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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sacramental Dis-grace

In addition to my private practice of pastoral counseling, spiritual direction and consulting work - oh, and helping out at my church with Christian education, and as-needed preaching and presiding and "other duties as assigned" - I also work four days of the week as a Hospice Chaplain.

I do the ministry of hospice chaplaincy in extended care facilities and in people's homes, traveling all over Sussex County, from poor rural farm house in places like Selbyville, Gumborough and Greenville to fairly upscale condos and lovely homes in places like Rehoboth Beach, Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island.

I keep myself fairly busy when it doesn't get occasionally frenetic.

I've always been - and probably always will be - a girl who just can't say no. Not to work I love. Especially in the absence of the Killer B's of parochial ministry: budgets, boilers and bishops.

In one of our post-Thanksgiving Day conversations, I was talking with one of our children about helping me design a web page for my private practice, which continues to grow at a steady pace, despite the slow recovery of the economy here in Lower, Slower Delaware. S/he asked me to begin by considering what 'logo' I would use to depict my work.

The first image was something with the ocean and a lighthouse, which brought groans of disapproval for something that has been admittedly overused and boarders on the hokey. It is, nonetheless, something which speaks to me of the outward and visible sign of this sacramental ministry.

The ministry I am privileged to provide is amazingly, astonishingly, sometimes overwhelmingly sacramental. People trust me with their brokenness in ways that humble - and sometimes startle - me with their honesty and trust. It is in the sharing of that brokenness in a place that is safe that begins the process of w/holiness and forgiveness and healing.

It is holy work, this business of helping people to connect the broken places in their mind and body and soul and begin to find w/holeness and w/holiness of life.

There is another part to that work, however, that is messy and mucky and just plain awful. It is, for the most part, the cause of most of the brokenness. This is not limited to but most especially true in my work with people who are at the end stages of their life and in the care of Hospice.

The image I have of that is of a street sweeper - you know, the guy at the end of the circus parade who cleans up the mess after the elephants.

Yup, that would be how I often feel as I sit and talk with Hospice patients about forgiveness, reconciliation, salvation, atonement, heaven and hell.

Oh, the patient does not necessarily say, "I'd like to get your views on God's forgiveness /reconciliation / salvation / atonement / heaven / hell" - although, sometimes, they do.

All you have to do is listen to the conversation under the conversation to hear the themes.

One of my favorite books by May Sarton is "Crucial Conversations," in which she says that just beneath the polite banter that marks most of our conversations lie the crucially important conversations we need to have.

As one of my mentors always used to say, "It's not 'the thing' that is 'the thing'; it's 'the thing under the thing' that's 'the thing'." I have been carefully trained and am highly experienced in listening for - and to - the 'thing under the thing that is the thing' in those crucial conversations. 

I simply can't believe some of the garbage some of these folks have picked up and collected over the years from good Christian preachers.

I've had Roman Catholic husbands weeping in my arms as their Protestant wives lie dying because they are afraid that they really won't see each other in heaven. They were carefully taught as children that only Roman Catholics will go to heaven and, even though they are now adults and long ago rejected that theology, in moments in which fear and anxiety cause emotional and spiritual regression, they wonder and question and struggle.

That belief is reinforced by "father" who told them that, as long as they hadn't been married in the RC Church (which they couldn't do because their spouse would not convert to Catholicism), they were considered "living in sin" and could not - indeed, would not - be afforded the sacraments of the church. Any and all of them.

I've had grown, adult women from Jewish/Christian families who had neither been baptized nor had a Bat Mitzvah who experience enormous anxiety about what - if anything - to believe about the after life, much less heaven and hell and what one has to do in order to get there.

I've had more conversations than I care to remember about "tunnels" and who might be there and "looking for / going to / following 'The Light'".  I had no idea that there were so many books about end of life and what happens - most of which is "new-agey" and romantic and, quite frankly, so devoid of any semblance of logic that it makes my stomach lurch.  I don't think it's any better than some of the really bad theology that gets preached or taught or sung in churches.

Although, there is this one book, "Proof of Heaven" that everyone is talking about. No, I've not read it. Yet.  It's on my list.

That being said, what I can tell you is that it has brought more people more comfort and hope than many theology books or sermons or hymns they've heard in most churches.

I've also experienced "inquisitions" of sorts, which I don't take personally. Some of the folks whose homes I walk into have had it "up to here" with bad theology and they certainly don't want any more of it while they have to deal with dying and death - either their own or that of the one they love.

So, I get peppered with questions like: "Does prayer 'work'?" "What does prayer 'do'?" "If you are going to pray for me, what are you praying for?" "How do you know prayer works?"

Or: "What happens when I die?" "What will happen to me after I die?" "Will I go to heaven?" "Will I be there with my spouse?" "How do you know that?" "Why do you believe that?"

As we talk and I explore the "conversation under the conversation", it doesn't take long for the theological garbage to come tumbling out. Stories of priests and pastors and ministers who said something at a point in the formation of their development that left its mark - sometimes, a deep, open, unhealed scar - that has never gone away.

It's a sacramental dis-grace.

Grace has been dis-missed.

Which is when I take out my theological shovel and begin to clear a space for Grace. So they can feel Grace. And, experience Grace. And, know Grace. Unearned. Unmerited. Undeserved. And yet, so very, very present.

Grace is always free. No strings attached. It's always available. Unfortunately, so many people have gotten themselves all tangled up in the strings of useless guilt and shame and regret - none of which has much to do with moral failures or ethical infractions.  Rather, all this guilt and shame and regret has been heaped upon them by inept or theologically corrupt pastoral leaders.

And when there is evidence of sin? I try to help them to be fearless in making a searching moral inventory, seek true repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation - if there's time.

And, I offer absolution and anointing and laying on of hands and yes, Eucharist.  I offer them with the same relentless truth and searing honesty as I have experienced from the person - from deep within my heart and soul - so they might catch at least a glimmer of the unconditional love of God who created them and now calls them back home.

When I took my ordination vows, I promised, among other things: "In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ's people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come." (BCP 531)

I take that vow as seriously as a heart attack.

And, when I'm asked about heaven and hell, here's the story I tell:
A huge, rough samurai once went to see a little monk, hoping to acquire the secrets of the universe.

"Monk," he said, in a voice accustomed to instant obedience. "teach me about heaven and hell."

The little monk looked up at the mighty warrior in silence. Then, after a moment, he said to the samurai with utter disdain, "Teach YOU about heaven and hell? I couldn't teach you about anything. You're dirty. You smell. Your blade is rusty. you're a disgrace, an embarrassment to the samurai class. Get out of my sight at once. I can't stand you!"

The samurai was furious. He began to shake all over from the anger that raced through him. A red flush spread over his face; he was speechless with rage. Quickly, menacingly, he pulled out his sword and raised it above his head, preparing to slay the monk.

"That's hell." said the little monk quietly.

The samurai was overwhelmed. Stunned. The compassion and surrender of this little man who had offered his life to give this teaching about hell! He slowly lowered his sword, filled with gratitude, and for reasons he could not explain his heart became suddenly peaceful.

"And that's heaven," said the monk softly.
I pray that religious leaders and teachers may offer less of the disdain and fury, rage and menace which are the images of hell, and more of the compassion and surrender, gratitude and peace which are images of heaven.

Maybe then, when the end of our time here on earth comes, more people may find their own way back to God, by whichever path they happen to take.  


Laurel Massé said...

Elizabeth,when I trained dogs, I was taught that they, when under great stress, will revert to earliest learned behavior. We are mammals, too, with mammal brains, and we also revert to that, to the cruel thing that was said to us, to feeling unworthy, to hiding, crying, falling, hitting.

This is why what teachers and ministers do and say is so divinely or diabolically formative, and why these old old learnings come forward again as you describe.
When my grandparents died, each at almost 100 years old, my grandmum was afraid, because she believed she was going to hell. My grandfather was afraid that there was nothing to go to either way. I know enough of their history to know how old those fears were, but I am grateful beyond telling that they talked to me.

Thank you for your blog.

Blessings, Laurel

Marthe said...

For most of the history of Christianity, very few people could read and so the Word was what the priests and those in "authority" said it was ... and they craved that "authority", that power over worshipers and felt that they needed to reinforce that power with fear (of damnation, of exclusion from forgiveness)... their power was in the version of grace that must be earned through tests and suffering ... easier, it is, to shake down a populace in fear, to finance a racket with strong-arm tactics than to organize volunteers acting out of real generosity and concern for the well-being of all. The "problem" for many institutional churches is that most of us can read, can choose, CAN see that their is no earning grace, so their fear tactics are revealed as just that ... and most of us don't much like coercion as a substitute for Christ's actual teachings. We may not be able to throw the racketeers out of the temple, but we can stay away, find and respond to the Love that is Christ out on the streets, wandering about without permission from "authorities" who have yet to overcome testosterone driven impulse control issues (and yes, women have testosterone, too, just generally much less of it) that turn grace into a competition rigged to be "won" by only a select few. I think it is not faith that is in crisis, but the structure that depends on fear and ignorance for its existence.
Amen and amen and blog on!

Jane Primerano said...

Beautiful, Elizabeth. I, too like the street-sweeper image. I often picture the little guy at the end of the parade during the promo for the "Mister Peabody" segments of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. So much of work, marriage, motherhood, being a daughter and granddaughter, volunteering at church and school and in the community, is being that little guy. Cleaning up. Sweeping away the debris left by damaging people.
Of course, my favorite picture of Heaven is the one drawn by Robert B. Parker. It is where all the dogs you've ever loved come running up to meet you.
But, and I say this with love. I can't stand to see typographic abominations like s/he. It's just wrong.

John said...

Why choose to caricature Roman Catholicism as you do? As an Episcopalian, "father" had no compunction in marrying me to my Catholic wife, and the question of conversion never came up. Nor is she denied the sacraments. Why highlight the horror story and not acknowledge it as an anecdote that may well be unrepresentative of the broad reality?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Laurel - I've seen people like your grandparents too - scared by what they've been taught, scared of what they haven't. It breaks my heart. I just try to do the best I can. I believe. Help my unbelief!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Marthe - what you post has so much truth to it, it makes me weep. Thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jane - yes, that image of the sweeper is exactly what I think of. As to S/he - well, I think God is beyond grammatical correctness. It's the only way I know how to express that.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

John, I'm happy for your situation. I can only assure you that it is not the norm. There are pockets of rabid conservatism that would no doubt bring you shock and dismay. I'm not "picking on" anyone. I'm just telling the truth as I see it.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

By the way, John, do you not know of the recent situation in the Midwest where a young boy was denied confirmation because his priest happened to see his FaceBook page where he supported Marriage Equality? He and his parents have also been denied communion. Interestingly enough, his classmates who "liked" his post have been spared.

Anonymous said...

I know it's Elizabeth's place to reply but I need to say to John that, speaking as a former Roman Catholic active in lay ministry for over thirty years, what Elizabeth put out there is not a characature, but a reflection of an all-too-common reality. Most Roman Catholics (at least in the USA) have virtually no religious education post Confirmation. Much of of the baggage being carted about is the sum of half-remembered lessons from early in life. I hear these kinds of comments about marriage law, salvation of non-Catholics, etc., constantly amongst my extended family of marginally active Roman Catholics.
Lou Poulain
Sunnyvale CA

David said...

you ask 'Why highlight the horror story and not acknowledge it as an anecdote that may well be unrepresentative of the broad reality'
i'd suggest that one of the crucial steps of healing is naming the pain/horror/evil.
unlike dear Elizabeth, i did not grow up in a RC household, however living here in Quebec where the excesses of RC power are part of the historical record, and serving for two decades on the front line of AIDS i have seen the effects of that legacy in the fear and pain of our guys as they lay dying. i've also seen the incredible sense of freedom one of our guys experienced when he pursued what many told him was unnecessary- being struck from the roles of the RC Church before dying. his funeral was Anglican, at his insistance- in French even. he asked me to arrange it for his family, but i'd also witnessed his tears of joy the first time a priest friend of mine brought him the sacrament in the hospital. the first time he'd received in more than 15 years.
John, i'm the first to admit it's not all black and white. my concern however is with the implicit pain and infantization that can be inflicted as a cost of belonging.

David said...

thank you ((((((Elizabeth))))) one of your prophetic best!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, David, for that powerful testimony. I do not want to demonize the RCC - God knows, Anglican theology is not without its own warts - but the prevalence in this part of the Vineyard is hard to ignore.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Lou. I'm sure John is not appreciative of your or David's testimony but I appreciate the back up. It must be as inconceivable to him as it is to the rest of us. I'm sorry to be the cause of the pain of his facing this harsh reality.

The thing of it is that it's not just the theology of the RCC that is doing the damage. I actually had an evangelical, fundamentalist woman make her confession to me as she was dying. She and her husband had six children. She told me "and we enjoyed every minute of love making that brought them into this world". BUT - after they had decided that "six is enough" they used birth control. Not only that, she confessed, she still enjoyed sex with her husband even though it was not procreative. She felt so guilty about this that she was sure she was going to hell for it.

IMAGINE!!! It makes me weep.

Matthew said...

The confirmation issue in MN hit me like a ton of bricks (and I was raised pretty liberal Lutheran). So, one can be denied the sacrament for private views? I had managed to triangulate what they did to politicians and public figures with respect to abortion (but curiously not the death penalty or war). What other privately held views can incur denial of sacrament -- if you think that priests should be able to marry you then cannot take communion? And, its also the consipracy of silence in the organization. I "get" that not all RC priests or bishops would deny confirmation on this basis or even care or look into it or give a damn about a facebook page. But they are not speaking out publicly a gainst the priests and bishops in MN that allowed it and are behind it. Why? If you cannot call out your brethren they way we repeatedly do the ABC, Katharine, etc. then there is something sick in the culture and theology.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - Trying to control Grace is not only folly, it damages the person to whom Grace is available - as well as the person who is trying to control Grace.

One of these days - hopefully, on this side of the veil - we'll learn that lesson.

John said...

That’s unfair, I am appreciative of Lou and David’s testimony. I’m not RC and I’m just saying the reality there is not uniformly terrible.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm sorry, John. It's not unfair to the RC church to name what's going on - what are the facts on the ground. It is what it is. And, if you had to spend just one day - just one day - with me at the bedside of people who are dying, I think you'd have a much better idea of what is fair and what is grossly unfair.

Anonymous said...

Miz Kaeton,

I've been an occasional reader for years, and this was one of your really good ones. What moved me to comment was your thought to use a lighthouse as a logo. Please don't do that, for it doesn't apply to you.

The purpose of a lighthouse is twofold. 1) To mark a known danger, like rocks beneath the waves. The lighthouse says "Stay AWAY! Or you will die."
2) to allow sailors to know where they are by using the lighthouse together with another point of reference and their charts. If the lighthouse is due east and I can see another light to the northeast; where those two lines cross on the map is where I am now.
This is why it always bothers me to see a church use a lighthouse as a logo. Either it is true advertising, which sadly is too often the case, or it is completely opposed to their message of hope.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Anonymous. Good comment. Because of it, I'll not be using the lighthouse logo. Please leave your name next time.

Sextant said...

Bless you for working in the hospice and bringing the notion of Grace to those in their darkest hours of need.

You have a wonderful ministry.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sextant - I'm the one who is blessed doing this work of ministry.