Public Process Note

I spend time with people who are dying, actively dying, and I spend time with the people who love them. It does and doesn’t get easier to listen to the rises of hope and the slips into sadness as some son imagines the soon-coming death of his mother or to the patient who looks ahead and thinks about not existing anymore.

I know how to stand and sit with a nurse whose patient just died or expired or passed away. I know how to acknowledge the connection between myself and a doctor I met only around the grim and delightful experience of a patient who died late that night a few months back, the recognition between us like a secret we keep to ourselves.

The medical intensive care unit, the on-call experience, the jacket that identifies me in the hospital all lend themselves to wearing the experience of somebody’s grief. Of course, I have my own because I learn something of these good people, I am known in little bits, and I know them in little bits. And then, I carry and hold the grief of others. And it does and doesn’t get easier.

This post isn’t about the skills necessary to carry the grief of others, and it’s not about the ways in which I support people up to the edge and just before the dark unknown that is death. Of course, for the Christian, the reality is that death is a step or slip or movement. Like the shift of one’s body in a gracious dance, death is supposed to be a movement into another life, another part of life. In the words of a young woman who said something I’ll never forget: Whether we live or die, we win. That is a Christian view of death.

The lived experience is murkier. Living with the stories and words and prayers of another as she approaches that existential doorstep into eternity is grounding.

When I woke up this morning, I heard myself say of one of my patients, “He’s not going to die over the weekend” and, shaking my head at the unbidden thought, “He’s not dying today”. Of course, when I arrived for our morning report where we discuss the issues of the previous day, where we talk about who needs to be followed or continually given care, that patient was on the lips of my colleague. She dropped her head and her tone and said she had sad news. It was brutal for that to be saved until the last relay.

I had been right up until that moment. He had not died. In my mind, he was still with us. In truth, his spirit or his intention was waiting on the perimeter of my unconscious, even before I woke, telling me in his own way–or in God’s own way–that he was, in fact, gone.

I was glad, made glad really, that my chaplain colleague was with him when he died. Knowing of his faith and seeing the notes that had been charted, she sat with him and played gospel music for him. She sang to him, held his hand. She was there when he breathed his last breath.

This morning became for me another moment to grieve, another patient I had cared for, another person I had gotten to know. He was another person whose story, in such a compressed time, I learned to appreciate.

I spent the day doing the same things I always do in the hospital. And if you weren’t a colleague of mine or a nurse from my unit, you wouldn’t know that this gentleman was now added to my mental picture of deceased patients. I would remember that he had been in that room. I would associate the number with the first meeting and then the second until I captured what my last prayers for him had been. Had I prayed a prayer of benediction? I generally tried to.

He joined a different cloud of witnesses and not just the one the scriptures speak of. His face became associated with his room so that when I walked by, I said another goodbye, and it was like that on the unit. He was still a teacher to me, a teacher in how to acknowledge what was happening in me, a teacher of remarking on a man’s grace-filled transformation, and how to continually respect the boundary that we give all that we have when we’re there and that when we’re not there, somebody else is.

He became an occasion for me to remember the other patients who I thought of in similar ways, even if there was one or two profound ways that distinguished him forever in my memory. He will be one of the people I look for when I slip through the split in the veil myself one day. I will anticipate him as a host quite like he was when he welcomed me at the hospital, and I believe he’ll be smiling widely and probably calling me by a title and a last name.

Books I’m Reading

More and more I’m claiming reading as a spiritual practice. I find myself reading in the Presence, listening to authors who interact with deep mysteries while I’m reading in the presence of Mystery. It’s a stretch for some people to accept the claim, but I may be doing my best praying while I’m holding some of these things. This is more a note to self of what I’m currently (and somewhat slowly) reading these days, in the order of when I started them.

I’m thumbing pages from these texts over the next month or so. Since a chunk of my pastoral work is enmeshed in these texts, I get to do some of this reading during the day, thank goodness!

  1. The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief & Healing. I started this collection, edited by Kevin Young, when I began my CPE Residency last fall, and it’s a powerful poetic reminder of what I see in the hospital daily. It’s on my desk at the hospital and I’ll stretch out the collection the rest of the residency.
  2. Life Cycle Theory and Pastoral Care. I picked Donald Capps’ book off the shelf of Dr. Ramona Joseph both to prepare for a January presentation with my colleagues and as a refresher on Erik Erikson’s developmental theory. I did the presentation but have one more chapter til I finish this text.
  3. Reframing: A New Method in Pastoral Care. A bit dated for its subtitle, I’ve always appreciated reframing in my practice of ministry, and this reading is acquainting me with the biblical and theological underpinnings of the method and not only the cognitive-behavioral theory I learned about ten years ago.
  4. The Gospel in Black and White. I’m reading this with a pastoral intern who’s serving at New Community and paying particular focus on racial reconciliation. Since I’m willing to revisit the places I suggest my students journey, I’m engaging with this dated but important reminder to parts of the Christian family.
  5. From Every People and Nation. This is the second book I’ll read with our pastoral intern and hopefully we’ll be working together–with me giving him my best assistance–as he develops and enriches his theological framework for the ethical work of reconciliation and works at a curriculum of sorts to address the good news, biblical interpretation, church, and stuff about race.
  6. Twelve Tribes of Hattie. This is my first piece of fiction in forever, and I’m enjoying reentering that literary world with this great novel. I’ve had this book on my TBR list since 2013, I got it from the library, and by the time this post goes up, I’ll be finished with it!
  7. Jung on Christianity. I’m reading bits and pieces by and about Carl Jung for my next presentation since I’ve never read anything on Jungian theory. This is one of 2 or 3 that I’ll sit with as I prepare something for my peer group on Jung’s applications for spiritual care in the hospital. I’m pretty sure I’ll read Memories, Dreams, and Reflections and Man and His Symbols even if very slowly through the rest of the year.

If there are still readers out there of my cpe-residency-impacted-blog, tell me what you’re reading. I may add to my TBR pile.

Reading for Class

This is a part of my reading for tomorrow’s class. It’s after the author describes how the world adapted economic models post World War II so that everything that was done essentially contributed to a nation’s economic strength. Wealth was measured in terms of goods and services, but not quite immaterial things. Services like creating weapons or being a soldier or a law enforcement officer counted while cooking dinner for your kids or cleaning up after your kids or working in your garden didn’t.

In short, we have converted destruction into an economic good. But anything that grows without money changing hands–parents who care for their children, people who voluntarily care for the sick, the dying, or the homeless, people who pray or meditate or walk in the woods–these, at best, have no value. At worst, they take away precious time and energy that could be used to grow the G.D.P.

…During Sabbath we stop counting…During Sabbath, things that grow in time are honored at least as much as those things we would buy and sell. At rest, we can take deeper measure of our true wealth. If we do not rest, if we do not taste and eat and serve and teach and pray and give thanks and do all those things that grow only in time, we will become more impoverished than we will ever know.

From “Why Time Is Not Money” in Wayne Muller’s Sabbath: Restoring the Sacred Rhythm of Rest

Influence

Originally posted on For Fathers:

One of the greatest tributes that can be paid to a parent, a teacher, a physician, a pastor, or anyone else who influences, instructs, and guides other people is that this person never taught a given individual something he or she had to unlearn.

From Behind the Masks (by Wayne Oates, pg 119)

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Last Breaths

I came to the hospital with televised notions of death. I came thinking of scenes from crime shows and legal shows, where death had already happened or where death came swiftly. I’ve probably read of deaths in fiction where the event stretched a bit. Fanciful notions that never prepared me for being in the room, in the area where that angel hovers. There is nothing like seeing death enter a space, move from one corner to another, and linger.

It seems to me that most deaths come slowly. People die in all kinds of ways. Death is dramatic and traumatic in many cases. Murders and long-term illness. Crimes of passion and crimes of technology. Decisions made by people who care too much and people who don’t care enough. Each can be an agent of death.

I’m learning that life is precious, fragile. The air we have in our lungs is phenomenal in what it does. Lungs make things in our bodies. But that breath leaves. It’s departure sober and quiet. Sometimes it takes a long time for a person to take her last breath. Other times breathing vanished before we really knew it, before the help arrived, before saving interventions began. We had already died, already surrendered to something else, some place else.

Contemplating last breaths makes the next one different. Seeing last breaths daily or almost daily both unhinges me for the silly ways I hear myself wasting air and anchors me in the coming reality of whatever is next. It is certainly a part of my practice that we live toward something and someone and some place beyond these. It makes me italicize last in my mind. Hopefully it’s a spark that ignites better living.

 

Advent Post #25

“Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months…” (Luke 1:56)

I love that Mary lingered with Elizabeth. She did what most of us don’t know how to do or don’t take the time to do. Mary and Elizabeth practiced a spiritual discipline in their waiting together. There was probably moments of personal solitude, likely times of conversation and eating and exercising, walking from here to there.

But they were together and they were waiting. For Elizabeth’s delivery. And to get closer to Mary’s. They were waiting to see God bring what God said would come.

I imagine that could have been a time of great turmoil and great anticipation. Any time God is at the quiet work of forming the unseen, it’s both thrilling and unbearable. You know God’s working, you sense it, but you can’t see the full product. You can only wonder if that work will look this way or that, if the fruit of God’s toil will “sleep through the night” or if you yourself will be calm or frenzied when it finally comes.

Will I be equipped? Will I fail? Can I support him through it? What good will I be to her when she needs me? How will we make it?

I don’t think we have those answers when we first want them. The answers to our questions almost never come at our desired speed. We want God to act more quickly than God does. We want to know more than we do. We want answers when all we’re faced with are more questions.

What’s the consolation? What sustains us through the quiet darknesses of the nights before. The night before Christmas. The night before a surgery. The night before a meeting. The night before a move. What helps us manage?

I think the answer is in Luke’s description. Mary and Elizabeth stayed together. So simple. They were together, befriending one another through the unseen things. They were present to one another while they waited for whatever God would do. They monitored one another’s progress, one another’s souls, one another’s care.

Perhaps the presence of others is all it boils down to at moments like those these women lived through. After all, time doesn’t move any faster. One teacher showed me that five minutes is the same whether or not you’re looking at the clock, even if it feels differently. What helps? Another person. Mary staying with Elizabeth. My friend falling into a chair in my office. The text that was a reminder that I really wasn’t alone. The prayer someone had been praying when I couldn’t reach God myself. All examples of someone staying with someone else.

May this Christmas be an opportunity for you to be present to others, and may you never feel alone. May you feel, in a good way, surrounded by grace, mercy, and all the other gifts that make life life.