One of the aspects of life I encounter on a regular basis at the hospital is death. I’ve witnessed people passing from this life to the next beautifully surrounded by generations of their loved ones. And I’ve seen tragic deaths where individuals were surround only by a medical team and a prayer from the chaplain. The one thing that always disturbed me about my mother’s passing was that none of the family was there with her. She had a headache, went to the hospital and before I could be contacted, she died. I felt she died alone.
So this week I unpacked some of this with my Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor. He asked me if I believed in the witnesses that have gone ahead of us. And I said, “Yes.” He replied, “I believe in hospitality and I think the cloud of witnesses that precede us in death are welcoming us into the new life. Ushering us in as it were.” I said I believed the same.
I had a similar conversation with a dear friend and stated that I wondered if I would die alone. She said, “ Toni, the room will be filled with generations of people who have gone before you. Not to mention the friends you have known who have passed on. And only you will be able to see them.” I thought she is absolutely RIGHT! There is no way I will be alone when I die. My room will be jam packed with people welcoming me and loving me into the kingdom of God. And there is no way my mother died alone. She was welcomed into the next life by her mother, Velma; father, Fred; my father, Danny and a cloud of witnesses.
Wow! There’s a part of me that can’t wait for the reunion.
This week the Clinical Pastoral Education didactic presentation was on Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) which posits that people grow through and toward relationships throughout the lifespan, and that culture powerfully impacts relationship. RCT is dedicated to understanding the complexities of human connections as well as exploring the personal and social factors that can lead to chronic disconnection.
One aspect of the theory I connected with was Authenticity: The capacity to bring one’s real experience, feelings, and thoughts into relationship, with sensitivity and awareness to the possible impact of one’s actions on others. It does not give license to total reactivity. Authenticity does not involve telling the “whole truth” but rather sharing the “one true thing” that will move therapy in some positive way. (https://www.jbmti.org/Our-Work/glossary-relational-cultural-therapy)
This is something I have struggled with; how much of my story to tell. This definition focuses what to share for me, “the one true thing” that will move therapy in some positive way.” Or in the case of a pastoral visit, the “one true thing” that will help build a trusting relationship. I am comfortable with this type of sharing. It’s “not all about me,” but some of it is about me. As creatures made in God’s image there are parts of our stories that we recognize in others and that draw us closer to God.
When we are being and giving from our true self we are giving a part of our creator. No wonder we are drawn to these types of sharing; we are drawn to the one gracious and loving God in these experiences. It’s interesting to me that it’s not just the positive, fun and loving stories, but most often the tragic stories that empathetically bring us together; perhaps it’s Jesus’ suffering on the cross that is actually causing us to see God in each other.
This week I had the opportunity to read and reflect on a portion of My Grandfather’s Blessings, by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.,pg. 164-65) which articulated exactly where I hope to be as a chaplain; a place of refuge and not a rescuer. I’ve always been worried about how I would “fix” things or people as a chaplain and being clear that I can’t “fix” anybody! God is the ultimate healer and “fixer.” So how was I going to provide comfort for people concerned me. But reading this excerpt from the book helped me to understand that offering the gift of presence, a sympathetic and empathetic ear provides a comfortable place for people to poor out their hearts, a refuge. I’ve had moments when I thought, “I have no idea what I’m going to say to a person who has just been given a poor prognosis. What could I possibly say?” But I’ve discovered that providing a non-judgmental space for them to talk, hold their hand, and if they are receptive, say a prayer. More and more I talk with people about prayer being a conversation with God and invite them, and family members if they are present, to talk with God. I have been immensely blessed and honored to be part of these conversations.
There is a song by Loretta Lynn that says:
(Now let us) have a little talk with Jesus (let us) tell him all about our troubles
(He will) hear our faintest cry (and we will) answer by and by
(Now when you) feel a little prayer wheel turning
(Then you’ll) know a little fire is burning
(You will) find a little talk with Jesus makes it right
Taking time to converse with God can comfort a lot of sorrows. Enjoy the conversation.
One of the things about working in a hospital is that you see people from all walks of life encountering the stresses of life. Grace is an attribute that has nothing to do with socio-economic status or education. It comes with knowing you’ve done the best you can in life and loving those who surround you on your death bed. We will all come to that moment, and I can only pray that I will have people who will want to be with me at that time.
Loving someone as they pass from this world to the next is an honor and a joy. I’ve watched several families this week do exactly that. Provide a loving environment for their beloved family member to slip from their warm embrace into God’s open arms. Holding the knowledge that their loved one has entered a place where there is no more pain or sorrow, but everlasting joy, provides comfort. Of course the family members are mourning the fact that they no longer have a day-to-day relationship with the person who has passed on. And that can leave one feeling lonely, especially if it is a spouse of many years. Never having been married, I can’t speak to that kind of loss, and everyone’s experience is different. But having lost all of my nuclear family by the time I was 42 years old, I know that deep sense of loss. And I also know that I can turn to Jesus for comfort. God knows the empty places in my heart and fills them by deepening my relationship with God, which allows me to enter into a new level of relationships with new and old friends.
It’s important to remember what you know.
It was wonderful to receive and email from a friend letting me know he missed seeing my blog last week. It all boiled down to me running out of time. Yes, there are twenty-four hours in a day but sometimes it not enough.
Last week I had two “on call” shifts; one was twenty-four hours and the other twelve hours. I was worried that I would struggle with the twenty-four hour call because I not only would have been responding to pastoral needs all night but I also had a class the next morning! So I called my prayer warriors (five amazing women in my life) and wore my mustard seed pin (a small global pin with a mustard seed suspended in glycerin), and asked God to go before me as I entered every situation. I sat and prayed with families who had just lost a loved one; blessed stem cells as they gave new life to one living with cancer and asked God for words of comfort for those facing life’s challenges. I was exhausted by Sunday night and sleep was the only thing I looked forward to.
After some distance from the experience, I thought, “God is always on call, present and ready to respond to our every need and concern.” Having spent hours being ready to respond to heartbreaks, losses of physical and mental abilities, and sitting with someone as they watch their loved one slip away; I know our God is indeed awesome. Just think, God is “on call” twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, never getting too tired to respond to the next request or need. Not that I am comparing my last week with anything God has done, but I have a small inkling.
As you receive this blog, I just finished another twelve hour shift and prepare for a twenty-four hour one on Thursday. I ask you to hold me in your prayers as I act as a conduit of God’s love and mercy and providing comfort for those who suffer.
This past week in my Clinical Pastoral Care didactic session I was introduced to Palliative Care by a compassionate chaplain who pours his heart and soul into supporting those whose end of life has a certain time frame. The definition we were working with is Quality of Life care: A collaborative effort to relieve the pain and suffering which results from serious illness and/or treatment. Palliative Care aligns the plan of care with the patient’s values and goals. Although I’ve only been exposed to the veneer of the type of care, it’s clear to me that knowing and acting upon one’s values and goals is clearly a central theme.
I was wondering what it would be like if people who are healthy started thinking about living a life that would relieve pain and suffering; their own and others. I hate to turn on the news and hear about the numerous killings, not to mention the patients I have been told I will encounter in the hospital.
I believe a value to hold close in life is abundance not scarcity. If there is assurance of sufficient food, money for daily needs, love and time, then there is no need for competition with others. Jesus tells us in the twelfth chapter of Luke:
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
If faith is at the heart of the values that lead us to relieving suffering and pain then it’s time to start drawing closer to God.
Of one thing I’m certain as I start Clinical Pastoral Education is that I am present to comfort the patient. It’s all about the patient. Not what I might think about how and why they are in the hospital or what their faith tradition might be; or whether or not they have a tradition. There is something quite freeing about not judging people or making assumptions and yet so very hard to do.
This reminder of how to live life is on the bookcase of the Clinical Pastoral Education library.
It brought to mind the self-reflective work I’ve been doing a round John 3:30, “He [God] must become greater; I must become less.” I notice the tension between more and less are great examples of how I can portray God’s love in my everyday life. It’s hard to remember these suggestions, because as with all things “God” we are asked to do the opposite of what comes naturally. I feel as though I should have these thoughts tattooed on the inside of my eyelids so I’m reminded of them every time I blink! So I’ve decided that I wander the halls of the hospital this summer this reminder will become my summer mantra as I share more of God and less of me.
Tomorrow (Monday) I will begin CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education), hospital training to become a health care chaplain. People’s reactions to my journey have been interesting. Many have said, “This is exciting and sounds like a perfect fit for you!” While others believe they are supporting me sounding alarms about difficulties that lie ahead. One person said, “Be careful what you wish for!” Another, “I don’t know why you would want to do such depressing work!” I believe these less than positive statements reflect the author’s feelings about facing personal challenges and tragedies on a daily basis, rather than my ability to respond. I also remember the words of a dear friend who stated that after a summer of CPE her husband became a better person, more in tune with himself and his emotions. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing and experiencing firsthand acts of healing, moments of courage and instances of delight in a hospital setting. I suspect I will encounter a wide spectrum of experiences during my internship; I will be challenged by life and I will tune into a cornucopia of my emotions.
In an email exchange with Father Michael Phalger, a Roman Catholic priest on the south side of Chicago, who works with those impacted by gun violence, I asked how he responses to these situations. He said, “I let the spirit guide me.” This advice is a perfect reminder as I start CPE the day after Pentecost that I don’t need to be in control or try to fix the conditions I will encounter. I just need to be open to the Holy Spirit’s response to each situation.
So my prayer for these summer months will be:
Come Holy Spirit and dwell in me as I journey with humanity in these twist and turns of life. Enter each room ahead of me and show me how to use the gifts you’ve given me for each hour. Fill the space with comfort for those who grieve, grace for those in despair and joy for new and renewed lives. I make this prayer in the name of the triune God, Amen.
There are times when my faith is not as strong than others, and I require spiritual encouragement. I’ve read through the scriptures and looked up a lot of prayers on line, and of course the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer for support. These prayers reveal God’s love for me and assurance of life in God’s Kingdom. To be honest, sometimes I feel like a princess (child of God) in the kingdom remembering whose I am and who I am; and other times like a foster child living in the kingdom but not adopted. I’m sure there are theologians that disagree with being a “princess,” but these are my thoughts and feelings.
While studying last semester I learned that the best way for me to remember something is to write it down. So in order to align my feelings with the reality of God’s love, I’ve decided I need to practice writing my own prayers that are inspired by other prayers, scripture and the Holy Spirit. As short as they may be, these prayers will remind me that I’m a full fledged member of the body of Christ, a child of the living God and yes, a princess in the kingdom. I’m clear that these prayers don’t need to be eloquent, just heartfelt.
O God, I come to you with shaking knees and a quivering faith about the uncertainties of life. Create in me a heart filled with the assurance of your love and renew a spirit of hope within me. Give me the peace and patience that surpasses all understanding as I seek your timing and direction for my life. Thank you for being a bottomless well from which I can take a sip or dive into, refreshing my strength for each journey.
I’m thrilled to have received so many announcements about young people completing high school and college; ready to take on life and new beginnings. There are four graduates in my family and I’m excited to attend at least one of the ceremonies. I’m encouraged about the years to come when I see young people embracing their present and eager to encounter the future.
The other day I was in the grocery store waiting in line at the deli counter with a man who was my senior and was walking on a cane. The server was slow so we had time to strike up a conversation. He commented on how he hadn’t expected to live to be seventy and what a chore it was to take care of himself. I wanted to say, “Are you kidding me! If 50 is the new 30, then 70 is the new 50!” But I’ve learned to sparingly share my comments on life as people are sometimes not ready to receive my enthusiasm. So I simply listened to him, and when he said, “I’m sorry the server is spending so much time with my order and making you wait. But I’m hungry!” I responded, “Yes, I resemble that remark!” He laughed and invited me to have a good day.
It’s interesting to me that as we age we often forget that every day is a new beginning. One of the great things about not being so young is that we can stand on the history of our lives and hopefully some wisdom, as a foundation for engaging each day. We are aware of the wonders and challenges of nature and the joys and concerns shared with our fellow homo sapiens. And we know that we don’t know what lies ahead, and yet move forward with the knowledge that faith is an important aspect of living a full life. Somehow it’s easy to focus on the disappointments in life rather than the blessings. Unfortunately we often focus on what we didn’t do or don’t have as opposed to celebrating what we have done and possess.
A good friend of mine always says to me, “Remember what you know!” I know life is a sequence of unexpected twist and turns. I know God is always beside me through every challenge and rejoicing with me in every celebration. To quote a song, “You [God] are the source of my strength. You are the strength of my life. I lift my hands in total praise to you. Amen.” I choose to remember that God is my strength, that I’ve done a lot in life and I’m blessed with friends, family, an exciting future and good health.
Life just doesn’t get any better than that as I embrace the journey between the new definitions of age.