Thursday, December 2, 2010


I realized I have so many ideas for new blogs, yet with my first unit of CPE coming to a close and the holidays approaching, I haven't had much time to write.  For those of you not versed in the chaplaincy lingo, the CPE residency I am doing right now is divided into three units, almost like semesters.  We just got to the end of our first unit and had to write an evaluation including the Standards of Practices, etc.  The last question asked us to write a brief story or parable about our CPE experience thus far.  I enjoyed imagining and creating this parable and I figured I would share it in my blog, too.  I share it with you so that you, too, may look at your life both for its beauty and brokenness and find a metaphor that works for you.  As I wrote this story, it helped me see the bigger picture of my hospital work and the beauty of the minsitry to which I have felt called.  So here it is:

Miles the inchworm woke up one morning and realized someone had picked her up and dropped her far from her home.  She had lost sight of where exactly she was, but she remembered the last time someone picked her up and dropped her somewhere near there.  Not knowing what else to do, Miles began to crawl forward – one inch at a time.  “This will be an exhausting journey,” thought Miles, “and I’m not even sure I remember where my home is from here!”  But Miles kept crawling…inch by inch.

Soon after the start of the journey, Miles met another inchworm.  “Are you lost?” asked the inchworm.  “I am,” said Miles.  “I’m Inchie! Let’s move along together – maybe we’ll find where we’re supposed to be.”  And so the two worms crawled along side by side…inch by inch.

There were times when Miles became afraid of what lay ahead.  Luckily, she didn’t have to face it alone - she had her friend, Inchie, there with her.  Everything seemed less scary when Inchie was by her side.  The sun was up and blazing at this point and Miles was happy that she was small enough that the grass blades towered above her to give her shade.  Surely she wouldn’t overheat because of the dewed grass around her and the cold soil below her.  So in the beauty of the surrounding creation, they continued…inch by inch.

Still not knowing where they were headed, Miles and Inchie continued on their journey.  Because they were so small and the land was so big, Miles felt like they weren’t making good progress.  There was one part of the journey were Miles was simply ready to give up.  “Inchie, I don’t know where I am going and this journey is becoming pointless.  Can we just give up and find somewhere near here to call home?”  Inchie replied, “No, we must keep going.  Trust me.”  And so they continued…inch by inch.

The sun began to set and Miles was thankful for the cooler weather.  The upcoming darkness did not seem scary when she had Inchie by her side.  Up ahead in the distance, things began to look familiar for Miles.  “I remember this!  This branch, this soil…it all smells like home!  Let’s hurry up.”  Inchie stopped in his tracks and replied, “No need to hurry, just take your time.  We will get there.  Together.  For now, enjoy the journey.  Live in the present – make it so beautiful that it will be worth remembering in the future.”  And so they continued into the night.  Miles and Inchie…inch by inch.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

An Altered Imagination

I have always had an active imagination.  As a child, I loved to play pretend and found myself lost in my imagination often.  One time when I was about 3 (I don’t remember this, but I’ve heard the stories), my mom thought my dad had me at work and my dad thought my mom had me at home.  Both of them ended up at the church…and realized they had left me at home.  My mom sped home, afraid she’d find me dead, but I was in my room playing and didn’t even realize they were gone.  At our old house, I remember that the bathroom had different colored tiles on the floor (all rectangular in shape), and I would pretend that each tile was a child lying on their kindergarten sleep mat and I would read to them, teach them, and yes, even discipline them.  From outside the bathroom, it probably sounded like I was talking to myself…because I was.  Throughout my years in gymnastics, my gym friends and I envisioned our future gymnastics arena we would build – it would be called Lazer Gymnastics and would have a 2-story gymnasium that was sure to impress any gymnast or coach.  Through all of these stories, it is clear that I loved to pretend, to dream, to imagine, and to wish.

This wild imagination also had a not so good side.  I could watch a scary movie and for the next year think that there was a murderer standing behind my shower curtain or a masked man hiding in the bushes with a chainsaw.  In middle school, I watched one of those ‘fact or urban legend’ shows where a man claimed a snake came up through his toilet and attacked his family.  I was afraid to sit on a toilet seat for…well, sometimes I still am afraid to.  I can’t get that imagine out of my head.  When I did CPE at the hospital last summer, I was afraid that the images of patients would never leave my head: seeing my first patient on life support, the first stab wound, the first severed limb, the first dead body, the first suicide.  Surely those images would stick with me forever and consume me.  The more experienced chaplains would tell me to “look past” it and see the person, but all I could see was blood and death.  When I would see a person with an injury, I would imagine that injury on myself and it was as though I could see and feel the pain myself.  That is what would cause me to get dizzy, weak, and sometimes faint.  At times, I would even imagine how I would take the news if it were my own family member coming into the trauma bay.

As I have been discovering my own vulnerabilities and being able to name them, I can move forward in creative ways and see how to best handle my wild imagination.  The more experienced chaplains were right: I have gotten more used to what I see and it doesn’t bother me.  I am able to look past the blood, the tumor, the wound, or the coldness of death and see the person.  I no longer imagine myself with the injury or wonder how I would take the news if it was my own family member.  I still believe there is still a deep mystery in death and I don’t think I’ll ever part from that ideal, but I have gotten more comfortable being called to deaths.  I mention all of these to you because I believe I am being most honest to myself and others when I share stories about that the things with which I struggle.  One of our supervisors taught us two very important lessons which have helped form the words for this blog: 1) ‘You cannot do pastoral care in hiding.’  2) ‘Being vulnerable doesn’t mean you are powerless – it means you are powerful.  If I am going to be honest in my calling, I must be willing to share in my weaknesses and continue to find my growing edges.

So while I no longer talk to floor tiles in the bathroom or envision the masked man behind my shower curtain, I am blessed to say I still have an active altered imagination.  This newfound imagination occurs through curiosities that arise in conversations with those who are sick and suffering, through talking with my chaplain peers about our strengths and weaknesses, and through my visions of where this residency might lead me.  Most of all, I think it is my active imagination that allows theology to come to life for me.  In a world that fights to be black and white, I think living in the gray area – the unknown area that doesn’t have all the answers but instead finds itself with more questions – might be a pretty good place for me to be.
At least for now.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Facing Death

A week ago, I got to work and noticed the hospital felt different.  The parking lot was fuller, there were no chaplains in the pastoral care office, and the mood was somber.  I asked our secretary why the hospital felt different and she explained what had happened.  The night before, the staff received the awful news that one of the 25 year old NICU nurses, Larsen Hunt, was murdered.  I checked the news and found out that her ex-boyfriend came into her home, shot her several times, fled the scene and ended up driving his car into a house causing the car to catch fire and kill him, too.  Tragedy all around.  While I never met this beautiful young woman, I got to know about her story throughout the last week.  A funeral service was held at a local Methodist church last Saturday and was led by one of our chaplains.  There were over 800 people in attendance.
I worked with our pastoral care director and the NICU manager to put together a bulletin and service for the hospital.  Most of my day yesterday was spent meeting with some of the NICU nurses to gather information about Larsen’s life for the bulletin.  I searched for appropriate scriptures for one who has suffered at the hands of domestic violence, yet who lived a life of joy and laughter.  By the end of the day, I realized that I was planning all of this on All Saint’s Day.  It brought me peace to be reminded that Larsen is among the saints who have gone before us and that she joins the great cloud of witnesses who watch over us.
Often times in the hospital, we watch traumatic scenarios come in and I hear chaplains say “That could’ve been my child,” “I saw myself in that bed,” or “Wow, that hit close to home.”  This one hit close to home for me.  As I worked on the service, it made me realize just how fragile our lives really are.  Larsen was only 8 months younger than me.  She set her mind on her goals and fought to make her dreams happen.  She was young and full of energy.  I imagined that had I known her, we would’ve been friends.  I wondered, “What would it look like if someone were planning my funeral?”  How would people begin piecing together the stories and memories throughout my life?
I remember back to a class I took in seminary called “Death, Dying and Bereavement” where we had to write our own obituary and funeral service.  In doing that assignment, I began to come to terms with my own mortality; this tragedy furthered that reality…not in a pessimistic way, but in a real way that reminds me of the importance of living for the moment and not taking life experiences for granted.  It is unexplainable for anyone to die at a young age.  Even though her physical death can technically be explained, I believe it is truly unexplainable as to why these random acts of violence happen.  My heart breaks for her family, for her friends and for the TGH staff…my heart also breaks for her 5 year old son who has autism and who never again will have his mommy.
At the funeral, there were four doves released into the air: three for God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and one for Larsen.  The picture was shown at the TGH memorial service.  It looked as though God was carrying her to heaven.  It certainly brought me comfort to read these words from Revelation 21 at the memorial service (paraphrased here): “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.  I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’”  May that day come sooner rather than later.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Let the Little Children Come to Me

         I was overjoyed on Thursday when I got the honor and the privilege of baptizing my first baby.  As chaplains, we rarely get to even see the healthy, living babies.  It makes sense that we as chaplains don't see them often: parents are in awe and amazement over holding a newborn in their hands for the first time and certainly would want to be with just family; some families have a church home or at least a church they know where they will get their child baptized; plus, hospitals have such a quick turn around after birth that there’s not really time to stop and think, “Hmm, maybe a visit from the chaplain would be nice.”  So when I got called to baptize a perfectly healthy 6 hour old baby, it brought such joy to my heart.  There is nothing in the world quite like looking at one of God’s most recent creations and saying to him, “Be at peace. Christ is with you forever.”
         I was still soaring on cloud 9 over that experience when I went into work today.  I received a call from the nurse on the postpartum floor.  This time, no baptism; this time, a blessing.  The baby was born and died at 20 weeks gestation.  I went up to the unit and prepared myself for the blessing.  In our hospital (and perhaps the way many hospitals do it), we bless deceased babies with holy water that is placed in a shell and poured over the baby’s head.  The shell is small and does not hold much water, but the babies are so tiny that it is enough water to cover the forehead.  I did the water blessing for the child, as well as placing the mark of the cross on the baby’s forehead, symbolizing that Christ is with him forever.  I grieved with the mother – there are just no answers to such a difficult loss.
          The words of Matthew 19:14 kept coming to mind, when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”  In seminary, one of my professors warned me of society’s 'romanticization' of this text.  I think there’s some truth to that – I’ve certainly seen the images of Jesus carrying around a fluffy, smiling baby lamb as the blue-eyed children run to his feet.  But here in this moment, holding this tiny baby, it didn’t feel romanticized at all.  It gave me chills; it brought me joy; it brought me sadness; it brought me one step deeper into the mystery of God, the fragility of our lives, and the silence of deep and agonizing mourning.
          The prayer for this baby sounded a little different than the prayer for the baptism two days prior.  I used a prayer that I keep stuffed inside my tiny Bible for moments like this.  The prayer reads: “May the grace of God surround you through the warmth and love of family and friends, and may you not feel alone.  May God grant you assurance that your life has made a difference and that you are loved.  May God bless your journey from this life to what lies beyond.  May the Spirit of God go with you and grant you a peaceful passage.  And may we meet you again in heaven.  Amen.”
           As I left the room, I heard the tiny, innocent cry of a healthy newborn next door as the baby’s mother tried to feed her.  The mother on one side of the wall struggles to nurse her child; the mother on the other side of the wall struggles with knowing which funeral home to choose and whether to bury or cremate her child.  The silence of death and the wails of life happening at the same time.
           In these moments, I have to remember that Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”  At the same time, yet in different ways, I imagined Jesus’ hand reaching out for both of these precious children.  “For it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”  Thanks be to God.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


I used to dread theology class.  I remember looking at the course schedule when I started at Columbia Seminary and being nervous that theology was one of the only classes in seminary that lasted an entire year instead of just a semester.  My brain works well with math, with rules, with concrete ideas.  I loved taking Greek and Hebrew and did well in both subjects.  Theology, on the other hand, was about abstract ideas, uncertainties, and small discrepancies that held worlds of different meanings.  I would read every page of the assigned theology reading and still not have a grasp on the subject.  I would sit in discussions with my peers and find that no matter how much we debated, we always left the room with no more answers, only more questions.  I dreaded taking my theology ordination exam, yet ended up with a higher grade on that ord than any of the other subjects…God’s humor astounds me.
I was thankful when I began hospital work because unlike being a parish pastor, I would finally be able to put theology behind me and get on with life.  Silly me.  What I found was just the opposite – theology comes to life in the hospital.  Theology is more important to me now than it ever has been before.  I now see its relation to every person, to every situation, to every day.  It is no longer just the theology of 16th century theologians or feminist theologians or liberationist theologians.  It is the theology of each person’s story in the hospital.  It is seeing how Christ’s death and resurrection fit into people’s lives when they take their last breath on earth.  It is wondering where God’s comfort lies in the midst of human suffering, cancer, unexpected diagnoses, and death.  It is wondering what it means to worship a relational God and how we as people live in relationship both with God and one another.  For me, it is recognizing that it is only by the grace of God that I can wake up each day and gain energy from the things I experience at work.
Our deepest convictions and theologies come out of our stories and our lives.  These stories are sacred not despite our brokenness, but in our brokenness.  One of our supervisors taught us that our stories are sacred because we are created by God and God speaks to us through our life stories.  When we are able to share our stories, we are given a sense of community and commonality among all people.  Therefore it is crucial that we remember our story, that we claim our story, and that we tell our story.  No one’s life story is greater than another’s, even if we live in a culture that tells us otherwise.  The man selling newspapers on the side of the road has just as sacred of a story as the celebrities who make the front page of those newspapers.  The CEO of a company has just as important of a story to tell as the person who empties the trashcan in the CEO’s office each day.
So how do we continue to tell our story?  We have to start by remembering it and claiming it in our lives.  Through the Old Testament, God tells the Hebrew people over and over to remember.  Every time they started to lose hope and power, they needed to remember their story and from where they came.  Psalm 139 cries out in the suffering of the Israelites as they remembered Zion.  When Christ broke bread with his disciples, he told them, “Do this and remember me.”  Throughout our lives, we are told to remember our baptisms and the claim God has on each of our lives.  We are people who are called to remember.  Remember our stories; remember our joys and our sufferings; and remember that our lives are sacred as we continue to write them.  So remember the stories of the Bible and the gospel message – they will continue to play an important role throughout your life.  But just as importantly, I encourage you to remember your story and see that through the messiness and the hurt, the joy and the laughter, God has written a beautiful, unrepeatable story that continues to write itself each day.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Greatest Gift of All

People might say that greatest gift of all is Jesus…or having a child…or surviving cancer…or getting an iPhone 4 .  But hey, if I don’t put a catchy title to my post, how can I expect people to read it??  So for the sake of the moment and the intention of this blog, I am here to say that sometimes, especially in the hospital, the greatest gift you can give someone is the gift of listening.  For me, there is a difference between “hearing” and “listening.”  I think of hearing as the physical act of being able to hear the audible sounds of another person.  Listening, however, implies that deep connection and understanding with another and the ability to be right there in the moment.  I think we hear others all day: in the office, in passing, at meal times, during family time.  But how much time in the day are we listening to others?

In our didactic this week, we heard a quote by Fredrick Buechner, an American writer and Presbyterian minister.  Buechner says, “Be kind enough to others to listen, beneath all the words they speak…maybe we can help bring holiness to birth both in them and in us.”  As Buechner says, we need to listen not just to the words themselves, but to what lies beneath those words.  That is when we can find the truest meaning of what we are saying.  As chaplains, we are taught not just to listen to the words of a patient, but to listen to the unspoken language and see if we can crack into the depth of the person.  This is where some of our deepest connections and discoveries take place.  What might you learn from someone else by listening to his/her story?

Today I visited a man in his 60s who was just diagnosed with cancer of the spine.  As I was leaving, he grabbed my hand, began to cry and choked out, “Thank you for listening to me, chaplain.”  I realized that, prior to the closing prayer, I had only said about five words to this man in the whole visit.  But the man didn’t need words – he needed someone to listen as he talked about his fears: fears about cancer, how he will pay his medical bills, whether or not he’ll be able to go back to work, how he’ll be able to take care of his wife after this diagnosis.  And then I realized that listening is a gift that I can give every person I encounter at the hospital.  It is a gift without dollar value, yet it is priceless.  We live in a busy world – a world that is so occupied in keeping up with itself that it doesn’t have time to have meaningful conversation or time to get to know one another.  I think about the times I have said, “How are you?” to people in passing knowing that they’ll say, “Fine, and how are you?”  And I’ll say, “Fine, thanks.”  But in actually, my day may have been absolutely awful.  Yet, I fall back to the default response: “Fine.”  Have you ever stopped to ask someone, “No really, how are you?  You may be surprised with what you will hear.

In truly listening to someone, we are saying “What you are saying is important to me” and in turn saying, “You are important to me.”  Chaplains aren’t called to patients’ rooms to solve their problems, calm them down, or preach to them.  We are called to their rooms to listen to them.  If you truly listen and trust the patients, you will find that they will be able to discover their own answers to their problems.  They will calm themselves down.  They may even learn something about their relationship with God through the conversation.  But they may not be able to do that without first being given the gift of listening. 

So enjoy all the gifts you are given in your life and continue to offer your gifts to those around you.  But remember to always take the time to offer others one of the most precious gifts in the world: the gift of listening.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Better than a Hallelujah

I love listening to the lyrics of songs and seeing how they tie into my life.  It always amazes me when I can hear a song and think that the artist must be singing directly to me.  Music is such a wonderful way to connect to others.  Every now and then when I’m in my car, I hear the song “Better than a Hallelujah” by Amy Grant.  The lyrics to this song have always been beautiful, but now that I’m working as a chaplain, they carry a new meaning for me.  For those of you who haven’t heard this song, here are the lyrics:

God loves a lullaby
In a mother’s tears in the dead of night
Better than a hallelujah sometimes.
God loves a drunkards cry,
The soldiers plea not to let him die
Better than a hallelujah sometimes.

The woman holding on for life,
The dying man giving up the fight
Are better than a hallelujah sometimes
The tears of shame for what's been done,
The silence when the words won't come
Are better than a hallelujah sometimes.

Better than a church bell ringing,
Better than a choir singing out.

We pour out our miseries
God just hears a melody
Beautiful the mess we are
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a hallelujah.

I think about how many people I see every day, particularly family members who are there with a patient, become frustrated with their own tears.  They say, “I’m sorry that I’m crying” or “I’m trying to be strong for him and then I’ll get the tears out later” or “She has enough things going on right now, she doesn’t need to be worrying about me being upset, too.”  These statements break my heart.  Why is it that tears have such a negative connotation?  I think one answer is our society: we are pushed to be strong, fearless, almost robotic in our actions and that crying is weak, feminine, and even embarrassing.  Men, especially, are told to man up, be strong, and not to show their emotions.  How did tears, sorrow and emotions get such a bad rap??  The honest cries of breaking hearts are better than a hallelujah.

Here are some things I say/do when someone at the bedside apologizes for crying:  Sometimes I say, “You don’t need to apologize…tears are a very normal reaction to what’s going on.”  Sometimes I turn their own words back on them and have them ponder whether tears are really showing weakness or if they actually show honesty, vulnerability and love toward the patient.  I have told people who are mourning the sudden loss of a loved one, “Your tears are precious to God.”  When a loved one dies and a family member ponders about their tears, I sometimes tell them something one of my friends from seminary taught me: “We only grieve those things we truly love.”  The answer that drives me crazy is when friends, families and sometimes strangers say to those who are mourning, “This was God’s will, you can’t question it” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle, so don’t cry.”  I really wrestle theologically with this mindset.  When I see a child lying brain dead in the PICU, an adult diagnosed with an aggressively spreading cancer, or parents be told their baby did not live through childbirth, I know God is right there in our crying and our mourning, in our silence and our suffering.  The silence when the words won’t come is better than a hallelujah.

I imagine that a mother who has lost a child, a person who feels isolated and trapped in a substance abuse problem, or a soldier who has watched his fellow soldier die before his/her eyes would find a deep connection with this song.  We pour out our miseries and God just hears a melody.  I think it gives permission for the person to grieve when the rest of the world says, “Enough already.”  Tears do not show weakness nor do they move us farther away from God.  Rather, I believe in our deepest sorrows and tears, God is right there is the moment.  I even believe God feels sorrow with us and weeps with us in the unexplainable tragedies in life.  The weeping, the wailing, and the shouts to God saying, How could you let this happen?? are more precious than a hallelujah.  So if you’re mourning, don’t let others stifle your tears, tell you weeping shows weakness, or try to pull you out of the hell you’re in.  Let the tears fall; let the silence of unanswered questions be heard; and let the world know that sometimes our lives suddenly crash in on us…and even God weeps for that.

How beautiful the mess we are.

Friday, September 24, 2010

First Impressions

I hate first impressions.  I do not trust my first impressions of people and I hate feeling like someone else is making a first impression of me.  It is an uncomfortable feeling.  One of the chaplains at the hospital brought to our attention that we really are in the “first impressions” business.  We walk into our room and immediately the patient makes a judgment on us, just as we make judgments of them.  We can all pretend and say, “I don’t judge people on first impressions,” but I would argue that it’s inevitable.  It’s a part of our inner-being, even if our thoughts can change in the first 30 seconds of a visit.  So here are some of the more interesting first impressions of me that patients have verbalized:  They sometimes confuse me for the social worker.  Must be because I’m female.  Sometimes they ask me if I’m still in training.  Must be because I look 12.  I have even been confused for a nun.  Probably because the patient was Catholic.  Some people say, “How cute that you’ve been able to find your calling at such a young age.”  Yes, cute...I really love that one.  My favorite was the time when one woman said, “Oh, I must not have been clear in speaking with my nurse…I was asking for a priest.”  She then teared up and began to quiver until she burst into tears for the remainder of the visit.  It was so awkward it was almost funny.  I just sat there to give her the space to open up (that’s what we’re trained to do) until I felt like she was going to have a nervous breakdown, so I told her I’d find a priest to come see her.

Most of my visits don’t involve any awkwardness, but they’re not as fun to talk about.  Usually they result in the patient saying, “Oh hi, chaplain, I’m so thankful you came.”  Sometimes they’ll ask me to sit down.  Sometimes they’ll take my hand and hold it tightly.  Sometimes they are confused and don’t know what a chaplain is (so they start rambling off their blood pressure and prescription list to me).  Sometimes they begin to share stories or they stare into my eyes looking for the hope that they’ve lost in themselves.  I guess I just wonder how chaplains are viewed outside the realm of the chaplain’s world.  I have often heard people say we are representatives of God going into the rooms.  That sure brings a heavy responsibility!  I find peace knowing that I am not bringing the presence of God into a room, but that God is already present in the room and that I enter into that holy space with the patient and with God.

So I suppose, as much as I hate it, that I will continue to develop first impressions when I meet people.  But my hope is that I can educate myself to know that first impressions aren’t always right.  After all, I am not the stereotypical chaplain: I am young and female.  But I am not a student: I am an ordained minister.  And I am not a social worker or a nun: I am a chaplain.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Life’s Greatest Mystery is…

In my first blog, I mentioned about my fear of hospitals and more specifically, my fear around death.  I wish I could say I’m no longer afraid of dying, but I’d be partially lying to you…and myself.  That is why I believe that life's greatest mystery is death.

While reminiscing on some of my first childhood memories, I remember how I would sit around and ponder life, death, God, where babies came from, etc.  Just for humor’s sake, I will humiliate myself and let you know my thoughts on these topics.  First: where babies come from.  I thought that when a woman wanted to get pregnant, she would begin to eat fried chicken (including the bones) and spinach for every meal.  The swallowed bones would begin to form into bones that would be the skeleton of the human and the spinach would provide the nutrients.  You know how parents always say, “Eat your vegetables”?  Well, spinach was the token vegetable.  I even wondered at one point why God made men if women were the ones who created, birthed, and raised a child.  But I digress. :) Second: I remember picturing God as a big swirling mass in the sky and becoming confused when I read a picture book about the Christmas story with baby Jesus and his father, Joseph.  I remember pondering the nativity pictures while sitting on the kitchen floor at my childhood home on Paige Street and wondering if God was actually a man since all the nativity pictures showed Jesus’ father as a man (who I later learned was Joseph, not God).  Third: I remember thinking I had the ability to live forever.  I would say to myself, “Whenever my body gets really, really sick and tired, I will just choose to keep breathing.”  I thought people died because they make the choice to stop breathing, and I didn’t want to make that one.  Well, I eventually learned where babies come from…and that God is not a man…but one thing is still a mystery to me: death.

When I was in sixth grade, I remember getting done with something at church and my mom coming up to me saying, “Karen [not person’s real name] is in the chapel and asked if you three kids would come and see her.”  (Brief background: Karen was a lady in our church whose son had died in his early 40’s.  Karen asked my mom if we kids would go to the chapel to see her during her son’s viewing).  Mom assured me, “We’ll just go in for a minute and you can stay right at the door if you want to.”  Being caught up in the rush, I agreed to go see Karen, not knowing exactly what I should be expecting.  Again, I had thought about death as a child, but mostly about how I would avoid dying by continuing to breathe and about what heaven would be like rather than what our bodies looked like after we died.  I walked into the chapel and felt like I had been punched in the stomach with what I saw: an open casket with black and white framed photos resting on it showing the ancestry of this man, a big floral arrangement, and death.  I wanted to bolt, but right at that moment, Karen said, “Go on up and say goodbye to Jim [again, not real name].  It would mean so much to me.”  We walked up and I remember the pain in my stomach moving up towards my throat, then into my eyes, and I just wanted to burst out crying, but not out of sadness.  No, they were tears of utter fear and terror.  Luckily my mom said, “Jim, may you rest in peace,” because I knew if I so much as opened my mouth, I would’ve wailed or screamed or done something terribly embarrassing.  I kept it together until we walked out of the room, but then felt my body shaking and tears streaming.  Is there any way to prepare yourself for the first moment of facing death, even if it is someone you’ve never met?  I’m not talking about the beautifully painted picture of heaven and going home to the Lord, but the side of death that is left here on this earth.  The part we don’t want to talk about.  And in this story, I opted to not talk to anyone about it for several years.  But every night for years, when I closed my eyes, I would see this man – the images and smells haunted me.  He was in my dreams and caused me to wake up in cold sweats every now and then.

I still can’t understand death…no one here on earth can fully understand it.  We don’t even describe death in the same way.  Some people say “s/he died.”  Others say “passed away.”  In the hospital, the medical staff says “expired.”  Some people may say “s/he has joined the Church Triumphant” or “s/he has gone home to be with the Lord.”  Personally, I prefer the word “died.”  I think it captures the finality of it…perhaps this is why I focus so heavily on the earthly side of death.  It is the way I describe death and the way I have witnessed it in my life.

I’m still getting used to death, even being in my residency.  But maybe it’s ok for me to be afraid of death…specifically earth’s side of death.  Perhaps God is ok with me fearing this unknown.  It is part of the mystery of death that I believe God intended at the birth of creation – after all, we are not God or even gods, but humans, and therefore are not able to know all.

Maybe someday I will get to that thin veil between life and death…I will see what’s on the other side…I will have the choice to keep on breathing like I wanted to do as a child or to let go of this earthly life, die, and move into the arms of God.  I hope and imagine that the choice will be pretty simple.

Friday, September 17, 2010

If I Had a Hammer...

Yesterday, our resident group left the hospital early to head over to the Moffitt Cancer Center on USF’s campus.  We sat at a table with 10 other chaplains from other hospitals in the area and had a webinar with about 100 other chaplains/ministers through a conference call led by an ACPE Supervisor from Durham VA Medical Center named John Oliver.  There was a time in the discussion when we were laying out exactly what a chaplain does in a visit, especially after a traumatic event has occurred in someone’s life.  I grabbed onto something in particular that Rev. Oliver said and I want to explore it a little bit.  So here we go...

I am always getting asked by my friends/family about what one does as a hospital chaplain.  The misconception of chaplains is that we go door to door with a Bible offering scripture readings and ‘fix-it’ prayers (I can’t blame people for having those thoughts; I had them, too, before I ever took CPE).  But as chaplains, we are called to connect with the patients at many levels: spiritually, emotionally, physically, physiologically, etc.  Our director of the Pastoral Care department calls this “educating the gut.”  In other words, it is the ability to go into a room with no expectations or agendas of where the conversation will move, but instead being there in the wellspring of conversation, finding what is in our gut, and bringing it into the conversation.  On the flip side, I believe that if we go throughout the hospital with the understanding that we have a word for the patient to hear, that we can “save” the patient, or that our prayer will offer instantaneous healing, then we are cheapening the gospel message and the reality that often times prayer is a long-involved process and one that doesn’t result in the way we had originally hoped.  (Just as I was about to post this blog, I read a comment from my Aunt Beth from my previous posting…she describes it well in saying that from her experience while her husband was in the hospital, she felt like pastors were coming in for a healing just so they could add to their pastoral resume…great example, Beth!)

The reason I connect this with yesterday’s webinar is because Rev. Oliver gave us a wonderful quote to help summarize these thoughts.  He said, “If the only tool we have is a hammer, we will begin to see everything as a nail.”  Aha!  That is exactly what I was feeling but couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is the organic process of giving us a variety of tools from which to pick, not just the use of one tool for all visits and patients.  If the only way we know how to meet people in their suffering is through a quick-fix Bible quote and prayer, I don’t think we are being faithful to our calling as chaplains.  OK, it's disclaimer time: sometimes, a scripture reading and prayer is exactly what a patient needs and request, and by all means I will be faithful to that request – I just seek to avoid a “one size fits all” hammer and nail approach to hospital ministry.  For example, sometimes I go into a room and as soon as a patient hears I am a chaplain, s/he will say, “Oh ok, then will you pray with me?”  And I ask, “Are there certain things going on in your life for which you’d like me to pray?” And before you know it, I will be sitting with the patient for an hour listening to him/her debrief a traumatic, fearful, or guilt-ridden situation in his/her life.  In my ministry, I think creating the space for patients to discover what lies beneath their words is crucial…to begin to unravel the feelings and to the emotions that are underneath the story.  This allows the deep, unrepeatable, and genuine connection to take place.

At the end of the webinar, Rev. Oliver encouraged us to do a pastoral visit with someone and only asking a maximum of 3 questions in the whole visit.  Questions can often times (but not always) be asked out of our own selfish “need to know” basis, but if we just listen, encourage, and mirror back to the patient, I imagine those questions will get answered and we will find a more genuine conversation has come out of it.  I plan on taking Rev. Oliver up on his challenge, and will let you know how that goes. :-)

So my fellow chaplains, friends, family, and loved ones, feel free to carry a hammer in life - just make sure it’s attached to a belt filled with lots of other tools.  Because then we will see ourselves not as the hammer out to fix the nails in the world, but rather as humble servants who seek to reach people who are grieving and healing, frightened and anxious, suffering and alone.  And if you need an example of how we might do that, open the scriptures: you'll find that Jesus' ministry begins to sound very similar to what I'm describing.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Big Words, Big Meanings

Today in one of our didactics (fancy word for ‘classes’), our leader taught us about three important aspects to being a good chaplain: immediacy, spontaneity, and transparency.  While at first they look like big, boring words, they’re actually quite fascinating once you break them down.  Here are my confessions on each of the three...I wonder where you stand on each of these:

First, immediacy.  It may sound like this means how quickly you can get to a patient’s room after being paged (I’m young, I can move quickly!), but really it has more to do with your gut.  In other words, it is the ability to recognize our own emotions and feeling them immediately.  For those of you who know me well, you may know that in conversations I am always saying, “I feel like, I feel like…”  I say it so much that my brother used to make fun of me (and my friends) for always talking about our “feelings.”  But the tricky part for me is that while I talk about my feelings all the time, it really is a feeling of the head rather than the heart or the gut.  The teacher of our didactic said ‘immediacy’ is difficult for people to do who are ISTJs (these four letters come from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – I would highly recommend you go online and take a test to see what you are!).  I am an ESTJ, so I resonated with our teacher and realized that I really do have trouble figuring out my emotions immediately.  I am often thinking back in my day and thinking, “Oh, that’s what I was feeling.”  If I get in an argument with someone or leave business unfinished, I have trouble focusing on the present task – I guess it’s all part of being an ESTJ.  Sometimes I find myself in a funk until I can process my feelings from a conversation earlier in the day.  So at this moment, I think I am not succeeding at my immediacy in chaplaincy.

Second, spontaneity.  If we go into a patient’s room with an idea of what we hope to accomplish, we will ultimately fail as a chaplain.  Instead, we are taught to trust our spontaneity.  What we mean by that is learning how to trust the spontaneous thoughts that come into our mind and saying them aloud.  Some of my best visits with patients are spontaneous visits where I just went into someone’s room and let the conversation come to life.  Those of you who are Christian would call this the movement of the Holy Spirit.  I think I am ok on this…still working on it…

Third, transparency.  This involves telling people what you think rather than having a hidden agenda.  This piggy backs off of spontaneity, reminding us that if we are honest about what we’re thinking and able to bring that into conversation, we are able to connect with the patient and meet God in those rich, tender, unrepeatable moments.  I live for this – this is where theology comes to life for me.  While I can't always pinpoint my feelings in the moment, I can certainly pinpoint my thoughts.

I feel like (yes, here I go again with my “feelings”) out of these three, I am the best at transparency.  My friends remind me that I don’t really have a game face, and that I can usually say what’s truly on my mind.  I just have to make sure it’s always used in a constructive way.  I am ok with spontaneity…not great, but improving.  Where I need to work is immediacy.  I need to know how to trust my feelings in the moment.  I will get there…I have to keep educating my gut on this.  Hey, I have a year to figure it out!

What about you?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Take Two

By week 2 in my CPE internship last summer, I had already fainted twice (once in the trauma bay due to a patient with severe burns and once in my health screening after they drew blood), cried several times (a couple of them were in the bathroom stall so no one would know), and felt my entire body was anxious.  Those who know me well may know that I don't like to show vulnerability at the beginning of any new journey.  I think part of that comes from an upbringing of leadership in our lives - it was rare that we were the "newbie" at something church-related.  The other part is that I sometimes hate new environments, first impressions and the process of beginning to establish new relationships.  It's NOT that I hate the people I meet or the places I am, I just hate going through the first impressions situation.  Anyways, in an attempt to not show that weakness at the beginning of last summer, I remember feeling like I had to fake a level of confidence in the hospital.  It was ok that I was in a peer group of all men.  It was ok that I had to deal with blood, burns, bed pans and beepers.  It was ok that I had to walk into the room of a deceased patient to have the family sign a release of body form and be given information about grieving.  I suppose I didn't feel comfortable enough showing my fear, my anxiety, and my nervousness in being at a hospital.  I am sure, however, that everyone around could feel it.  For friends and family who weren't working at the hospital with me, it was almost guaranteed that they would receive a phone call after work in order for me to debrief the kinds of things I was witnessing at the hospital.

This time is different.  I have felt an overwhelming sense of calm through my first week and a half.  I have not felt faint.  I have not cried for fear of the unknown.  I have not even called my family or my friends about my experience so far.  Honestly, it's because I feel like I don't have anything to debrief or work through.  I have not portrayed myself as feeling overly confident, but instead as a humble servant who felt an unexpected call into the world of hospital chaplaincy after being certain that I would never end up there.  I have done one trauma; no deaths yet.  I wonder where this calmness will bring me.  I wonder how I will deal with the anxiety when certain situations arise.

I must say, one thing that has kept me calm is knowing that this is not a job...this is a calling.  This is not an internship...I was ordained into this.  And I don't go it alone.  When I place a hand on a patient during prayer, I remember that hands were placed on me during my ordination service.  When I know my body is dehydrated and my head is spinning from the blinding hospital lights, I remember the Charge from my session liaison to be sure to take time for myself.  When I stand alone in a patient's room or in the trauma bay, I can remember that I do not stand alone, for I go with a great cloud of witnesses.  And I do not bring the presence of God to the patients; rather, I meet God's presence that is already in the room and I go with God.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Why I Created this Blog

Throughout my life, I have always had an ability to stay focused on a career in my future.  When I was 3, I wanted to be one of three things: Cinderella at Disney, a roller-skating waitress, or an astronaut.  My family would joke that I would somehow work to become all three, but I quickly lost interest in 2 of the 3.  By kindergarten, I was set on being an astronaut and wore a KILLER outfit to school on "Career Day" which included a football helmet covered in tin foil.

Throughout my elementary school years, I was a gymnast who was fast moving up the different levels of competition.  I thought for sure I could be an Olympic gymnast for the 1996 or 2000 Summer Olympics.  When I began middle school, I quickly found a love for music as I began playing the flute.  From 6th grade until my sophomore year of college, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a band director.  This is why I entered into the music school at UF and graduated with a BM in Music Education.

But during my sophomore year of college, I felt something I had never felt before.  Rather than simply picking what I liked and what I wanted as a career, I got the first sense of calling in my life.  It was certainly a power beyond me, a sense that God was whispering into my ear.  It was scary to receive that call.  I cried for days at the mere thought of going to seminary to be a minister.  What if I didn't know the Bible well enough?  What if people think I'm just doing this because my father is a minister?  What if I had too many faith questions to be considered a "good Christian" in others' eyes?  What if too many people judge me as a woman in this predominately male-led field?  What if, what if what if....

After feeling an overwhelming sense of love and support from friends, colleagues, family, and my home church, I gained the confidence to apply to seminary.  Long story short, I went to seminary in hopes of becoming a parish minister, whether it be working with youth, children, or adults.  I wasn't exactly sure what I was feeling called to; however, I was certain of the one thing I was not being called to: hospital ministry.  Hospitals scared me - they were a place of sickness, death, uncertainty, sadness, loss of hope.  I didn't want to be a part of that.  (In another blog, I will get into more of my fear about hospitals and death in particular).  But for now, I will just say that it is indeed a calling I feel in this season of my life to be in a year of hospital chaplaincy work.  It involves me looking fear in the face and opening my ear, my heart, and my soul to those people who find the hospital to be a place like I had described.  It is a calling, I am sure of this.  Ask anyone who knew me, hospital ministry was NOT the place for me.  That is God at work.  So while my career choices have changed from the hopes of being a roller-skating astronaut in a Cinderella dress to a comfy shoe-wearing chaplain in button downs and dress pants, I have always been able to set my mind on something and run with it (especially in hospital work, we are literally running all over the hospital).  This is why I deeply believe that God does not have one calling for my life, but rather a calling for each season, and God's grace will carry me through each season of this journey.  This is why I have chosen to call this blog "Seasonal Grace."

And that is why I plan to share this journey in my blog, and hopefully help others to find the seasonal calling in their lives, however crazy they may seem.