When All is Said and Done: Death and “Magic Words”

Your average hospice chaplain. Probably had 3 units of Level II CPE.

Recently I had a family whose mother was on hospice with us. When Isabel* had a sudden decline and became active her family gathered around the bedside and all started to say the things that families and caregivers – including hospice staff – feel that they need to say in order for the dying person to “let go”. They all said that they loved her and that they would be OK. They had out of town family come in and say good-bye in person and on the phone. They told her over and over again that it was OK for her to go. The priest gave last rites. This went on for well over a week.

Needless to say it was rough. The family came and went, said what they needed to say, and still Isabel seemed to hang on. There were a lot of thoughts and questions: “What haven’t we said? Is there someone that hasn’t said goodbye yet? Is she waiting to hear from someone? What are we missing? Why is she still here?

My best response was, “I don’t know.”

Continue reading

Advertisements

Feelings Aren’t Dangerous: A Response to The Gospel Coalition and Gloria Furnam

A while ago an email drifted through my inbox from The Gospel Coalition. Ususally I delete them, mostly because I find most of them to be uninteresting or not that helpful. Thankfully they list the subjects of the email right off, so you can delete them fairly quickly. But this one caught my attention, because one of the articles in the email was called “Moms, Don’t Trust Your Fickle Feelings“.

“OK”, I thought, “don’t rush to judgment – see what they say.”

And I got mad. Continue reading

Is John Calvin’s God Capable of Love?

After sitting dusty on my shelf ever since I bought it, I decided several weeks ago to crack open Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. I’ve been questioning my Calvinist upbringing for some time, mostly because I didn’t feel like I ever owned it. I was trained Reformed: Presbyterian church (PCA of course), Presbyterian college (Reformed Presbyterian, which even the PCA thinks is too stodgy). Mom and dad had RC Sproul on the radio and Tabletalk on the bookshelf. So I was thoroughly baptized in Calvinism and had been taught it exhaustively, even though I never really studied it per se. I had read plenty of Calvinists, but never Calvin. I decided to change that.

I now believe that if more Calvinists read Calvin, and not just other Calvinists, there would be fewer Calvinists.

Before I go on I’ll say that this is not a book review, a scholarly article, or even all that well thought out. I’m only about a quarter of the way through the Institutes, so I would expect that many will read this and respond to my objections pointing out that I don’t know all the facts. You’re absolutely right – I don’t. This is more my reaction as I encounter Calvin and Calvinism directly in the moment. It’s part of the process. I’m not going to bash him as a person, but I do have serious questions about his theology and reasoning(which God foreordained me to have before the beginning of time for the purpose of manifesting His glory, hallelujah). I’ll have more of these I’m sure in the future.

Is Calvin’s God capable of love?

As I read the Institutes I encountered a discussion of God based primarily in terms of will. It is God’s will that maintains the universe, that seeks his own glory, that creates and destroys, that is providentially manifest in every action and reaction from the cosmic to the subatomic. The answer to why God governs all these things has to do with manifesting God’s own glory and purpose according to Calvin. There is, at least so far in my reading, no mention of God’s love for what he has created, though. Continue reading

Love Does Strange Things, or How I Got a Cup of Cremated Remains From Pittsburgh, PA to Newfoundland, Canada

The following is an essay I wrote for a friend of mine, Shane Blackshear, who hosts the podcast Seminary Dropout. I highly encourage you to check out his page and podcast. Oh – and upgrade your book budget as the authors and speakers he interviews will undoubtedly make you want to fill your shelves with their insights.

view of Fox Island, Newfoundland, Canada

view of Fox Island, Newfoundland, Canada

As anyone who is – or has been – on love will tell you, love isn’t just an emotion you feel for someone else. It sometimes captures you to the point where you will do just about anything for that person. It’s not always romance that produces this feeling, but it’s instead the kind of love that comes from losing yourself, which is what true love is and does. Sometimes it looks like spending hours crafting a poem or writing a song for that person. In this case it looked like smuggling a dead man’s ashes across international boundaries on a passenger jet. Continue reading

Cancer from both sides: Joanie Baldwin Branch

I wanted to feature a post and blog from a friend of mine who is dealing in her own way with terminal cancer. I worked with her in hospice, she as a nurse and I as a chaplain. After she was diagnosed with her own cancer I encouraged her to write about it. This post I thought would be a great introduction. You can catch up with her at joanbaldwinbranch.blogspot.com.

More Cancer Lessons:
I have so many thoughts running through my mind with the underlying theme being; I must start writing all of this down. So, here I go not knowing what will come out of my head or where to start this.
Since I have cancer, I think a lot of the things one thinks of if they know their time here on earth is limited. It was then that I discovered what a blessing this time is. If you know you don’t have all that much time, you tend to, at least mentally, write a ‘to do’ list. On that list are things like funeral arrangements, writing letters to my children, thinking about what songs you want played at the service, etc. The introspection is phenomenal. I am getting to know me at last. Just knowing me has been something that I have often pondered doing. Now it becomes a reality. I find so many things funny. I laugh long and often. Poking fun at yourself & this disease is so freeing. It has been influential with having my family members stop denying that I am going to die. They are learning to accept this diagnosis. There is no ‘elephant in the room’. We make jokes about my baldness and my chemo brain although my grandson, Ryan, says that I was forgetful before I ever had cancer & chemo!

The good stuff

I realize as I write this that it’s tempting to dwell on the difficulties of this position. Yes there are many, but the positives are just as numerous. Here’s just a few I’ve experienced:

A stroke patient who, while she is only able to say “yeah” most of the time, forces out “I’m glad to see you” when I visit.

My dementia patent who holds my hand like I’m her boyfriend every time I visit.

Every veteran who has shared a story about their service. I’ve known a man who survived days at sea after being torpedoed, another who was supposed to have lifted the flag at Iwo Jima if he hadn’t hurt his ankle, and another who was the only one in his platoon who survived the landing at Normandy because he was stateside getting married.

Baptising a patient just a few weeks before he passed, then passing the framed photo on to his widow.

Seeing folks’ faces light up when we present them with a birthday cake.

Having a patient tell me that they want me to do their funeral.

To reassure someone that, after 80 years, they’ve done a good job.

To appreciate the silence and quietness of God’s presence in a room as someone sleeps.

To give someone the final blessing they will ever have in this life.

I’ve met one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s secretaries, an engineer who helped design the World Trade Center, and a man who ran the drill that dug the Holland Tunnel.

I’ve heard stories and met people that will be with me all my life. And that is good.

 

Ideology and prejudice: when does free speech become hate speech?

I’ve noted, as you probably have as well, that civil discourse in this country especially around political issues is almost impossible to find on the Internet. Here’s a sample from some comments on a recent article on Salon.com:

“Rot in hell authoritarian scum.”

“Authoritarian progressives are the worst sort of humanity”

“You right-wingers are the most despicable cowards on the planet.”

“you gun freaks need to sit down and STFU you are a dumb ass”

This is only a fraction of the over 500 comments on the article. Sure not all were this blatantly abusive, but spread this vitriol over the entire internet and you can see how bad things are. Continue reading

How Not to Say or Do the Wrong Thing

I chaplain friend of mine passed this article along from the LA Times:

How not to say the wrong thing

It works in all kinds of crises – medical, legal, even existential. It’s the ‘Ring Theory’ of kvetching. The first rule is comfort in, dump out.

Susan Silk and Barry Goldman

April 7, 2013

When Susan had breast cancer, we heard a lot of lame remarks, but our favorite came from one of Susan’s colleagues. She wanted, she needed, to visit Susan after the surgery, but Susan didn’t feel like having visitors, and she said so. Her colleague’s response? “This isn’t just about you.”

“It’s not?” Susan wondered. “My breast cancer is not about me? It’s about you?”

The same theme came up again when our friend Katie had a brain aneurysm. She was in intensive care for a long time and finally got out and into a step-down unit. She was no longer covered with tubes and lines and monitors, but she was still in rough shape. A friend came and saw her and then stepped into the hall with Katie’s husband, Pat. “I wasn’t prepared for this,” she told him. “I don’t know if I can handle it.”

This woman loves Katie, and she said what she did because the sight of Katie in this condition moved her so deeply. But it was the wrong thing to say. And it was wrong in the same way Susan’s colleague’s remark was wrong.

Susan has since developed a simple technique to help people avoid this mistake. It works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. She calls it the Ring Theory.

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator. Continue reading

1 Corinthians 13:1-7, for a funeral

 

1 Cor 13:1-7 If I speak in the tonguesof men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

These words are often heard at weddings, not at funerals. But they are just as appropriate. In marriage we see the romantic side of love, the love of one for another. But in reflecting back over an entire life we can see how that love flowed out to others, to see the hard work that it did in tough times, and to see that love is not merely something that is felt but something that one does.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he was writing to a church divided. There were rival groups fighting for attention and power while more serious issues were being ignored. They were boasting about their wisdom and knowledge, but Paul was pointing out that their wisdom was futile. The church was “majoring in the minors” to borrow a phrase. Paul responds to a number of their questions about the order of the service and so on, points out where he sees them in error. And then it’s at this point that he points them to the “why” behind the “what to do”. Continue reading