Thursday, December 20, 2012

Trigger Warnings: Two Stories

Story one:

When I was in junior high school, sixth through eighth grades, I got beaten up or teased or mocked every day, or almost every day, or enough days so that every day when I woke up to get ready for school, my stomach was a lump of fear.  I was a skinny, homely kid with ill-fitting clothing, spotty social skills, a tendency to cry far too easily under pressure, and facial hair.

This last earned me special torment from other kids.  Some just asked questions, probably genuinely curious, like "Why do you have a mustache?  Is it because you have more boy juices than girl juices?"  Some yelled "Mustachio!" after me down the hallway.  This was in addition to garden-variety stealing of my books, my lunch, my purse.

The adults who witnessed all this did nothing.  I don't recall my tormenters ever being punished, although I was trapped in such a solipsistic hell that if they had been, I might not have noticed.  In any case, no one in any kind of authority ever asked me my side of any story, and when I complained to my parents about what was happening -- which I didn't do very often, because for complicated dysfunctional-family reasons I needed to protect them from worrying about me -- they told me that I just had to learn to defend myself.

Eventually, the bullying got so bad that other kids stuck up for me, which means you know it was bad.  But it took a few years for that to happen.  In the meantime, school was the terrifying misery I descended into every day to mine the good grades everyone expected of me, and that I expected of myself.

The kid I feared the most was a girl named Tasha.  We had French class together.  She was as skinny as I was and as bold as I was awkward.  She was sly, fast, scornful.  Every day she came up to me, pulled on my upper lip, and launched into a jeering commentary on my mustache.  The French teacher, to her credit, yelled at Tasha to stop it.  It never worked.  

I hated Tasha more than I've ever hated anyone.  I fell asleep every night, and woke up every morning, nursing furious fantasies about how I'd get back at her if . . . if what?  I didn't have the physical skills or coordination to fight, and I couldn't think of any way to make fun of her that would hurt her the way she kept hurting me.  My powerlessness filled me with rage.  

Later on, after the other kids had stuck up for me, I gained compassion for a lot of the other bullies, and they for me; while I was never friends with any of them, exactly, we established tentative mutual respect.  And now, as an adult, I shudder at what must have happened to Tasha to make her so mean.  But even now, it's difficult for me to see her as another child, as another little girl, and not as the mocking personification of any bit of contempt anyone had ever felt for me, or that I'd ever felt for myself.

Do I need to tell you that if I'd had access to guns, someone might very well be dead now?  


Story Two:

When I was nineteen, my father's second wife physically assaulted me.  She and my father were both alcoholic.  They were both smart, kind, funny people when they weren't drunk, but drinking brought out their dark sides, as it so often does, and even when they were sober, they brought out the worst in each other.

I won't bore you with the endless layers of craziness that led up to this particular evening.  The short version is that some months before, my father had confessed to having affairs, although he and my stepmother were trying to work things out.  This particular evening, he was sleeping off too much liquor in bed.  She had stayed up to drink some more and to ramble endlessly to me about her marital problems, none of which was unusual; at some point, she slid into blackout territory and no longer knew who I was.  

That had happened before too, but I'd always been able to remind her:  "I'm Susan.  It's okay; I'm Susan."  On this particular evening, it didn't work.  She became convinced that I was one of my father's mistresses, and started throwing stuff:  a brass lamp (I can still see its square base floating through the air towards my head, until time sped up again and I told myself to move and managed to get out of the way), a chair she knocked over.  She was very drunk and very clumsy.  I was very awake and much more coordinated than she was; I danced out of the way of her sallies and screamed for help.

Why didn't I just leave?  She was between me and the door.  Also between us and the door was the tiny kitchen.  We'd had porkchops for dinner that night.  We'd used steak knives.  I couldn't remember if all of them had been put away.  I was pretty sure that she wasn't rational enough to open a drawer to grab a knife, but I didn't know what she might do if she saw one sitting on the counter.  Also, the door had the requisite three locks -- this was New York City -- and I was shaking really hard, and I knew that if we were together in a small space and I was fumbling with locks while she came at me with a knife, I'd lose the advantage I had in the open.

So I screamed.  The neighbors did nothing.  My father slept on.  Finally she went into the bedroom and woke him up ("Get this woman out of our house!"), and he, disbelieving and bewildered ("That's Susan.  What are you doing?"), restrained her long enough for me to get safely out of the apartment.

Do I need to tell you that if she'd had access to guns, someone might very well be dead now?


As stories of violence go, these are chump change.  Millions of people endure worse every day.  I'm not telling these stories to make anyone feel sorry for me; on some very real level, these stories aren't about me at all.  They're about unpleasant situations that would have been incalculably worse if firearms had been involved.

I'm endlessly grateful that I didn't have a gun in seventh grade.  If I had, I hope I'd have had the sense just to try to scare Tasha, rather than to hurt her, but I don't know.  In any case, any such incident would have radically altered the course of my life -- and hers -- and I doubt that saying, "But the grown-ups told me I had to defend myself!" would have done either of us any good.

I'm endlessly grateful that my stepmother didn't have a gun when I was nineteen.  When she came out of her blackout the next morning -- by which time I was safe in my mother's house in New Jersey -- she was horrified at what she'd done.  How much more horrified would she have been if she'd shot me?   How much worse would everything have been for everyone in my family?

The lack of guns in these scenarios didn't prevent bad things from happening.  The violence -- and the violence was real in both cases, even without bullets -- still happened.  But guns would have made that violence, and its aftermath, infinitely worse.

Guns will not solve the problem of violence.  We need fewer guns, not more.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Choosing Love

Here's my homily for 3 Advent.  For obvious reasons, this is a challenging preaching occasion: one on which I find myself, as I've so often been before, infinitely grateful for poetry.

The readings are Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Luke 3:7-18.


Today is the third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete means “rejoice” in Latin.  This is the day when we’re called to put aside the somber, penitential business of Advent to revel in the Lord’s impending arrival.   “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.  The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.”

I don’t know about you, but after the terrible news from Connecticut on Friday -- right after that other terrible news from Portland only a few days earlier -- I don’t feel like rejoicing and exulting.  I don’t feel like the Lord has turned away my enemies, and I doubt that any of the survivors of those mass shootings, or their families, feel that way either.  I fear disaster as much as I ever did, if not more.

Usually I don’t like John the Baptist, this grumpy prophet with his locusts and wild honey, howling at the assembled crowd to repent, telling them they’re a brood of vipers.  He’s such a downer,  right before Christmas.  Where’s the good news here, exactly?

But in the middle of so much bad news, I need this morning’s Gospel.  John doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but he still offers hope.  The good news he brings is that we are capable of kindness, of good deeds, of the love of neighbor that is Jesus’ greatest commandment.  When the crowd asks John, “What should we do?” he says, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.”   In this wide, wild world where there is so much we cannot control, we still have free will.  We can choose love.  

In the past few days, many people have been sharing something Mister Rogers once said.  I’ve talked about Fred Rogers from this pulpit before, and I ask your indulgence as I do so again.  This quotation has gone viral because it so perfectly fits the situation.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Fred Rogers’ tone is very different from John the Baptist’s, but they’re saying the same thing.  Choose love over despair.  Choose love over violence.  Choose love over vengeance.  Even in the darkness, choose love.

And, on Gaudete Sunday, we are also called to choose joy.  That may seem impossible right now.  It may even seem disrespectful, a sign that we don’t care about all those dead children and their families.  How can we find joy in the middle of so much sadness?

Here is a poem about that process.  It is by Jack Gilbert, and it is called,“A Brief for the Defense.”

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered caf├ęs and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.

Choose love.  Choose joy.  And listen.  There will be music despite everything, even in the midst of tears.  And in a few weeks, if we listen very carefully, we will hear another kind of crying: the thin wailing of a hungry, newborn child lying in a manger, bringing light and love and peace even in the darkness.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reading at Sundance Bookstore, November 15

On Thursday, November 15 at 6:30, I'll be reading from Brief Visits, my new book of sonnets about my ER volunteer work.  Here's the official flyer for the event.

If you're in Reno, please stop by, and even if you can't make it, please spread the word!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Getting Out of the House

Here's this morning's homily, which includes a video clip.  I've never shown one before, so I hope it works!

The readings are Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Mark 10:17-31.


I didn’t start going to church until I was an adult.  I went for many reasons, but among them was the fact that my husband and I had just bought our first house.  By Reno standards, our house is small, but I was very conscious of living with one other adult and three cats in a structure, and on a piece of land, that could contain an entire third-world village.  I didn’t want to become complacent about that.  I thought church would help stave off complacency.

It worked, especially when I heard this morning’s Gospel for the first time.  Over dinner that night, I fretted to my husband.  “Jesus says we have to sell all we own and give it to the poor,” I told him.  “I mean, I don’t know anybody who’s done that, but that is what he says.”

Gary, who doesn’t go to church, looked alarmed. He put down his fork.  “Susan,” he said, “we’re not selling the house.”

We didn’t sell our house, and we don’t plan to, but this Gospel passage continues to nag at me.   I suspect many of us struggle with it.  Are we doing what God wants us to do?  Do we give enough to others?  Do we really have to sell everything we own, leave everyone we love, to strap on sandals and a robe and follow Jesus?

The discomfort of this morning’s Gospel is only heightened by the lesson from Job.  You remember Job: that pious, blameless guy who became the object of a bet between God and Satan.

“Job loves me,” says God.

“Betcha he’ll curse you if he loses all his stuff,” says Satan.

“Betcha he won’t,” says God, and the game is on.  In short order, Job loses his house, his land, his flocks, his family, and his health.  He winds up on a dungheap, howling in misery, demanding to know why this has happened to him.

I’ve never been satisfied with God’s answer to Job, which is more or less, “I invented whales, and you didn’t.  I’m God, and you’re not.”  I’m not even satisfied with the fact that after all those torments, God restores Job’s fortunes twice over.  I know too many people who’ve suffered tragic losses and have never gotten a winning lottery ticket to make up for it.

What I do take from Job’s story – which I believe we’re meant to read more as parable than as history – is the importance, not of blind faith, but of stubborn faithfulness.  Job isn’t blind.  He knows his suffering isn’t fair, but he doesn’t stop talking to God, and he doesn’t stop listening to God.  He doesn’t abandon God even when he feels God has abandoned him.  He stays in relationship even when that relationship is maddeningly difficult.

This is useful.  It means that it’s okay for me to get mad at God, which I do regularly.  It doesn’t, though, help me figure out what to do about my house.  So I head back to the Gospel, where Jesus is telling his disciples that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who’s rich to enter the Kingdom of God.  The disciples remind Jesus that, unlike Job, they’ve freely chosen to leave everything they have and everyone they love.  They’ve strapped on robes and sandals to follow him.  “Jesus,” I can hear them saying, “we’re not rich.  Come on: do we look rich to you?  These robes are ragged. These sandals have holes in them.”

And Jesus says something that I, at least, usually forget when I’m trying to imagine camels fitting through needles.  He tells his disciples that anyone who leaves an old life to follow him holds a winning lottery ticket.  His followers will receive a hundredfold “now in this age,” as well as eternal life.  If you’ve walked away from one house to follow Jesus, you’ll get a hundred houses.  Like Job, you’ll be rewarded for your deprivation in spades.

Jesus exaggerated sometimes – it was how people in his culture pressed home a point – so I don’t think we need to take that “hundredfold” literally.  But he’s certainly saying that if his disciples leave stuff behind to follow him, they’ll get a lot more down the road.

They will?  The disciples get new, improved houses? Where does that happen, exactly?

And then I remember.  It happens after Pentecost, in the idyllic first days of the early church, described in the Book of Acts.  “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”  In this model, selling your stuff doesn’t mean that you have nothing.  It means that everyone has enough.  It’s like the feeding of the five thousand, where a few fish and some bits of bread turned into enough food to fill all those stomachs. Many scholars think there was nothing supernatural happening there:  it was a simple matter of the people in the crowd, including mothers who’d brought snacks for their children, pooling their resources so everyone would have enough to eat.

Jesus is telling us that to enter the kingdom of God, we have to share.   We have to believe that if we give what we have to the poor, even if we become poor as a result, someone will give us what we need in return.

Sharing this way requires radical trust, both in God’s generosity and in the generosity of other people.  “It doesn’t work that way,” we think. “I’ll sell all my stuff and I’ll be poor and no one will give me anything.  And anyway, I don’t want to sell my stuff.  It’s mine.  I’ve spent a long time collecting it, and it’s valuable to me.” The young man who questions Jesus at the beginning of this morning’s Gospel has exactly this reaction: “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

As Gary will tell you, I too have many possessions -- too many possessions.  I’m not good at giving them away.  I can’t even bring myself to have a garage sale.  I believe I’m still merely at packrat level, but all of us have heard stories about people who are possessed by their possessions.  All of us have heard of hoarders.

Hoarding – the compulsion to keep acquiring things you don’t need and have no room for – is a recognized mental illness.  It’s not about greed: it’s about fear.  Fear of scarcity, fear that there won’t be enough, fear that you aren’t enough.  Hoarders can’t get out from under their stuff.  Often they can’t care for themselves.  Sometimes they literally can’t get out of their houses.  This means that all their gifts remain hidden.  They are hoarding, not just magazines or radios or pets, but themselves.  They are both the hoarders and the hoarded, imprisoned by what they own, locked away from light and love and joy, from caring neighbors and from God’s good creation.

What might it feel like, to get out of a prison like that?  What might it look like?  Well, it might look something like this.

The Gospel tells us that Jesus came “that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  The ducks in this clip, released from prison, have overcome their fear of the new and their distrust of the unknown.  They’ve discovered abundant life “now in this age,” and so can we.  The first step, Jesus tells us, is to walk away from our stuff, even if we have to take baby steps.  The first step is to get out of the house.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Food for the Journey

Here's today's homily.   I went with the alternate reading of 1 Kings 19:4-8 because I didn't have the courage to tackle "Absalom, Absalom!"  The Gospel is John 6:35, 41-51.


Most of you know that I’m an English professor.  At least once a semester, usually around midterms or finals, a student comes to my office in panic and pours out a tale of woe.  Everything is due right now in every class, and the student also has a job and family crises and had the flu last week and just can’t keep juggling everything and doesn’t know what to do –

By now, the student’s usually sobbing on my tiny couch.  “I don’t know why I’m crying,” he or she will say, sniffling, as I hand over a box of tissues.  “I’m not usually such a mess.”

I give these students academic guidance, and I’ve been known to walk them over to UNR’s free Counseling Center.  But that’s not the first thing I do.  The first thing I do – something I’ve learned over many years of dealing with these situations – is to ask the student, “When’s the last time you ate something?”

And the student, who’s usually sitting on my tiny couch at about three or four in the afternoon, inevitably sniffles and says, “Yesterday, I think. Why?”

At that point, I reach into my desk and hand the student a power bar, a box of which I keep handy for just such occasions.  “You need to eat,” I say.  “You can’t think straight on an empty stomach.  This will all seem much more manageable when you have fuel in your system.”

As far as I know, none of my students have been prophets, and I’m certainly no angel.  Nonetheless, Elijah would recognize this scenario.  “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”   Elijah, fleeing Ahab and Jezebel’s death threats, was having an even worse day than my students usually are.   After hours of wandering in the wilderness, he was so exhausted and discouraged that he asked God to let him die.   Bone-tired, frightened and depleted, he couldn’t imagine how to continue.

Elijah’s despair certainly wasn’t caused by a lack of faith.  Two chapters before this reading, he called on God to restore a widow’s dead son, and lo, the child lived.  Note that in our lesson this morning, he again calls on God, shaping his desire to die as a prayer.  “O Lord, take away my life.”  The Lord doesn’t do that.  The Lord gives him bread and water instead.  This famous prophet has already seen and performed miracles, and will go on to see and perform many more.  He’s going to hear the still small voice of God a mere six verses from now, and he’ll conclude his career by ascending to heaven in a chariot of fire.  Right now, though, he has a serious case of low blood sugar.  He can’t think straight on an empty stomach.

Elijah reminds us that the physical and the spiritual can’t be separated.  Ours is an incarnational and sacramental faith: God has given us marvelous, intricate bodies, and has placed us in a marvelous, intricate creation that nurtures and sustains us.  If having a body is hard – we suffer from hunger and thirst, illness and injury – it is also a source of wonder.   Miracles needn’t take the form of angels or chariots of fire.  Miracles are within us and all around us: stars and stones, trees and grass, birds and beasts.  The seemingly ordinary is also always divine.  This is why Jesus came to us in a human body, and why the eucharistic feast is simple bread and wine.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ neighbors haven’t figured this out yet.  They don’t understand how this kid they watched grow up – the boy whose parents they know, whose games and pranks and skinned knees they witnessed throughout his childhood – can also be the bread of life that came down from heaven.   They labor under the misconception, still common in our own day, that holy things have to be rarified, otherworldly, set apart:  that miracles have to take the form of angels and chariots of fire, 3D special effects straight out of some CGI blockbuster.

And, in truth, Jesus does sound a little otherworldly in this passage from John.  “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  That all sounds more than a bit mystical and off-putting, and I think the neighbors can be forgiven for being confused.

Jesus’ life on earth, though, very much depends on ordinary, prosaic bread.  Throughout the Gospels, he’s obsessed with food.  After he raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead, he commands her parents to give her something to eat.  He scandalizes the Pharisees by sharing meals with people who haven’t washed their hands.  One of his last acts on earth is to feed his disciples:  even Judas, the one he knows is about to betray him.   In one post-resurrection story, he asks what’s for breakfast; in another, he fries up some fish for the disciples on the beach.   He feeds us, now, whenever we take communion.  Jesus wants us to work to heal the world, but first, he wants us to have food for the journey.  He knows we can’t think straight on empty stomachs.

But he never force feeds us.  The feast depends on our consent and participation.  Elijah has to reach out to take the food the angel brings him, just as my weeping students need to agree to eat their power bars (and not all of them do).   The elements of the Eucharist represent not only God’s good creation, the grain and grapes that nourish us, but human stewardship in tending them and human skill in turning them into bread and wine.   God gives us what we need to live, but like any good parent, he knows that we must ultimately learn to feed both ourselves and others.  We have to learn to cook our own food, to share it, and to clean up the kitchen afterwards.

Even when we have done this, most of us will hit low points, moments when we feel too discouraged to continue.  Sometimes our despair literally takes the form of praying to die.  At such times, it’s crucial to remember that bread and water almost always help; low blood sugar and dehydration only make things worse.   But it’s also important to look elsewhere in the creation for sustenance, to remember that simple physical things can offer spiritual nourishment.

Years ago, during one of my volunteer-chaplain shifts in the ER, an ambulance brought in a suicidal patient.  He lay in a fetal position, unmoving and unspeaking, as the paramedics rolled him into a room.  Later I learned that he’d had no food or water for three days before, finally, summoning the strength and courage to call 911, to ask for help.

The ER staff started a saline drip to rehydrate him, and gave him a meal.  When I went in to talk to him, he was slowly munching a sandwich which, blessedly, had simply appeared without his having to prepare it.  In severe depression, even making a sandwich can seem overwhelmingly difficult, and a hospital food tray can be a miracle.

He poured out a long tale of woe: mental illness, job difficulties, abandonment by family and friends.  This had all been going on for many years.  “So what’s kept you going through all that?” I asked him.  “What makes you happy?”

“Nature,” he said.   He told me about camping at a lake in the mountains.  He told me about a waterbird he liked to watch there, about its antics and feeding patterns.  His descriptions were very precise, and as he told me about the bird, his face brightened.  He sat up on the edge of his bed, put down his sandwich, and whistled the bird’s courting call while he used his hands to imitate its mating dance.  And then the man who had wanted to die laughed for pure joy.

I know the saline drip and sandwich were food for his journey, but I believe his memory of the birds was, too.  I pray that after he left the hospital, he went back to the lake to see those birds again, and I pray that as he listened to their calls, he also heard the still small voice of God.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Everything's Better with Lambs

My weaving and spinning guild meets once a month, in various locations.  Today we met at a farm north of Reno, just over the California line, where a woman named Doris raises sheep.  She had a twenty-one-baby lambing season this year, and had promised that we’d be able to bottlefeed lambs if we wanted to. (Note: click on any picture for a larger image.)

My friend Sheila picked me up in her Prius and we set out; the farm’s a little remote, on a dirt road with tricky directions, so she was glad to have a navigator and I was glad to have a ride.  She’d picked up a bag of gluten-free bread mix for me, which was very thoughtful and much appreciated.  As we jounced over one of the dirt roads to Doris’ farm, we stopped to admire a goat.  There were other goats: in fact, there were many baby goats, who hop and skip just like those adorable videos you always see of baby goats.  I’m sorry I got no pictures of them; a dog was herding them and drove them away from the road and our car, which was a sensible, protective kind of thing to do.

After several more – and progressively rougher – dirt roads, we got to Doris’ farm and saw our first lambs, who were indeed adorable.  The babies came in various sizes and colors; some were in fenced fields with their mamas, but the bottle babies were in a barn. The adult sheep wore canvas coats.  We thought maybe they’d been recently sheared and this was to protect them from sunburn, but Doris explained that it’s to keep their wool clean.  They wear the coats all the time, and as their wool grows, Doris has to take off the smaller coats and put on larger ones.  Each sheep has four coats.

I didn’t get a picture of the grown-up sheep in their coats because I was so focused on the lambs.  I loved the lambs.  Of course I saw lambs in petting zoos when I was a kid, and probably even bottlefed a few, but I don’t remember being this enchanted with them.  I wanted to take them home.

The littlest lamb came when we called her and tried to nurse on our fingers.  During the guild meeting – held outside, in a circle, as people knitted or spun – I sat close to the barn door, and whenever the littlest lamb came to the barn fence and baaaaed, I got up and gave her a bottle (Doris had left several in the barn).

Sometimes when I came into the barn she’d just look up at me, with an expression that said “Feed me!” but would refuse both the bottle and stroking.  She was testing me, I guess.

Sheila and I both especially admired the black sheep and lambs, many of whom had white blazes on their foreheads and were even cuter than the white ones.  This lamb was a bit pushy, as you can see, and as befits the reputation of black sheep.

It was really hot outside, so Sheila and I each took a few minutes’ refuge in Doris’ wonderful weaving studio, which I wanted to take home with me (with several lambs inside), and which Sheila called a “womancave.”  Sheila did take home the guild’s seven-foot triloom.  She’s going to use it to weave a shawl and then lend it to me so I can weave a shawl. This will be much easier than weaving smaller triangles and trying to sew them together in any attractive fashion, a task which has proven beyond me.

It was a lovely morning, although all that outside time has kicked my allergies into overdrive, and I’m very sleepy and sneezy.  Completely worth it, though.  If you ever get the chance to bottlefeed a lamb, do.

And my, didn’t the cats think I smelled interesting when I got home!

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Last Shift

Today I served my last shift as a volunteer lay ER chaplain.

When I was there Monday, a letter was being written to spiritual-care volunteers explaining that the department was being cut because of the sale.  I never got that letter this week.  When I went in today, the letters were sitting unmailed on my supervisor’s desk, although he told me he’d called everyone to make sure they knew.  “It doesn’t say much,” he said with a sigh as he handed me mine, and indeed it doesn’t: thanks us for our service, explains that the department’s closing, instructs us to hand in our ID badges.

“I need to say that this sucks,” I told him.  “The way this has been handled is terrible.”

He nodded glumly.  “We do many things very well.  This has not been one of them.”

I went next door to sign in, and then popped back into his office to ask him a question, but he was on the phone, so I went downstairs to the ER.  The first thing I usually do down there is to check the blanket warmers: I give out a lot of warm blankets, and I need to make sure I have my supplies, so for years now I’ve restocked the warmers at the beginning of each shift.  There’s one at each end of the rather large ER; usually the one farthest from the linen cart is partially full and I only need to carry a few blankets down there.  But today that warmer was completely empty, so I decided to roll the entire cart down to the warmer rather than trucking back and forth with armloads of blankets.

The cart is huge, taller than I am, and very ungainly.  It was difficult to steer; I couldn’t see over or around it and wanted to make sure that I wasn’t running over staff, patients or equipment, so I finally got in front and walked backwards, pulling and looking over my shoulder to navigate.  And then, all of a sudden, I saw my supervisor’s face, his eyes round with surprise, peering at me over the opposite end of the cart.

I’ve never seen him in the ER.  I thought maybe there was a patient emergency and someone had called him.  But before I could ask, he said, “What are you doing?

“Restocking the blanket warmer.”

He frowned.  “We really aren’t supposed to do that.”

Bite me, I thought (completely unjustly; I’m just a volunteer and he lost a salaried position, so getting cranky at him makes no sense, except that he’s the one who’s there).  I’ve been restocking the warmers for over seven years, and I get grief about it on my last day?  “Look, I give out a lot of blankets, and it’s easier and faster for me to do it myself than to nag an overworked tech about it.”

He nodded.  He got that.  (Later I apologized for being cranky and he said, “It’s okay.  Letting people be cranky at me is about all I can do for anyone right now.”)  It turned out he’d come down to find out what I’d wanted to ask him, which was really very decent of him.

We chatted; he left; I kept rolling the cart.  A registration clerk spotted me and said, laughing, “Okay, you’re hired.”

“Actually, I’m fired,” I told her, and explained the situation.  She hadn’t known.  Nobody knew until I told them.  I didn’t tell many people, since everyone was busy, but I did have a long talk with a nurse sitting in the psych hallway, and I also mentioned the situation to the psychiatric social worker, another nurse, and a security guard, all of whom gave me spontaneous hugs.  “You’ve been here forever,” the social worker said, and the security guard said kindly, “With your gifts, you can go anywhere.”  Nice guy.

From my point of view, it was a somewhat slow shift, but a lot of people thanked me for looking in on them, and one couple recognized me from an ER visit last year.  And we had one extremely obstreberous patient who wound up in restraints and was threatening all kinds of violence to medical staff.  “Don’t go in there,” the nurse said.  “That patient doesn’t like women.”  But when I went in and identified myself as the chaplain, the patient started crying, and asked for prayer, and clung to my hand, and treated me to a long, heartfelt and incoherent life history.  Things went south again with medical staff later, but for a few minutes while I was there, that part of the hallway was a little quieter.  The nurse came in again to get vitals while I was there, and the patient said, “I’m talking to my chaplain now, and she trumps you.”  (I explained that actually, medical staff trump me.)  Somehow I don’t think identifying myself as a patient advocate would have had quite the same effect.  Still, I’ll go back as a patient advocate if they’ll let me, as soon as the new owners start accepting volunteer applications.  My supervisor says it’s possible that the new outfit will bring back some form of spiritual care, but I’m not betting on it.

After my shift, I went back upstairs, and removed my badge from its holder, and gave it to my supervisor.  I was pretty teary-eyed.  “Are other people having a hard time with this?” I asked him.  

“No,” he said gently.  “Not as much.  Or at least, they haven’t talked to me about it.  But it’s an individual journey.”  I find that a little hard to believe, since some of the other volunteer chaplains have been doing this much longer than I have.

I cried the whole way home.  Seven and a half years and 1,132 hours: that’s a chunk of my life that’s over now.  And I know I’ll find things to fill the void, but they haven’t arrived yet.

We’re going to a concert tonight.  Music will help.   On Monday, which would ordinarily be a volunteer day, we’re going to a movie.  I’ll keep myself distracted.  But this is a true loss in ways even I can’t quite put my finger on yet, and I ask my friends’ patience and understanding.

Monday, May 07, 2012

End of an Era

1: Background

My hospital has been sold.  All of the hospitals in this area – like so many hospitals across the country – are having terrible financial problems.  If my hospital hadn’t been sold, it would have had to close.  In everything else I say here, keep in mind that closure would have been worse.

The sale’s been percolating for many months.  At one point, it looked like we’d be sold to a particular company: I got online and checked out the websites of the hospitals in their system, and a number of them had spiritual-care departments, and when I spoke to my supervisor, he confirmed that they were sympathetic to spiritual care.  So we were happy.

But that sale fell through, and we were sold to another entity, and when I checked that entity’s hospitals, none of them had spiritual care departments.  And my supervisor confirmed that fact, too, and said it didn’t look good.

2: The Plot Quickens

A few weeks ago my supervisor told me that he had been fired and that there would no longer be a Spiritual Care Department.  He didn’t know what would happen to volunteer chaplains.

This past Friday, I passed his office on my way to sign in for my shift, and ducked inside to say hi.  “Anything new?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah.  There won’t be volunteer chaplains anymore.  The last date they can work is, uh . . . “ – he checked his calendar – “the 18th.”

“Of May?  That’s in two weeks!  We haven’t gotten a letter!”

“It will go out Monday.”

I felt like I’d been sucker-punched.  I reeled through my shift, fighting periodic tears, venting to a few staff.  One doctor I hadn’t even talked to came up to me (very unusual, but it was a slow shift) and said, “I just heard. I’m so sorry.  You guys are so important.  Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

I kept wondering aloud if there’d be some way for me to stay in the ED, maybe as a patient advocate, but everyone told me I’d have to talk to the hospital’s volunteer coordinator about that, and she was on vacation.  So I finished up that shift and came home in tears, heartsick and furious.

3: Big Picture

A lot of my anger was political.  My hospital is the only one in the area that still has in-house Spiritual Care; after the change, there won’t be any.  The importance of spiritual concerns in illness and healing is pretty general knowledge these days, and after seven and a half years of doing this work, I know firsthand how much prayer, comfort and conversation mean to patients.  I literally can’t count how many patients have wept in gratitude during my visits with them, how many of them have told me that they feel better just from talking to someone like me.   I may even have played a tiny role in helping save a life or two, simply by – for instance – offering suicidal patients a different perspective on their despair.  I know for certain that during the time I’ve been volunteering, ED staff have asked at least twice for more chaplains in the department.  Emergency-medicine people are the ultimate empiricists: they aren’t going to ask for something unless they know it works.

It absolutely infuriates me that this crucial aspect of patient care is being abandoned because it doesn’t meet a corporate bottom line.  There’s no billing code for prayer.  Over the weekend, I talked to a professional chaplain who confirmed that it’s not just us: Spiritual Care Departments are being dismantled, and chaplains fired, all over the country.  This is only one more indication of the country’s economic slough.  Once again, I’d rather see departments dismissed than see entire hospitals close, although I have to wonder if Spiritual Care actually has a positive effect on the bottom line that no one’s bothered to try to measure.

4: Also, It Feels Personal

So I spent a lot of the weekend weeping and raging, not just over the dismal swamp of healthcare in general, but also over my own loss.  In case it wasn’t already obvious, I love being a volunteer chaplain, and I think I’m good at it, not least because my somewhat spiky personality is an asset, rather than a drawback, in the ED.  It’s often very difficult for me to see progress in the classroom, and I’m often despondent about my writing, but after any given volunteer shift, I can point with certainty to places where I did good work and produced palpable results.  Losing that role felt like having a body part torn off.

And this loss comes close on the heels of many others.  Over the last five years, I’ve lost both of my parents, Gary’s father, two cousins, an especially beloved cat, and my church.  The world feels a lot thinner than it did five years ago, and (like so many other people), I’ve also suffered losses connected to the inexorable tightening of standards in the university and the church.  Five years ago, I believed I would one day be both a deacon and a full professor: now I know that I won’t be either, because the level of insane hoop-jumping required to reach those spots - a function of nationwide changes in professional expectations - simply isn’t anything I want to attempt.  These decisions are choices, of course, but I’ve heard a lot of anecdotal evidence that this kind of bar-raising is happening in many other fields as well, placing a lot of jobs out of realistic reach of people who’d be very good at them.  Losing my cherished volunteer gig at the hands of a faceless corporation isn’t quite the same thing, but it pushed some of the same buttons: the powerlessness any of us feel in a world of moving targets we can’t map or predict.

Let me say here that I am also very blessed, and know it.  I’m very grateful for everything I have in a world where so many people have so much less.  That doesn’t change the fact that I’m also grieving.

It was not a good weekend.  I sent wailing e-mail to three of my clergy, cried a lot, went through some PTSD-ish bouts of anxiety when I started wondering what I was going to lose next – I probably drove Gary nuts with my clinging – and, not to put too fine a point on it, was a mess.  To be fair, I also did research.  My supervisor had recommended that I move over to being a hospice volunteer, and I talked to a hospice chaplain who said that I’d be very welcome.

5: Cautious Optimism and Tentative Plans

Today was much better.  I talked to the hospital’s volunteer coordinator, who sympathized completely and gave me a huge hug; I once visited her and a sick family member in the ED, and she’s a fan. She said that I should indeed be able to remain in the ED as a “patient advocate.”  I’ll have to reapply, as everyone else at the hospital will.  I’ll have to be retrained.  I won’t be able to say the word “God:” she said there are very strict rules about that.  But I’ll be able to stay in a place I know, where people know me, and I’ll be able to keep helping patients.

She also told me that the last day for volunteer chaplains isn’t the 18th.  It’s the 11th: this Friday, not next.  I have one more shift.

Today’s shift was full and busy and confirmed, yet again, the value of volunteer chaplains.  I prayed with a newlywed whose spouse was on life support, and who thanked me copiously.  I prayed with a woman who wept in gratitude and squeezed my hand.  I cheered up a lot of people just by popping in and asking if they needed to talk.

The doctor who’d come up to me on Friday was working today, too.  I told her about the patient-advocate gig and said, “I could move to hospice, but I’d rather stay here.”  She smiled and said, “We’d rather you stayed here!” which of course made me feel good.

I saw another doctor and filled her in.  When I said, “I can stay here, but I can’t say the word ‘God,’” she rolled her eyes and said, “You have got to be kidding me.  Well, just do what you always do and call it something else.”

Exactly.  And again, lots of what I do – talking to people about advanced directives, giving out the number of the crisis-call line, calling shelters to try to find beds for homeless patients – doesn’t involve explicit mention of God anyway.  Preach the Gospel without ceasing; use words when necessary.  The trick now will be finding safely secular words.

When I went upstairs to sign out, I ran into a social worker who usually works in the ED.  I briefed her, and she said, “We’re going to need advocates, big time.”

So that’s sounding like a plan, but I won’t believe anything until it happens.  I have no idea how long it will take for the new volunteer training to happen.  In the meantime, I’m going to call hospice and check on their training schedule, since they only do trainings once or twice a year and I’d hate to miss out.  I’m hoping that their training will be far enough down the road that I can try the patient-advocate role first, see how I like it, and switch to hospice if it doesn’t work out.

Over the weekend, I got supportive, sympathetic responses from two of the clergy I e-mailed.  Today the third, my rector, called.  He told me that he always needs pastoral-care help in the parish, people to help with hospital and home visits.  So that’s another possibility.

I really do love the ED, though.  I love the clinical setting, the snippets of Cool Medicine I get to overhear, the sheer diversity of the department.   So I’m really hoping that being a godless patient advocate will fill the bill for me, although there will certainly be challenges.  Today – as happens fairly often – a patient recognized me from a previous hospital visit, and thanked me for praying with her then.  What will I do if that happens after the changeover and the patient asks me for prayer now?

“Point at the ceiling,” said Gary, my creative nondenominational pagan.  “Use the Voldemort strategy:  Pray to He-She-It Who Must Not Be Named.”  

Actually, I’d probably break the rules, say the G-word, and hope that no one called the cops.  But it’s going to be very interesting to see how all this works!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Unexpected Shepherds

Here's today's homily. The Gospel is John 10:11-18. After you read this, please do follow the link to the Times story and watch the video; it's disturbing, but also very moving.


As the video begins, we watch two men walking across a fenced field. The taller man, Secel Montgomery Sr., has put his arm protectively across the back of his companion, who asks in a puzzled voice, “Why are we here?”

“Why are we here?” Secel says. “We’re going back to the building.” 

“Oh. Where’s the building?”

“That way.” Secel points with his free hand. “See that yellow building all the way over there, with all those windows on it?”

“Way down there?” The smaller man sounds baffled and slightly alarmed. “That’s where we’re going?”

“Yeah!” Secel’s voice is kind, patient. “That’s your building!”

“We’re going to go directly there?” 

“Di-RECT-ly,” Secel assures his friend. “NON-stop!”

Secel’s friend has Alzheimer’s, and Secel is his caretaker. In addition to guiding his charge home from walks, Secel helps him eat, helps him make his bed and brush his teeth and shower, changes his adult diapers. Secel takes his job seriously, and when he talks about the work, he emphasizes the importance of relationship. “You have to bond with them,” he says of Alzheimer’s patients. “They have to trust you, or it won’t work.”

Now, let me ask you a question. Does Secel sound like a good shepherd?

Yes, he sounds like a good shepherd to me, too. And yet many people would be shocked to hear him praised as a good shepherd, because Secel -- and his patients -- are also convicted murderers. The men are inmates of the California Men’s Colony, where specially trained prisoners like Secel take care of fellow felons who have developed dementia. The video clip is part of a New York Times story about the challenges of caring for these prisoners.

I think that most of us, when we think of the Good Shepherd, imagine perfect, sin-free Jesus carrying adorable fluffy lambs. But in the California Men’s Colony, both the shepherds and the sheep have done terrible things. They have brutally taken life. They are part of a despised underclass in our society, a group many of us would think twice about trusting, a group often deprived of civil rights even after release from prison. In many states, for instance, paroled felons are no longer allowed to vote.

If the idea of a convicted murderer as a good shepherd shocks you, consider the following. According to Lutheran theologian Joachim Jeremias, first-century shepherds were also a despised underclass, sneaky trespassers who grazed their herds on other people’s land. Because shepherds often pilfered the herds they were paid to tend, it was forbidden to buy wool, milk or animals from them, because whatever they sold was probably stolen property. The Mishnah, Judaism’s written record of the oral law, said that no one should feel obligated to rescue a shepherd who had fallen into a pit. Deprived of civil rights, shepherds could not fulfill judicial offices or be admitted in court as witnesses.

In Jesus’ day, the idea of a Good Shepherd would have been every bit as startling, even scandalous, as the idea of a Good Murderer is now. Jesus was trying to shock his audience. The Parable of the Good Shepherd, like the story of the Good Samaritan -- another tale about a scorned outcast defying stereotypes -- is designed to make us rock back on our heels and reexamine our assumptions. Jesus acknowledges that some shepherds are very bad eggs, but he asks us to withhold automatic judgment. What really makes people good, he asks us: their social standing, or their behavior? Their past deeds, or their current ones? Who better to protect the sheep: the upstanding judge in town, or the stigmatized shepherd who lives with the flock? Which will the sheep trust more?

There’s a reason why we hear this parable during Easter, the season of resurrection. The story reminds us that nothing we have done, however seemingly shameful, is useless. Everything can be redeemed, made holy, used for healing. The parts of our lives we most want to hide may be what someone else needs to know to trust us. The places in our lives we most hate -– prisons literal or metaphorical, bottomless pits of despair or misfortune -– may be where we can best help people still trapped and suffering. This is the principle of peer support that has made 12-Step groups so successful. “They have to trust you,” Secel says, “or it won’t work.” And Jesus says, “I know my own and my own know me.” 

Here’s another example. Quite a few years ago, during one of my volunteer shifts in the ER, a registration clerk begged me to help a particular patient, a young woman taking Methadone to kick a heroin habit. The Methadone clinic had decreased her dose too quickly, and now she was in withdrawal, in tremendous pain, screaming nonstop. The clerk said, "Junkies feel so horrible about themselves, and I'm scared this kid will just go out and use again. Please go talk to her."

But when I went into the room, the patient wouldn’t even look at me, and the young woman’s mother, tight-lipped, just shook her head. I realized that because I was a chaplain, they expected me to shame or lecture them.

The second bed in that room held someone else from a stigmatized population: a burly biker with prison tattoos, including swastikas. He'd been brought in by a woman -- wife or girlfriend -- who looked as if she'd had a hard life of her own. The Filipino nurse assigned to the room wanted nothing to do with those swastika tattoos, and the relentless noise from the screaming addict was unbearable. It was a terrible room, and I found myself avoiding it.

And then I went by the room on my way to somewhere else, and heard . . . nothing. Silence, sweet peace. My ears rang from the lack of noise. I ducked inside and found the tattooed patient’s female companion leaning over the addict. She was giving the young woman a backrub. The patient, now quiet, had finally relaxed, and so had her exhausted mother.

"Thank you!" I said, amazed and grateful, and the woman smiled up at me.

"I'm a masseuse,” she said. “Massage really does help people calm down."

The screaming patient accepted that backrub because the other woman was a peer, an equal: someone else dealing with real or perceived staff judgments, someone who wasn’t going to lecture or shame or judge an addict in withdrawal. In that place, at that moment, she – not the highly trained medical staff or the well-meaning volunteer – was the Good Shepherd. “They have to trust you, or it won’t work.”

While I’m certainly not encouraging anyone to become a murderer or an addict – or even the consort of a swastika-emblazoned biker – the Good Shepherd reminds us that Good News begins not with status and success, but with the cross and the tomb. We are called to remember that God creates new life and light from death and darkness, from our places of pain and failure. Like Jesus displaying his scars to Thomas, we are called to be wounded healers. We are called to honor the lowest moments of our lives, and to reach out in love to those who live there still.