Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On becoming

 I remember when I first went to visit a spiritual director as part of small group ministry that I was involved in two years ago, and I told her, "I have done so much growing's sometimes frustrating when I get glimpses of how much more I have to do." Chaplaincy training is another place where you face that realization just about every day.

Another conversation that ended up being very true was when the student chaplain at Meadville Lombard told my triad group (my triad met weekly for course work, and met with the chaplain monthly) that seminary was in a lot of ways a way of breaking us down into small pieces so we could put them all back together again - theologically, emotionally, sometimes even physically, due to the intense need for self care.

When I was a child, I was Catholic, and I had transcendent experiences of God. I had faith in a supernatural Father, and I prayed to Him, and felt His presence in my life. At some point though, existential questions of suffering in my life, and perhaps even a biology of atheism, took away that personal relationship with a Christian God (and it was always a relationship with God, not with Jesus, or even Mary, which is perhaps why it was so natural to become a Unitarian Universalist).

I continued to have transcendental experiences in my life - moments of becoming, of growing, of mystical connection with other people, with nature, with something more - and those experiences are what keep me an agnostic, that make me a person who is aware of the unknown, and of possibility, while still subscribing to Occam's Razor.  In a recent post about prayer, I explored some of my thoughts about prayer as a person of non-traditional faith, and I refound this quote that spoke to me. As a religious humanist, I am a cosmic theist, in that I believe in  the transcendent immanence of God, which some might call panentheism. However, I have not felt that personal transcendent experience of God (and I realize that is a loaded word) very often as an adult.

I remember being about 10, during the Cold War, and thinking about how infinitely stupid adults were, as a I lay awake, fearful of bombs falling on my house or my school. And I remember an image of physically tucking that thought away into the back of my 10 year old mind, and telling myself that I would never forget to realize that adults were stupid. That we complicate things unnecessarily for ourselves, which results in all sorts of negative consequences in our lives, our social networks, our world. More on this later.

This morning, when I was meditating, I felt God (again, that loaded word, especially for me, as an agnostic) as a presence. I believe in connections, in something greater than the sum our our living, aware parts. And that not only showed up for me this morning but has been with me, as a presence, in the room, all day. It's kind of frightening actually - I mean, I actually thought, perhaps I am having a mental breakdown of some sort ;).But, I am a levelheaded kind of gal, and I am pretty sure I know how this actual feeling of presence has come back into my life.

For some time now, I have been wrestling with prayer, my love of Catholic tradition from my childhood, and with how to make my daily spiritual practice more meaningful, which I have, through ritualistic meditation each day. But it hasn't been until the last 4 weeks of chaplaincy that I have prayed, really prayed with people. And the part where being as a child (as Jesus himself would remind us) comes in, is that it doesn't have to be complicated. I don't have to get caught up in the words God, or Jesus, or Christ, or heaven, or sin. My role as a chaplain is to be present with people, to help them be, to serve with humility. It doesn't really matter what I believe in that moment - it matters that I can connect with that person, and that we create something through our relationship in that moment. If I can let go of my baggage about semantics (and as a writer and editor for many years, many that know me well will know that's a difficult task), and just be in the moment of wonder and (God) and creation, then that has the potential to become transcendent.

This prayer that I have been engaged in and wrestled with, and felt awkward in and powerful in - that has changed my spiritual practice. Again:
"When I pray, the humanist in me is patient but nonplussed, asking who I think I am talking to, and I reply that I don't know, but I do it anyway, my breath casting words into the seemingly unanswering air. Perhaps it is only my need to make the universe personal and intimate. I know myself to be a personal and intimate being, and it seems not totally impossible that the powers which cast me with these qualities, which enables me to be both rational and poetic, may be the same as I, writ large." -- Frances E. West

Humanism is a based on reason and compassion - but that religious piece of humanism does not have to exclude God (or at least I take the liberty as a UU to say so).

And the question is so what? Why do I do this ministry? Now that I can catch my breath in week four, when I can think again about congregational work, community work, and chaplaincy, it becomes very clear that my moral authority as a minister is in not only becoming more authentically myself, but in journeying with others in their own journey of becoming. It's about right relation as a position of moral authority, and about radical hospitality. As a ministry, radical hospitality is breaking down that sin of disconnection that is the root of so much human pain and suffering. Ministry is about finding a theology that makes sense of that sin - not in the sense of predestination, or bargaining with some higher power, or even understanding it - but making sense of it and figuring out how to live our lives that we have the best we can.

One day, I dropped my son off at his Waldorf program and one of the church staff (where we meet) was being (in my mind) quite rude to a new mom who had parked in the wrong place. I was pretty ticked off about his behavior, and my son's teacher, Lynne, who is just a gentle saint of a woman, put her hand on my arm and gently said, "He's doing the best he can." In the moment, that answer didn't feel like enough, but now it does. Ministry is about helping people do the best they can, without judgment and with humility. And that includes me. Sometimes the best I can do doesn't feel like very much, but that's OK sometimes.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Systems of privilege

I completed my first 24-hour on-call yesterday, and my friend David did his on Saturday. Between the two of us, and our colleague Mike, it was a violent weekend. I read with interest the local blog about riding with an ambulance as well.

I was driving my daughter's friend to our house today (we've got two friends spending the next day or two, which is amazing fun), and she was interested in what I am doing. She asked me, astutely (and desperate not to sound racist), if a lot of the patients who were victims of violence were people of color. And that is astute, because as we talked, we explored the interconnected systems of privilege that create a situation of violence and inequality.

There is of course, race. And perhaps more importantly, class. Access to education. Income. Access to jobs. Affordable housing. Trust (or lack thereof) in law enforcement. Jaded social workers. And the frustration that comes with all of these issues, creating hair trigger tempers based on a lifetime of living with less - and being looked down on all the while. This is one of those conversations that is inherently depressing, because it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see a solution. It reminds me of the need to lower our expectations - yes, lower them, as Sharon Welch tells us in A Feminist Ethic of Risk. Because each small success is so important. And it's vital not to get burned out.

Today, in didactics, we had an interesting discussion about the NYTimes article regarding pacemakers as well. It occurs to me as I travel the hospital, that our technology, meant to save lives, sometimes creates ethical situations that turn a culture of healing into a culture of life with questionable quality.

I love ministry so much. Walking next to someone as they become. That is the gift. Midwifing families not through birth, but through death. That is a privilege. It's a hard choice - being called. This process of discernment about my path will be at least another 3 years in the making. But I can feel myself becoming. I am 10 times the minister I was 3 weeks ago.

Now if I could just get some inspiration for the 3 sermons I have to write to preach this summer. Time is running out and my brain is mush. One would think that I would feel passionately about so many things that I could write about them to share with congregations. But honestly, I'm just tired. A good tired though.

Monday, June 14, 2010


This morning, I led the morning prayer on... prayer. I had a section from one of Anthony Bloom's books, which I now seem to have misplaced, on the importance of prayer coming from within. The importance of authenticity. These are things I have been reflecting on quite a bit, as I am called to pray with and for others on a regular basis. At first, I felt intimidated by the seemingly easy, and well-known prayers of my more traditional Christian colleagues.

I have also found solace and comfort in sharing the prayers of my Catholic childhood with patients. The woman I visit who can barely speak but works so hard to ask me for the "Our Father." How could I not see the joy it brings her to hear it. Or the Psalms. There are so many of them that offer comfort in our darkest hour.

What of our own readings that our faith has claimed? Or our own heartfelt prayers? I am trying to collect a little book of them, and it's so helpful to those in times of need, and to me as I minister to them. It is amazing to me how powerful prayer is. It's not something I've used as a spiritual practice often over the last 25 years, but it's fascinating to reclaim it as a tool of ministry.

Prayer has layers and depths that I never wrestled with theologically until now. It's a fascinating journey.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Theology of Wonder

In the morning light
I am sometimes offered a moment of grace
A moment when I become aware
of how very small I am
in the expanse of sky above me

I become aware of God
in the arc of the universe that I can sense
but not see
I feel a cellular response within my very body
as if my physical, most primordial self
can sense its microcosm too
in the face of my inner universe

Sometimes I see the mother and her spotted fawn
lift their heads in alarm
as I walk by in that morning light
Feel that they are closer to God
in their connection to the grass, the earth, their trails through the woods
than I will ever be
With my intellect, my complicated emotion, my desire for understanding

Simple grace is standing in that moment of awe
Knowing that death is around any corner
but that life is right here
waiting for me to take that next step
into it

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Walking with Life and Death

Everyone told me that Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE here on out) would transform me. I have only begun to touch the surface of that I think. I had my first on-call shift last night and was up most of the night with families. My daylight hours were mostly spent bolstering hope, praying with families, and finding supports and answers, even in the face of dreaded news.

The nighttime is when I walked with death though. Most of the night was spent honoring those that had passed on to the next part of their journey, comforting their grieving families and being present to the losses that we face in the darkest hours before dawn.

After an exhausting night, we presented verbatims, and I am so grateful to our amazing and subtle supervisor. He has a gift for bringing out the gifts that are inherent in our growing edges. The opportunities that we have are what he sees in every interaction, not to dwell on what could have been, but how to become more present, honor the sacred, and enhance our self awareness in every interaction.

On my way home, I had more time to reflect on my relationship with death, which has up till now been one of awareness but avoidant fascination. Last night I walked with that personification of death, felt its breath, watched its hand fall on three people, felt the awesome fragility of the veil between living and dying, between breathing, and the cessation of breath.  I witnessed the awesome power of our human technology and its ability to bar death from entering, but only temporarily. I also felt the simple and profound power of prayer - something that I do not formally do very often, but what was what was needed in many moments. Prayer brought comfort and peace, hope and faith, to those whose path I journeyed with for a time yesterday.

CPE is transforming, mostly in the sense that it forces me to tear down the very last walls that protect me from the reality of the fragility of life, and the distances we go to hold on as hard and long as we can. It is really a gift of gratitude and humility. Death is good at teaching humility. It is indifferent, but not cold. I will learn to walk with her, so that when she touches me more closely, I can hopefully understand her a little better. And when I walk with healing and light, I can respect her decision to wait, just a little longer.