Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What church is all about

One night after youth group, I was asking the other youth leaders for advice on how to get the youth excited about the Scripture we were studying.  We were studying the first 11 chapters of Genesis, which I think are some of the most exciting and rich texts in Scripture, but somehow I was failing to get them excited about it.  As we talked about the youth, one father and I started to talk about the church in general.  I told him that I thought one of the most beautiful things about this church is how welcoming they are.  There is one member of the youth group who is of mixed race, and there are four children of mixed race in the children’s group.  The church has welcomed, embraced, and made them part of their community.  They are just as much a part of the youth and children’s groups as any members of those groups.  This was possible because some members of the congregation are very committed to welcoming everyone into their community.  There is, of course, still room for growth.  The journey toward faithfulness is slow and requires patience, but this was a real glimpse of the Kingdom of God.  

When I complimented the church for being so welcoming, the father said, “Well, I think that is what church is all about.”  He is right.  Church is a community of people who were once strangers but are now brothers and sisters.  It is a community that is open to receiving the stranger and incorporating them into their community.  It is a community that can welcome the stranger into its midst so that its members can learn from each another and grow together in their journey of discipleship. 


My name is Diana, and I’m going to be starting my second year in the masters of divinity program in just a few short weeks. My placement this summer was in Peachland, NC, which is just off of highway 74 between Monroe and Rockingham in Anson County. Peachland is also just 33 miles from my Granny’s house in Mount Gilead, so I was fortunate enough to be able to live with her this summer.

My supervisor, pastor Tracy Carroll, told me early this summer that she thought the time leading up to one’s death was holy time. She is very committed to being with her parishioners when they are sick and dying. She takes the command to visit the sick in Matthew 25 very seriously, and she has learned to see Christ during those visits. This summer, I’ve thought about what she said as I have spent time with Granny. She was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma in March, and her oncologist said she might have six months to live. I have watched her body grow weaker all summer. The vivacious woman that was playing 18 holes with her girlfriends just two years ago is now more like a skeleton draped in its own skin. The hands that crocheted my baby blanket are now shaky and can barely pull her body out of a chair. Her belly that bore my mother is now pregnant with her swollen spleen that is filled with the cancer that is eating her body from the inside out. Her legs that pushed her son’s wheelchair all of his life are now too weak to walk on their own, and now she must ride in her own wheelchair. The color of her skin has been fading, as the smell of death has been growing stronger. I have been thinking a lot about bodies - weak bodies, bodies that die.

Bodies journey toward their death from the moment they emerge from the womb. They begin and end in radical vulnerability and weakness. Yet it was in a particular body that God redeemed God’s entire creation. When our Lord ‘came and dwelt among us,’ He took on a body, a weak body that would die. It seems foolish that God would take on such weakness, but God’s power is not what the world calls strong and powerful. When ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,’ God revealed that God’s power is what the world calls weakness. The power of God was revealed in a dead and crucified Savior, and Matthew 25 tells us that it is in encountering the weak that we will continue to see this God revealed. Pastor Tracy was right; the time of death, the time of extreme weakness for human bodies, is holy time because we see the character of God revealed in this extreme weakness.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Wisdom from Someone Who's "Been There"

In my interview with April Brown*, an employee at Presbyterian Prison Ministry and a former inmate at RCCW, April shared many wise words with me. As a woman who has “been there,” April seems to be keenly aware of the challenges facing women who transition from prison to society. The following insights are ones that really stood out to me:

• Women need a sponsor when they are in prison – and not a sponsor who is in it for their own personal well-being.

• The women need to be empowered, not enabled – there’s a huge difference. When we are enabled, our appreciation turns into expectation.

• One really important reality women in prison need to be aware of is how much things cost now, not how much things cost when they went to prison.

• When we are in prison, we think – “If we are liked by staff, then we are.”

• Some women know that they can be safe, protected, and known in prison; these things are not always a reality for them in the real world.

April’s insights bring up several issues. Without a doubt, there is a great need for sponsors to mentor the women, to help them grapple with the reality of the world, and to empower them. But we have to be wary of the motivations of the volunteers. I have met many volunteers who seem to be trying to save their own souls through their good deeds toward women in prison. Many of them are not mindful of trying to minister to these women as whole people, and they actually stifle their development by worrying more about what makes them feel good rather than what is really best for the women.

Another major issue is that sometimes prison is indeed a safer environment than the real world for many of these women. They may feel much more protected in prison than they ever have in their own homes. Many of these women also struggle with self-esteem issues, and being incarcerated probably only makes these issues worse. They struggle to be known, even if it means manipulating others. Many of them have more status in prison culture, than they do in society. And thus their self-worth and existence is often based on being liked by each other and/or the prison staff. Certainly, we must help these women struggle with these deep and complex issues so that they can successfully transition to society and not end up back in prison. And we need the help of selfless volunteers who are truly concerned with the healing and wellness of the women to do so.

(*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

a successful event

For the past couple of weeks, Jordan (a Pathways intern with Partners in Caring) and I have been doing a few activities with a local organization called ACRA. Aids Community Residence Association provides housing opportunities for people living with AIDS, some of whom are also dealing with other disabilities. Most of our activities have been with the residents of one of ACRA’s houses in south Durham. One day we enjoyed packed lunches and conversation while listening to a guy in a kilt play “free” music. We also took them to the NC Museum of Art, with which I was surprisingly impressed. Both of these events gave us some time and space to get to know the residents a little better, and I’m always amazed when my eyes are opened to see how seemingly ordinary moments become those holy conversations we couldn’t have planned or orchestrated.

In our initial conversation, one man suggested having a cookout for the residents of all the ACRA houses. So, for the past few weeks Jordan and I spent time planning the 1st Annual ACRA Cookout. This involved everything from finding a good location to deciding which board games to bring. Jordan asked and received a generous donation from her church that helped make the event possible, for which we were very thankful. We also made the effort to try to invite others from the community, including clients we had encountered through Partners in Caring as well as various case workers, local ministers, etc.

For some reason, in the whole planning process I found myself becoming anxious about the event. It may be that planning events and other like administrative tasks aren’t my ‘cup of tea.’ Regardless, I began to worry about the success of the event: “Will we have a good turnout?” “Do we have enough ‘fun’ things for the attendees to do?” “Will we have enough food for everyone?” “Will the baked beans get cold?” You get my point. One morning, a couple of days before the event, I spent some time reflecting and praying about this anxiety. In that time I realized how my anxious thoughts were unwarranted. I was reminded that the purpose of the event was not to have some blowout cookout that looked like a success from an outsider’s perspective. I really begin to consider that its purpose was holy fellowship, to bring different people together that we might all experience love, friendship, and community. With that purpose in mind, I was able to rest, sensing that God would be present in our little cookout and that I could rest knowing that the “success” of the event was already promised.

Well, the cookout has now come and gone. We had a great time together: eating hamburgers and hotdogs, playing dominoes, and simply enjoying each other’s company. At times both before and during the event when my anxious thoughts begged to resurface, I tried to remind myself of our purpose and to rest in the knowledge that its outcome was promised. Too often I get carried away by my own definition of “success,” which undoubtedly takes me to islands of worry and despair: “Will the baked beans get cold?” It’s actually nice to be reminded that my ways aren’t always God’s ways, and thus to be pulled back to the place where my definitions are reoriented to God’s purposes: “I am with you always…”

Sunday, July 13, 2008

APPEAL - Dallas, TX

This past week has been a bit crazy on the ICEOL side of the placement. There was a lot of last minute things to do as we prepared to take APPEAL to Dallas, TX for the medical community there. For this conference we worked with a steering committee of just over 20 people, representing several different organizations around the Dallas area. On Thursday I travelled to Dallas with Lindley and Brandy, the other two field education students attatched to ICEOL. We were joined by the Betsy Randall David who collabroated with Dr. Payne (Director of ICEOL) and other APPEAL faculty to design activities for the various modules to improve the quality of the APPEAL training for adult learning. As soon as we arrived in Dallas we hurried over to the conference site at Methodist Charleton Medical Center to help finish up all the set-up for the next morning. Afterwards we went straight to Trece to join the faculty and a few of the Dallas folks to discuss last minute things and get to know one another. Since I was able to go and work APPEAL in Pittsburgh back in April this was a fun time to see the returning faculty and catch up with them.

The next morning we started bright and early by getting to the conference site at 7am and large cup of coffee in hand. The conference seem to go very well. We had about 160 participants who were all very actively participating and asking questions despite the large number of people. For me personally I had a bit more responsibility in terms of AV and playing the DVD segments the faculty chose to use during their presentations. We were at the conference site until about 6:30pm and then headed back to the hotel. Where we were staying at was about two blocks from where President Kennedy was assassinated so Lindley, Pastor Corey (one of the faculty) and I went exploring all of the sites near the hotel when we got back on Friday night. The Taste of Dallas was also going on this weekend in the same general area so we walked around a bit in there. Corey test drove the new Hyundai Genesis, we played Wii, recorded a cheer for the USA Olympic team, tried free samples of Starbucks and had some really good conversation over dinner about chaplaincy, care at the end of life and churches. It all started over again the next morning at 7:30am and ending at 1pm with the module on spirituality. I got back to Durham around midnight and am gearing up to finish out the last couple weeks of field ed.

Here are a few pics:

As part of the Spirituality module, Corey has all the participants stand and sing "Soon and Very Soon"

This was my post for the entire conference to run AV stuff for faculty

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Cloud of Witnesses

This morning I sat in a memorial service at the Unicorn Bereavement Center (part of Duke Hospice) along with the other hospice chaplains, various staff and a few volunteers. We sat in a circle as one of the bereavement counselors lit a candle and led the service. A list of the names of those who had died in the past month were read aloud. There were about 50-60 names read during the time and I sat pondering the names as each was read. Afterwards there was time for those who had gathered to share stories and memories about those who had passed, so there were tears and laughter shared in that space.

Of the 50-60 names read this morning I was amazed at the number of names that I knew in varying degrees. There were countless names I recognized from the morning ritual of checking my voicemail to hear the messages that nurses, social workers, chaplains, ect left for one another to stay in contact with one another about patients so they could care for patients in a holistic way. Five more of the names read aloud had passed through my life, and even if for a brief moment touched my life by being privileged to be invited by them to share in their life. These names were of patients I had met during my time with hospice when I was shadowing various hospice staff. Although I met them and visited with them for one time I remembered my time spent with each of them.

There was also one name that I anticipated hearing as they went down the list. My patient Esther* that I have mentioned before passed away a couple weeks ago. Esther* was one of my "stable" patients who had been on hospice care for over a year and so her death was bit unexpected because she didn't seem to be what we call "actively dying." On a Thursday afternoon I visited with her and stayed about 40 minutes. During our time together she continued to show strong faith and peace in God that she was ready to go whenever He was ready to take her, but peaceful if her time wasn't yet. Esther* had enjoyed Jodi singing for her when I came with her to meet Esther* for the first time and so I offered to sing to her while I was there. When asked her favorite hymn she said anything would be fine. In trying to pick older hymns she may be familiar with I chose Amazing Grace and It Is Well. As I sang the words Esther* tried to sing along quietly when she knew the words, and when she felt her singing voice failing her she joined me by humming along as I sang. Because her eyes didn't let her read much anymore I offered to read some scriptures to her, and we finally picked the Beatitudes. When I asked Esther* what her favorite passage of scripture was she told me it was the story of Jesus calming the storm. We then had a great conversation about how God comes to us and calms the storms in our lives, and I felt that she was also speaking of the peace God continued to give her in her own illness. I also felt a connection back to the hymn we sang earlier in the visit, It It Well, which speaks of peace, being well, in your soul written by a man who lost his family on a boat in a storm, and wrote the words of the song when he passed through that exact spot. Before I left that day Esther* wanted to tell me of a dream she had. She dreamt that a man was calling her name and it was so real that she got out of bed and walked into the living room to look out the windows and see where the voice was coming from. She did not recognize the voice, but was also not disturbed by this experience. That was Thursday afternoon.

The following Wednesday morning I was checking my voicemail and heard the report of her time of death the day before. There are stories of many people seeing and hearing those that have passed on before them coming to make the end of the journey with them. I witnessed this with my own father in the last weeks of his life where he saw his father, who died way before I was born, and his mother, who died when I was about 13 years old, and said they had been there with him and talked to him. At the time I thought he delirious from pain meds or the cancer, and only later did I find out that this experience is not uncommon for those at the end of life, no matter their faith background. Perhaps Esther* wasn't dreaming, we'll never know. I can't help but think how peaceful it is to think that maybe we're not alone when we're at the end of life and those who have made that final journey before are there to accompany us on our journey. Maybe there is something to say theologically about the saints that pass on before us and the great cloud of witnesses that continues to surround us all.

*name changed for confidentiality

Monday, July 7, 2008

Living Out Prayer

I was caught by surprise when Chaplain Boykin asked me to lead a session on prayer. It wasn’t that his expectation was out of the ordinary, but I simply did not know what I would say. I felt very inadequate leading a session on prayer, knowing that I struggle with my own prayer life. In fact, in order to be truly honest I must admit that I don’t pray very often, especially on my own. I feel more comfortable praying in worship services than I do spending time at home in prayer. I often find my mind drifting, wondering how I really should pray. I stop myself and ask if I really think God interacts with the world in that specific way. I wonder why we ask God for things that are contrary to the nature of life. I wonder why we ask God to change things that happen because of bad decisions we make. I even wonder why we sometimes blame God for death or tragedy. I get really upset when I hear someone say that God “protected” their loved one from dying from car wreck or plane crash or a natural disaster when there are many other people who died from that same tragedy. Did God not protect the people who died? Did the ones who died or their families not pray hard enough? I don’t think so. Our world is a tragic place. Bad things happen, and we all eventually die. The only thing I feel like I can say with certainty is that God suffers with us through the mess.

Since my view of God and prayer has changed, I have a lot of head knowledge about what I think, but I have not really internalized or practiced prayer in a way that incorporates my theology. So this assignment turned out to be an opportunity for me to really wrestle with my theology of prayer. I had the chance to talk with Chaplain Arthur, a former chaplain at RCCW, about her thoughts. She reminded me that prayer is not necessary about my theology but it’s about my relationship with God. I don’t have to understand God to pray. She also reminded me of the importance of being quiet and asking God to speak to me.

I also read through two books on prayer. Joyce Rupp in her book entitled Prayer reminded me that we must have faith when we pray “because we cannot prove much about prayer” (10). It was comforting to hear her say that some of us are drawn to God not by “obvious passion” but by “an unnamable restlessness or a perpetual searching” (23). While I may have been passionately drawn to God before, I find that my unsettled questioning and searching is what brings me to God now. Rupp also reminded me that, just like our human relationships, our relationship with God becomes more about faithfulness instead of feelings when we grow and mature. She suggests that we should become aware of the sacred moments in our everyday existence.

Daniel Wolpert, in his Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices, reminded me that prayer is not just about a few isolated moments in our day but it is about creating a life with God and “enabling the love of God to permeate all that we do” (16). I was reminded of the practices of solitude and silence, lectio divina, the Jesus prayer, creativity (writing, decorating, cooking, gardening, etc.), journaling, body prayer, and praying in nature. After reading his book I was reminded that I can pray the prayers that I use in worship services at home when I cannot find the words to pray. I can pray through the Psalms or pray while I’m on a walk or while I tend to the flowers and herbs on my porch. I can pray as I cook or as I write or as I do other rituals. So while my mind has been expanded as to what prayer is, I find that I have not connected these things I have learned to my life. Maybe I have even been praying more than I thought. I feel refreshed from what I have gleaned through this opportunity, and I feel challenged to let what I know truly make a difference in how I live. I hope that I can learn how to live out prayer and be more fully aware of all the different ways I'm already praying.

Full Citations for these two books:
  • Joyce Rupp, Prayer. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008.
  • Daniel Wolpert, Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2003.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Environment, Human Agency, or God's Plan?

During my orientation with the North Carolina Division of Prisons, Chaplain Betty Brown, Director of Chaplaincy Services, gave me a book to read called The Female Offender: Girls Women and Crime by Meda Chesney-Lind. Let me share some of what I learned from the first two chapters:

In 1991…

• 32% of women in prison had been abused either physically or sexually before the age of 18, often by a family member or intimate acquaintance. (4)

• 58% grew up in homes without both parents presence and in 34% of these homes the adults abused alcohol and drugs. (4)

• 1 out of 5 spent time in foster care. (4-5)

• 43% by adulthood had been victims of sexual or physical violence (by spouses, boyfriends, and friends). (5)

• In 1990, 61.2% of girls in the juvenile justice system had experienced physical abuse. Reporting the abuse caused no change or made it worse. (26)

• “…Many young women are running away from profound sexual victimization at home, and once on the streets, are forced into crime to survive.” (27)

Meda Chesney-Lind, wanting to make her point clear, states, “To say that a person has had a set of experiences (even very violent ones) is not to reduce that person to a mindless pawn of personal history, but rather to fully illuminate the context within which that person moves and makes ‘choices’.” (30-31)

Chesney-Lind’s insights into the context of female offenders brings about a very important question: how much do we attribute crime to the situation in which these women find themselves and how much do we attribute crime to their personal agency or choices? People who work in the prison system have varying opinions, but I think we must wrestle with both the women’s life situations and their agency and choices. Which one has a greater impact on crime? I really don’t know. But I do think that as Christians, we must work to bring about healing and change within situations of abuse, violence, and poverty, and at the same time, we must examine the role of human agency and sinfulness. When I say “sinfulness,” I am not only alluding to acts of crime but also to our acts of neglect that have led to abuse, violence, and poverty.

At the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women, I have discovered that the theology of many of the women plays a major role in how they process their crime. Time after time I have heard women say that God brought them to prison for a reason, to teach them a lesson, to allow them to minister to other women, etc. While I don’t doubt their ability to minister to one another, I have to wonder what role responsibility for one’s actions plays when they believe that God micromanages their every move, even their crime, for reason or to teach them a lesson. It often seems that some of these women release their own responsibility by attributing their crime to God’s plan. What kind of theology has allowed for this thinking? What is my role as a chaplain in responding to women who voice this theology? I’m trying to listen to their stories before I talk too much. And at the same time, I gently offer a different perspective, mostly through probing questions instead of declarations of my belief. As I continue to be present, I will keep pondering the roles of one’s environment, one’s agency, and one’s theology in the act of crime.

(Meda Chesney-Lind, The Female Offender: Girls, Women, and Crime. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Voices of the Daughters of God

It has long been a dream of mine to read the stories of outcast women in scripture with outcast women in our society to see what we could learn together. I was first introduced to difficult texts that portrayed the abuse of women at Campbell University by my Old Testament professor, Dr. Kathy Lopez. As we read Phyllis Trible’s Texts of Terror, my eyes were opened to the painful parts of our scripture. Dr. Portier-Young, Old Testament professor at Duke Divinity School, challenged to think about how I could read these texts with marginalized people in our society. She introduced me to Bob Ekblad’s Reading the Bible with the Damned, through which I was summoned to value biblical interpretation by people from all areas of society. When I found out that I had been placed at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women for the summer, I eagerly hoped I would be able to read these texts with these imprisoned women. My supervisor, Rev. Proctor, graciously agreed to help me make it happen. On June 9, I started an eight week study (that I am writing as we go) called “The God who sees and hears us is God with us: Reflections on Marginalized Women in Scripture.” We have studied the stories of Hagar, Jepthah’s daughter and the mourning women, and Tamar. In the weeks to come, we will reflect on the unnamed concubine, the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the bent over woman, and the woman who anointed Jesus. We will pause to listen to the stories of these women and recover their voices since many of them have been silenced by the text. We will seek to discover how God saw them, heard them, and was present with them in the midst of their suffering, abuse, and marginalization.

From the very beginning of this study, we covenanted together to stay on task in order to be respectful of the time we have together; to hold all of our conversations in confidence; to treat one another with respect, gentleness, and loving care; and to honor all voices and perspectives by withholding judgment. We have sought to make our group a safe space for all, and I think we have succeeded in doing so. Surprisingly, we have even stayed on topic and not ventured into the land of gossip, which happens frequently in many of the Bible studies at the prison. The women have been interested in the text and how it connects to their lives. They were open on the first day to talk about the power of human actions in relationship to the story of Hagar. During the second session, the discussion of how Jepthah’s unfaithful vow led to the sacrifice of his daughter led to the women sharing about how the church has helped to perpetuate their abuse, instead of stopping it. The third week when we talked about the rape of Tamar by her very own brother, the women shared their personal stories of abuse and rape and how they could relate to Tamar. One woman told us of how she just barely avoided being raped by hiding in a closet. Like I had imagined, these texts brought up painful experiences for these women in their own lives. When I asked what they thought about Absalom killing Amnon for raping their sister Tamar, one woman told me she thought Amnon got what he deserved and that people like him should be killed. I asked her if she thought that we should go get everyone who had ever raped anyone right now and take them all down to Central Prison and execute them. She hesitated to answer, but you could tell she probably didn’t think it was a bad idea. I just sat there in silence for awhile, not really knowing how to respond. When I finally spoke, I told her that I meant what I had said at the very beginning of the Bible study – that we would really honor everyone’s voice. The women laughed after hearing my response. I think they laughed because they saw me not knowing how to respond and because they were relieved and maybe even surprised that I really meant that we would honor everyone’s voice. I think they also laughed because of the irony of the situation. Here they are sitting in prison, talking about how people should be executed for their crimes. I did tell this woman that while I thought that abusers should be punished, I did not think they should be executed.

Another woman spoke up and asked me what did I think would be sufficient punishment. She told me that her abuse had greatly affected her whole life, and while she admitted that she knows we shouldn’t kill people, she wasn’t ready to “go there” yet. Her pain is still too overwhelming. I told her that I honored her voice and the pain from which she spoke but that I didn’t think that continuing the cycle of violence was the answer. Not all of the women agreed with the perspectives of these two women. When one woman (the same one who said Amnon got what he deserved) voiced that she thought God allowed her to be raped and that she even deserved it because of the situation she put herself in, another woman spoke up and told her that nothing she could ever do would make her deserve to be raped. I told her that it was one thing to speak of how God helps you through difficult situations but that God did not allow her to be raped. We talked again about the messes humans make because of the actions that they choose. Indeed, this woman’s thought that God would allow her to be raped is evidence of the ways we as the church have read scripture unfaithfully and perpetuated the cycle of abuse.

I am grateful that in our study we could create a space where these women could speak honestly to one another and affirm God’s love and care for each of them and God’s desire for them to be whole. It is my hope that through our study, we will continue learn something about God’s faithful presence with us in every season of our lives, even those seasons of devastation, loneliness, and pain. It is my desire that through the recovering of the voices of women in scripture, these women will continue to discover their value and worth as daughters of God.

Embodying the Gospel within the Prison Walls

Maybe it was a mix of naiveté and wishful thinking or just plain ignorance that I thought I would find the women at the prison to be progressive thinkers, ready to change the society around them, at least those circumstances that played a role in the choice they made that led them to prison. I was so incredibly mistaken. The women at Raleigh Correctional Center for Women have developed a truly fundamentalist culture, in which they believe that if they really trust in God this time then God will protect them and everything will be okay. If they pray and trust “hard enough,” they will even be able to open their own businesses because for them, God shows this kind of favor to God’s people. I have also found the women to be, not only manipulative, but also arrogant and demanding. They feel as if you “owe them” because of all of the time they have spent in prison. I understand that they would have trust issues, but I guess I expected to receive a little more respect. I have been gently reminded on a few occasions that there is a reason why these women are in prison.

I had several disappointing interactions while trying to prepare for the worship service I led on June 15. The chaplain’s clerk got angry with me because I did my own program. Even though she knew I did it because the head chaplain asked me to do so, she told me that she would never do another program for them. The gospel choir was very resistant to help me with songs I wanted them to sing for the service. They were angry that I wanted them to sing a certain version of the song “Nobody Knows” – they called it her version, as if I had written the song. Only four out of the eight or nine women even showed up on Sunday to sing. So in my first four weeks of being at the prison, I found myself in a situation where I could not often identify with the spiritual experiences of the women, and I was also surrounded by a mix of other issues, which to no small degree include class and race issues. I was frustrated and disappointed and not quite sure how these women would respond to my sermon.

To my surprise, the worship service that I led went beautifully. The women really enjoyed the musicians I brought with me, and they were responsive and engaged with the sermon. Afterwards I had many women come up and offer affirmation to me. One woman told me that she had gotten some new things from my sermon that she needed to think about and process. And word travels fast on the prison grounds. A small group of women came to the service, but before I knew it, women all over came up to me and told me that they had heard that I did a good job. Even the woman in the gospel choir who had the worst attitude with me told me that she heard I did a wonderful job and that I was going to make a great preacher. Her attitude had changed. I felt as if many of the women saw me differently.

I have no other words to describe this change other than I think I had to “prove” something to these women before they would accept me as a chaplain. I’m not sure what that something was or if it was the same thing for every woman. It does make sense however that they would not trust or respect me until they had a reason to do so. Maybe that worship service was the first opportunity they had to see me as a pastor, as someone who cared, as someone who declared that God loves them and is with them in the midst of all of the seasons of their lives. I know that they couldn’t have agreed with all of the theology that I communicated through the sermon, but I think they did receive the message of God’s love. Perhaps, there is something to be said about the pastoral authority that comes from proclaiming God’s word. Or maybe it’s much more than that. Maybe it’s about embodying the gospel with your whole being so that the way you relate to others proclaims God’s love. Perhaps, the women came to trust me because I revealed my care for them as God’s children. And maybe that’s why my theology didn’t threaten them. Instead, they seemed to seriously consider how what they heard affected their faith.

I also think it mattered that I didn’t pretend to have all the answers. I admitted in the sermon what troubled me and what I didn’t understand about the text. I even uttered the words – “I do not know.” I invited them to think with me about the text instead of telling them one interpretation was the only possible interpretation. For whatever reason, I’ve always thought that my painful honesty in my preaching, teaching, and conversation was a negative aspect to who I am as a minister. I cannot even try to hide my true feelings because my facial expressions always take over and communicate what I don’t always want to admit. Ask anyone who knows me well, and they will tell you that you can usually tell what I’m thinking by just simply looking at me. Many of the women at RCCW have already experienced my confusion through my facial expressions in conversation and Bible studies. They heard it through my spoken words in my sermon. I now see that perhaps this honesty is also a part of my embodiment of the gospel. Sometimes the truth is painful, and Christ calls us to speak the truth in love, not to cover it up in order for everyone to “feel good.” Trying to reckon with our call as the body of Christ is hardly ever easy, and maybe it it’s not a bad thing to embody that confusion and restlessness that often comes after hearing Jesus’ words to come and follow him.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Breaking the Cycle of Domestic Violence

The first week of my field education with the Department of Chaplaincy Services at the Division of Prisons I attended the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence Biennial Conference with Chaplain Betty Brown. I was privileged to listen in on conversations between workers from the Department of Social Services, Child Protective Services, the Division of Mental Health, and various domestic violence programs and shelters. The most interesting workshop that I attended was entitled “Domestic Violence and Children: Survival and Transcendence” led by Kit Gruelle and Lisa Floyd. Kit is a domestic violence survivor and an advocate for battered women and children. As the conference manual states, Lisa’s “voice and experience of calling 911 as a 6 year old girl, one night many years ago (the Lisa tape), has been used since then to educate thousands of people about domestic violence and the impact on children.” Listening to Lisa call 911 on this particularly horrible night was a heart-wrenching experience. While listening to her stepfather beat her mother, she continually used the word “please” when asking the dispatcher to send the police or hold on a minute and repeatedly voiced her concern for her “very delicate” baby brother and her little sister.

Several years ago, Kit was working with the police department and asked someone, “I wonder what this little girl is doing now. I wonder if we could find her and see how she’s doing.” The police were able to locate Lisa, and Kit’s knock on Lisa’s door was the beginning of a very meaningful friendship. Kit discovered that Lisa was in an abusive relationship of her own, but since they have met, Kit has helped Lisa walk through the process of ending that relationship. Lisa says that when she got pregnant with her second child something in her just snapped, and she knew she had to get out because she did not want to end up like her mother.

Lisa had no idea that her tape was being used to educate people about the effects of domestic violence on children. She only vaguely remembers signing away her rights to this tape, and no one ever told her why exactly they wanted it. Now as a twenty four year old woman, she still cannot listen to the tape because of all the pain she fears would surface. She wonders why they picked this particular tape since she called the police hundreds of times. Through her tears, she shared with us that her mother had not changed, that her older brother was in jail, that her sister was getting into trouble, and that she feared for the future of her little brother. She pleaded with the Child Protective Service (CPS) workers in the room to always be mindful of the child victims of domestic violence. The reality of her life and the lives of her siblings is a great testimony to the effects of domestic violence on children. Lisa told us that there were twenty-three documented cases of CPS coming to her house and that she nor her siblings were ever taken away from her mom. She said that she wishes she had been. Although she admitted that she would not have wanted to leave her mom initially, she said that in the end it would have been a better situation. She challenged us to always remember the children when dealing with domestic violence because they have no control or power to change their situation.

Someone asked Lisa if the church ever played a role in helping her family with domestic violence issues. She said that she did not believe in God, but she knew of many people who did have faith and that their faith helped them “get through it.” I have to wonder if they meant they “got through it” by themselves with a silent response from the church. What have we done as Christians to help victims of domestic violence and even their abusers? Have we contributed to the problem with unfaithful readings of scripture? Have we ignored the signs and pretended as if nothing was wrong? How do we learn to speak honestly about the presence of domestic violence in the families who sit in our pews? And what can we do to minister to the abusers? I heard many of the groups at the conference speak very strongly about locking abusers up. But even if they are imprisoned, they will eventually get out. And, as Christians, locking people up cannot be the solution for us. How will we help to bring about change in the lives of all who are caught up in the cycle of domestic violence? How will share God’s love with them all, even the abusers?

Hope Center

I thought you might enjoy seeing pictures of where chaplaincy takes place at RCCW...

Entrance to the Hope Center

Sculpture by a family member of a former chaplain & The Chaplains' Office

My favorite part of the office decor

The Worship Space

The Hope Community Library

Prison Chaplaincy

This summer I have had the wonderful privilege of being placed with the Division of Prisons through the North Carolina Department of Correction. My initial contact was through Chaplain Betty Brown, Director of Chaplaincy Services, and after hearing about my particular passions and interests in ministry, Chaplain Brown placed me at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women (RCCW).


Chaplaincy services at RCCW are provided by Presbyterian Prison Ministry (PPM) in a building on the prison grounds called the Hope Center for Worship and Education (donated by White Memorial Presbyterian Church in 2001). The executive director of PPM is Rev. Caroline Craig Proctor. Rev. Proctor is my direct supervisor, and I have found her to be a wise, insightful, and caring minister. My supervision time with her has been one of my favorite parts of my field education. Chaplain Nathaniel Boykin is the primary chaplain on the grounds at RCCW, and he has a deep care for the women there. He has been very generous in sharing his wisdom with me this summer and helping to make my time at the prison meaningful.

Rev. Caroline Craig Proctor

Chaplain Nathaniel Boykin and his wife, Gwen

For quite a while now, I have felt called into the ministry of chaplaincy, but until this past year, I had never considered prison chaplaincy. For whatever reason, I had not heard much about this type of ministry. And while I was attuned to the needs of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and sick people that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 25, I often overlooked the part that says "I was in prison and you visited me." What is interesting is that many of the homeless people that I met last summer during my field education with HomeStar Fellowship were people who had not successfully transitioned from prison to society. We as the church must not overlook prisoners. We must embrace and care for least of these as we would embrace and care for Jesus. I am grateful for the opportunity to explore the possibility of prison ministry being a part of my call to chaplaincy.

Monday, June 30, 2008

a much-needed distraction

Yesterday morning's sermon text was from Genesis, the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac.  My supervisor preached a wonderful sermon about God not just being warm and fuzzy, but demanding and awesome. It was a convicting sermon, but I could still sense that I was letting myself get in the way too much.  I prayed during the early service, and asked God to send me a distraction, something to get my mind off of myself.  I asked God for an opportunity that would shed some light on what it means to be a true servant of Christ because I was feeling irritable and selfish. 

I was by myself in the office in between services, and a member of the church, looking confused, walked past and pointed into the office.  She was talking to someone else, and I soon saw who it was.  Into the pastor's office walked a young woman from Kryzykstan, whom I will call Nadia in this entry.  It is a Russian-speaking country close to the Chinese border.  She needed help, and so I asked her to sit down and tell me her story.

Nadia began to tell me about her journey to the United States this summer.  She and her younger sister came here to work and see the States, but they have experienced something very disheartening instead.  The woman who made their arrangements is mistreating them, so much, that Nadia and her sister feel they have to leave the Outer Banks, maybe even the country.  They were told that they would have private living arrangements for the summer.  Upon their arrival, the woman showed them what she meant by this.  Nadia and her sister have been crammed into one tiny room, with another roommate.  At night, they are kept awake as they feel bed bugs eat away at them.  They are to use this same space as their living area, and for entertainment, they have a television set that does not work.  And, it's not as if these ladies are staying for free.  They are being charged monthly for their stay.

This same woman decided that because gas prices had gone up, that she would no longer drive the girls into work anymore, that they could take a taxi.  They are living on the other side of the Wright Memorial Bridge, and working in Duck.  Taxi rides are expensive and hard to come by in this part of the country, and the bridge goes over an entire sound, not a tiny creek.  Everywhere the girls have gone for help, it seems that this woman was two steps in front of them, telling other employers that she was giving them plenty of hours and nice accommodations.  The fast food establishment across the street from the church has been letting Nadia and her sister work, in spite of their original employer's efforts.  The manager at this fast food restaurant told the girls that the woman with whom they are living has a reputation for being cruel to the exchange students who come and live with her.  Nadia met a friend, who early yesterday morning, pointed across the street at the church and told her that "they help people there."

So there Nadia was, sitting in the office, asking for a way to get to the bus station in Norfolk, VA on Wednesday morning so she and her sister could travel to New York City, and eventually, home.  She also needed a ride to Wal-Mart, to buy a temporary phone so that she would be able to contact her parents.  I knew that Duck UMC had helped other exchange students get to the bus station before, so I told Nadia that we would wait until the pastor returned to the office to work something out.  When my supervisor arrived, he was troubled by the situation and told Nadia that we would have things set up for her this (Monday) morning.  Having misunderstood Nadia, he handed her a $20 bill to help her buy a phone.  Nadia put the money back into his hand and explained that she could not honestly take his money, because it was transportation that she needed.  Stunned, he looked over at me and said, "Can you take Nadia to get her phone after the late service?"  I agreed, while years of training circled in my head, reminding me not to talk to strangers, not to be alone with them, to be suspicious of those who ask for help because they always want something more.

After the 10am service, Nadia and I departed on our journey to Wal-Mart. She bought her phone and 240 minutes for the rest of the summer so that she could contact her parents.  I asked her if she wanted to get lunch, and she mentioned that she had found a Chinese place across the street and loved eating there because it reminded her of home.  She allowed me to buy her lunch, and it really was an honor.  After a few quiet moments of eating our food, Nadia looked up at me and asked, "Why is it that people in that building are people who help others?"  Nadia had no experience of Christianity, and so we sat for awhile and talked about what it means to be a Christian, what it means to see people as human and not as cheap labor.  We drove back to the fast food place and sat in the parking lot programming her phone.  I gave her my number and told her to call me if she and her sister wanted to do something fun and relaxing for a change.

I was thrilled when Nadia gave me a call.  I also had great news.  My supervisor had agreed to let me drive Nadia and her sister to Norfolk.  We decided to go see a movie that would make us laugh.  Before the movie began, Nadia's younger sister showed me her leg that was covered in bites from the bed bugs.  I felt what some might call a righteous anger at that point.  We went for more Chinese food after the movie, and the sisters told me more about themselves.  Nadia is majoring in business administration, and her younger sister is majoring in law.  Here, they are not treated as humans because they have accents and at times, broken English.  They are called lazy for not being able to be ten places at once.  Nadia asked why I am going into ministry.  I was then able to explain what it means to be called to do something.

The sisters will be staying with me Tuesday night and then we will drive to Norfolk together.  I'm looking forward to it.  What is troubling about this situation is that I know some people think that too much help is being provided for these two girls.  Questions like, "What if every student in trouble depends on the church for help?" are being asked.  How sad.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if the church was a place to depend on?  Wouldn't it be great if the church always practiced radical hospitality?  Isn't that what we are called to do as Christians?  I am thankful for the support of my supervisor and my family in Virginia as I help Nadia and her sister.  I am even more grateful that God placed these two wonderful people in my life, so that I could be distracted--distracted from myself and my dwelling on things I cannot change.  Nadia and her sister have provided me with more than I could ever pay them back for.  Praise God.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

letting God preach

Yesterday was a rough day. No personal details are coming up, so no worries. But it was rough. I was dealing with sadness, anger, betrayal, name it. On top of everything, I had to preach at the Wednesday night service here at Duck UMC.  My text was Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the workers in the vineyard. How appropriate.  I didn't know how I was going to preach.  So, I decided that I wouldn't.  I told God early on in the day that if He didn't preach, no one was going to hear anything.  

It was probably the best sermon that has ever come out of my mouth.  Go figure.  I had a written sermon in front of me; I had things to say just in case I needed them, and I think I probably said a lot of those things.  But I was honest.  I told the congregation that I didn't want to preach, that I was identifying with the laborers at the beginning of the day who were frustrated by the eleventh-hour workers receiving the same pay.  By the end of the sermon, God had told these people, by way of my mouth, about the beauty that is free grace. By the end of the sermon, I identified with a new character in the story, the eleventh-hour worker. And the congregation was there with me.  It was a beautiful evening, where the people gathered in that room all realized just how undeserving we are of the grace given by God, that we are all eleventh-hour workers.  And for those who didn't identify with the eleventh-hour worker, they were given a message about the joy of working for God, that doing the work of the kingdom is part of the grace received, that it is cause to rejoice.

I learned a few things yesterday.  For one, I learned a little about how to preach. Letting God do it is a great idea.  Preparation is important; I would not approach the pulpit not having carefully examined the text, but I will now always leave room for the Spirit to move.  It can say more than I could ever hope to say.  I also learned how to preach on a really difficult day.  My father is a minister, and it always baffled me that after a terrible, tragic Saturday night, he was able to preach.  I learned that having a challenging day personally was no reason to approach the pulpit as if it were a couch in a psychiatrist's office. I prayed fervently that that would not happen, and it didn't. I also learned that being vulnerable is important. Standing in front of others to preach while admitting to being a broken human being is powerful.  People respond to that kind of honesty, and I thank God for my personal trials because of that.

Time has gone by incredibly fast this summer. It is hard to believe that in five weeks, I will no longer be at this church (I am staying an extra week because I attended a UMC conference in May).  This has been a transformative time, one that I wouldn't trade for anything.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Mime Communion

This is my first blog, so before I jump into my story, I'll give a little background about my placement this year.  I am serving at Duck United Methodist Church, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It is a beautiful placement, right on the beach.  I haven't seen too much of the beach because I am constantly on the go here. I'm preaching at least every other week, serving as a liturgist, preparing and leading a course on Methodism, training members to lead Wesleyan Class Meetings, directing and leading music for Vacation Bible School, and working on a youth service project.  Throw in the thirty-seven dinners I'm having with members of the congregation along with regular visitation and 9-5 office hours, and there's not much time left for the beach.  It sounds like a lot, but I'm really having a fabulous time. The people here are wonderful and eager to be active in their congregation- something that seems a bit of a novelty these days in churches. This summer has already been transformative and I expect that it will only continue to be so.  

This past Sunday, The Rev. Dr. Laura Early visited Duck UMC.  She started All God's Children UMC, in Aulander, NC. She also does mime communion.  I'll make a confession, and it's the same one I made to Dr. Early- I have never liked mime communion, or clown communion, its close relative. It has always seemed a bit tacky and while I believe there is joy to be found in the Eucharist, it has always almost made a joke out of it.  Dr. Early's response surprised me. She told me that clown or mime communion, poorly done, made her want to vomit.  Well, all right. I prayed for an open mind and to not come to the service with any sort of bias against this type of communion. Dr. Early's spirit really made that quite easy.

I was not surprised to find myself completely in awe of this practice of mime communion.  There was no painted face, no silly gimmicks, no words. The story was told. The elements were consecrated. The difference was that people had to stretch their thinking, use other senses to be involved in the Eucharistic service. It was absolutely beautiful.

Did I mention that she preached? Boy, did she preach. It was so good to have a positive example of a female clergy person.  The majority of experiences I've had have been with women who were so focused on being allowed to preach, that they lost the gospel somewhere in the middle. Dr. Early never tried to defend anything about herself. She preached the gospel, and she did so dynamically and with grace.  I encourage you to check out what goes on at All God's Children UMC in Aulander. It is a beautiful ministry. I can't for the life of me find a link to the church's website, but this article pretty much sums up a few of the things that go on there:

Dr. Early's visit and one of the pastor's (Rev. Ray Wittman) recent sermons have the congregation shifting in their pews, uncomfortable with doing the same old thing, and ready for church to be a lifestyle, not just a Sunday obligation. I can't wait to see what happens!

Monday, June 9, 2008


A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to participate in Partner in Caring’s PETS program. PETS is a three-level training program that educates and prepares people who are HIV positive to be peer mentors to people who have been diagnosed with HIV. Level two and three of the program consists of a week long retreat that provides the students with information related to HIV/AIDS, other STI’s, and substance abuse, and it trains them to utilize various practical tools while mentoring.

My week at the PETS retreat proved to be a very positive experience. It was the first time that I have taken the opportunity to spend an extended period of time with people who are dealing with this illness. I can’t get over how radically open and hospitable this group of people was. There have been few occasions where I have felt such genuine community and fellowship in the midst of a diverse group of people. I felt welcomed from the start and knew it was a safe place where I could let my guard down and just love people (and do the electric slide). And that has been my challenge thus far when I’m confronted with the gracious opportunity of relationship with those who are often overlooked: to suspend all obstacles and seek to love…but not the kind of love that uses "love" to mask some kind of ulterior motive, but the kind of love that is willing to look someone in the face and embrace them for who they are, even if that might mean “suffering with” them.

Well, the week presented some unexpected opportunities for me. The moment I walked in on the first day, one of the leaders of the retreat asked me if I’d be willing to lead the “self-care” session that is part of the curriculum. I agreed, and found myself towards the end of the day trying to teach about the benefits of focused breathing and meditation.

I was asked to lead another self-care session on Thursday afternoon on the topic of forgiveness. We were a little rushed to finish the day out, so I didn’t have as much time to discuss the topic as is needed. Reading through the curriculum, I decided to try to focus the short session talking about 1) being people who are forgiven and 2) being forgivers. As I approached the session, I kept remembering the audience with which I would share: these were people who had potentially been treated as if being forgiven was impossible and being forgivers was irrelevant. I began the session discussing all the ways un-forgiveness affects us, how it becomes a weight that bogs us down and often affects all our relationships. I illustrated “forgiven and forgiver” citing an example from “my faith background.” I told them about how we often, in our time of worship, will confess our sins before God and others, and the priest/pastor will then say “In the name of Christ you are forgiven.” Then, as those who are forgiven and reconciled, we go and extend the hand of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace to others. We are graced to be forgiven and to be forgivers. After I shared for these brief moments we concluded the session by taking a few moments to sit in silent reflection, and I encouraged each person to reflect and/or pray about being both forgiven and forgivers.

Well, as we were concluding the last day of the retreat, one of the participants asked to borrow 30 seconds of my time. I said “of course” and we went around the corner to talk. This person told me that for a long time he had been carrying around a burden because he had not been able to forgive the person who had infected him with HIV. He told me that during the session on forgiveness he had been able to forgive that person for the first time, and that consequently he felt as if a weight had been lifted from his life.

This was quite a powerful experience for me. The opportunity to talk about forgiveness in that setting was something I never could have planned or sufficiently completed. In light of this opportunity as well as a few others that randomly occurred throughout the week, I really felt as if the Spirit was at work and had graced me to participate in that work. It was one of those opportunities that wouldn’t have happened without the Spirit and one of those circumstances where I found myself saying “If You don’t show up in the midst of all this, I will certainly mess something up.” I’m scared of such opportunities and circumstances but I guess they are what I should pray for.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

"Tuesdays With Morrie"

Over the weekend I picked up a book I had heard I should read and I now recommend it to others, Tuesdays with Morrie, because I think it does a good job at showing the journey for one man as he approaches death, but is a very short read.  In reading Final Gifts and how what is truly important to a person is what becomes the focus for them as the approach the end of their life.  It has really gotten me to start thinking about what is truly important in my life and how I choose to give my time and energy.  Many of us have heard, and even used, the cliches about living life to the fullest, and "live like there's no tomorrow," but I wonder how much we take that to heart and transform our lives if we really were going to die tomorrow?  What would we do differently?  What would we spend our time doing?  Who would we spend it with?  Is there someone I need to reconcile with to die peacefully?  I think we take our lives for granted thinking we have all the time in the world, and we get caught up spending our time and energy on things that aren't that important to us.  In my exposure to hospice work there is talk about how, although someone may be in hospice care and thus facing the end of their life in a real way, their life is not over yet, they are not just a "dying person," but a life with a very beautiful gift, the gift of time.  Because they are becoming more aware of their own mortality and the end of life the things that are the most important to them become more aware and the important things can fade into the distance.  They have the gift of time to do what they need to do and say what they need to say to die peacefully.  Some never have this chance due to a sudden tragedy, so might we learn from those living our their final days as to what is really important in our life so that we might not wait until we don't have the opportunity anymore to say or do what we need to do.

I offer some passages from Tuesdays with Morrie that struck me...
~ "The most important thing in life is learn how to give out love, and to let it come in."
~ "It's horrible to watch my body slowly wilt away to nothing.  But it's also wonderful because of all the time I get to say good-bye."  He smiled.  "Not everyone is so lucky."
~ The first time I saw Morrie on "Nighttime," I wondered what regrets he had once he knew his death was imminent... he nodded, "It's what everyone worries about, isn't it?  What if today were my last day on earth?"... "Mitch," he said, "the culture doesn't encourage you to think about such things until you're about to die.  We're so wrapped up with egotistical things, careet, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it breaks - we're so involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going.  So we don't get into the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, Is this all I want?  Is something missing?"
~ "Everyone knows they're going to die," he said again, "but nobody believes it.  If we did, we would do things differently."
So we kid ourselves about death, I said.
"Yes.  But there's a better approach.  To know you're going to die, and to be prepared for it at any time.  That's better.  That way you can actually be more involved in your life while you're living."
~ "I believe in being fully present," Morrie said.  "That means you should be with the person you're with.  When I'm talking to you now, Mitch, I try to keep focused only on what is going on between us.  I am not thinking about something we said last week.  I am not thinking of what's coming up this Friday.  I am not thinking about doing another Koppel show, or about what medications I'm taking.  "I'm talking to you.  I'm thinking about you."
~ "In the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive, right?  And at the end of life, when you get like me, you need others to survive, right?"  His voiced dropped to a whisper.  "But here's the secret: in between, we need others as well."
~ "As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without every really going away.  All the love you created is still there.  All the memories are still there.  You live on - in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here."  His voice was raspy, which usually meant he needed to stop for a while.  I placed the plant back on the ledge and went to shut off the tape recorder.  This is the last sentence Morrie got out before I did: "Death ends a life, not a relationship."

Friday, June 6, 2008

"A Hard Day"

"I'm having a hard day..."

This afternoon I visited with one of my patients, Peter* (as mentioned in an earlier post) and the first thing he told me when I asked how he was going was, "I'm having a hard day."  This was my second time seeing Peter*, but my first time going to see one of my patients by myself.  I had been looking forward to seeing him because the last visit with him was so special and touching, but as I entered the facility and made my way through the building to the elevator I felt some anxiety about this visit.  Peter* had been in isolation contact on my first visit so I wondered if that was still the case where I would have to wear gloves and a gown to enter his room for my own protection, the gloves and gown being a physical barrier between myself and Peter* that disturbed me on my previous visit.  It had really disturbed me having to wear gloves and a gown to enter his room because I worried that he was already feeling isolated by living in a facility and not being able to see his family as often as he liked.  The physical interaction he seem to so desire and could have with me, to hold my hand, was suddenly interrupted by the sterile latex gloves covering my hand, again not for his protection, but for my own.

While Peter* did not remember my name from my first visit, and again struggled with understanding how to say "Denise" he did recognize my face and thanked me for coming by to see him.  I felt as if he was quite frustrated during our visit by his comments of it being "a hard day" and there was "a lot going on."  As I asked him questions and tried my best to simply be present to him to listen to anything he wanted to say or talk about I grew sad at seeing how frustrated he was becoming with trying to answer my questions and share things with me.  Peter* would begin to respond, saying a few, and then stumble on his words as if his mouth would just not say the word he wanted to say so badly.  He would try a few more times and then say "I'm going to try it one more time," and unfortunately he would still struggle to finish the sentence he wanted to say to me.  I wanted desperately to hear what he was trying so hard to say, and I could see great frustration as his blue eyes penetrated mine.  He kept apologizing to me that he wasn't doing a good job explaining himself or taking care of himself.   I was saddened to see this was happening more now than my visit a couple weeks ago. 

With sitting in volunteer training and reading Final Gifts (for the second time) as part of my placement I have begun to see how those that near life's end go through a lot as sickness and disease cause them to begin facing their own mortality, something most of us try our hardest not to think about, begin grieving various loses (ie, jobs, health, physical ability, control, ability to do things they once enjoyed, and ability to take care of their basic needs), and it is "hard work."  I'm not sure any of us can ever completely realize how hard that work might be and other hard work that may be going on internally that as "observers" we're not even aware of.  Near the end of my visit with Peter* he told me "I'm full" but was unable to say any more about what he meant by that.  I was given the privilege again to be in prayer with him as I offered some words of intercession to God for him, and Peter* surprised me by adding his own prayer after mine.  We talked for a few more minutes and suddenly Peter* squeezed my hand tighter and began to pray to God again.  I'm not sure what prompted his need to pray again while I was there, but I felt privileged to be part of that intimate moment with him as the words of his second prayer seem to show a small change within him that he felt more assured of God's power and presence, and asked for strength from the Holy Spirit.  

I left soon after the second prayer because he seemed to be tired from my visit with him, although he did not want me to go.  He thanked me several times for coming and said that he would see me later.  I did not want to leave because he seemed to desire human interaction and a simple touch of holding his hand, and I do hope to see him again soon and that communication in our next visit would be easier for him the next time.

(*name has been changed for confidentiality)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

hard love

Loving people is hard work. Even loving your friends at times is hard work. But I think God calls us to love people as He loves us. In knowing myself it must be hard for God to love me at times with the crazy stuff I do, except that God chooses to love us unconditionally even as we continually fail to love God back unconditionally. Because we are called to love all people, God's people, we in turn allow ourselves to become vulnerable with people when we love, which at times results in being hurt.

I received a call on Saturday from my mom during which she let me know that Drew had passed away. Drew had worked in the same office as my mom for many years, and so when I worked there various summers I also got to know Drew a bit. Over the past year to year and a half Drew was diagnosed with cancer and began the hard fight of battling cancer. He had to discontinue work, but from what I hear attempted to maintain as much normality of life as possible until the end, doing the things he had been doing as much as he was able. Since my mom found out for certain about his diagnosis we have been praying for him, and so it is hard to hear that he has passed away. Drew had such a sweet, quiet and gentle spirit about him that just radiated from him. Our prayers continue for his wife Sandy, and the rest of his family and friends as they mourn his passing.

But it is hard to know someone, love them and lose them, and so how do you remain joyful in the midst of so much suffering and pain? How do we continue to find and see the beauty in life when we are surrounded by so much pain, disease and death?

On Thursday of last week I got to see the In-patient Care Facility (ICF) for Duke Hospice out in Hillsborough and spend some time with another chaplain, Rachel. While I was out there Rachel took me by to visit a patient, Lazarus*. During our visit with Lazarus* he commented about how "everything was hard" and "if you can't trust God who can you trust?" Over and over again I've been amazed at the openness of the patients I have met. His comment about how "everything is hard" triggered my memory from hospice volunteer training about how those near the end of life describe it as a hard process. We are not entirely sure what that means or what exactly they are referring to, but that nearing the end of your life can be hard work. Rachel and I stayed with Lazarus a little while longer and offered to read him some Psalms. When asked if there were any in particular that he would like us to read he said "anything you want to read" as if he cared more about our just being present with him, than what we were doing. As I read to him Psalm 91 he laid still and closed his eyes as if to take in every word. Rachel offered a prayer with him before we left and he thanked us for visiting with him.

Upon checking work voicemail a message had been left that Lazarus* had passed away last night. Although I had only met him a few days prior and spent maybe a half and hour with him it is still hard to hear that he had passed. As a chaplain we offer compassionate caring for patients and being part of hospice we know that our patients are coming close to the end of their life, but it is hard to not be affected by the death of any patient you meet. How do we faithfully follow God's instructions to love people? I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from CS Lewis:

"There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket -- safe, dark, motionless, airless -- it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell."

The call to love people is a call to be vulnerable because when we love we open ourselves up to being hurt, but we must continue loving while we are on earth and we look forward to Heaven where our love will be perfected and there will be no more sorrow and no more tears. "Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4b NRSV).

As a hospice chaplain we love people through offering presence and providing their spiritual care and needs, so I think it only natural that you would be affected by their death. As a hospice chaplain how do we continue on in hope in the midst of people facing the end of their life? And how do we find the beauty in life with those suffering from terminal illness and disease? I'm still struggling with those questions because I believe there is beauty and God's presence in the midst of suffering and death, even though it may be hard to see. I can say from two weeks of field ed that is has been beautiful to spend time with people who are suffering offering presence to be with them, and journey with them a bit in their suffering. This isn't to say suffering is beautiful, because it most definitely is not, but I am saying in the midst of journeying with someone suffering there is something beautiful about opening up to one another even in a mere 30 min visit. It is beautiful for one to be present with someone dying, being present for the patient despite your insecurities about what to say and anxiety about seeing someone suffer from a disease because you want to help them live well even if they are facing death. It is also beautiful see someone dying in being allowed to enter sacred space of being with them in their possibly final hours and days of living, and to share with you about their life, what they are experiencing, or anything! It is truly a privilege to be invited into such an intimate time and moment with them, but it is also hard love for those of us who remain.

(* names have been changed for confidentiality)

Saturday, May 31, 2008

agency vs. parish placement

My previous two summer field ed placements have been parish placements in rural towns of North Carolina, so this summer is the first time I have served in an agency placement outside of the church since I worked with Confrontation Point Ministries (Crossville, TN) during undergrad. Going into this summer I can say that I have definitely felt called to and led to serve in this area of ministry to those who face terminal illness and the end of their life due to my involvement of working at ICEOL this past school year which led to a growing desire to be ministry to/with the sick in a hands-on way. The part of ministry I missed over the past school year working with ICEOL was that my time was spent in an office where my work affected the training of doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, ect who would in turn work with the sick, but not getting to be with sick myself, not getting to hear their stories, hold their hand and journey with them. I was very excited that my field ed placement for the summer worked out so that I could continue my work with ICEOL, but also that a majority of my time would be with Duke Hospice (on the front lines, so to say) journeying and being with people.

As I sat in field ed orientation, watching my friends and classmates get pumped for their parish field ed placements (I'd say over 90% of students are in parish placements), I began to wonder if I would miss being in a parish placement this summer, as I had the previous two summers. Would I miss preaching? Would I miss leading worship? Would I miss assisting with communion? Would I miss being involved with ordering the life of the church? These questions began to swarm around my head as I sat in Goodson Chapel for orientation and carried with me as I prepared for my own field ed placement. Since I first identified God's calling on my life for ministry I come back to the question of parish ministry time and time again, and over and over again I have "decided," possibly convincing myself, that God is not calling me to parish ministry, to pastor a church. Why does this question continue to surface time and time again so that I have to wonder if I really am running away from parish ministry.

It is amazing how God really does talk to us when we take time to listen, and by listen I mean really listening. I am still struck at how although I consider myself more comfortable with silence than most that I still do a good job of filling my life with noise and distraction leaving little to no time of real silence for meditation and reflection. I recall my time with CP and going caving where we got to the devo spot deep in the cave, sat in a circle, turned out our lights and sat in silence. The ringing in our ears showed us how weird it was to have the absence of noise, noises we pay little attention to but saturate our lives, and it seemed almost as if our ears were straining to hear some noise because they were so used to being bombarded. The first week of field ed I spent a lot of time alone because my roommate is gone for her summer placement and many of my friends from school are dispersed across the country (and world) or were out of town, so I was left to actually face my own thoughts and questions.

I think I am realizing how much I miss being in a parish placement this summer, and while I do feel called to be in the placement I am this summer, that my heart may in fact be for parish ministry. One evening that first week I was struck clearly as to the reason if I am in fact running away from being a pastor. It is simply because I am scared. Being the pastor of a church is scary, especially as a young single female pastor. I catch myself every so often desiring to live in a rural area and my heart is definitely for the smaller churches (no mega churches for me please!) and while pastoring a small rural church doesn't sound very exciting for some it sounds like a wonderful life to me (despite the many challenges). This passion for the rural church is a major part of the reason for my transfer in membership to the Western North Carolina Conference of the UMC. Obviously these are questions I will probably continue to discern for the rest of the summer, and even for my lifetime, but I do hope and pray God will continue to shed light upon my questions as to where He will lead me next. I covet your prayers as I discern a calling to parish ministry following graduation from seminary.