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.