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Parish Nursing and the Ministry of Presence

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Parish Nursing is a unique ministry opportunity for actively licensed nurses to serve in a faith community.  My first encounter with a parish nurse came when I had foot surgery.  I had always known Marie.  She was a fellow canine culturist (dog lover).  We often swapped dog stories as we served meals to the homeless at Munsey UMC.  But I had no idea she was the parish nurse in my family’s faith community.  She  approached me with concern about my buneonectomy.  She was very informative and helpful.  But I became a little uncomfortable as she physically sized me up by walking around my body and entering my personal space.

“What are you doing?”  I asked.

“Oh, just trying to decide which shower chair you’ll need.”

“What?….Why?”

“I’m the parish nurse dear.”

“Oh….(at this time I was very relieved because Marie was standing behind me, trying to configure my height from my waist down, her face squarely behind my derriere)…but I won’t need any of that.  I still quite young and this is only a 6 week thing.”

“Uh—uh.  I’ve got the size you’ll need.  Shall I get your husband to load it in the car?”

“Are you sure you won’t need it for other patients…you know, geriatric stuff?”

“Nope.  Got a whole closet full.”

“Uh…OK.”  (I had given in to several frivolous requests of lay people when I was a pastor.  So I dismounted my argument.)

Twenty four hours after my surgery, I was sitting on that chair.  I felt foolish considering that at one time I truly thought I did not need the contraption.

Shortly after my first post surgery shower, Marie called.  Before I could thank her for the chair she wanted a detailed description of how I felt…and she didn’t mean my emotions.  She made me think through my current body state.  Then she assured me that all was well, gave me her home number to call during the night (if needed) and told me what symptoms should cause alarm.

The parish nurse in our faith community had made a difference for me.  So I was delighted when Lula Gray of Mountain States Health Alliance asked me to lead the annual Parish Nursing Retreat at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough Tennessee.  The topic was “Listen for What?”.

I began with an hour of storytelling.  I choose an array of stories and asked the nurses to take notes by identifying the emotions each story elicited.  After an hour of stories we had lunch.  When our group reconvened, we discussed the emotions.  Some nurses were set on having a “good column” and a “bad column”  for there emotional list;  others were more open to a list of emotions that offered no labeling.  I took the list of a nurse that insisted on the column system and validated her work by asked the group which story they would like to hear more.  They all choose the “happy stories”.  From that point, I introduced a list of defense mechanisms humans can use to keep us from hearing negative emotional stories.  I so appreciate the brave nurses that claimed their defense mechanisms (we all do it!).  From that point, I introduced a concept called “The Ministry of Presence” (this is devotional will be my next post).

The conversation that followed was rich.  Together, this group and I discovered that in order to truly offer a ministry of presence we had to listen for the emotion in our patients/parishioners stories, we had to ask questions about that emotion and we had to offer a non-judgmental presence, fostering spiritual safety and trust.  I facilitated as the group made a how-to list (organized bunch, aren’t they?)

The final portion of our time together revolved around self knowledge.  Each of us has a story.  This story has shaped who we are.  Knowing our story, accepting our story and loving the self as it has evolved through the story is a mark of spiritual maturity.  This spiritual maturity enables us to offer the ministry of presence to those who are hurting.  The more present we are with ourselves as we recollect our story and live out the current chapter of our lives, the more present we can be for those who bend our ear about their spiritual and emotional struggles.  I told the story of Parker Palmer and his hiking trip.  He has no idea that repelling would be part of the trip and he became thoroughly annoyed with his 20 something guides as he hung over the edge of a cliff, preparing to descend.  The thick, specially designed repelling rope looked like a thread.  Just as he was about to object to this exercise that resembled certain death, his guide told him to lean into gravity by sitting into his harness.  This was the antithesis of what he wanted to hear and he convinced himself that his theory was surely a mistake.  So he straightened up.  In doing so, he crashed into the side of the cliff…on his face.  When he finally did what he did not want to do, it worked.  He began to enjoy the descent.

This is like our spiritual life.  In order to progress, we must do what seems like certain death…or great discomfort.   (Revisit old stories, confront negative thoughts, forgive ourselves)  But we must lean into the discomfort.

I ended our time together by taking about self care for the caregiver and how spiritual growth is anything but daisies and sunshine.  The good news is the hard work of spiritual transformation is worth every tear.  It not only improves our patient/parishioner care, but it also impacts our marriages, child rearing and work relationships.

I enjoyed my time with this lively group and before I left, I had been “booked” for another workshop for senior citizens at Munsey Memorial, April 1, 2014.  I look forward to that event.

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Dancing to the Song of Worthiness

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Steve Harvey, Family Feud Host

The game show “Family Feud” has been on and off the air since 1976.  The popular show has had a handful of hosts.  The current reigning host is Steve Harvey.  Steve is an upbeat, African-American man with a wide smile and a swaggered step.  He introduces every show the same way:  “As usual, we got another good one for ya.  I’m your man Steve Harvey and this is Family Feud.”  Steve says it with such vigor I really believe him (even though I know not all the shows are equally good). Week in and week out, Steve bravely steps in front of the camera and freely gives his gift of entertainment to his audience.  But for me (and for others) sometimes it’s just a struggle just to show up.  I worry my gifts (and all that I am) will be rejected.  Instead of dashing into a church meeting, a family reunion or even the grocery store with the attitude of “another good one” I want to shrink away, become invisible or become someone that I image is stronger, more likable, or smarter.  I fear that I am not enough.  I assume rejection by others, myself and God to be the result.  And I wonder if Jesus ever encountered this feeling – not enough.

Early in Jesus’ ministry he returns home to Nazareth and goes to church (well technically, synagogue).  I would imagine the place was packed out.  Jesus had been working miracles in Capernaum and surely word of his great feats had spread to Nazareth. The hometown hero had returned and the honor had been bestowed upon him to read the scroll.   The scripture reading communicated the ancient promise of a savior.  Jesus rolls up the scroll after he reads and proclaims that he is the savior Isaiah speaks of in the scripture. This did not go over well.  Jesus showed up with all of who he God created him to be and he was rejected (Luke 4:16-30).

Vulnerability means not hiding behind any mask or armor; rather you allow the good and the bad of yourself to just “be”.  Without a mask or armor to hide behind, rejection is possible (but so is great, deep connection!).  So how did Jesus do it?  How did he become vulnerable and live through the rejection of his hometown?

Before the synagogue event, Jesus has one notable occurrence that would apply to my argument .  The scriptures record that Jesus was baptized by his cousin John.  While Jesus was being lifted out of the water a voice from heaven speaks saying, “This is my son in whom I am well pleased.”  And that statement is the reason Jesus did not allow the hometown rejection to scar his soul.  It did not matter what others thought.  The one to which it mattered the most had already given Jesus the blessing.  The gospel records that Jesus moves on to bigger and better things.

The critic does not count, my friends.  It is the blessing we receive from above, from ourselves and from those who love us most.  That blessing sings to our souls the sweet melody of worthiness.  We are worthy to give and receive love – from God, ourselves and others.  The life, death and resurrection of Christ illustrate that point!  There will always be critics.  But the critic’s words hold no significance.  We only dance to the song of the blessing.

The Path of What Could Be: Curiosity

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Pete the cat Cats have been found in unusual places.  They have traveled across country in some crevice of an eighteen wheeler.  Felines have been heard disputing the drywall patch that covered their entry into a wall.  And homeowners have been known to return home from holiday merriment to find their cat in the middle of an expedition to the top of the Christmas tree.  An old adage tells us that these outlandish behaviors are driven by nothing less than curiosity.

But aside from the motley of cat clichés, in the realm of spirituality curiosity is not a negative thing.  Curiosity is the companion that keeps our hearts from being focused on absolutes.  It is a playful thing that sets our minds upon the path of what could be.  Like a child exploring new places, new people, new skills, we approach life with wonderful anticipation of what is around the corner.

Eric Litwin created a suave character of curiosity in his book Pete the Cat; I Love My White Shoes.  Pete’s adventure is a simple trudge through blue berries, strawberries, mud and water; all while wearing white shoes!  As the color and sogginess of his shoes change, Pete observes and ends each “misstep” with a song about “walkin’ along, sing’in my song”.  Pete creatively intersects each color opportunity with curiosity of what could be.  This approach to life stands in contrast to the expectations and confines of what should be. Pete

Curiosity is a very helpful attitude when we find difficulty in the words of Jesus.  Often poorly preached, Matthew 7:7-8 gives us confusing advice:  Ask and it shall be given unto you…for everyone who asks shall receive”.  Upon initial reading Jesus makes God sound like Santa.  Give Santa your list and he’ll go to work upon your behalf.  But the deeper meaning comes when we adopt curiosity as our guide.  Jesus invites us to ask, so a survey of needs and wants we take.  And we are also invited to present those needs and wants to God.  But curiosity invites us to sit with that list and be curious.  What does that list say about us?  What does the list say about what we think of God?  Curiosity invites observation, not judgment.  As we analyze, our list may change.  True desires of our hearts bubble to the top, fleeting wishes melt away.  In that evolution growth takes place.  And that is a gift to be received.

Matthew 7:7

 

 

Another gift comes when we wait upon God to respond to our list.  As things come about in life, good and bad, we begin to wonder if this is the path God will take to answer our prayer.  Other times, we observe our situation and ask ourselves what can be learned.  Curiosity welcomes questions and creativity about what could be.  This stands in contrast of the confines of what should be.  In the process, we learn more about ourselves and how God interacts with us.  Those who ask do receive.  The gift lies before us every day, if we are curious enough about what could be.

Here’s to all the curious prophets out there!

Loving our Rotteness

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Most people do not journey very far in their spiritual lives, not because they are afraid of challenge or sacrifice, rather they do not sojourn because they are afraid of what they will uncover about themselves.  The old adage is true:  Adversity does not build character, it reveals character. 

In 1978 Jack Gantos created a favorite literary character that has charmed children for years.  His name is Rotten Ralph.  He is an obnoxious large red cat owned by a sweetly naive young Sarah.  When Jack began creating adventures for Rotten Ralph and Sarah, the plot ended with Sarah always loving her cat, Rotten Ralph, no matter his crime.  Rarely did Rotten Ralph have self awareness about the effect of his antics until book number eleven.  In Rotten Ralph Helps Out, Ralph discovers that his shenanigans are hindering Sarah’s Egyptian homework project.  It’s frustrating for poor Ralph because this time he really wants to assist, yet his way of doing things always have an adverse effect.  At one point in the reading, I wondered if Ralph was upset because he could not help Sarah or because he realized how rotten he really was.

That self discovery is exactly what causes good people to turn away from a conflict that may grow them emotionally and spiritually.  What if all the bad things I think about myself turn out to be true?  Worse yet, what if there is more bad stuff than I realize?  What if I AM ROTTEN RALPH with NO Sarah to love me?  The fear evoked by these internal questions brings compromise.

In Mark 10, Jesus interacts with the rich young ruler, who professes to be godly in deed and action.  Jesus challenges this young man to give up his wealth by sharing it with the poor and becoming a disciple.  The story is a bit of a letdown because the young man walks away.  I believe the young ruler exits quickly because he is in shock.  He has believed that God has favored him because of his wealth. (After all, Father Abraham was rich.)  This made him a shoe in for heaven, much less the acceptance of this Rabbi before him.  Yet Jesus throws out and invitation that challenges the one thing that defines his personhood.  He discovers that he is not as godly as he thinks.  He does love something more than God; wealth and the power that comes with it.  He intelligently wove his love of money into his religion; after all he did tithe.  The Gospel states that Jesus “loved” him.  And Jesus loved him by revealing his character in a mirror of self sacrifice.  I suppose I would retreat in horror too.

Rotten Ralph and the rich young ruler seem to have plotted similar paths.  Rotten Ralph does find redemption.  After destroying Sarah’s final finished project, he becomes a last minute project himself.  Sarah transforms him into an Egyptian sphinx, winning a good grade.

The gospel story does not give us much hope for the Rich Young Ruler because the story ends abruptly.  Yet legend does abound.  Some tales are told that Mark, the author of this gospel, is the Rich Young Ruler.  Only in this account (verses other gospels) does the writer note that Jesus “loved” the Rich Young Ruler.  Some think this personal footnote is the author’s significant hint.  There is a stronger argument from culture and history that place Barnabas as the Rich Young Ruler.  Whatever the legend (or the truth), it gives us hope that the Rich Young Ruler did struggle with his wealth addiction, overcome it and become a follower of Jesus.  The beginning of the recovery was shock and retreat.  This young man discovered who he really was through the eyes of the divine.

Those who seek to spiritual growth will be challenged by the gospel time and time again.  A reasonable reaction to these challenges is shock and retreat.  It’s uncomfortable.  And, after all, we are human.  But just as Jesus “loved” the Rich Young Ruler, Jesus loves us….even in our retreat.  Accepting the dreaded retreat as a step toward growth, instead of a shameful failure is the attitude needed to allow Jesus to love us.  It is the love of Christ and propels us to return and grow.

There is a Rotten Ralph and Sarah inside all of us.  Our spiritual growth stops when our “Sarah” punishes our “Rotten Ralph”.  Ralph won’t venture far when he doesn’t feel safe.  Internally, when our “Sarah” accepts and affirms the rottenness of our inner “Ralph”, we are ready to go back to Jesus.  Sarah knows she can’t fix him.  But it’s not her job!

Sometimes the most Christ-like thing we can do is love ourselves.  In other words allow our internal “Sarah” to be like Jesus and love our “Rotten Ralphs”. 

Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals character.  Be in conflict.  Love what you find about yourself to be true and let Jesus do the rest.

Apologies and A Lost Dog

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Dope-dee-doe

Our Pondering Prophet mascot became the wondering prophet, as he did not return home from an evening walk Wednesday night. The next morning my heart fell to the pit of my stomach. I opened the garage door and for the first time in 13 years, no Moses. He ALWAYS returns home and knew something was keeping him.

Of course the worst ran through my mind. He was wounded somewhere and needed me. Was he dead? What happened to him? I exhausted every avenue from 5:45am till 9:30am. In a moment of hope lost, I collapsed in tears. My phone rang resulting in my neighbor’s voice, “They found your dog, here’s the address, go.” I honestly don’t recall how I got in the car and on the road. The address was one house over and two houses down. I could see the roof from our deck and vice versa.

Moses had fallen ill and my good neighbor and colleague, Sara Wells (Good Samaritan Ministries), found him in her front yard. Her granddaughters cared for him during the night. By morning he was very well and howling in the corning of their penned in yard that faced our home. Sara gave me all the details. I expressed mounds of gratitude. She and her girls had the same canine appreciation that I had. Caring for Moses was no burden. Beyond Christian duty, they enjoyed nursing him back to health. I discovered they did exactly what I would have done for him.

In reflection of that event, I recalled how I pleaded with God to help me find him. I asked that Moses be well. And I specifically asked that if he was dead, that he did not suffer. It never occurred to me to consider the Christian community or the community of other dog lovers throughout all the places Moses could have roamed.

Reunited

Desperation has the power to push us into a corner. We feel that it’s all up to us, or us and God. We forget the resources that abound through community. Fear of judgment has kept me from sharing my troubles with my family. So often I have longed for a sympathetic word about how things are now, instead of what I “should” have done to prevent the tragedy at hand or what I need to do now to fix it. A little understanding goes far.

Perhaps that is why so many are so hesitant to offer an apology when they know their folly. A moment of vulnerability to a group is too risky. Their pride keeps them safe. Yet what they lose in the process is a valuable lesson. What if the group/family/church offered grace? Could it be?

The New Testament advises us on our behavior when we know we have been mistaken. It encourages us to live in peace (Hebrews 12:14a), Jesus preaches about peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), and James writes as if confession is essential for healing (James 5:16). All sources point to this risky act: throw yourself on their mercy. (And by “throw” I mean abandon all self righteousness and justification.) The Christian community, especially, has been called out to give grace. Being a Christian, we trust in that.

Ponder with me for a moment:  What if they offer grace and understanding? The relationship lives. Humility is yours but reflect on those lessons. You have taught them as much as they have taught you. Together, you are getting better. What if they offer judgment? Then it is time to re-evaluate the relationship.

This is a risky venture. It calls for spiritual maturity rooted in the belief that God will work with all the ups and downs to mold us into Christ likeness. Take heart, humbled ones! God goes before us; God goes with us, and (thank God!) God goes behind us, cleaning up our mess.—one pondering prophet to another—

POSTSCRIPT:
Dear Methodist Pastors, Do you feel that your district meetings, conference and district con’t ed events, lectionary groups (so on and so forth) are gatherings that encourage sharing of places professionally and even personally that you feel failure (or make apologies)? How vulnerable can you be? Are we creating communities of trust? Look what Springcreek church did!  What if we lived like that among each other?  Just some thoughts…..

Solitude

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During my clinical chaplain training I was a humbled guest at many a death.  Any death is a sad occurrence, but the most disheartening are those that must die alone.  In some cases the family could not attend or refused to attend.  The chaplain was the only non-medical caregiver.  I held the hand of many close to death who were truly lonely. (solitude in healthcare)

 Most humans are afraid to be lonely.  Americans avoid it in the most high tech ways:  cell phones, I pads, I pods, portable gaming systems.  Our error is that we confuse loneliness with silence.  They are not the same.  Our fore fathers and mothers had many an opportunity to do farm work or house work in complete silence.  They seemed to me to be more thoughtful, slow to speak people.  Spiritually speaking, their silence led some of them to practice the discipline of solitude.

 Solitude is the practice of being absent from other people and other things so that one can experience the presence of God.  Silence is necessary.  Not only silence from our text messages and news sources but inner silence.  It is the calming of our hearts and minds so that God may speak.  Considering the world we live in today, solitude is a precious practice.

 Like a sponge, we soak up the emotional environment around us.  This includes the anxiety of the work place, the tension of our marriages, the happiness or sadness relayed in a story shared.  Silence and solitude allows us to soak up the peacefulness and store it as a balance for a busy day.  Silence and solitude allows us to tune ourselves to God’s work in our lives and the lives of others. It makes us available for God’s peace and calm.   Jesus practiced solitude many times in the New Testament.  Jesus inaugurated his ministry by the solitude found in the desert for 40days (Matthew 4:1-11).  Before his chose the 12, he spent the night in the desert hills (Luke 6:12).  Often Jesus speaks of “lonely places” (Matthew 14:14; 1:35).

 During my times with dying veterans, we often spoke after times of solitude.  Most of those conversations began with “I’d never thought about it this way before” or “I remember and I’m not scared about it”.  Solitude gave some of them opportunities that a busy life had robbed them of.  With the silence found in their hospital rooms, many veterans revisited and made peace with past emotions or histories or loved ones.  The solitude gave them a gift of wholeness.  For the first time, many spoke to God.  And when they had a fill of solitude, they were ready to talk.  But this time, it was different.  I noticed their words were slow and thought-filled.  Knowing their time was limited, they wanted to get down to brass tacks with the chaplain.  Those were rich times filled of questions, comments and emotions about God, life values and themselves. 

I discovered that solitude is the medicine for loneliness.   It is an inner state of mind and condition of the heart that is marked by calmness and gives the gift of clarity.  Solitude manifests itself in the life of those who practice it by thoughtful words, often few, that address others with hope and kindness.  Those who practice solitude seem more patient and peaceful in such a way it overflows and fills the room.

taken @ St. Dominic Catholic Church in Kingsport, Tennessee

Sometimes feeling peaceful means finding a place externally and internally to soak up what God places before us – peace. –pondering peace today–

 

Buffalo Mnt Camp suffers “total loss”

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I made the short trip across town to get an oil change.  Proudly, I displayed my Buffalo Mountain Camp t-shirt.  The cashier stopped me to share a story about her mother, who lived below the camp and worked at the camp in younger years.  Our conversation left both of us deflated.  The flood waters of last Sunday night swept away buildings, roads, and carefully built fire pits and shelters.  With those physical reminders of spiritual and/or happy moments gone, we both felt as if we had lost a dear friend.  That conversation caused me to reflect on the power of special places in one’s spiritual journey.

In 1 Samuel 4:1-11 and 5:1 the Bible records of a place about four miles south of Gilgal, where the Israelites were twice defeated by the Philistines and the Ark of the Covenant was stolen.  After Samuel wins victory and the Ark is returned, an Ebenezer is erected.  It is a large stone, sitting upright.  This simple word means “stone of help”.   It was erected to remind others that in an hour of crisis God helped.  Time has withered the stone away but the story lives reminding us of God’s help.  Generation after generation has been strengthened by the hope offered.

 An ebenezer marks God’s movement.  Not only at the time of struggle, but also in our memories and visits to those holy spaces.  Buffalo Mountain Camp is such a place.   Most people can recall a heart tugging moment or a story that brings a silly grin.  We were shaped by the place and all who invested in it.  It has become an Ebenezer. 

Even in this time of devastation, this Ebenezer calls us back.  We remember the stories, vivid images of this holy place display in our mind’s eye, and we are sad.  In reflection, we say goodbye to what was, give thanks to God for the past and comfort one another as we grieve.  It is good to be sad.  What happened to our camp and the Dry Creek community was indeed tragic.  When we embrace our emotions and give them our full attention, we are empowered to move forward.

At Buffalo Mountain Camp there a flat field, the flattest part of the whole mountain.  Many a field game has been played there.  Currently, it is full of stones from the creek.  The flood waters carried them there.  I image that many a hand will help remove those stones.  Those stones will be our ebnezers.  They will remind us that God’s help comes. Each hand that is lent to the Camp and the Dry Creek community is evidence that divine aid can come through human efforts.  Embrace your sadness; lend a hand and watch God work in us, around us and through us.  Our ebnezer will be the stories of God’s help as a new camp, restored homes and a stronger community emerges.  Oh, the stories we will have to tell our children!—

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