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Archive for June, 2012

I learned last night that my parents will most likely be putting to rest my family’s dog, Ginger, within the next few days.  A sweet, ever so loyal and affectionate German Shepherd, she has lived a long and vibrant 13 years (or so. My dad is the guy who keeps track of these things).  Throughout my life, I have had a lot of great pets, and we have had to put many to rest in order to ensure that their passing was just.

This time feels different.  It feels like the first time.  I found myself spontaneously welling up with tears throughout the day today thinking of her.  I have searched my computer looking for a photo of her, but realized I haven’t taken one in years.  It saddens me to think I’ve taken her for granted.  I love that dog, and do not want her to suffer.  It is time to allow her the chance to pass justly, and she in her faithfulness has earned that compassion.

I think it’s likely that part of what makes it so hard is that this is the first time I have not been able to say goodbye. I have said goodbye to my other pets. I didn’t realize how much that sense of closure was important to me.  The last time I was in Cleveland, where my parents live, was less than a month a go.  I was only there for a few hours, one overnight of sleep before moving to New Hampshire to begin working as a chaplain intern.  I don’t even remember if I took the time to pat her head.  There was definitely no goodbye.

I also think it’s likely that this is harder now because I am in the midst of working in a place that is filled with death, dying, and suffering.  Strangely, since being here I have not been as disturbed with the hospital setting to the extent of some of my colleagues.  Many of my colleagues speak of being afraid of the noise of the respirator, or have to look away from the needles.  The look and smell of the hospital is hard for them.

My first week with patients, I spent hours sitting in an ICU unit with a family whose grown child had attempted suicide.  I was with them as they decided to withdraw life support, and I was with them as death settled over his body.  That day was my first day in an ICU ever.  When I walked onto the unit with my unit supervisor, she asked me if I had ever seen this type of illness before. When I told her no, she told me it was okay to be overwhelmed, to be afraid.  What is haunting to me is that I didn’t feel afraid.  Even though it was the first time, it didn’t feel like the first time.  It felt achingly familiar.  While those hours with that family were hard, while I still think of them often and uplift them in prayer, his death was not a frightening experience for me.  It was painful, but did not make me afraid.

Perhaps it is because of my own morbid understanding of mortality.  Death and life changing illness are never too far from me.  Being a lupus patient and having more surgeries and procedures than I could ever begin to count, hospitals and doctors are a normal part of my life experience.  Just 9 weeks ago, I sat alone on a stretcher in a Chicago ER, feeling the burning acid of iodine (of which I am highly allergic) coursing through my blood in order to get a CT scan.  I took a risk in trusting the doctors that they could counter-act my allergic reaction so that I would not die.  The next day when my tongue caked over in fever blisters and hives covered my body, I had to live with the knowledge that had one prescription been different, I could have died 400 miles away from my family and completely alone.

As horrifying as that experience was, as much as the memory and impact of that ER visit wakes me up in the dead of night covered in sweat, it was not the first time I had to take such a gamble.  And it won’t be the last.

Death is not what intimidates me in the hospital.  I believe that death is a part of our baptismal vocation.   It is the one absolute on our existence on earth that I feel I understand.  What intimidates me is living past the death.  It is the family who goes home without their son, knowing that he chose that absolute.  It is the wife who has been married for 62 years to her husband, who in watching him pass entrances her into a new future.  It is the daughter who has to carry the memory of watching her father collapse to the ground.  It is living without a beloved dog who let me sob into her neck when I was a teenager completely over my head with the way my life had turned.

Maybe what makes it feel like the first time is that with each passing, we as the living enter the phase of a new time.  We enter into an environment that is completely unknown and beyond our control.  Death transforms the living, and while we may share in the grief, our transformation is solitary.

It is hard to think about what it will be like to love another animal in the way I love Ginger.  She is one of the purest examples of unconditional love I have ever known, and that beautiful spirit transformed me and has made me a better person.  My time with her has awakened within me aspects of my personality that I could not have known without her.  She has made me a better caregiver, a better minister, and a better person.  I will carry her on my heart forever.

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The following article was originally written for the community of Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH

I am currently living in New Hampshire as I complete my clinical pastoral education unit (CPE).  This field experience is required between your first and second year of seminary when you are in the ordination process of the ELCA.  For twelve weeks, I will be serving as a chaplain intern for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, working with patients and families and studying how to provide spiritual care in a hospital setting.

Upon moving here, I learned that New England is one of the most secular areas of the United States.  Organized religion is not only hard to find here, but often frowned upon.  Just this weekend, as I was shopping for my dad’s Father’s Day present, a sales clerk heard my Midwestern accent and asked me what brought me to the upper valley.  I explained that I was a chaplain intern at the hospital, and very quickly she told me that she felt my role was unwelcome.  “We don’t like people telling us what to believe, especially when it comes from one of you ‘flat-landers’ (meaning non-New Englander).”  It was a surprising reaction mostly because I didn’t say anything else than, “I’m a chaplain intern”.

Even more so, this reaction is counter to what I’m doing here.  The role of the chaplain is not to evangelize but rather to accompany.   A large part of my training is to learn how to recognize my own cultural and religious perspective, and set that perspective aside so that I can hear what the patient and their loved one is trying to express about their own faith.  My role is not to tell them what to believe, but be with them as they uncover what they believe in the most trying of times.  Of course, it was clear this sales clerk was not invested in learning about my profession.  Instead, she was telling me something very clear about her own faith journey.  That journey deserved my respect even if I didn’t love the avenue in which she expressed herself.  Part of this CPE experience is being open to read between the lines even when those lines are as sharp as razors.  Her hostility towards religious figures is itself a testimony of her life, and in that moment I was called to set my reaction aside and listen to the deeper truth beyond her words.

All chaplains and chaplain interns must answer to calls in all areas of the hospital when we are on call, but we are also assigned a primary unit.  My units are the Birthing Pavilion, Infant ICU, and the Emergency Department.  As a chaplain, I need to be available to provide care to people of all faiths in times of trauma.  Sometimes that will mean baptizing babies before they are removed off of respirators.  Other times, that will mean standing in an operating room to make sure that I uphold the belief of a Jehovah’s Witness whose faith dictates they cannot have a blood transfusion.  There will be moments that I will need to pray with a Jewish person after their spouse had a heart attack.

Part of becoming a pastor means mean trusting in the grace of God even when I am fulfilling a role that has me upholding the beliefs of someone whose faith is different than mine.  Part of becoming a pastor is learning how to embody Christ’s example to show forgiveness and affection to all people, even when they bristle at the idea of organized religion.   Part of being a pastor means accompanying people when they are experiencing the most difficult moments of their lives.  Part of becoming a pastor means bearing witness to the good news of God’s steadfast love for us in the most unlikely of spaces.

CPE will help me begin to develop those skills.  I have no doubt that this will be hard.  I am barely into my second week here, and already I am feeling my faith stretch and grow.  There is a time in my education to preach the good news, but now is the time to listen to the news that is coming out of the experiences of this New England community.

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The Beckoning

I am currently into my second week of my chaplaincy internship at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital in New Hampshire.  Today, for about the millionth time since I began I found myself asking, why am I here?

Practically, I know why I’m here.  All ELCA candidates for ordination (that is a person training to be a pastor) must complete something called a clinical pastoral education unit (CPE).  Chaplaincy internships at a hospital are the most traditional avenues of completing a CPE requirement.  I am here because I have to be.

I am also here because I want to be.  I chose this site for a variety of reasons – I had never lived in New England, I really connected with the supervisor when I interviewed, it is the only neonatal clinic in this region of the country, it is a Trauma 1 center (which means a lot of complicated cases) and this site uniquely offers a stipend.

But today, as I was completing my rounds, I was overwhelmed with a frustrating sense that what I am doing is very foreign to the makeup of the culture here, and a type of ministry very much foreign to me.

New England is one of the most secular areas of the United States.  Organized religion is not only hard to find here, but often frowned upon.  Just this weekend, as I was shopping for my dad’s Father’s Day present, a sales rep heard my Midwestern accent and asked me what brought me to the upper valley.  I explained that I was a chaplain intern at the hospital, and very quickly she told me that she felt my role was unwelcome.  “We don’t like people telling us what to believe, especially when it comes from one of you ‘flat-landers’ (meaning non-New Englander).”  It was a surprising reaction mostly because I didn’t say anything else than, “I’m a chaplain intern”.

Even more so, this reaction is counter to what I’m doing here.  The role of the chaplain is not to evangelize but rather to accompany.   A large part of my training is to learn how to recognize my own cultural and religious perspective, and set that perspective aside so that I can hear what the patient and their loved one is trying to express about their own faith.  My role is not to tell them what to believe, but be with them as they uncover what they believe in the most trying of times.  Of course, it was clear this sales clerk was not invested in learning about my profession.  Instead, she was telling me something very clear about her own faith journey, and that deserved my respect even if I didn’t love the avenue which she expressed herself.  Part of this experience is being open to read between the lines even when those lines are as sharp as razors.  While I felt confident that I had navigated that experience in away that was respectful to her beliefs and my own, I couldn’t help but think, what am I doing here?

All chaplains and chaplain interns must answer to calls in all areas of the hospital when we are on call, but we are also assigned a primary unit.  My units are the Birthing Pavilion, Infant ICU, and the Emergency Department.  Today, I was supposed to be in seminars all day today, but one of my sessions got cancelled and I decided to make some rounds on my units while I waited for the next session to begin.

As I traveled to the Incant ICU, I learned that some of the patients I had been working with had a rough weekend, and that there is a high possibility that we may lose one or more of them throughout this week.  Finding out this news was hard, and after I scrubbed in and entered the unit, I was surprised to find it devoid of parents.  I have never been on that floor when there were no parents, and I felt overwhelmed in knowing what to do.  I had been operating under a philosophy of when in doubt, look to the parents as a guide of what was needed.  With no parents, I felt lost on knowing how to interpret what my role was.

I spent some time with the staff, and prayed with the babies I knew were struggling.  As I left the floor though, I couldn’t help but feel an emptiness that my time on the unit was futile.  I can pray with these children, pray with their caregivers, but is it enough?

I have now spent over four years working in parishes, and there have been many times when I have wondered if what I was doing was enough, or why God chose me to be with God’s people.  In that time, though, I have found ways to find validate my purpose even at those moments when I am frustrated or feeling overwhelmed.  There is a consistency to parish ministry that is not available in a hospital setting, and the avenues in which the Spirit speaks to me in a parish are not the same here.

How do you gauge that enough is enough when the person from whom you are providing care can’t speak to you?  How do you know enough is enough when you can’t lay a hand on the person you are praying with because they are in a simulated womb?  How do you know when enough is enough when the smell of fear is as strong as the sanitizer you scrubbed on your hands?

Recognizing that perhaps I was a bit too hard on myself, I decided to treat myself to a soda from the cafeteria.  As I stood in line, ruminating over my thoughts, suddenly the woman at the cafeteria register spoke to me. “Chaplain?  Since you have some extra pull with the big guy upstairs, can you please pray for my son?  He is having a hard time.”

Suddenly, cafeteria air became very sacred space.  The Spirit who I felt distant from on my rounds settled around us and time slowed.  I told the woman I would pray for her son, and told her I would pray for thanksgiving that he had a mother who would reach out on his behalf when he was struggling.  We exchanged names, and have now taken steps into a relationship together in faith.  The whole exchange lasted but a few moments in time, but it was a lifetime of reminding me why I am here.

We never know when we will be open to experiencing the Spirit.  I have no doubt the Spirit was with me while I prayed with the children and talked to their caregivers.  But I cannot ignore that the Spirit beckoned me into a relationship I least expected, and in that beckoning, confirmed my call.

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Live free or die.  I have only lived in New Hampshire for five days, and I already know that this state motto is a true reflection of this community.

It appears everywhere – on the back of license plates, on disposable coffee cups in the hospital where I am working as a chaplain intern, popping up in conversation with my new neighbors (if you can count the nearest person who lives a mile away from you a neighbor).  This is a state that takes pride in their freedom, and from what I have gathered so far, freedom has an association of geographical space.

Coming from my seminary in Chicago, after coming from a metropolitan suburb of Cleveland, it is taking some adjustment to get used to the space.  My second day here, I developed a pretty substantial upper respiratory infection.  My host family was away on vacation, and I had to venture out to the local pharmacy, a pharmacy that was 23 miles away from where I live.  In Chicago, I barely had to walk one block to get to the local pharmacy, and now, I have to make sure I have enough gas.

I have to admit, the first few days here before I had started my work or knew anyone at all, I had a few moments where I didn’t think I was going to make it out in the wilderness.  I knew I was a person who was dependent on people, but I had no idea to what extent that dependence carried.  Like the lovely Barbara Streisand felt, I am a person who needs people.

After the second day of complete solitude, I started thinking about Jesus spending 40 days alone in the wilderness.  I honestly don’t think I could do it.  It takes such a discipline to be by yourself, to trust that you are headed in the right direction when there is no one there to reinforce that for you, or even to listen when you want to reinforce yourself.

I came to New Hampshire because I believe God is calling me to learn who I am in an environment that is different then the environment that formed me.  I believe there is a truth to experience here that I cannot experience in the hustle and bustle of the city, and I think that I need to see what that truth is.  It is exciting, invigorating, and utterly terrifying.  Was Jesus afraid during those 40 days?  Were there times when the sense of loneliness served to be a pressure of hopeful anticipation?  Was there a sense that even though this was hard, there was joy in the struggle?

Those first few days, I didn’t know if I could do this.  I didn’t know if I could feel this sense of lonesomeness and pull myself out of it without loosing myself in a name of faceless people in a mall or walking down 55th street in Hyde Park toward the Metra Station.  I didn’t know if I could live this sort of freedom of physical space and 23 mile drives to the nearest CVS.

Then I remembered Ohio’s state motto: with God, all things are possible.  If Jesus could make it 40 days, then surely I could make it through a long weekend.  Seriously, I was only alone for 72 hours, a blink of the eye within the spectrum of my life.   If a state could embody an essential principle of American freedom, then I can set aside my intimidation and embody the bravery of Jesus who sought sanctuary in the vastness of the wilderness.  I am strong enough to last a week.  Now, on day 5, I am still really intimidated, but I am starting to form community here.  The vastness doesn’t seem quite as broad as a few days ago, and I am seeing the benefit of being brave in a time of change.

There is a truth to be learned in this land of freedom that is so foreign to my city-girl preferences.  And with God, it is possible for me to uncover that truth, if only I can overcome the temptation to Google the nearest mall.

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