“What do these stones mean to you?” Reflections on Joshua 4

The following is from a remembrance service I did at a facility some years ago. At the end of the service we passed out stones to the families and staff in attendance. I hope you enjoy it.

…Joshua said to them: “Cross over before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of the Jordan, and each one of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the children of Israel, that this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you shall answer them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel forever.” Continue reading

Self care is part of your work

As important as self care is for Chaplains and other caregivers, it’s probably one of the most neglected parts of our job. And self care is part of our job, because if we don’t care for ourselves we will be unable to do our job.

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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!

Standing in the hallway

once again I haven’t written in a while. once again due to feeling incredibly busy.

We had a speaker at our hospice a few days ago who talked about how social workers and chaplains tend to be seen as mildly irrelevant in hospice care. Many chaplains, for example, routinely carry caseloads of over 100 as well as on call duties. I know one chaplain who has over 100 patients and a church. That to me is insane.

Given the fact that I have about 80 patients, and only about 60 of those I see regularly, I should feel like I’m on a luxury cruise. However that’s hardly the case. Admissions happen on an almost daily basis, and these require quick attention even though the impulse is to put them off until absolutely necessary. A quick phone call to the family or patient can usually tell you how much of a problem there may be, so that can help to prioritize things.

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Calling, Pt. II

At times it seems like the biggest question in life, taking a line from Kenny Rogers, is knowing when to hold ’em and knowing when to fold ’em.

I was driving today and turned on to one of our local Christian broadcasts, where the minister was extoling the virtues of perseverance.  He used the story of the calling of Matthias to the Twelve after Judas’ death as an example of sticking around and waiting for the fruit of your labor to be ripe for the picking.  He extended this to show how Christians need to keep going through rough times, to never give up, to endure at all costs.  “God rewards those who endure”, I think he said.

I can see this applying in some situations, but there are other examples where I think it leads to harm.  On the very same station later in the day I heard people (mostly wives) calling in to get advice on how to deal with unendurable situations.  I never heard the counselors say “just keep going and you’ll make it” once.  Granted, they never said “call it quits” either, but the call to change was apparent and clear.  Patient endurance does not always win and is not always good.

Christ does call us to endure through difficulty and hardship.  Indeed as followers we are expected to have hardship because of Christ, and we are frequently exhorted not to fall away because of that hardship.  Endurance does count for a lot, but it isn’t everything.  I think too often we can be short-sighted in our view, thinking that God called me to a certain path and that only by persevering and enduring on that path are we being faithful to God.  Changing course is not an option, for that can be seen as weakness.

However I think God’s paths are often much more open than we think.  For example, I may honestly and prayerfully believe that God has called me to be a missionary to India.  Say that in that process of preparing to go to India I run in to a million different problems: lack of financial support, inability to get a visa, health problems, lost tickets, lost paperwork…let your imagination run wild.  I can take all these things as obstacles that must be overcome on my path to becoming a missionary to India.  But what if there is another message in these obstacles?

Maybe I am not ready yet.  Maybe I’m not called to India.  Maybe I’m wrong.  If I am wrong, the worst thing I can do is push on to some goal that is simply my own invention.

However if I take the tack of “God called me to be a missionary”, then there is much more freedom in that calling.  You can be called to India, or China, or Minneapolis, or the homeless shelter.  And I think that this is more often how God presents our paths.  The narrower your perception of what you think God wants you to do, the less freedom you have to deviate from that, and the more fear you have of deviating from it as well.  You also stand more chance of persisting merely to persist, not because you feel that God is still in it.  If you widen your call and become flexible in it, God’s ability to use you also increases.

To take a page from Thomas Merton’s life again, he definitely felt called to the monastic life and to life as a hermit.  I think he felt called to Gethsemani.  Yet I also get the impression that the specifics of that call were merely circumstancial.  He could have been a hermit anywhere, and I don’t get the impression that there was something about where he was that was irrevocably tied to a particular call.  He was flexible and looked for what God was calling him to do that day, not projecting a certain path that extended for years down the line.  And reading his journals you can see that he struggled but also found that every day his calling was reinforced by his own experience and desire to simply be with God.

I think sometimes we try too hard to hold on to things that we were never meant to hold on to, losing track of the focus of the call to serve and live in God’s grace because we get so preoccupied with how that happens.


The term “calling” is a serious topic, both for ministers and the people who call on them.  It implies not simply a “hiring”, but an endowment of purpose beyond what the minister and the congregation have.  It brings in a third party, the Holy Spirit, who acts as the one who inspires and confirms the direction of this person to that place for those people.  It’s pretty strong stuff.  It often brings up a lot of reflection and anxiety on the part of clergy: “What am I called to do?”  “Is this my own desire or God’s?”  “How can I be sure?”

Perhaps the most troublesome is the question that occasionally comes up after a call to a position of ministry, “did I just mess up?”

After I graduated from seminary I was “called” to a position right away.  It seemed ideal – it was a church I knew, where I wanted to work, doing what I wanted to do.  It was like a gift was just dropped in my lap.  To confirm my call the senior pastor and dozens of others laid their hands on me and prayed over me.  It was  a spiritually and emotionally charged moment.  I felt like everything was right.

However very soon I discovered that everything was not right.  I immediately was bashing into other leaders in the church who didn’t want to hear what I had to say.  I felt marginalized.  I found myself not in agreement with how things were done but had no outlet within the church to hear me out.  After a while, it got so bad that my wife actually quit attending the church where I was an assistant pastor!  I remember thinking, “did I mess this up?”  I wondered if I had mistook God’s calling for my own desires.

Looking back at it now I can see that I was called to that place for that time, but that the calling wasn’t what I expected it to be.  I don’t think that God makes mistakes, nor do I think that this was somehow out of God’s plan.  I was called to be there, but I think it was to show me that I was called to do something other than what I intended.  God used me, and when that particular call was over He called me back out again to hospice ministry.  That doesn’t invalidate the prior call at all.  In fact, I don’t think I would be doing what I’m called to do now if I hadn’t been called into that mess.

I faced a similar paradigm shift last week.  I found myself really struggling, both in CPE and my job.  I felt stuck, frustrated, tired and emotionally drained.  When I started CPE over a year ago, someone asked how long I was going to do that.  I thought I could do it as long as I could foresee.  I didn’t see any changes on the horizon, and didn’t really see the need to change.  However as I began growing through CPE, I found myself getting worn out with the status quo at work.  I wasn’t “feeling it” anymore.  I still had passion for my work, just not passion for that part of my work.  Like I told the group, “I’m just tired of all the ___ dying.”  One member of the group later commented that it looked like I was in mourning.  Indeed I was!

With the help of my CPE supervisor and the group I was able to see that I really was just stuck in this corner, unable to turn left or right.  I needed to see that I had lost my passion and needed to refocus.  In the past my instinct was just to try harder and push through.  However there was no more pushing through.  I had to back out and try a different direction.  In doing so, I was able to see a new focus for ministry: the people I work with.  I’d already moved into much more of a managerial role, and needed to cut loose some of what I was holding on to.  When I did that, I found renewed energy and depth.

Had my calling been wrong?  Absolutely not.  God put me there for that purpose for that time.  And I could not be doing what I am doing now if I hadn’t been there.  My calling changed, and now I can even see that it is not a huge a change.  The hard part in making that adjustment was seeing that I needed to make it – I couldn’t try harder, it was done.

Grace, Part II

I wrote previously on grace, stating that I have a hard time believing in it.  That’s true, but still not quite accurate.  I believe in God’s grace – including his grace toward me.  It’s all encompassing and all surpassing.  However I think that, just as Jesus’ parable of the sower relates, that reception of grace is so often stolen away or starved by lack of nourishment.

The third chapter in Keller’s book deals with idolatry, the “sin beneath the sin”.  It’s common to see material things as idols (cars, home, money), as well as work, power, all those things.  Keller makes a wonderful point though, that an idol is anything that we pursue more than God’s grace.  And that thing that we pursue might not be something that we love, it might be something that we fear.  He notes that we are driven not just our dreams, but even more so by our nightmares.

And that gave me pause – there are many things that I love, but how many more things that I fear!  I’m the type of personality that tends to be anxious and depressed a good deal of the time.  In the Old Testament era especially, we see so many gods and goddesses around.  These gods were worshiped not for love but to either get something (based on fear of not getting something, like rain) or not get something (like plague).  The Israelites inevitably returned to the foreign gods not out of love or merely out of cultural blending, but I think out of fear.  The fear that God would hold back or punish.  So they kept their options open, just like I do.

But I don’t run to a wooden idol,  I run to the idol of myself – my own actions, my own work, my own need to do good and be good.  I don’t see this as pride, as one of my friends likes to call it.  It doesn’t feel prideful.  It feels afraid.

Perfect love casts out all fear…

and off to do a funeral!