Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis

Fantastic thoughts and insights here! I appreciate the acknowledgement that our tendency to equate “theologically correct” with “helpful” is often neither correct nor helpful.

Marilyn R. Gardner


  1. God will never give you more than you can handle. While some may believe it is theologically correct, depending on your definitions, it is singularly unhelpful to the person who is neck-deep in a crisis, trying to swim against a Tsunami. A wonderful phrase recently came from Support for Special Needs. They suggest changing this from “God will never give you more than you can handle” to “Let me come over and help you do some laundry.” This strikes me as even more theologically correct.
  2. It gets better. Yes, yes it does. But right then, it’s not better. And before it gets better, it may get way worse.
  3. When God shuts a door, he opens a window. Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe he just shuts a door. Maybe there is no window. There was no window for Job. There was a cosmic battle that raged as he sat in distress. There…

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Snowpiercer, Ferguson and the Incarnation

(this is a departure from my usual ramblings – and a bit longer – so bear with me)

Be a Shoe

I saw the movie Snowpiercer a few weeks ago after hearing a bit of buzz about it and reading both graphic novels (it’s on Netflix now by the way). I found it a very thought-provoking movie on many levels. Many reviewers hit on the environmental themes in it, while you can also see themes about meaninglessness vs. purpose in there as well (the stolen children who maintain the engine’s inner workings, thus keeping everyone alive). It’s definitely a movie that offers many layers and provokes a lot of thought. A prevailing theme easily apparent throughout is that of class exploitation as well as the limits of revolution. It’s a very dark film, filled with the kind of violence fueled by despair of those in “the tail”. Unfortunately it bears a very strong resemblance to our own world. Continue reading

God can handle our anger

So is being angry at God a sin?

I’ve come across this a couple times from some Christians, especially those from the Reformed/Calvinist end of the spectrum. I heard this most recently on the radio from a very well respected theologian who was doing a Q&A at a conference. For some reason most of the questions he got seemed to irritate him, and this one really hit a button with him apparently. Someone asked about how he could handle and reconcile his anger at God following the death of his son, who was in his 20’s if I remember right. The speaker said that there was absolutely no reason to be angry at God, rather that he needed to “repent” of his anger lest it lead him into some even worse sin. His reasoning was that God gives us so much, and when one thing gets taken away we get all upset and feel He is unfair.

Continue reading

We need to rethink grief

Artist Motol Yamamoto, who created labyrinths of salt to help express his own grief at the loss of his sister due to brain cancer. Click on the image for more information.

In my hospice, as well as in many others, when someone dies we consider the family members involved and rate their grief as low, medium or high. The thought being that if someone is on the low end, they will generally be fine. On the medium and high end though, we need to be more involved as this person may not cope well.

And I’m starting to think this is really missing the point.

There has been research recently in regards to complicated grief – grief that becomes debilitating to the point of becoming a chronic, life-limiting condition. This is the kind of grief that we in hospice are trying to identify, monitor and assist with. It differs from normal grief in that it is much more of a clinical condition, however it has many of the same characteristics as normal grief. The main determinants between the two, putting it simply, are duration of symptoms and the severity of them. Normal grief can involve impulsive crying, sleeplessness, rapid weight loss or gain, and even auditory or visual hallucinations. But they tend to subside over time and generally do not interfere with daily functioning. Complicated grief resembles PTSD, in that it can have these same symptoms but amplified and intrusive to the point where they cannot function normally. Continue reading

A Pastoral Response to Newtown

I’ve had a lot of anger and sadness swirling around me the past few days, a lot of which is concerning the Newtown shootings. Sadness obviously at the senseless tragedy of it all, and anger at the perpetrators of these kinds of crimes. There’s been a lot of responses to the tragedy, but none of them seem adequate. However this post is about the best I’ve seen and I’m reposting it in its entirety.

Newtown- A Time to Listen

I live maybe 50 miles from Newtown, CT. But it shouldn’t matter how far you live from there in miles, what happened there should hit close to home for all of us. It is one of those things that is simply not supposed to happen.

As I read the commentators, the blogs and the other statements, I hear all the normal lines and a few new ones. “Arm people in the schools.” “Ban assault weapons”. “Put God back in the schools.” “It’s time to listen to the gun lobby.” “It’s time to confront the gun lobby.” What most of these lines have in common is that they blame others for this tragedy.  “If only our country had (fill in your own favorite), this would not have happened.” Translation- “If everyone had only listened to me and people who agree with me, this would not have happened.” I fear that this incident will yet again drive people to their own corners with others who believe as they do and from those corners they will shout at people in the other corners because this is what passes for dialogue in our society. And, as usual, nothing substantive will change in our society and divisions between groups will simply widen.

Now, to be clear, I do have my own point of view on guns that I believe has wisdom and would help.  However, as a professional health care chaplain, I have the great good fortune to have been taught a different way.  The first thing and I think the hardest thing we learn as chaplaincy students is to listen first and speak second- if at all. The first person we are taught to listen to is ourselves.  Before I can listen and truly hear others, I need to listen to my own anger, my own powerlessness and admit to the part of me which would love to have someone or something to blame and punish for this tragedy.  All of that acknowledgement is a necessary prelude to hearing the anger and hurt in others.

Then I have to remember the lesson that has been reinforced so many countless times in my professional life- most of all people want to be heard.  Yes, they also want to be agreed with, but very often being truly heard is enough. And, if you don’t let them know that you hear them and take their feelings and point of view seriously, you cannot expect that they will hear and respect your point of view.

So I am hoping that maybe this tragedy is so horrible and enough people understand that the old debates have not helped, that maybe we can resolve to find another way.  Maybe we could start with the idea that living in a country where people walk into movie theaters, malls and now even elementary schools and kill people is unacceptable and it’s so unacceptable that everyone needs to listen to everyone else who thinks they have a way to help even if they are sure that the other person is wrong. And maybe we can even start with the understanding that there is no simple solution and its highly unlikely that any one of us possesses the whole truth.

But in the end, I am convinced that respectful listening to all others and they to us is foundational, and without it these incidents will not go away.

Trusting the Process

Not long ago I thought I’d be shutting this site down, as I wasn’t sure if I was going to be a chaplain anymore. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be one on one hand: I’d had about enough of the stress, the politics, and the poor time off. Hospice seems to breed burnout for precisely those reasons. However I was recently offered a full time job at a hospice that seems good.

Trouble is I have two other jobs waiting in the wings. The key word there is “waiting” however, as neither one has made an offer and have been slow – in one case extremely slow – in interviewing. Both of these jobs have their pluses and minuses as well. While it seems clear that I should go with the “sure thing” I’m hesitant.

As usual I’m overthinking things, I think. Commitment to a job does not slam the door on everything else forever, obviously. However I tend to think of these things as permanent. As my wife said, I can give this a trial period in the same way that they’re giving me one. Plus I have to recognize my hesitation is due to a fear of the unexpected, and also a fear of the expected.

One of the things you hear a lot in CPE is to “trust the process”, meaning that the CPE group is designed to raise problems and growing edges, and any quick solution to those issues is not going to help. They in fact hinder the process of growth, change, and self discovery. Here too I see that I need to trust the process, trust that God is in it, and care less about being sure about my decision.

I get too concerned sometimes about making the wrong decision, often where there is no wrong decision. Mistakes are survivable, and I have no idea what lies around the next bend in the road.

Next steps

Last Wednesday, on my youngest son’s fifth birthday, I was fired. I had been there nearly seven years. However it was not exactly unexpected, and as i see now, not unwelcome.

I have had a tremendous sense of peace since then. Not just the peace that comes from not having to wonder who might die today, but a sense of peace that comes from a deep sense of trust in God’s plan. I haven’t always had this trust, and I expected to fall apart when the hammer came down. Knowing that the prayers of many are covering me, and having grown through my own reading, have allowed me to simply rest in the assurance that all things are working toward the good.

At this point I am not sure if I will continue in hospice chaplaincy, do some other kind of ministry, or change paths completely. So I’m not sure if this will go on or not. But I’m not worried about that right now.

Awareness, Part II

I wrote already of awareness in terms of being aware of problems and issues in one’s life.  However this time I’m thinking of awareness in terms of simply being aware of one’s self in the world.  Yoda’s basic criticism of Luke came to mind:

“All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was! What he was doing!”

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s journals and one thing I find is that every day is not filled with some kind of inspirational masterpiece or heavy thought on life or whatever.  Often it’s simply what’s going on:

“The sun, the clear morning, the quiet…” June 3&4, 1963

“Brilliance of Venus hanging as it were on one of the dim horns of Scorpio.  Frozen snow.  Deep wide blue-brown tracks of the tractor that came to get my gas tank the other day…” Jan 5, 1968

When I started CPE I saw awareness as being aware of what was going on with me at that time.  And that’s fine, but I’m seeing more that awareness involves not a narrow focus on me, but on me in the world.  I’m getting used to not putting on the iPod when I go out for walks.

I’m even a bit self conscious as I write this, knowing that this sounds a bit like navel-gazing or flaky or something.  But I’m appreciating the experience.


I see more and more that simply being aware of something isn’t enough.

CPE is a lot about finding your weaknesses as as well as your strengths.  I think most people find that it’s about their weaknesses and “issues”.  But CPE is just as much about uncovering your strengths.  For me it’s been an experience of uncovering both and accepting both.  However, simply being aware of something is not enough.

Awareness of an issue involves acceptance of it, but that only gets you so far.  That’s the starting point, not the end.  You then need to decide what you are going to do with your issue.  Realize that any particular issue has two sides to it – not just all bad or all good.  Then look at how you are going to use this issue in a positive way while trying to limit the negatives.

For example, I tend to be extremely hard on myself at times.  The upside of this is that I tend to work hard and set high standards for myself.  The downside is that I can set the bar too high and then beat myself up for not clearing it.  Awareness is being able to say that I’m hard on myself, but the problem is that I’m still overly hard on myself.  I can stop there and learn to live with myself, or I can change the downside of it.  Thankfully this is what I’ve been doing, and I’m so much the better for it!

I know someone who has gone through four units of CPE, which is pretty advanced.  She’ll talk about her issues as if she has mastery of them.  Yet these issues still continue, and there doesn’t seem to be any movement to do anything with them or change them.  Any change involves a loss, and a fear of what that loss will cost.  And when that loss is part of what we sense to be our selves, that change can be very intimidating.  Better to live with the devil you know than the devil you don’t, especially when you’ve been living with that devil for 40-some years.

Sin works in the same way.  To simply be aware of sin is one thing, to turn from it is another.  And God calls us ultimately to turn from sin, not just be aware that we are a sinner.  We fall into the same traps however.  We fear change, we beat ourselves up for failing to turn from sin, or we feel that change is impossible so why bother.

Change does not need to be complete right out of the gate. Turning from sin – or our issues – is a lifetime event.  It is done, and constantly being done.