Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tears

My whole life, I HATED crying.  In my early years, I cried when my brothers picked on me.  I would run to my dad and he would come to my rescue.  I cried in second grade when my friends would purposely buy their lunch when I was bringing mine so they wouldn’t have to sit with me.  For several weeks of that year, I sat with the special needs kids because I was afraid to sit with anyone in my class.  (And yes, at the time I had a bowl cut, a speech impediment, and a KILLER Peewee Herman fluorescent purple jumpsuit that I wore on school picture day.)  I cried in fourth grade when some of my classmates said they wanted to start an “AJAS Club” (AJAS stood for “Against Jennifer Ann Sumner”).  In middle school, there were days when my friends would take bets on who could make me cry first in the day.  Now before you feel too bad for me, you should know I had my share of bullying others as well.  Making others cry made me feel better because it meant I wasn’t the only crier.  It was a defense mechanism and a way to feel cool, and trust me: I would do anything to take back the hurt I caused others.  Even in seminary, I cried in the middle of a lecture when my professor could remember the names of everyone in the class except mine.

My first unit of supervisory training ended last week.  This unit has been an incredible time of growth and learning.  One of the greatest things I have learned this unit is that old habits die hard and I am still learning to embrace my tears.  I thought I would outgrow my tears - and in some ways, I have - but I have learned that tears are just part of who God created me to be.  I struggle with my tears because I don’t feel like I cry at the right times.  I don’t cry when others are standing at the bedside of their sick loved one, or when I am called to a death, or when I deliver the news to a family member that their loved one was in an accident.  I certainly feel compassion and empathy towards the person, but that is not when my tears normally fall.  Instead, I cry when I am angry, when I feel powerless, or when I am passionate about something.  I cry when I feel invisible and when I feel I don’t fit in.  Part of my supervisory process is not running from my tears, but embracing them and talking through them.

Just this last week, I got angry with my supervisor over something and I started crying.  You know those tears that start in the privacy of your office and continue into the lunch line with bright fluorescent lights shining on your swollen eyes?  Yes, those.  I told him at first that I was just frustrated, but then I told him the scary truth: I was actually angry.  He calmly listened as I shared.  I was trying to shy away from my true feelings and he was inviting me into them.  After I spoke with him, he thanked me for telling him I was angry and for being authentic in my feelings.  I thought, ‘Hmm, what a weird job I have that I get thanked for telling someone I am angry with them.’

While tears used to be one of my greatest fears, now I am learning to make friends with them.  Tears are not my weakness – they are one of my strengths.  As one of my supervisors says, they are a gift from God just like all our other emotions.  I have wrestled with the projection that my supervisors are thinking, “Oh no, we made the little emotional girl chaplain cry again,” but I have learned they do not think that; even better, they don’t react negatively at all to my tears.  No handing me a tissue, no stopping the conversation, no awkward look like they’ve inflicted unnecessary pain on me.  Nope, the conversation continues like nothing even happened.  And their behavior with me is exactly how I am with patients in their tears: calm, quiet, present.  They have taught me to be present with others in their tears; now I am learning to be present with myself in my own tears.  It will continue to take time, but I am getting there.

My supervisor wrote in my evaluation, “Jenny’s perfectionism is tamed by her vulnerability. She makes it easier for people to be with her and to know her.”  I hope others have gotten to know me better.  I definitely have gotten to know myself more.  Tears and all.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Ornamental Chaos


Brian and I already have all our Christmas decorations up.  Inside, outside, front yard, back yard.  Our neighborhood puts up lots of decorations, so we really had to bring our A-game.  We have done lots of our Christmas shopping and made our Christmas cards.  We bought our tree the night of the UF/FSU football game (I needed something to do during that painful game).  We have a tradition of picking out our tree together and then decorating it with a collection of ornaments that we have gathered over the years, some that we bought and some that were gifted to us.  Our tree doesn’t look uniform nor does it follow one color scheme – it actually looks somewhat messy.  But what I love about the messiness is that each of the ornaments has a meaning.  Here are some of my faves:


An ornament from when I was born: 'Baby's First Christmas' (1984)
  
The Greatest Gift of All - church cantata (1990)


Made by a Michael's Arts & Crafts employee - my first job in high school (2000)
  

Given to me by an AHS band member (2001)
 

From Nuremberg Germany - a gift from my parents (2007)
 

Hemi's First Christmas (2008)
  

Olive wood Nativity scene I bought in Bethlehem (2009)
 

Our First Christmas - engagement ornament (2009)
 

An ornament I gave Brian - a deer in construction clothes (2010)
 
From Ten Thousand Villages - a gift from my parents (2010)
 

Gator Nutcracker - from Sarah (2010)

  
Just Married (2010)
 


Obviously, I could go on and on with more of my favorite ornaments!  I remember as children, we would have a tree decorating party.  We would pull out the step stool when we were too young to reach the top and put our ornaments up as we shared stories about them.  I loved putting up the Wizard of Oz and Winnie the Pooh collections of ornaments - I enjoyed hanging them all together like a family.  I also remember wondering why we put the old, worn down ornaments on the tree, especially the ones that lost their glitter, their hooks, or were broken.  They were put up because they held memories.  And now as I am married and Brian and I started our own lives together, I am eager to put up the ornaments, both old and new, that carry memories in our hearts.

I recognize that for some of you, Christmas is not a joyful time: it can be sad time, a stressful time, or an anxious time.  And each year, the holiday season looks a little different for everyone.  With all the changes that happen in my life at Christmas, I just love the chaos of the tree.  I think it’s a little bit like our lives.  As hard as we may try, life often doesn’t look neat and organized.  Life happens in the chaos.  Life happens in the busyness of shopping and traveling and cooking and caroling.  Life happens in the reading of 'The Night Before Christmas.'  And life happens as we read the story of a women named Mary and a man named Joseph who frantically looked for place to deliver - and all they could find was a manger.  But take heart that what came from that chaotic situation was Emmanuel: God With Us.  So from my chaos to yours:



I wish you a blessed Christmas season.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What I Do

I haven’t written a blog in a while.  It’s not that I don’t have things on which to reflect.  In fact, being in this supervisory process, I have to reflect theologically about almost everything I do.  Perhaps it's the fact that I do so much written and spoken reflection at work that I feel like I have no creative juices left to write blogs!  But on many occasions, I am asked what exactly I do as a supervisory education student.  So here is where I am in my process:

I still work as a chaplain on the floors, but I am with patients 15 hours a week instead of 40 hours a week.  In those 15 hours, I still carry the on-call pager and deal with traumas, codes, deaths, and other crises.  While I have been doing this work for over a year, I still find myself involved in tragic cases that surprise me in their level of difficulty.  It's crazy how much I can handle now.  At the same time, I am happy that this work has not made me emotionally numb and that I still have the ability to feel and express emotion.  For example, a couple weeks ago, I dealt with my most difficult case yet as I watched a mother and unborn child die suddenly from a tragic accident.  So, so sad.

In the other 25 hours of my week, I focus on my supervisory process.  I have weekly individual supervision just like I did when I was a resident.  I also silently observe my supervisor as he guides a group of five interns through their process.  Every other Friday, I drive to Orlando to meet with a group of supervisory students and supervisors in North and Central Florida.  We present verbatims and case studies and have our work broken down through questions, curiosities, and insights.  Sometimes I wonder what it would be like for an outside person to sit in on one of our meetings.  They would likely think we’re crazy as we analyze every thought and question.  Being in the hot seat is tough, but they are helping us prepare for when we meet committees.

I have begun working on my theology theory paper and plan to go for Candidacy in spring 2012.  If I make candidacy in the spring, I can begin supervising students in the summer without a supervisor in the room – I just have to video tape every group and individual meeting.  If I do not pass committee, I will continue growing in  my process and try again in fall 2012.  During that same time, I will also begin researching and writing my education and personality theory papers.  I have to pass all three papers (theology, education, personality) before I can go for the next step called Associate.  But that won't be for a couple years.  This process - start to finish - varies in time, but is usually in the ball park of 5 years.

So there you have it – an update on what work life is like for me these days.  Just like any kind of parish work, this career path is definitely a calling.  Friends, I’m not gonna lie: this process is tough.  It produces tears and frustrations, but also the excitement of self-discovery.  But in all the chaos and difficulty of this process, I love this work more than anything I have done before.  To put it simply, it gives me life.  It so exciting to discover the reasons I do what I do – to work on my theories, and then practice them with patients and students.  And it is an honor and a privilege to be with people in their grief and to be with students in their learning process.
So all is well right now.  Work is great.  And life is amazing.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why is ‘Why’ so Awkward?

This week in class, I listened and observed as the fall interns discussed a particular case involving the question of theodicy.  In its basic form, theodicy involves the question of where evil stands amidst a God who is believed to be all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing.  Theodicy questions include things like, Why does evil happen in the world? Does God have the ability to stop it?  Is God a vengeful God, a forgiving God, or perhaps both?  These questions used to be too complicated and distant for me to consider.  When I first started seminary, I did not like theology.  I thought theology to be a time where ancient, abstract concepts of God were brought into conversation with each other.  However, once I began my work as a hospital chaplain, I saw theology come to life and have loved it ever since.  Because the questions of life and death are a part of people’s everyday lives, and instead of discussing ancient theologians’ answers to the questions, we help families look at their own stories and seek to find an answer to their own grief.

In this conversation with interns, we talked about a mother whose son (in his mid-20s) was on his death bed after a car accident.  His brain was bleeding and his death was imminent.  In my interpretation, this son was the glue that held this somewhat dysfunctional family together.  And here they were, watching it all unravel in a split second.  The mother asked several times, “Why him?  What did he do to deserve this?  He is a good kid!”  There was a fear among some of the chaplains in the conversation that this mother was going to ask the age-old theodicy question, “How could God let this happen?!”  The fear grew as some of the chaplains wondered how they might answer that question.  How do you answer the question as to why God would let this happen to her son?   I had an easy answer: you don’t.

It may sound like avoidance, but hear me out.  I think our hearts and minds have a way of eventually processing out why things happen in our lives - it is our way of grieving.  Let me be clear that I do not believe we always get a cut and dry answer; sometimes our answer is settling on the fact that we just don’t know why.  That being said, I do not think God created us to grieve and process all the same way.  For example, when my grandfather died, each person in my family grieved his death differently.  The beauty of our family’s grief was not that we grieved uniformly, but that God created the space and presence for each of us in our varied grief.

Another example from my experience came when I told someone about the death of an unborn child in my extended family.  That person had the nerve to say to me, “Well, I’d bet God took that baby’s life because God knew something would be wrong with the baby if it was born. But now you have an angel waiting for you in heaven.”  I wanted to slap him.  Seriously, do you think you know why this baby never got a chance to live?  And more importantly, do you honestly think THAT answer is helpful??  Perhaps you have had a death or some sort of loss in your life experience.  How did it feel when someone came to you and told you why it happened? 

I think when we answer questions of this nature, it is out of our own anxiety, or even avoidance, about the topic at hand.  I see it happen all the time at the hospital (yes, I sometimes find myself doing it, too, without realizing it).  The other day, I was with a family member after her long-time boyfriend suddenly died.  Perhaps out of his anxiety, I heard the physician say to the woman, “My only explanation is that God must’ve wanted him more than we did.”  In an effort to provide an answer to an answerless situation, I believe the physician gave a potentially harmful statement for this woman to carry with her: God must’ve wanted him more than we did.  Translation: if you wanted him more, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.  I cringed a little on the inside.

I don’t think the physician who said that meant any harm by it.  But I do think we as humans want to give an answer that makes people feel better.  So why is the ‘why’ question so awkward?  I think because the question stumps us.  And it is hard for us as people to admit we don’t have the answer to everything.

As a chaplain, I think my role is to create the space for grief.  It is a common misconception that we as chaplains come to explain why something happened to someone.  I don’t know why something horrific happened any more than the next person.  I have no idea why unborn babies die, why perfectly healthy people are suddenly diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, or why a good and loving person can suddenly die in a fatal car accident.  But giving families the space to cry out the “why” questions, and equally as important, allowing the space for the silence of the unanswered questions, helps remind me that I am not God and I have not begun to understand why bad things happen to people.  But I believe that in that awkward silence rests the presence of God, encompassing the space for every felt emotion.

My closing statement to the interns was equally helpful for me as I continue to wrestle with the question of why bad things happen: “The beauty of the chaplain’s role is that we don’t carry the pressure to answer questions of theodicy…but we do carry the privilege of entering into a family’s grief with them.”  And that, to me, is what makes the silence a little less awkward.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Time

On Tuesday, September 6th, my year-long residency came to an end.  Time sure flew by.  The residents came together and we shared memories of the years and the ways we have grown together.  We cried and we laughed…oh, did we laugh.  We were always great at that.  I will forever remember the wisdom this group brought to each other and the ways they have helped me grow into the chaplain I am today.  Because I am now a Supervisory Education Student at the hospital, I did leave my badge, my keys, and my pager in the pastoral care office as I left on September 6th.  But I still felt like I left a part of me there that day.

It sure felt different coming to work September 7th and finding a new group of residents, a new crowd of faces who are overwhelmed by curiosity and anxiety over protocol, class assignments, and schedules.  I look back on my year and remember us all feeling that way our first days.  I look forward to teaching the new students and working with them as they find their way in through the hospital.


I remember last year that as our own fear subsided, we embraced the role of 'chaplain' in many ways: through responding to traumas and deaths, watching surgeries, blessing babies whose lives were gone all too quickly, going to workshops and training programs, assisting people with Advanced Directives, being a listening ear to patients, seeing part of an autopsy, praying with the living and with the families of those who died, going deep sea fishing, sitting with families filled with fear and anxiety, working to bring comfort to staff who care for patients day in and day out, and even creating a fun and educational board game called "Spiritual Pursuit" to help future students learn about our hospital protocol.


This last year serves as a beautiful reminder that life is filled with moments of disorientation and orientation, fear and hope, anxiety and confidence.   And I find comfort that we worship a God who journeys with us through all of those emotions.  At the change of this season, I am drawn to the text from Ecclesiastes 3.  For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

A time to have your picture taken with your supervisors.

A time to gather for sporadic hallway photos.

A time to wear scrubs and watch surgeries.

A time to stealthy take your picture whilst wearing
scrubs, goggles, and hair nets.

A time to become certified Palliative Care
Resource Professionals.

A time to plank on your department’s TV cart.

A time to train and embrace 11 summer  interns.

A time to go deep sea fishing in hopes of catching dinner.

And finally…a time to accept the beautiful gift of hand-made stoles made for us by an incoming resident.

We came as strangers and left as friends.

And more importantly,
we came as timid residents and left as pastors.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Help

Brian got me a Kindle for my birthday.  I put it on my birthday list after realizing how much reading I will be doing in my supervisory education process and thought it best to have all the books in one place.  Of course, the first moment I turned the Kindle on, I did not download books of clinical theorists.  Or theologians.  Or even anything work-related.  I downloaded The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

A book really has to catch my attention for me to finish it, as I am not an avid reader.  But friends, I could not put this book down.  At any free moment in the day, I would pick up where I left off and try to read a chapter.  I even found myself rebelliously staying up late with one little light on in the bedroom just so I could get a few more pages in.  Even though the book is ‘fiction,’ it is portraying the life and times of Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s, particularly focusing on the stories of ‘the help’ (black maids) being hired to work in white, wealthy households.  Such emotions encompassed this book: I laughed, cried, was angered, rejoiced, got nervous, and felt relieved.

Skeeter, a white and somewhat rebellious woman of her day, worked to collect stories from the help.  Towards the end of the book, she writes these unforgettable words: ‘There is so much you don’t know about a person…We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.’  Can I get an amen??  How many times every day I am reminded that I don’t know what others are going through.  Our minds sometimes tell us, “I am right and the other is wrong” or “I know the answer better than the other.”  Don’t we see that all the time in politics, in religion, in the media?  How wrong we are in that thinking.

I am reminded of this daily at work as I spend my days sitting with others and hearing about their journeys.  One of the most beautiful things about being a chaplain for me is hearing others’ stories.  Occasionally when I visit a patient, I will say to him/her, “Tell me your story.”  They seem puzzled at first, looking for deeper clarification.  I again simply say, “Tell me your story.”  With time, piece by piece, their story will begin unraveling to me.  Even in the most broken of stories, it is a beautiful thing to hear.  Because our stories are who we are.  I wish I could do this with every patient (the whole 1,000 beds, level 1 trauma center, 400 orders a week makes this long-time engagement complicated).

Anyways, back to the book.  The other line I adore comes from Constantine, Skeeter’s maid growing up.  Skeeter remembers back to the first time she was called ‘ugly.’  In response, Constantine says to her, “Every morning, until you dead in the ground, you gone have to make this decision: You gone have to ask yourself, ‘Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?”’  What a beautiful line to remember in life.  If life is about taking risks and make choices, then certainly there will be those who will not believe in you, want you to fail, or not approve of your doings.  When I first felt called into ministry, I remember one of my male friends telling me on the phone, “You know you’re going against God’s will?  Women can’t be ministers.”  Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?  No, I am going to follow my calling: move to a new state, be in a long-distance relationship with Brian, take 93 credits, complete three years of schooling, struggle to make ends meet financially, stay up many late nights cramming for exams and writing papers, and live through dorm life again – because that is what I felt called to do so.

Even though this book is set in a particular place and time, there are so many universal truths captured in the stories of these women.  As I finished the book, I realized that perhaps I was reading a book on theory…on theology…and on things that were not only related to work, but related to life.  Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it is without truth and wisdom.  What a theological concept: we are all bound together as one people in the fact that we are all in need of help.  When we pretend we’ve got it all figured out, we are lying to ourselves and others can see through that.  (For those who have read the book, Hilly is a wonderful reference of this).

People in all walks of life come into this hospital in need of help.  Some of the patients need physical help as they suffer from hip and knee replacements, kidney stones, and terminal illnesses.  Others are in need of emotional help as they try to cope with the death of a family member, learn about a new and unexpected diagnosis, or struggle to make ends meet with more children at home than there is money to feed them.  Some need psychological help as they struggle to live in a society that deems them as outcasts or as ‘the other.’  Others need spiritual help as they try to figure out where God is in the midst of their child dying, their newly diagnosed cancer, or the sudden loss of a life after a traumatic event.  The chaplains often come together to process the help we need in our own lives, too.

Perhaps some of you have heard the popular scripture from Romans 3:23 stating, ‘We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’  After reading The Help, I read that scripture as another way of saying we are all in need of help.  In one way or another, we could all use a little support…a little love…a little help in life.  As we try to offer this help to others, let us remember the words of Skeeter, “There is so much you don’t know about a person.”  But the good news is this: if we’re intentional, we might find moments in our lives when the world can stop and we can say to another, “Tell me your story.”  And we’ll realize we’re just two people – and not that much separates us.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Hands

One of the resident chaplains brought a wonderful idea to our pastoral care department.  She said we should provide a 'Blessing of the Hands' ritual for staff members.  We have offered blessings to some of the staff periodically, so it didn't seem like too much of a task.  But this idea was even crazier:  we should offer a 'Blessing of the Hands' ritual for staff in every unit of our 1,000-bed hospital.  Even if you are not good at math, you can imagine the strain of about 15 chaplains dividing and conquering every single unit in our hospital – from the operating rooms to the neonatal intensive care unit, from dialysis to the burn unit, from the trauma bay to the psychiatric unit.  The flyers were posted all around the hospital announcing our day of blessing.  We all joyfully arrived at the hospital on August 4th with our comfy shoes on, ready to round the hospital.

We rounded the hospital between 8:00am and 10:00pm.  At first, I was a little intimidated to walk up to staff members and ask, “Would you like to have your hands blessed?”  It reminded me of those people who walked around my college campus offering tracts to those who didn't yet know Jesus.  Our blessings were not tied to one particular faith – as we are an interfaith hospital – but it still made me feel that way at first.  Some staff didn’t know what the blessing was for and questioned it…some staff graciously declined…but the majority of staff welcomed the idea.  Nurses, PCTs, unit coordinators, environmental service workers, PTs, OTs, social workers, physicians, and other workers allowed us to place a small amount of oil on their hands and say a blessing over them.


One ICU nurse shared that she was an hour from shift change and the blessing gave her encouragement for her last hour.  One of the PCTs was pregnant and asked for a blessing over both her hands and her belly.  Another staff member said she wanted to give up her blessing and instead have me bless her hands on behalf of her sister who is battling leukemia.  One of the trauma nurses simultaneously smiled and teared up  as she proclaimed to the other nurses, “They're here, they're here!!  We've been waiting for this blessing all week.”  Staff members followed closely behind her as if we were the driving the ice cream truck through their unit.

I started off by saying the standard, typed blessings we had.  Things like: “Out of gratitude for your work, may you receive this blessing of thanks.”  “In ancient medicine, oil was used for healing, so through this oil, may your hands be healed and blessed.”  “May your hands be blessed so you will be a blessing to others.” But as I began to get more comfortable, I just went off script, offering a blessing that tailored to that staff member’s particular need.  (I wonder if my preaching professor from seminary would be proud that I was able to break away from my manuscript and just say what was on my heart in the moment).  Many staff members closed their eyes and breathed deeply as to create a holy space amidst the ringing phone, the beeping of monitors, and the chatter of other staff on the unit.  As blessings were made, I found such joy as the staff welcomed us with open arms.

It wasn’t until we provided the blessing that we realized how much the staff was in need of a blessing for all the work they do.  For once, they were not being questioned about the patient’s location, being told that the patient wanted pain meds, or being asked to work on the patient's discharge orders.  We were simply there to be with them.

We blessed hands that…
Give medication.
Change bed pans.
Answer endless phone calls.
Perform CPR.
Reach out a hand to anxious patients.
Empty trash cans.
Change the dressings of burn patients.
Provide life-saving procedures.
Provide feeding to babies in the NICU.
Draw blood.
Change IVs.
Provide consent for surgeries.
Deliver babies.

Like a hungry child reaching out for food, hand after hand reached out towards us.  With palms opened, people lined up for blessings.  Old hands, young hands, big hands, small hands, strong hands and withered hands.  The chaplains ended our day by offering a blessing to each other.  After all, hands that provide comfort, support, and encouragement also need some support and encouragement from time to time.

On that day, I realized we are indeed a people hungry for encouragement…for love...for appreciation.  So as you read this, I encourage you to take a moment and look at your hands.  Think about all the work you do with them in your job…in your home…in your life…in others’ lives.  Know that your work is appreciated.  May you continue to reach out your hands to this world that is in deep need of love and appreciation.  And may the One who created your hands bless them on this day and in all the days of your life.


Saturday, July 30, 2011

Grace for Perfectionists

Today I wondered, ‘What does ‘perfectionism’ mean exactly?’  I looked up the definition of the word ‘perfectionism’ and learned that there are actually two types.  In a psychological sense, it is a belief that perfection can and should be obtained.  In a pathological sense, it is a belief that any work produced that is less than perfect is unacceptable.  I think both forms of perfectionism permeate in our society: the psychological perfection has spread like wildfire through the media, Hollywood, and magazines, always making the reader or viewer feel broken and imperfect, but offering a solution to how that person can improve.  New fashions, new diets, new plastic surgeries.  The pathological sense comes out in TV shows like Cake Boss when Buddy puts the finishing touches on his perfect cake creation; or on Dance Moms as instructor Abby Lee yells at her young students for not dancing perfectlyI know these are extreme examples, but my point is that perfectionism can come out in many facets and cause harm if we’re not careful.


I will admit I can be a perfectionist sometimes (the pathological type, not the psychological).  In school, I would proofread a paper numerous times to make sure each comma was in its proper place…I would study every Greek and Hebrew word until I could recite them in my sleep…I would focus on the frustration of the questions I got wrong instead of rejoicing in the questions I got right.  Some of you may be reading this and thinking, “Get a life, Jenny,” but it feels like it is part of my DNA.  As I have written in prior blog posts, chaplaincy has taught me to break free of some of those tendencies, to be more spontaneous and in-the-moment, to embrace the messiness, and to give myself grace when I felt like I was failing as a chaplain.


This came out particularly in the last few weeks, which have been crazy for me.  Work was busy, full of meetings and end-of-unit assignments.  On my weekend off, I attended a friend’s wedding in Miami and on the drive to the wedding, found out my granddad died.  Therefore, I turned right around from the wedding to head to his funeral in Montgomery, Alabama.  I then turned around from his funeral, worked for 3 days, and then flew to St. Louis, Missouri for a family reunion with the other side of my family.  I came home from that trip exhausted from fun and activity and went right back to work.  I couldn’t find myself getting into any routine at work.  My visits felt casual and surface level, and no matter who I was talking to, my mind felt like it was somewhere else.  I became frustrated with myself and found myself close to tears on several occasions that day.  I like to keep my ducks in a row, and I felt like I had left some ducks quacking in Miami, Montgomery, and St. Louis.


As I was trying to piece together my thoughts for this blog, I received an email from my seminary friend, Melissa.  She, along with many other pastors (or so their facebook statuses have told me), are working on their sermons for Sunday, many of them using the text where Jacob struggles with God at Peniel.   She was asking if she could use me as sermon illustration with my calling to chaplaincy coming through fear and wrestling with God.  She wrote a paragraph about my struggle with God that brought me from fear to excitement about this new call in my life.  She states, “Because God blessed her, she had to do something about it.”  (Of course I emailed Melissa and asked if I could use her illustration in my blog).  Her words made me smile.


It was a beautiful moment of God reminding me that we do not go this journey alone.  We are called to be in relationship and to empower one another when we doubt ourselves.  I talk with patients about this all the time – finding support through friends, family and/or a church community.  I guess I needed to take a dose of my own medicine.  Melissa helped me to remember that we give God whatever we can and God will work through it to make something incredible.  And I am reminded that in our humanness, we can never be perfect.  No matter what reality shows, magazines, or advertisements try to tell us.  By our human nature, we will always fall short…we will always miss commas and misspell words…we will always lose faith in ourselves from time to time.  And that is why grace is such a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Next Season

About a month ago, we had 11 new summer interns join our department to begin their journey through a summer intensive program.  I love teaching new students the ins and outs of the hospital – it is amazing to see how quickly they can learn.  There were lots of eager hearts ready to jump right in; however, even the most excited and driven interns still carried some anxiety about the unknown and their capacity to handle difficult situations.  I think that is the beauty and reality of CPE.  I shared with a few of them about my first week of my CPE internship in 2009: how I got physically sick, fainted twice, and cried in bathroom stalls out of fear of what I was going to see.  I couldn’t walk into the room of someone who was dead or even dying.  My heart jumped every time I saw a linen cart wheel by because the covering on it made me think there was a dead body inside.  When they heard these stories, they were shocked because they felt like I was able to be a calm, non-anxious presence for patients and families in all kinds of situations.  I reminded them that it takes patience and hard work, but that they, too, will be able to handle things that they never thought they would be able to handle.

I began this blog about 10 months ago as I journeyed through an unexpected year of a CPE residency.  I say ‘unexpected’ because most of you know I was planning to become a pastor in a church, not a chaplain in a hospital.  I felt God tugging me to face my fears of hospital ministry, and now 10 months later, it seems odd to think of myself as doing anything but chaplaincy.  I feel like this is what I was supposed to be doing all along, but just didn’t know that when I started.  I am an ‘ESTJ’ on the Myers-Briggs scale, therefore the high functioning ‘J’ in me makes *planning* a natural tendency of mine. (if you don’t know to which test I’m referring, you can test yourself for free at http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes1.htm).  Throughout this year, I feel I learned to let go of some of the planning and found myself being carried into a whole new field of work.  I won’t lie to you, I still love to plan, but this residency has taught me to embrace a little more of the spontaneity that comes with life.

This year has taught me more than I ever could have imagined.  I have learned about patients: how isolated they can feel as they journey through sickness and how unexpected tragedies can change an entire family in a mere second.  I have learned about protocol and procedures: Florida Statutes, the difficulty of ethics, and interdisciplinary approaches to healthcare.  I have learned to be a chaplain not only for patients, but also for staff.  I have traveled to many seminars and learned about a variety of topics: palliative care for children, the world of the traumatized, the road of professional chaplaincy and the process towards becoming a board certified chaplain.

Some of you may have seen my announcement on facebook about beginning the CPE supervisory process.  The supervisors with whom I have been in conversation have said this process feels like the equivalent of working towards a PhD.  This process takes several years and involves looking at yourself and exploring your ability to be an educator, observing and leading groups while meeting weekly with a supervisor, writing and defending several theory papers, and going in front of numerous committees who vote you through each step.  Some have asked me why I would want to put myself through all of that.  My answer is simple: I feel called to do this.  My heart comes alive in this work and I believe I am ready to take on the challenge.  I met for my first consultation in Orlando a few weeks ago and my next step will take place in Greenville, SC at the end of September.  I plan to continue blogging through this next season of my life.

In closing, I want to share a quick story.  In my 7th grade literature class, each student had to memorize a ton of poetry and recite it to our teacher.  I thought it was stupid and pointless at the time (as was everything else in my 'tween worldview). But still today, my brother and I crack ourselves up at our continued ability to quote poetry that we learned over 10 years ago.  Cliché as it may be, out of all the poetry, I must say that Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ comes to mind more than anything as I begin this new season of my life.  So I will now leave you with his words…

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Monday, June 6, 2011

When God Gives You More Than You Can Handle

“God will never give me more than I can handle. I constantly hear this quote at the hospital.  People are quick to say this to chaplains, and it has always made me curious why people say it.  The more I hear it, the more I think people say it to me because they think I’m secretly judging their ability to be a Christian and be one who struggles with sickness, suffering, or addiction…as though you can only be one or the other.  I think others say it because it keeps the conversation on a safe, surface level.

People often tell me it is scriptural, but they don’t remember where it is in the Bible.  Well, I am here to dispel that rumor: that quote is not from the Bible.  Sure, there are scriptures that talk about trials and temptations, but the quote “God will never give me more than I can handle” just simply isn’t there.  I jokingly say it is from 2nd Hezekiah (in case you were wondering, there is no 2nd Hezekiah).

I find it ironic that so many people who are suffering from illness or grief would turn to this quote.  Perhaps it is a comfort to them.  Perhaps they have heard it said to them by friends or family.  Perhaps it’s just another way of saying, “God will see me through this.”  And I can certainly respect that.  I just struggle to envision God with my life story in one hand and a calculator in the other, stating, “Jenny, I know you can handle ‘X’ amount of grief, so I have decided to give you ‘X-1’ so that you will be able to handle it.”

Mother Theresa played with that quote when she said, “I know God will never give me more than I can handle - I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.” I think what she is saying and what I, too, am trying to say is that sometimes it sure feels like our lives are crashing in around us.  I remember standing with a physician when he shared with a mother and father that their 5 year old daughter was brain dead.  Could you imagine me saying to them in that moment, ‘God will never give you more than you can handle’?  How about when a mother has to pick between her life and her child’s life because only one of the two is guaranteed survival…or a woman's mother dies after a long bout of cancer…or a woman in her 30s becomes a widow after her perfectly healthy husband drops dead while going for a morning run.  For some, it’s not just physical death that feels overwhelming: it’s an addiction to alcohol or drugs, a family broken apart by deceit and mistrust, or the threat of divorce when there are young children involved.

I think there are a lot of scriptures that speak to the threshold of one’s being and God’s response to it.  In Isaiah 54:7, God says, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you.  In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord.”  This certainly isn’t one of the more commonly quoted scriptures, but it’s there.  In Psalm 88:6-7, the psalmist cries out to God, “You have put me in the depth of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.  Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.” Human suffering goes deep, my friends.

I suppose I stand here today to make the case that we aren’t always kept safe from our ‘threshold of suffering’; rather, our threshold continues to stretch as life deals us more and more grief and pain.  In my own life, there recently have been instances both with my family and friends that show me how deeply we can suffer (I won’t share them on this blog because they aren’t my stories to tell).  I’m sure many times in my life, I have told people, “God will never give you more than you can handle.”  Well, I am here today to say I am officially retiring that statement.

My hope is that even if you use that quote, then you will also say to the one who is suffering, "I am here to listen...and I will share with you in your suffering.”  Let the patient, the friend, or the family member decide if it is more than they can handle.  And if it is, be the shoulder for them to cry on...the ear to let them be heard...and the tears to let them know you share in the sting of their suffering.

Perhaps this saying should be re-written.  I would re-write it to say, “I will never give God more than God can handle.”  So cry out, my friends…for God is listening.