By Debra A. Schwinn, MD

Reflections: Behind the Scenes

Take a moment to describe yourself. What comes first to mind? If you have been raised or educated in the U.S., most likely you will describe yourself in terms of your profession. When pressed further, you might add other roles such as sibling, parent, church member, avid biker, amateur musician, reader. We tend to live day in and day out absorbed by these public personas. Each of these roles we describe places us on the center stage of life, acutely aware of an audience watching the drama, with ourselves in a leading role.

Wait a minute, you say. I am not that self-absorbed. I am simply struggling to learn my profession, make ends meet, or get started in life. I am not on the center stage of anything. Yet if we ask ourselves the hard questions, we find that indeed many of our decisions assume that the center stage is where we need to be. Who has the goal to be backstage support — the actor who was cut from the performance, the “wannabe” understudy, the person who only raises the curtain and puts it down again? Most of us want to be on stage to hear the applause after a great performance. So we go to the best schools, become recognized early in our careers, and move into leadership roles hoping to be even more respected — to be even more center stage.

But God does not look for us on center stage. He looks for us backstage, the very place we often avoid. He may call some of us to be actors, but he calls us even more fervently to live faithfully behind the scenes. His daily questions do not include how we advanced our career today, but who we were as a person — what we did in the small, seemingly insignificant moments while waiting in line in the store, interacting with colleagues, or meeting with students.

God asks us to reframe our lives. Rather than skipping over the times between the “highs,” he asks us to focus on those ordinary in-between times. He asks us to be absorbed by them, to appreciate them as his grace and presence, and to honor them with our attention. What about using a long elevator ride as an opportunity to pray? Have we considered that the long line at the grocery store was purposefully organized by God so we might minister to the person in front of us? If today is glorious, why not take our lunch outside for ten minutes so we can bask in God’s sunshine, or in colored leaves in the crisp autumn, or in the power of a big snowstorm? How do we interact with the frustrations that occur daily? If we respond in an irritated fashion, can we use that as a signal of our own unrest, a chance to ask for God’s forgiveness so we can see what he has in front of us to find? How can we open ourselves to God daily in the hundreds of small ways that keep us connected to him? These “backstage moments” are the most valuable parts of our day.

However, such a focus is not easy. It takes practice over a lifetime to master. It takes place backstage, unobserved and unrewarded except by God. Fortunately we have a long history in the Christian faith of those who have followed this path and many have left us their writings. In addition to modern spiritual guides such as Mother Teresa, Eugene Peterson, and Henri Nouwen, we have access to spiritual mentors such as Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Teresa of Avila, and Brother Lawrence. In their writing, faith jumps across the pages through centuries, still very much relevant to us in today’s world.

There are very few experiences, emotions, and situations that we experience that are unique; our spiritual fathers and mothers have struggled with the same issues over time and many came to peace with God over them, though it may have taken their entire lives. Indeed, it is striking that the desert fathers withdrew from their world of work to the desert where they focused fully on waiting to hear what God would say to them. Some waited very long periods of time, but when they returned, they glowed with the spirit of God. They did not create ministry with programs or pious sayings, but lived it as a natural outpouring of a living spirit from within.

Pay attention. God is calling us to be sensitive to backstage work as the most important calling of our lives. He may not be calling us to abandon the center stage, indeed he may have put us there, but he asks us to realize those times are not the most important in the end. This is hard work, but God is there, waiting for us to recognize that every single day is filled with small moments that matter. Let us develop triggers such as the line at the store or the slow elevator to immediately begin to focus on what God has for us in that very moment. We can train ourselves to stop between the bus and our office to spend a minute or two observing nature around us — the glory of skyscrapers against a cloud-filled sky or the chirping of the lone bird on the branch nearby. If we look, we may suddenly discover sadness on the faces of people around us during a high level meeting. God calls us to pay attention.

We can choose to avoid and miss these moments, or to find gradual peace and love by being filled with living water during such interludes, even in absolutely crazy-busy days. He is there for us, waiting. To grow we must be filled with his abundance and living water, so that it can naturally flow from him, through us, to others. God waits for us today. Let us open our eyes to find him.

About the Author

Debra Schwinn is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Anesthesiology & Pain Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Pharmacology & Genome Sciences, at the University of Washington in Seattle and is a practicing anesthesiologist. After a 21-year career at Duke University Medical Center, Debra moved in 2007 to the University of Washington in Seattle. During her career, Debra has held numerous faculty positions and had the opportunity to train and mentor many students, residents, and fellows. She and her husband, Bob Gerstmyer, have two teenage children and attend Bethany Presbyterian Church in Seattle. In her spare time, Debra plays the violin and enjoys 19th century Russian novels.

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