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


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.