“good news for all of us”

by Tim Marshall

Walking into a room and meeting another person wherever they are. To show up and shut up and be present. To move through the human desire to say something to make it all okay and just be. To be a reflection of God-in-flesh to those who are suffering.

Also, my patients reflect God to me. People who are dying share visions of angels and whispered messages from the hereafter. Patients who are undergoing intensive rehab therapies after a stroke speak of wrestling with God in the dark hours like Jacob and emerging with a limp, but having touched God.

Chaplaincy is not a cerebral ministry of long hours spent in a pastor’s study in preparation for preaching. It is holding hands through bed rails and wearing isolation gowns and being willing to literally stand in suffering with God’s beloveds. It is not about translating Hebrew or Greek from ancient texts, but about translating scripture into something now that matters to the mother who is delivering her stillborn child or the son losing his father to cancer.

The theology of the cross is particularly apparent to me in my hospital work. This theology holds that God’s love for all of creation is most clearly seen in the act of dying on the cross.  That God did the most human thing of all, which is to die. The theological conviction that shapes my ministry as a chaplain is that God knows what it is to suffer and to die, and there is no place that God is unwilling to go, even death. This is good news for all of us who feel immersed in suffering, our own or that of others.

Read Amy Hanson’s full post here.

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It Was Fear That I Saw

Photo Thanks to Matthew Wiebe

Photo Thanks to Matthew Wiebe

I’ve seen the look in too many people’s eyes. And I don’t say that as a pin of honor or badge on my lapel. It was a dreadful thing when I first started seeing fear so regularly. There’s nothing like the naked, bold, and startling fear in the eyes of a person who watched the slow-coming death of someone they love. Love makes us hold tightly. Love, often, is the enemy of surrender. And I thought about it when a woman asked me, in a way, about my own loves.

When I first started in ministry at Sweet Holy Spirit, my role was primarily administrative. Aside from some relatively small amount of pastoral care, I functioned the way an executive pastor functions, looking at costs, praying about meeting budget, managing operations, getting to know a staff, decreasing that staff, trying to compensate the staff based upon the unique and faithful expressions of ministry’s vocations. I brought an attorney on retainer, developed relationships with insurance agents, learned about wage demands from the IRS, and became a master at explaining differences between exempt and non-exempt employees.

Being an executive pastor who was in the seat when the pastor was away was more responsibility than I was ready for. It aged me. It still does in a way. And I remember seeing fear in those days. But it was a different fear. It was a fear of missing marks that were mostly set in the wide generous room of a large church. I had my own fears. But in terms of the real fears of others, I was hardly exposed to much. I was the person who kept at the overarching system so that the good folks in our church could come and hear the words spoken. But I hardly had enough time with those folks, those listeners. They would have taught me differently about different fear.

When I came to New Community, I came, in part, because it was twenty times smaller than my home church by my conservative estimate. I would be able to pastor in a classical way, and that vision is one that I’ve been able to live. I’ve been in homes, around tables, having conversations and not just at the office or even in my study at home. I’ve been able to search the lives of others at their leadership and invitation. I’ve seen more fears in the eyes of our people.

And still, my church is “relatively young” church. I find myself over the years putting up three or four fingers when I tell people how many times I’ve visited hospitals for the people of New Community. It’s relatively young, I tell them. People don’t ask the pastor to come to the hospital when a baby is born, and twenty and thirty-somethings don’t generally get hospitalized and require pastoral visitation. Where I preached twelve funerals a year (as part of a staff of ministers) at SHS, I’ve done almost as many weddings during some of my ten years at New Community.  Fear looks differently in those congregational contexts.

When I started working as a chaplain, I started seeing fear differently. In the medical center, I saw it all the time. I see it all the time. I can see it daily if I choose. Unfortunately, there is always somebody (perhaps a somebody in 900+ beds) negotiating with fear.

The good thing about being a chaplain who is also in the supervisory education process is that you’re always doing action, reflection, action. Always working in that CPE model of learning. In fact, you have to stop yourself from doing it. At home, in the congregation, in conversation with people who know nothing about this model of learning. Stop being shaped the education and be. Still, it relates to how you see yourself.

You become a process person, loosening your grip on content and becoming more interested in what’s happening, what’s taking place, what process we’re in, rather than the superficial and low-hanging surface of what’s merely explicit. Process is hardly ever explicit. And fear is the same. You have to see it even though it’s facing you.

That’s why relationships falter because it takes a therapist or a spiritual director or a guide who’s outside the dyad to say, “Hey, what’s happening here?” or “This is what I’m seeing.” or “If you keep in this direction, where are you headed?” These aren’t content statements but process ones.

You begin to see your own fears. You make friends with some of them. You give grace to them, gifting them with new understanding because the words behind and under those fears are understandable. They are real just like the fear.

The Blessed Child

Thanks to London Scout

Thanks to London Scout

I was listening to Rev. Emily Rosencrans the other week as she spoke to the chaplaincy staff about blessing. She talked about family systems in particular and how blessings are passed on to members of families.

It was a remarkable session, partly because I get a lot out of (family) systems theory and partly because of the ways Chaplain Rosencrans handled us. Her manner was gentle, precise, and perceptive. Plus, it’s fun to watch chaplains teach other chaplains because, as some theorists suggest, how we are with one another is how we are with our patients.

Nonetheless, we learned that usually mothers bless their sons and fathers bless their daughters. We talked ins and outs that I’ll keep from the blog but which really will impact, is impacting my pastoral and clinical skill since the session. We were learning about the work of Myron Madden who I’ve gotta put on my ever-expanding reading list.

Blessings are spiritual things and they come in the form of words, gifts, and permissions given. Such a clear capturing of a well-used word–blessing–or a worked over phrase–God bless you.

One of the most important things she told us was that we can get what we need and that we can encourage others to get what they need. Even if you weren’t the blessed child; even if your role was the rebel and troublemaker or the responsible caretaker; you can get what you need.

The other critical point was about how we can bless each other without regard for–or because of–who the so called blessed child was. Everybody can be a blessed child, and we have a role as spiritual caregivers in reminding people of that. In other words, we can bless and facilitate the blessings of others.

I thought about this quote that I used in a chapel meditation a few months back from Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved:

It is remarkable how easy it is to bless others, to speak good things to and about them, to call forth their beauty and truth, when you yourself are in touch with your own blessedness. The blessed one always blesses. And people want to be blessed! This is so apparent wherever you go. No one is brought to life through curses, gossip, accusations or blaming. There is so much of that taking place around us all the time. And it calls forth only darkness, destruction and death. As the “blessed ones,” we can walk through this world and offer blessings. It doesn’t require much effort.

So what do you need? Who needs to bless you? Go to them. Get it. Get what you need.

And don’t forget that you can bless others. Look for the moment. Take the opportunity to bless.

Listening Is

Listening is a mind-set. Active listening, effective listening, compassionate listening, and in-depth listening involve respect and appreciation for the person who is talking. Such listening suggests that what the other person has to say is important and deserves validation. Listening is a decision to engage in another’s life story and discern how you can be of help in the shaping of his or her story. Listening does not require us as caregivers to have great answers or be experts in the subject areas. Listening is a commitment to respect you enough to give you my full attention and give you clues and follow-up questions that ensure I received your messages as intended.

(From Professional Spiritual & Pastoral Care, pg 127)

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.

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 #20

“…for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” (Luke 1:49)

I stood and listened to a patient who told me how remarkable God had been in his healing process. And like other times, I received a gift in that man’s retelling. He spoke to me about how from start-to-finish God had been present.

That doesn’t happen every day in the hospital. There are people who struggle to locate the Presence as they fight disease. There are relatives who want nothing to do with a chaplain or the God she or he may bring. God and God’s things are toxic to some when their bodies are sick. God and God’s things do not bring healing to them. Of course, as a pastor and chaplain I find those to be reasons to keep praying, even if quietly for my patients and their families.

On occasion, though, and the occasion is often I’m happy to say, a patient will be quite clear that “God has done this.” One man told me for 30 minutes the story of God’s company in his healing. Since my units at Northwestern Memorial are the general surgery and medical intensive care units, I tend to see some of our hospital’s sickest patients. I tend to see people just before or just after a surgery. I see people when they feel very close or very distant from God.

This gentleman, a man afraid of needles and things, talked to me about how God had changed him. God turned him toward healing by doing the plain, almost unremarkable act of having him go to the doctor, obey the doctor, and keep obeying the doctor. He followed his wife’s instruction and kept following it. And God kept working through each act of surrender. Eventually–and I am using Mary’s song to summarize my patient’s experience–the Mighty One did something great.

I don’t know that I’ve always seen God’s acts in unremarkable acts. I’ve certainly developed that appreciation to spot God in the ordinary. I want to raise that as an ideal. Looking for God in the mundane expands our potential for finding God. If we seek, whether at this liturgical moment or another, to find God in the spectacular, we’ll usually be let down.

“God will heal me from this despite the doctor’s report,” just may be one such moment. It’s a spectacular prayer and hope, and I find myself supporting many who say and hold such statements in their hearts. But it takes as much (perhaps it takes more or frankly less) faith to state that God will be with me through the long course of some thing, that God will walk with me through a pregnancy (like Mary) or a cancer treatment (like a friend, Grace) or a job search or a move to a new city. God who does things in spectacular ways also does things in ways we hardly notice.

Of course, any time God does something, anything, it’s worth our calling it “great.” Does it have to be a mountain that is moved for us to call it amazing? Or does it only have to be something an amazing One did?