Dealing with Anger

One of the challenges some chaplains face, myself included, is the need to be liked and avoid conflict.  We want people to feel good and comforted, and this is what often leads us into the profession.  We’re the Rogerians in the room: providing that unconditional positive regard to all comers. Trouble is that when conflict takes place, it can feel like failure. So when conflict is on the horizon we dodge it. I can talk myself into twists trying to avoid or minimize whatever the problem is. Which tends to make the problem worse. Then when that conflict does erupt I tend to look at myself as the cause of it, as if conflict and anger are wrong and my fault. In doing so I take responsibility for their feelings and reactions, which isn’t healthy or logical.

One of the harder parts of my own development as a chaplain is raising that emotional boundary between myself and others. It’s easy in the caring professions to open one’s self up too much and to care too much for the other person, which neglects ourselves. This isn’t just chaplains but nurses, social workers, and on down the line. Sometimes this self-neglect takes the form of taking on what the other person needs to do – the “fix-it” or “savior” mentality, an outward focus that neglects the self’s boundaries. However I also see that this self-neglect can be inward focused as well, where I don’t try to fix the other person as much as make their problem my own – their problem is a bad reflection on me, so I take it personally. This can happen a lot with handling anger. This still avoids the problem though, and all I end up doing is taking their anger and internalizing it because it’s directed at me.

What I fail to do though is see that even though it’s directed at me it is still their anger, their emotion. How they choose to express it is their issue, not mine.

Overcoming Nature

I watched the film Temple Grandin with my wife over the weekend.  My wife works with autistic children and their families, and had been looking forward to seeing this movie for some time.  Grandin is a PhD and expert in animal husbandry, as well as autisitc.

Part of the story revolves around how she seeks to revolutionize the cattle industry by reorganizing slaughterhouses to make them more amenable to cows actually behave, making the whole process more humane as well as efficient.  For example, rather than forcing cows into insecticidal dips with prods and slick  chutes, which occasionally result in drowning, Grandin’s model uses curves to lead the animals to a stepped platform, where the animals simply walk into the dip, swim through, and back out.  It’s all pretty amazing in how simple the design and process appears, yet how complex the behavior is that the process is built upon.

What else is interesting is her reason for doing so.  Most of us would think that her affinity for cattle and the desire to limit their suffering would have led her to denounce the whole industry, but that wasn’t the case.  She understands and respects the life that is present in each animal (in the film, after a cow is killed before her she asks “where did it go?”), but doesn’t have the deep emotional connection that we would expect due to her autism.  The reason she sees for treating the animals humanely is simple but deep: “Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.”

I thought about this in light of hospice care.  This same thinking guides a lot of our care and judgment regarding care for those we care for.  We see nature at it’s most cruel sometimes.  I recently had a patient whom I was close to pass away.  He had struggled with pulmonary fibrosis for several years, struggling to breathe continually and leashed to an oxygen tank.  He gradually grew weaker and more dependent, to the point where he could only walk short distances.  Then he had a serious stroke, taking most of whatever he had left.  He could talk, though slurred, and could understand, but was otherwise unable to move.  Even his head had to be propped up with a neck pillow.  It was tremendously sad to see the cruelty of nature at work here, and our job was to make sure that cruelty was dealt with as best we could.

The physical pain was manageable, but the psychological and spiritual pain was tremendous. I spent time with him the day he died in his home, holding his hand and praying for him along with our staff and his wife and daughter.  Some of his grief was directed at God, and I can’t say that I blame him.  You can’t go through an illness like that, or accompany someone along that road, without wondering why.

There are plenty of answers out there for sure: the fallen world, suffering as part of life, the stripping of everything to increase our dependence on God, the work of the devil, the work of God, and so on.  Yet I found Grandin’s insight to be one of the simplest and maybe truest at the moment.  Nature is cruel in many ways, and we can’t overlook or overcome that cruelty.  Sin and death are, at least for now, permanent fixtures in the world.  However part of realizing the kingdom of God in the here-and-now is to see that while these can’t be overcome, we don’t have to fatalistically succomb to it.  Jesus reminds us, over and over again, that he has “overcome the world”, and even though that cruelty is still there in the world, we can overcome it as well.  Nature is cruel, but we don’t have to be.

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.