Friday, September 26, 2008

What Time Is It?

Sometimes I visit Pray as You Go for my morning devotions. I had not been here for awhile but re-visited the site after reading Gannet Girl's poignant stories on her journey in grieving the loss of her son. This week's lessons have been from Ecclesiastes. Yesterday I made a homebound visit to two of our members to share in conversation, a devotion and communion. They are young, in their 30's, but he has battled non-Hodgkins lymphoma for the last 12 years. The cost of the cure has scarred his lungs, and left many other losses, yet they are generally one of the happiest couples I know. He is almost exclusively home-bound because of a compromised immune system. But yesterday's visit was the time to hear that she had been in tears because of a very bad day at work. It was a time to cry and a time to laugh, and a time to heal. So much so that an hour and half passed without it seeming so.
When I walked in the door, my husband told me there was a message from a good friend. It was from our daughter's trombone teacher. G has known my husband since high school, our oldest and their daughter are in high school together. We have socialized for years, and shared the ups and downs of parenting, and his wife's battle with MS over the last 10 years. She received her diagnosis when our daughters were in kindergarten together; next year they will graduate together. K's condition has affected her vision, and her mobility. It has been a couple years since she last drove. She is fully wheelchair bound within this last year. Catheterized within the last six months.
Two weeks ago, she had another episode which rendered her unable to use her arms, resulting in hospitalization, followed by rehab and therapy. Sadly, the conclusion was that she could not return home. Last week the planning began to place her in an skilled facility here in town. On Monday of this week, it was the time to share his pain about suddenly not only feeling like a single parent, but also like a bachelor. Balancing work, the home, the needs of their daughter, his aging parents who live on the same farm lane, and the disconnect of having a 48 year old spouse who will now be somewhere else. It was just too much to take in at once. Latched onto me, sobbing. And it was a time to hear from my daughter's friend about how scared she is that her mom is sick like this. This new and scary reality.
And this is where things were when I pulled into the driveway last night. To get the message K is back in the hospital- in ICU. Could I please call and would I please go to see her.
The day after her transfer to the facility, people were meeting in a conference room across the hall from her, and somehow someone noticed that K seemed unresponsive. She was, and they called a Code Blue. After 15 minutes of no response, they called G at work to tell him what had been transpiring and what did they want them to do? I cannot fathom sitting in my office and getting this call, this totally unexpected call, this life-altering call. He told them if they felt all had been done, he was prepared to accept that death may be at hand. As he shared this with me, his voice sounded different than it ever had, not overwrought, but exhausted and accepting. But then, they called him back to say, she had responded. She was stable, but they needed to send her to the Regional Trauma Center in Amish Country. Which is where she is now, where they are evaluating what this all means, while she is entubated.
And so it is time for me, as their friend, to also be something else, having been asked to see her as a chaplain, to bring those who will be on call up to date, and to visit my friend, and to pray for them and with them.
I confess it is hard to know what to pray for. She had a period of anoxic time, and may be pretty compromised, this may be a time when infection will take hold. It is hard to know whether it is time for life to continue or to end. And like the words of Ecclesiastes, we cannot see the beginning to the end. But it is a time when we seek and hold on to God, to trust that God is walking with them, in their suffering, and bringing consolation in the form of all who are in their midst. It is a time to pray for guidance, and knowledge for caregivers, and compassion. To trust that even when we do not know what to ask for, God hears and will provide. A time to accept that while we may not know what time it is, God does. God doesn't give us all of the answers, but God gives us God's self.
And a time to know that God gives each of us tasks to carry out. May God guide me in this day that I may be who God needs me to be.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"The Gospel Truth"

"I’ve been running around the country for the last year, going to church on Sunday mornings (waking up early is a commitment for musicians, let me remind you). From Nevada to Memphis to Dallas, and all across Chicago, I’ve been going to meetin'. These eleven songs (and it takes all eleven of 'em) illustrate how I found the Church, and the Christian Faith, to be these days: uplifting, inspiring, generous – and – fearful, bigoted, backwards -so there's much to celebrate, and much to change, both " These are the words of Susan Werner regarding her release this past year of "Gospel Truth." This release is full of wonderful music which I commend to your listening, as well her other work which is of a very different genre. A lapsed Catholic who claims to now be agnostic, she wrote this set of songs in response to a friend's question, after witnessing a gospel singing performance, " Can you have the joy without the Jesus?" In her interview with Chicago Public Radio, Werner notes that there are lots of people who have cobbled together a combination of sacred and secular which is their "religion" for whom the idea that it doesn't have to be orthodox is being recognized in her songs.
She takes on and questions many of the differences and hypocrisy of "religion" versus "God." I listened to this album for a class I am taking entitled, "Song, Mission and Culture," with the task of determining in part, is there gospel in these songs, and while I would love to have been able to have posted music here, you can hear and see both at Susan

I have listened to this music now several times.Unlike those who researched her, I did not know anything about the artist when I began listening, but I do know that I recognized alot of what she had to say in my own faith journey ( where I was told women cannot be pastors because God does not intend it), and in the stories I have heard and continue to hear in my work as a chaplain, in the women's ministry at the Rescue Mission, and in the stories I hear from all kinds of people about why they struggle with "religion" versus "God."

Many people have experienced not getting to tell their story, or having their questions minimized or invalidated when they attempt to reconcile their Sunday school faith with their lived religion, that taking of faith to the next level- of doing more than blindly accepting and parrot-ing the code. My experience of listening to Werner was not one of hearing total rejection, but looking for affirmation that it is OK to question, that the intersection of faith and life is messy. She looks back on getting all "cleaned up" to go to Church, which I think represents putting on the right appearance even when it is not "alright." Getting there late, as the "not quite good enough." Praying to be "who they are supposed to be." Wondering if we are still loved children of God if we are not? Not happy with being told a judgmental answer. Yet on Sunday morning she thinks there is somewhere she is supposed to be.

"I know you’d damn me if you could.. if your God is so great, why is your heaven so small?" reminded me of the phrase our Dean used recently, the "idolatry of certainty.” Werner's query, "Someone somewhere excluded you?" confronts the process where though we all want to be loved and affirmed, the question becomes- by what process? This evokes the "God is on my side" philosophy that I too take issue with. Many of her songs strike me as being prophetic about the need for greater understanding and compassion, and reflect honest responses when this is not received. "How do you love people who want to shove you in front of the train? You’re bleeding- they hold their prayer meeting...Loaded their Bibles and armed their disciples..I can’t find forgiveness..Only God knows and He is not taking sides. I hope one day He shows us how to love those who will never love us who still we must love." I hear in this the challenge of the gospel message, and it reminded me of leading a Bible study at the Mission where the women studied the Good Samaritan and openly discussed their challenges in seeing others as their neighbor. Werner strikes me as trying to reconcile her own lack of acceptance with her belief that she is called to do more.

And in the midst of her reflections, she exhorts God, "Deliver us from those who think they’re you." I see this as being more than just about one denomination despite the references. My take on "lost my religion- because I saw too much and got off track" was more about abandoning a particular construct or experience than defintively abandoning God. In part because other songs wonder about the cosmic, and not wanting it to be rationalized, as well as her urging in response to what "some might say", she counters with "I beg to disagree." There is honest questioning about God- she is not ready to deny categorically, and she desperately wants to see the God with a human face and the time and place where everyone will come together, evoking eschatological hopes. While she is clearly disillusioned by the imperfection of her experiences with "religion," I see a person who is seeking faith and a meaningful understanding of God not just for herself but in community, who is challenging us to respond. Even if I am wrong about Werner, I suspect she is indeed proclaiming gospel for others that it is OK to not have it all figured out, to wonder why words and actions seem incongruous.

In my experience, a faithful response to someone seeking is first to truly listen, not just to the story, but the person behind the story. And to be willing to engage our faith in questioning- if our faith must be totally nailed down to be upheld, what does that say? As someone with an interest in urban ministry, and chaplaincy, I expect these are the stories that, if permitted rather than discounted, allow for real relationships with people and God to flourish, and as Tillich writes, " It is in helping others experience God, we experience God for ourselves."

So I wonder, when we encounter people who boldly challenge us to hold our "church" up to the bright light, do we stay and talk, or do we look for the escape hatch?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Ministry in the Hallways

"When you are on the way to do the ministry you think are to be doing, real ministry will happen." Or words to that effect have stayed with me since I began my path towards seminary, these wise words from Dr. Mark Oldenburg (always give attribution).
How true this has been for me in so many ways, and continues to be so. Yesterday was my first shift as a non-intern, i.e. real-live paid chaplain associate. I came to the hospital to find a very tired overnight intern who had an incredibly rough night. We met in the hallway and her "will you get some coffee with me?" was the first of many hallway moments as she needed to share what had been an extremely emotional night with no sleep, and she still had the day shift to work with me.
Not knowing each other, we met first in her processing and then, in the formalities of "who are you, where are you from?" As she shared with me her amazement that people would so openly begin to lay bare their life experience with her, a total stranger, I smiled, watching her do the exact same thing.
As the remainder of the day unfolded, I was off to the ICU to see a patient who had been moved there post-surgery. He was asleep, and his wife was not there, but as I rounded the corner, I turned the wrong way. In doing so , I encountered a cluster of family with a doctor, standing in the hall outside a room, hearing the words, " So that's where it's at right now. Any questions?" They kind of stand there numbly and head toward the waiting room. I catch the doctor to find out that the patient is congestive and very tired and outcomes are not looking good.
As I head toward the waiting room, voices are beginning to rise. I step in and introduce myself. I mention I saw them speaking with the doctor and wonder how things are going. For the next hour I hear the struggles of the sister who senses her sister is at peace and wants to meet God and be reunited with her husband.
Another sister thinks the the patient is "giving up" and needs to fight because it's not her time to go. The sons are in shock and trying to internalize the medical information and make sense of it. They all tell me of the deep abiding faith of their loved one. And I hear the fears and pain of knowing that a visit to the house has revealed that things are labeled with who is to receive them, including several rosaries. Dots are being connected and a sense of potential finality is slamming them in the face. What does it mean to be faithful now? Who are they to be now, for her and for each other? I had not expected to be there. They had not expected me, but our time together ends with prayer and hugs and an expression that I must have been sent to them to hear them in this moment.
And so I head down the hall, to see a patient and I pass a woman with a baby on her lap, and the stroller laden with things, telling a friend " I guess now I am not just the sandwich generation, I am the triple sandwich, between Dad, and my husband and the baby- but we'll get through I guess." I make my visit and am headed back the hallway. The woman is still there, reading Doctor Suess to the baby and trying really hard to be all of the things she needs to be. I wave to the baby who smiles.
The woman looks up and says hello. I ask about her son who is 10 months, and we talk about the universal quality of Dr Suess. I ask her how her day is going. And we talk about her father's cancer, and her husband's work injury that has him laid up, and the baby. I notice she has a case of Diet Coke in the bottom of the stroller and an open can is in the cup holder. After she shares her saga, she smiles and says, " I know it is a lot but we are so blessed.. I know that. We will get through." We joke about how Diet Coke will help, but then spend a minute talking about what else she can rely upon. And I tell her we are there to support her anyway we can and give her a card. We say a brief prayer and I am on my way.
To run into the security guard who wants to ask about the motorcycle accident victim earlier and to tell me how scared the guards were when he came in with the paramedics and how worried they have been for the family.
And the patient who I expect to see for a routine visit request, but she is headed for an MRI and she is having anxiety. We pray in the hall and I write down Isaiah 12:2 for her to take with her- "Surely it is God who saves me, I will trust in him and not be afraid." She tells me later she held the paper in her hands in the MRI because even if she couldn't say the words, she knew she was holding on to them.
On the way to do what I thought I was going to do, the Spirit had other plans. I am humbled and grateful for the ways I was used, along the way.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Mixed Bag of Musings

I haven't been blogging much, perhaps because I am trying to adjust to the new school year for three of the four of us. Trying to juggle six classes, five of which take up 18 hours in 2 days. Giving thanks for the one online. Trying to adjust to being away from home each Tuesday night in my "crash" room. Realizing that I don;t quite have the right packing system yet. Invariably there is something I need, or think I need. When I am grumpy about what is not clicking I make myself take a big gigantic reality check.
For one thing, the items I did not have/bring, I have at home, or I could have gone to the store to get. And yes, I would have been really tired and not wanted to, but I had a car, and money and choices. And I was only responsible for myself, not a family. And I have a safe, dry, climate controlled place with nice neighbors.
And I have the freedom to be educated, to choose my religion, anad to choose my attitude.
So yes, I do have a "TV stand" made of milk crates, and I have a camp chair in my "living room" and a classmate let me borrow her spare TV. Spare TV, for how many people is that a foreign concept. Yes, I am using hotel shampoo and soap from my trip to Minnesota this summer, but I have them and clean water.
This list could go on, and indeed when I was done, I really felt kind of puny about my momentary grumpies.
But perhaps the best part about it all, is that after the 18 hours of class in two days, I get in my car and come home for the next five. Home to a place that is not at all about my stuff, but my family.
Some may know that I have blogged here about my girls from time to time, my Lutheran Chicks who text me each day when I am gone, and call each night. LC#2's birthday is September 11th. This year, my track running, trombone and guitar playing, Japanese culture freak is 14. I got her a red calligraphy yukata to wear and this weekend will be sushi. She can't decide between marine biology and being an ESL teacher. Every day a new adventure. And in another few weeks she will be confirmed on All Saint's Day, the same day she was baptized fourteen years ago. So in honor of her, here is a re-post from last year that reminds me just how inconsequential the rant above is:

This week people across the nation marked the anniversary of the tragedies which unfolded on September 11, 2001. September 11th holds another importance to me- my younger daughter was born on September 11th and was an elementary school student in 2001 when the world seemed like it was falling apart.

It was, in the tradition of the school, her day to be the line leader and the snack person. And it all started out like any other great day. And it is almost always clear and sunny on her birthday, as it was that day.

She had been dropped off with her cupcakes and dressed in red, her favorite color. Her older sister was also at school and my husband and I were at work. The way it worked out, my secretary was on a family trip ( about a mile from where the plane went down in PA). So I had public radio on and I was vaguely listening as I waited for a client to come for an appointment.

As the appointment began there was a report that a plane had crashed into the Trade Center but the assumption was it was a small plane. Hmm. The client came and we met. When I finished, I called our lawfirm’s main office and people were frantic. Get to a TV, they cried.

So, still wondering, I walked down the street to the coffeehouse and on the TV, the now infamous plane clips that are etched into our collective memory were rolling. I got a coffee and as people were wandering in and sitting down to watch numbly, the first tower collapsed. I watched it as though it was a surreal vision, but it had really happened.

They announced that the last plane was unaccounted for, but was over Pennsylvania. I felt like Chicken Little; the sky was falling. I frantically called my husband, and found out his government office near the school was in lockdown.

The school called and I was on my way to pick up the kids. Driving on a sort of auto -pilot. As it seemed was everyone else. My kids got in the car and it was as I saw the tear-stained face of my young child, I realized that for her this was as much about her day as anything else.

How much do you share with 7 and 9 year olds? They had heard the whispers of a few things. We talked briefly about what I could say, planes had crashed and people were not sure what had happened but that it looked like someone made them crash on purpose.

When we came home, my birthday girl was wondering why anyone would do such a thing. At the time none of us knew who was behind the attacks or why. But it seemed to come from somewhere in the Middle East. I struggled to find a way to explain why any person would embrace death in this way.

I started by saying that people do not always agree about where other people should be able to live, or what religion they can believe, or what people can say and who is in charge. I used the playground as an analogy for who gets to pick the game, or who gets to be on the swings first, or who solves a problem when there is a fight. And I admit that even though grownups tell kids not to act out, and to get along and share, we do not always do what we tell them to do. And so we argue and we fight, even though we shouldn’t. And we try to settle things the way we want and we do not take turns. And we push and shove.

Heads are nodding and I think I have made a connection. Perhaps a little too well. Because then the birthday girl points out that the difference between kids on a playground and adults is that “ when adults fight, the way they settle things is to kill.”

My eyes welled up with tears as I heard the truth of what she so boldly said- yes, sometimes this IS what adults do. And now.. what to say? To my saddened, disappointed bitter child who at age 7 knows us as we can be?

I tell her she is right, and that when people do this, it is wrong, and that it makes God sad. She laments that this is how things are. And suddenly I find a moment of good news. I ask her to think about the fact she is not the only person born on this day. That there are too many to count. And that if she and every other person born on this day says, “ I have had enough!” They can become the peacemakers. They can help to bring the change our world needs. They can work for peace, not just because it is right, but because they know how awful not having peace is. And all around the world, change starts because one person stops saying “there is nothing I can do” and starts saying, “ I can do something.”

So every year when we get to her birthday, we place flowers in church to honor the peacemakers in the world. And as the events of the past become further into history, the best hope we have of honoring memories is to work, pray and hope for peace. And when you remember September 11th, just as it evokes sadness, remember that there is life and hope and God’s promise.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Thursday, September 4, 2008

I Hope You Dance

Now that our family's issues are under control for now...I confess I love the start of a school year- I always have. This year I am only on campus two days, but am slammed in classes for as many hours as class is offered. So I am staying away from home on Tuesday nights, and coming home late Wednesdays. I tried that this week and have learned how I must live into what this means for my family and for me. By the grace of God it will work just as I got through last spring when I drove every day, six days a week. The Lord provides in so many ways.
Back in the day there used to be the new school clothes and all of the trappings that were necessary to make the "first day of school" splash. The last vestige of that was scoring binders that are different colors inside and out with six pockets
(take that,Scott!)And a new label maker. But as this school year begins, my two new binders are not what has me feeling content.
Instead it is the joy of seeing people who have become my buds, some of whom blog or lurk on mine, as we return for another year, and catching up on the last couple months. The kids are bigger, the experiences have been many, our lives are the same and yet..
The collective nervous energy of the junior year is gone. We have, after all, survived, and perhaps even thrived. Many of us have discerned more about our callings. There are new wives, or fiancees, and a sense that this year will bring new adventures. As I hear of their stories, I am so glad to see how the Spirit moves in their lives! I think for many of us, though I only speak for myself, there is a sense of living into our callings more fully. To share a laugh, a hug, a word of encouragement, a prayer. And to share war stories. I sense that retaining this comraderie in our lives beyond here will sustain us just like those Epistles and letters.
To see professors again who have become a part of the joy and the feeding of my soul in ways they may not even know. To hear how each of us have touched the lives of others, in intentional ministry and in the ways we were sent by the Spirit that we may not even have comprehended.
And there are new faces- the incoming juniors, and those returning from internships or here for their Lutheran year. Many stories to hear and embrace.
A year ago I blogged about the cloud of witnesses. They are still here, but this year, I was inspired by our Dean as she spoke of living the dance, or maybe living into the dance. Her talk was much more emboldening than my writing here, but she spoke of all it could mean to dance as people of the Spirit. In a world of possibility and the gaining of wisdom, of experiencing what it means to live in the here and now. So I leave you with one of my favorite songs, which she referenced in her remarks... The first time I found this song was to inspire a young woman who was a confirmand I mentored.
Comming to seminary can be more than a little life altering, but a year later, I cannot imagine being anywhere else. Wherever life takes you, if you get the chance to sit it out or dance, I Hope You Dance!