Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The bishop and the cyclist

 I must say that Monday morning's news provided a very rude awakening.

The Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, one Heather Cook, was said to have been the driver of the car which killed a bicyclist in the Roland Park section of Baltimore, MD on Saturday afternoon.

The deceased man, Tom Palermo, a 41 year old married father of two young children, was an avid cyclist, apparently out for a mid afternoon 'recreational ride'.

Apparently, the bishop left the scene of the accident - some say for 20 minutes, others say 45 minutes - but did return to "take responsibility for her actions."

Some reports say her car was weaving in traffic before she hit the cyclist. Other reports say she was texting. Still other reports say that the only reason she returned to the accident was because several other cyclists followed her to her home.

In 2010, while working as a priest for the Bishop of Easton, MD, Bishop Cook was charged with a DUI, her Breathalyzer test was .27 (legal limit in Maryland is .08) and she had drug paraphernalia in the car. She received "probation before judgment," went to rehab and eventually returned to work.

She was vigorously and fully vetted by the Diocese of Maryland before she was elected. 

Thus far, there is absolutely no reported evidence of alcohol or drug use by the bishop in this fatality.

Let me say that again: Thus far, there is absolutely no reported evidence of alcohol or drug use by the bishop in this fatality. There may be evidence to the contrary, but so far, nothing has been reported. The investigation is on-going, including blood analysis and computer generated reconstruction of the accident.

I say that because as stunning as this news story is, I have been absolutely sickened by the comments left on social media sites. By Episcopalians. Who are Christian.  Laity and ordained.

The conjecture and supposition, presumption and assumption - not to mention abundant evidence of very active imaginations - have been second only to the mean-spirit in which they are written.

It also doesn't help that the picture of Bishop Cook that is making its way around the internet is the one at her consecration, where she is at the altar in front of many carafes of wine.

Le sigh. 

Years ago, a woman in recovery and I were discussing sexism in the church and she said, "Honey, I have no doubt that you've had a rough time as a woman in this church, but you haven't seen the ugly side of sexism and misogyny until you've seen how women who are alcoholic are treated - even in 12-Step Programs. Men who are drunks are seen as pathetic people who need shelter and some help. Women who are drunks are disgusting, are shown no mercy and sent to jail."

I've thought of that conversation often as I've read headlines which scream things like, "First Woman Bishop Kills Doting Father of Two." And, "Bishop with previous DUI kills Cyclist."

Misogyny coupled with anti-clericalism is a pretty ugly sight to behold, no matter how subtle.

It's been simply awful. All of it. All.Of.It.

So, let us be very clear here:

Leaving the scene of an accident is a felony. 


Whatever else she did or didn't do, she has admitted to leaving the scene of an accident. Doesn't matter that she returned. She left. She is already a felon awaiting conviction. 

Whether or not she will also be charged and convicted with vehicular homicide (pending the results of the investigation), she was directly involved with the death of a young man with young children. 

Nothing changes that. 

She will have to live with that fact for the rest of her life. If your imagination needs some exercise, try to imagine that for yourself.

The record reflects that, since her ordination in 1987, she has been a good priest with lots of skills and talents, creativity and imagination - good enough to be elected as Bishop Suffragan despite being thoroughly and vigorously vetted by the diocese.

I can't imagine the personal, spiritual and psychological hell she (and her family) must be going through, knowing that her actions resulted in the death of another human being (My God!), knowing she's probably going to go to jail (Sweet Jesus!), will probably be asked to resign as bishop and just may, in fact, lose her orders (Come, Holy Spirit!).

I also can't imagine the unbearable grief the deceased man's family must be feeling. I hope and pray they are getting the spiritual, emotional and psychological support they need at this time. 

My prayers are with the Palermo family - including a wife and two children - as well as prayers for compassion for Bishop Cook, which must be provided side by side with accountability and forgiveness. 

Now - right now, in these dark days - is time for the community to gather and rally and provide help and support for both of these families, for whom - in the twinkling of an eye and the gentle beat of the human heart - life was changed and transformed and will never again be the same. 

It's just so tragic, on so many levels, for so many people. 

No one comes out a winner in these situations.

So, why the mean-spirit and conjecture and 'trial by media'?

 I don't get it.

Not for Christians. 

Not for Episcopalians.

What a huge test of our baptismal promises - especially "striving for justice AND peace among ALL people" and "respecting the dignity of EVERY human being" - which includes the deceased and the bishop. 

Suddenly, those promises don't sound quite so rote or simple, do they?

And, the Anglican Via Media (Middle Way) seems a dangerous place to be, doesn't it? There you are, right out there in the middle of the road.  Neither left nor right, passenger or passing, nor in the cyclist lane. Nope. Right smack in the middle.

In the days and weeks ahead, as evidence is examined and the slow, creaking wheels of the justice system work their way to find The Truth and judgement is rendered, let us strive to keep in mind our baptismal vows. 

Because, the truth is, it is for times such as these that they were written.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Preaching from a prepared heart.

I'm not going to even try to reprint my Christmas Day sermon here, which I preached from the center aisle without a single note in front of me.  I talked about angels I have heard on . . . um, low  . . . who still sang "Gloria" in the very presence of The Incarnation.

Suffice it to say, it was a labor of love. It took hours to prepare. Hours and hours and hours.

I've been doing this now, off and on, for about a year. The folks at St. Paul's, Georgetown, DE have been my inspiration and I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

Oh, I've tried it, from time to time, over the years. But, I've really been attempting serious application of this theory on Sunday and major holidays.

Here's some of the things I've learned:

First, this is not as easy as it looks. Seriously.

And, let me tell you from first hand experience, it's not for sissies. 

It's so waaaay beyond a simple memorization of the text it is mind-boggling.

You have to let go of any notion of "perfection", which is really an illusion anyway, even with a prepared text in front of you.

Once that's established, you have to be comfortable enough with imperfection to invite people in to find the humor in the absurdity of life. Because, I mean, what you are attempting to do is smack-dab in the midst of the Realm of The Absurd.

It begins with the fact that, as Episcopalians and Anglicans, we are people of Word and Sacrament.

Let me "rinse and repeat": That's Word (as in Scripture) AND Sacrament (as in Eucharist).

It's a balance.

The task of the preacher is to break open the Word so that the people of God may be nourished in the same way that the Sacrament of Eucharist feeds the people of God to go forth and do the work of The Word - the mission of the Church - the Good News of The Gospel of Jesus Christ.

At least, that's the way I was taught. YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

I was also taught that one ought to strive to make The Breaking Open of The Word no longer than The Breaking Open of The Bread. So, 10-15 minutes tops. Which is - generally (ahem) - no problem, if one is reading from a manuscript and reading the Eucharistic Prayer from the BCP.

However, if one is "preaching from a prepared heart", the almost irresistible seduction in hearing the sound of one's own voice and connecting visually with the eyes and faces of others is to . . . well, to put it kindly . . . wander.

It takes enormous discipline to preach without a manuscript, precisely because one can be tempted to cover one's insecurities by wandering off into a piece of church history or tradition or scripture or a pity story from one's own life experience or someone else's in which one feels positively confident and can "show off" a bit by imparting one's knowledge to the unsuspecting masses who have not had the time, money or inclination to afford a seminary education.

Or, the luxury of time to be actually paid to reflect on these things. 

It is a temptation which should be resisted with every ounce of once's being - whether or not one is preaching from a manuscript in the pulpit or from a prepared heart in the center aisle. 

It also helps to have a story to tell.

I mean, Jesus did it all the time.

Telling a story - especially one that has actually happened to you and has been, in some way, transformative - is, in my admittedly not-so-humble opinion and admittedly neophyte position, the heart of a sermon which is preached from a prepared heart.

There is something additionally transformative for the preacher in telling the story and watching the transformation - or, at least, reaction / response - on some of the faces of some of the members of the congregation.

In that moment, the presence of the Spirit is palpable. By that I mean that one can actually, really, honestly and seriously feel the presence of The Spirit - Ruach, Shekinah - in the room.

The feeling can range from feeling as prickly as electricity in the air or as comforting as an old, warm, tattered sweater.

In that particular moment - for me, anyway - I absolutely do not remember what I've said. It's scary and wonderful and mystical - to be in control of so many things about preaching and yet completely surrendered to and trusting in The Spirit.

And then, there's the whole point of the sermon.

Fail #1: Give good advice instead of Good News
The point - the ONE IMPORTANT THING - you are trying to say and have tried to illustrate with your sermon. It's important, at the end of your sermon, to state how you think your story has made your point.  And, to make it with passion and clarity and in a way that allows people to have something to take home and think about. - even if they disagree with you. 

This is the "one, two, three" of your one sermon point which you make without actually saying "one, two, three". And, saying it with conviction and passion - or, at least, some sense of urgency.

Because, you know, if you don't think what you've just said is important, I mean, why bother?

So, I just want to say that I'm no where near as "polished" as I want to be about this.

I am still practicing, practicing, practicing and I am beginning to feel some improvement. Sort of like the point a musician reaches when she has moved from scales and a halting rendition of "Heart and Soul" to her first recital when she hasn't actually "nailed it" but she hasn't embarrassed herself, either.

Or a sculptor or painter or musician who has had a public viewing of his work and, perhaps, received an inquiry about the purchase of his piece. Not a sale, actually, perhaps. The inquiry is enough.

I've been practicing the art and science of priesthood for almost 29 years.

What I've discovered is that I still have so much to learn.

I'm not blowing smoke here.

This is my truth.

I am so grateful for the folks who have tolerated me and been so patient with me for so long over all these many years.  I'm so blessed to have known so many generous Christians who are kind and compassionate. You have taught me so much. I hope I've been a good student.

I'm also thankful for those of you who have been my sharpest critics. You have also taught me things I never would have learned any other way.

Here's the thing: When done well, whether using a manuscript or preaching from a prepared heart, preachers always fly with The Holy Spirit.

As one Hospice patient said to me recently, "Honey, it's not how you come to church, it's how you leave it that matters."

If the preacher and presider isn't transformed, how can we expect anyone else to have that experience? And, if not, why bother coming to church in the first place?

Suffice it to say, - preached from a manuscript from the pulpit or preached without a note from the center aisle - a sermon is a labor of love.

At least, that's what it is for me.

Your actual mileage may vary. 

For me, it's all about "nourish(ing) Christ's people from the riches of God's grace, and strenghten(ing) them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come." Just as it says in the vows a priest makes at ordination (BCP 531)

That's not about "fast food". That's about substance.

No matter  from the pulpit or center aisle.

But always, always, always, from a prepared heart.

Because we are people of Word and Sacrament.

And, the Eucharist is the sacrifice of thanksgiving and the sermon is a labor of Love.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

If nuns ruled the world

Convent St. John Baptist, Mendham, NJ
An unplanned trip to New Jersey to attend the funeral of a dear friend and colleague who died suddenly and unexpectedly brought with it an equally unplanned and unexpected reconnection with everything I love about nuns.

In my frenetic attempts to move my schedule around so I could attend the funeral, I called a few friends to ask for lodging only to find that they were out of town or otherwise unavailable. At the very last minute, I placed a called to my friends who are Sisters of Convent St. John Baptist in Mendham, NJ, and was, of course, provided with unconditional welcome and genuine hospitality.

Note: For a history of CSJB in pictures and Anglican Chant, visit this page.

I've spent a fair amount of time as a child and an adult in convents and monasteries. Several of my aunts were Roman Catholic nuns. My longest running anamchara ("spiritual director /adviser") have been with nuns and monks. Convents and monasteries are my natural default place for retreats.

What I saw and experienced during that overnight stay at CSJB reminded me of what the world would be like if nuns ran the world.

First, there would be signs everywhere. In a convent, one doesn't ever have to wonder where to find what. Just look for a sign - most likely it will be impeccably lettered in Old English Script - and, lest there be any doubt or confusion, accompanied by an arrow drawn in bold, black ink.

If one of the conference rooms is in use, there will be a sign on the door that informs you of that status. However, do not look for a sign that says "Do Not Disturb" or "Room in Use". Rather, the sign will read, "Engaged." Well, it will in an Anglican convent, anyway.

The Cloister Walk - CSJB
Which brings me to the second thing you might expect if nuns ruled the world: Subtlety.

Yes, a room will be "engaged," but that will be the first of several encounters with moments when you'll find yourself scratching your head and asking yourself, "Wait. What?"

Like, the sign that greets you as you enter the building. It goes on for a few short paragraphs about welcoming you to this "quiet space" of "prayer" and "spirituality". About half way through reading it, you suddenly get its real message: "This is a convent, bozo. Quiet."

Actually, except in Rare circumstances - during a special occasion or feast day -  the normal "conversational" level requires you not only to use your "inside voice" but to use it at a level which is just a notch below conversation and about half a notch above a whisper.

Which, at one point, makes you wonder what the world would be like if everyone talked to each other in this way. Because, you know, it requires a conscious shift and an investment of a bit of energy. So, you find yourself actually THINKING before you speak.

Not a bad discipline, all in all.

There are also signs which tell you about "The Great Silence". These, too, are beautifully lettered with a picture of a monk sitting in contemplation. The Great Silence begins just after Compline - the final Office of the Day - and ends at around 10 AM.

This means that, every day, day in and day out, one eats one's breakfast in silence. Which is an experience one absolutely must have before one dies.

No, seriously. Put it on your bucket list. One can have some pretty amazing thoughts surrounded by the "silence" of toasters popping and milk being poured, cereal being crunched and plates and utensils being selected and/or dropped on the table or floor.

There are also no "unnecessary conversations" which take place during The Great Silence.

Unless, of course, you pull someone into a conference room, slap a sign on the door that says, "Engaged" and then speak at The Decibel of Nun.

I particularly loved the sign on the bed in my "cell". Stop. Wait a minute. Let me say this first:

Everywhere else, one might have a "room" for the night. In a convent, one has a "cell". Which is numbered. And, contains all things necessary for a life of simplicity and contemplation and prayer: A single bed. A bedside table. A lamp. A set of towels. A single bureau - the bottom drawer of which contains an extra set of bed linens and towels. A chair. A side table. A small glass for water. A BCP and a Bible.

Who could ask for anything more?

Bathroom and showers? Down the hall to your left. Communal, of course.

So, the sign on the bed was a prayer. Well, that's what it seemed, anyway. It actually called on the reader to ask God to bless the hands that had prepared the bed for me and to bless my hands as I made the bed for the next person, just as God had prepared a manger for His Son . . .. ".

And, then, I burst out in a bona fide muffled nun's giggle as the thought slowly crept into my brain that I was being asked to strip the bed linens in the morning and remake the bed with the bed linens in the bottom drawer of the bureau and replace the towels. All in the form of a prayer.

Isn't that just the BEST?!?!

Where to put the "dirty bed linen"? Not to worry. There's a sign for that. In the communal bathroom. Down the hall and to the left. It's on the wall. With an arrow. At the end of the bathroom, near the window. Clearly marked: Dirty laundry.

Winter at CSJB
That's the only place one will find the airing of 'dirty laundry' at the convent.

In a convent, there are things for sale, of course. Religious tchotchke. Mostly work of the nun's hands and hearts, minds and missions.

There's a book of reflections on religious pilgrimage written by one of the nuns and a collection of recipes from the convent kitchen. There's also the "Nun Better" shop with all sorts and manner of craft items like refrigerator magnets and T-shirts and prayer cards, etc.

The thing of it is, everything operates on the honor system. There's a little wooden box where one can place one's cash or checks for the item purchased. I suppose one could also just help oneself and not leave any money. As my Grandmother would say, "That's on your soul."

Time in a convent is different than any place else. It follows the rhythm of prayer and is measured by the sound of a bell which calls the community to prayer.

The monastic Daily Office - specifically, Lauds, Terce, Sext, Vesters and Compline - is offered along with Daily Eucharist.  I confess that I love the sound of monastic women's voices in prayer: high, thin, humble, intentional and yet strong and clear.  The feathery light sound of the voices of nuns singing a capella or in proper Anglican Chant always brings an inexplicable measure of solace into my heart and soul, mind and body. 

There is something about the way that Anglican nuns and monks pass The Peace that just makes me want to giggle and break their rules.  You'd have to have experienced it to understand - I know I'm not going to explain it so you can get the correct visual, but here goes:

The arms are extended and somewhat locked at the elbows. The palms of the hands are turned slightly outward to receive your hands into them.  You smile and say, "The Peace of God" or, if that is said unto you, you respond with a smile and say, "And also with you."

The message is clear: No unnecessary or unseemly body contact here. This is the Peace of God we're passing here. Not a heathen love fest, for goodness sake! And, no unnecessary conversation because, well, there are no 'particular friendships' either.

It's The Celebration of Eucharistic, not Intermission. Time to give thanks to God. Be in the moment. Fully present. Not about what happened last week or will happen next week.

That said, I could barely contain my joy in seeing some of the sisters again in what has to have been four or five years. I did fairly well until I saw one of the nuns whose presence always makes me smile. So, what was to be done except to break rank, run past the barricade of proper prayer stalls, and run over to her open arms and smiling face for a warm, long hug? I was vaguely aware of some soft giggles around me, and I knew it was all alright.

I soon realized, however, that the proper time of The Passing of the Peace had come to an end and I started a 'quick-walk-almost-run' back to my seat when I heard the Sister who was officiating say the Offertory Sentence - in a tone and volume well above The Decibel of Nun:  "WALK.... WALK... WALK . . . in love as Christ loved us . . . .".

As I froze dead in my tracts I simultaneously heard the soft giggle of the nuns in response.

Jenny - The CSJB Dog
Nun humor.  It's subtle and thoroughly authentic, sounding for all the world as if coming from a place that has struggled with the absurdities of life and come out on the other side with a full intact and operational sense of humor that passes all human understanding. 

So much about Convent life doesn't ever seem to change, and yet, of course, it does. Some of the sisters have left the order while others have passed on to greater glory.

So, too, have some of the pets, like Petie, the beloved Convent Boarder Collie. Pony is still there, however, and Jenny, the Blessed Wonder Mutt has taken up residence with the sisters, and is winning hearts if not souls for Christ in her own delightful way.  Yes, she, like Petie, is also black and white. Just like the habits of the nuns.

I notice that none of the nuns wears her veil these days. When I first started going to CSJB in the early 90s, not one of them dared not wear her veil. No, not one.

That was mostly due to then Mother Superior, Margaret Helena, who was fairly strict, no nonsense, old school kinda nun. I remember once, presiding and preaching at the chapel one day, mid week. Mother, who was ancient of days, very ill and confined to wheelchair at the time, said she really enjoyed my sermon and asked if I would please return. I thanked her and said I would be coming back on the Feast of St. David.

"The first of March, is it, then?" she asked.

"Yes," said I all young and full of myself, adding, "Well done."

"Yes," said Mother Margaret Helena, who looked up at me from her crumpled self in the wheelchair, her veil slipped down to her eyebrows. She fixed her steely gray ancient eyes on a spot in the middle of my eyes which went straight to my soul and said, "and, never test me like that again."

I never did.  I knew what was good for me.

I also remember one of the younger nuns advocating for the optional use of the veil. She screwed up her courage one day after supper and asked, "Mother, what would you think if the sisters came to chapel and were not wearing their veil?"

Mother thought for a long moment and said, "I would think something had changed."

Thus commenced The Gradual Dispensation of the Wearing of the Veil. 

Nuns. If they ruled the world there would be more order. Our days would be marked by the call to and  rhythm of prayer.  Voices would be lower, conversations more pleasant, and everything would have a place and there would be a place for everything, and a sign would help you find it.

If nuns ruled the world, an appreciation for subtlety would be the characteristic, defining feature of life.  That and subtle, authentic humor which would find appreciative expression in the art of the giggle. The Decibel of Nun would mark the sounds of life.

If nuns ruled the world no one would be bored or exclaim, "But, there' s nothing for me to do!" Everyone would be expected to contribute to the life of the community - baking, cleaning, sewing, leading retreats, teaching, evangelizing, making music, visiting the sick, working in a parish or community agency, making arts and crafts for sale, etc, etc, etc. 

If nuns ruled the world, one would actually have to think before one speaks. You know. Engage the brain before opening the mouth. How great would THAT be?

If nuns ruled the world the contemplative life would not be a luxury for the elite which provides introspection as a place to camouflage neurosis or self-absorption or narcissism. Not for long, anyway. Every nun is expected to have an apostolate - a way to offer her life in mission.

One does not join a convent to escape from the world but to be prepared to more fully engage the world.

I was once privileged to preside over a week- long retreat during Holy Week for the sisters of CSJB. At the end of it I thought to make a T-Shirt that read: "Convent life at CSJB. Do not try this at home."

It ain't for sissies, that's for sure. 

Change does not come easily for nuns but when it does come it is fully embraced and becomes part of the seamless fabric of life.

If nuns ruled the world, the world would be a better place.

Not perfect, God knows.

Because then, we wouldn't need nuns.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Christmas joy: God knows

God knows, I needed a little Christmas joy today.

Besides trying to stay ahead of the coastal flooding and the high winds today, I also witnessed the official beginning of the Holiday Crazies.

The husband of one patient pulled out a gun while the CNA was there. The wife of another patient thought that if she could just get her dying husband to the hospital for another dialysis treatment, he'd "snap out of it" and "be okay". She didn't want me to come for a visit because "that will send a message to God that I've given up and I haven't". I didn't go to see him. He didn't go to dialysis. He died 45 minutes later. So much for the efficacy of "magic thinking".

Another patient and her daughter had a huge argument and her daughter threatened to throw her out of the house. Because, you know, it's just a few weeks away from Christmas and she's dying. Then, there was the patient who is actively dying and her caregiver called to ask if I would come over because her nieces and nephews were at the house, fighting over her jewelry, so they would have some "awesome presents to give away". 

And, finally, at the end of the day, another of my patients died, at the age of 58, leaving her 10 adult children - from three different husbands - and their various children and significant others in an old Victorian house with no central heat and falling down walls to continue their long tradition of fighting with each other over the crumbs that their mother had left them.

Please don't talk to me about "Holly Jolly Christmas" or having a "Merry Little Christmas".  I'm convinced it's part of what gives us the "Holiday Crazies".

I have come to know that when I concentrate, instead, on the spiritual discipline of JOY, then my "Christmas Spirit" is just fine, thank you very much, no matter what else is going on in my life.

So, allow me to pass along some of my thoughts on the subject, which you are free to consider and adapt for your own personal use. Admittedly, it's my own "magical thinking,' but it works for me. I hope it might work for you.

Joy, I think, is different from happiness, or being merry. Happiness and merriment are human emotion. Joy, I think, is a state of spiritual being.

Joy requires the spiritual discipline of contemplation. It demands that I change my perspective - stop looking at my life and the world in the same way. It also asks that I consider the gifts God has given me. Well, okay, yes, it is about "counting your blessings, naming them one by one." But, it's deeper than that. Much deeper.

Finding joy at Christmas means that you know - not just in your head but in every fiber in your body - that God knows.

God knows what it is like to be human because God was once human.

God knows what it's like to have loved and lost.

God knows what it's like to have been betrayed.

God knows what it's like to grieve a loss.

God knows what it's like to suffer.

God knows what it's like to be alone and scared.

God knows what it's like to hunger and thirst.

God knows.

Because God was in Jesus and Jesus was in God.

God is with us always.

When we focus on the spiritual gifts we receive because of the Incarnation, we may feel lonely but are never alone.

We may, in fact, be sad, but, oddly enough, we will know joy.

We may be acutely aware of our losses, our emptiness, but we'll be "filled with good things". 

We may not understand why things happened, but we will be able to "hold them all in our heart".

We may feel weak and vulnerable but we will also know that the strong arm of God is always there to defend and protect us.  

We may fear rejection or betrayal, but we will also find unconditional acceptance and love.

We may feel approaching despair, but we will also know that hope is never far from us. It is as close as our next breath, if we are intentional. 

It takes discipline, spiritual discipline, to hold these feelings and emotions in tension with the gifts we receive in the Incarnation.

God knows, it's not easy. It takes work. Intention. Focus. Discipline.

But, when Christmas morning comes and you sing, "Joy to the World," you will sing it from a place of truth in you.

Because, as the rest of the words go, "... the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King."

Joy can be found in that place where heaven and earth meet and sing and rejoice.

The magic of Christmas will be that you may, in fact, feel sad in your heart, but you will feel joy in your soul.

Because the real miracle of Christmas is the Incarnation. Emmanuel. God with us. For us. In us.

At least, that's what works for me.

And, God knows, I needed some Christmas joy today.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Lessons in Hospice Ministry: Part II

So, we have another new Hospice patient on service. Admitted over the week end. I've been trying to get an appointment with him and his wife to admit him to pastoral care service.

I talked with his wife on Monday. She was feeling pretty overwhelmed which is fairly normal when people are first admitted. There's so much adjustment: the reality of the diagnosis, all the staff from all the various disciplines calling and setting up appointments, the delivery of equipment - oxygen tanks and compressors and plastic tubing, walker, bedside commode/urinal, shower chair, hospital bed - and rearranging furniture to make it all fit.

Did I mention the part about the reality of the diagnosis? 

She asked me to come on Tuesday, after her husband returned from dialysis, but asked me if I would pray with her on the phone. Which, of course, I did. I'm actually getting pretty good at it, for someone with an acute addiction to the beauty of the language in the BCP.

On Tuesday morning at 8:15, she called me again to say that her husband comes home from dialysis "really wiped out" and could we reschedule for Wednesday? Sure, no problem, said I. She asked again for prayers.

So, I prayed my little heart out. Right there on the phone, in front of God and Matt Lauer on mute and without a BCP in sight. That was even before my second cup of coffee.

Today, right after IDT (Interdisciplinary Team Meeting which happens every two weeks), I called to confirm our appointment at 2 PM.

This is that conversation:

Me: Hi, it's Chaplain Elizabeth, just confirming our appointment for 2 o'clock.

Wife: Well, um . ..  I don't know . . .

Me: Is everything okay?

Wife: Well, you know .... it's like this: I don't rightly know if your coming will make a difference.

Me: How do you mean?

Wife: Well, the last time he was in the hospital, about 3 weeks ago, you know, before this last time? Well, the hospital chaplain came by - she was a very nice lady - and, well, he got saved. You know?

Me: He was baptized?

Wife: Well.... yeah, I guess. I dunno, actually. He got SAVED, you know?

Me: I see. Sooooo . . . I'm not sure . . . .

Wife: Well, OBVIOUSLY!  It didn't work

Me: I'm sorry. I don't think I understand . . .

Wife: Well, she supposedly SAVED him, right? And it wasn't 10 days and he was back in the hospital and now, he's worse! Now, he's on hospice. So, he wasn't saved. Not. At. All.

Me: I . ..  umm . . . I . . .

Wife: And, you know, she was a HOSPITAL chaplain and she couldn't save him. You're a HOSPICE chaplain! I mean, how are YOU supposed to save him?

Me: I ..  . umm . . . well, you see . . . um . . . I .... I mean 'we' .... we don't actually do the saving. See? No one does the saving. That's Jesus. Jesus is the Savior. Not the chaplain. Not me. I'm just the vehicle. Jesus is, well, the driver. See? But . . . even then . . . that's not really what it means . . .'to be saved'. It's . . . . .

Wife: Well, now . . . Really? . . . . .What in the hell good is THAT?

           Looooong pause. Obviously waiting for an answer.

Me: I . . . ummm . . . well . . . I think we're talking about two different things, here.

Wife: No . . . no . . . no, we're not. We are talking about him being saved. I stood right there at my husband's hospital bed and she said, "You will not die forever." FOREVER! She said. And, she said it like she meant it. And, I believed her. So did my husband.

And, if that nice HOSPITAL chaplain couldn't save him, what in the hell good are YOU - a HOSPICE chaplain - gonna be able to do? Nothin', that's what! He's gonna DIE. I know that now.

They were talking at the dialysis center about not doing the treatments anymore. Because, you know, he's on HOSPICE. So, there's not a single thing in the world you can do to save him.

Me: The doctor and nurses at the dialysis center said they were going to stop dialysis?

Wife: Nooooo! (As if I were a Very Stupid Person). The lady in the waiting room said that.

Me: And, so.... she was.... a doctor or a nurse or a technician?

Wife: Nooooo! (Now convinced not only of my impotence but my incompetence). She was a lady in the waiting room, I said. Been coming there for years. She told me that, once you're on hospice, they stop doing dialysis.

Me: Well, actually, I think, until you hear that from your doctor . . ..

Wife: Look, I know. I got it. He's gonna DIE! So, there's no sense you coming 'round to save him because it won't work. You or Jesus or whoever it is who promises to save you and then, when you really need them, it's all 'well, that's not really what it means".

(I had a flash of a line from the movie, Princess Bride. You know. When Vizzini keeps saying, "Inconceivable! And Inigo Montoya says, "I don't think you mean what you think you mean." It gave me a momentary silent chuckle, which my soul desperately needed at that particular point in time.)

Wife: It's a joke! Except, it ain't funny! You guys are a joke! It ain't funny!

You know what I'd do, if I were you?

Me: No, what?

Wife: I'd quit!

Me: Quit?

Wife: Yes. I'd quit working for that Jesus, 'The Savior', cuz he makes promises he can't keep.

Me: Yes . . . well . . . I . . .

Wife: And, you should never make promises you don't know you can keep.

Me: Yes. . ..  well . . . . I

Wife: So, have a nice day. Or a blessed day. Or whatever it is you 'nice' people say to each other. Because, you know, I knew there was a reason I don't like nice people. Can't trust them. No, sir. They say nice things to you and make you promises and then you find out it's all a Big. Fat. Lie.

My husband is gonna DIE. . . . You can't save him.. . . . Jesus can't save him.  . . . .

(Barely audible whisper) . ..  I can't save him. 


So, then, a few things:
+ Watch your language. Really. Some people take you at your word. Literally.
+ Never make a promise you don't know you can keep.

+ Everyone's gotta have a hook on which to hang their anger. (P.S. Clergy make great 'hooks'. )
+ Security is an illusion.
+ The Beatles were wrong. If 'love is all you need', we'd all live forever. Here.
+ When you are standing (or, talking on the phone) with someone who is peering into The Abyss, having a sense of The Absurd is important. Having a sense of humor is absolutely essential. Knowing when to keep your mouth shut is critical.
+ You're not as smart as you might think you are. You're not as dumb as others might think you are.
+ Hospice is not for sissies.  
Oh, by the way, in case you were wondering: I haven't written my letter of resignation to Jesus.

Not today, anyway.