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)