.

Based on further commentary in her article, Dr. Sibert means that the rest of life, such as children, need to fit in around a calling to medicine.

Not surprisingly, though, not everyone agrees.  In a response piece, “Should Women Be Doctors?“, columnist Lisa Belkin takes a different approach:

The problem is… that professions are archaically structured…  The answer is to recalibrate the hours and expectations of professions so that they can be done by the “new worker” — not a man with a wife at home (which is the assumption of the old structures) but rather a mother or father with a working partner and responsibilities at home.

Just because things have always been done a certain way does not mean that is the way things should be done. All those women working 4.5 fewer hours and taking longer leaves in medicine? Where Dr. Sibert sees slacking, I see a new norm. One that requires fewer hours of more workers, perhaps. One that is [sic] should be embraced by men and women.

From these small quotations alone, it doesn’t take a lot of insight to realize that Sibert and Belkin differ dramatically in their approaches to these issues.

Actually, I’m glad that they do.  Encountering different viewpoints like this should force us to think – deeply – about these things.  If you’re in college or early on in your training, these matters may seem relatively academic now, but they quickly become very personal as the years go by and real choices must be made.  As Dr. Sibert rightly noted in her article, “you can’t have it all.”

I’ve seen medical marriages (among Christians) end over these very issues, while others who “stay together” remain unhappy and disconnected.  So, the stakes are high.

I’ll be posting more about this area in the days to come, but I want to make just one point for now.

As we encounter radically different solutions to the work-life balance problem (or any other problem, for that matter), we need to regress to our childhood and ask (with a little more maturity, hopefully), “Oh yeah – says who?!”  In other words, as we sort through things, who has the authority to inform our decisions?

For Christians, the answer is unequivocal.  It’s primarily God and what he tells us in the bible.  (While this may sound archaic to my secular readers, the truth is that we all put our ultimate faith in something, even if it’s ‘me.’  But that’s another story for another day).

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not like there’s a chapter or verse in the Bible that will give us an easy answer to this dilemma.  Far from it.  Rather than a bunch of clear one-size-fits-all “how-to’s”, we find in scripture principles that God calls us to apply with wisdom.  That will look differently from family to family.

But, there’s real wisdom there that should inform our practical, everyday decisions:

Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.  (2 Timothy 3:16 from The Message)

Figuring out how work, family and the rest of life fit together is one of those critical “tasks” God is calling us to.

So, over the coming weeks, I’m going to unpack a fresh vision for balancing our work and family from Proverbs 31.  If you’re familiar with that chapter, you may be surprised, thinking, “I thought that was all about the ‘ideal’ Christian woman.  What does that have to do with work and family, too?”

Well, if that’s what you’re thinking, let me gently suggest that you’re right and you’re wrong.  It is a passage about ‘the godly woman’ and contains a lot of wisdom in that area.  But, it touches on men, children, work (over a 1/3 of the passage is about work) and, just as importantly, on how they relate.

So, fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen.  Be prepared to be challenged, encouraged and everything in-between.  I look forward to sharing, learning and living the journey with you.

What Does It Mean To Be A Doctor?

After some time away for vacation, we’re back, this time with a post from Dr. Josh Uy, who asks, “What Does It Mean To Be A Doctor?”  His post comes in the wake of recent debate in the blogosphere about balancing professional and personal priorities.

Dr. Uy’s thoughts raise the question behind the other questions: how do we decide what it means to be a good doctor?  In other words, how do we get beyond the ‘your opinion/my opinion’ banter that leaves us without any real moorings other than our own opinions?

Beyond the excellent, practical advice that Dr. Uy gives, I’d add that, for Christians, our choices have to be informed by God’s Word.  Although it doesn’t speak directly to things like how many hours we should work, or, how precisely to balance our families and careers, it does give broad principles we can (and should) wisely (and with real freedom) apply to these areas.  In my experience, the major hurdle is being ready to let God speak into these areas in ways that require sacrifice.  Although it hurts – to put it bluntly – it ultimately leads to real freedom for us, our families, and the patients we serve.

You can read other posts by Dr. Uy on his blog, The Geriatrician.