Keep your friends close, and your “-ism”s closer

yes, that's Geneva in the background

I’m trying to work on a new post on Calvinism and having a bit of a hard time, so I thought I’d take a break.

I grew up Calvinist but only because that was the only pool I could swim in at the time. During and after seminary I questioned things more but still held on to a lot of it. Now I’m investigating the other side of the fence – that would be the more Arminian traditions including the Anabaptists – and even the contemplative Catholics like Thomas Merton. All of this has been great, and disturbing at the same time. Continue reading

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On Donald Miller and Christ outside the church

image: Amy Corron Power

Donald Miller recently wrote in his blog, “I don’t connect with God by singing to Him.” Well Don, I don’t either.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t sing to God. But I find that the only time I do is in church on Sunday for about 20 minutes. At times I find myself being drawn closer to God by music, including Christian music, but those songs somehow never make their way into the worship center.

Plus I don’t sing well. While I knew this all along, it became glaringly obvious to me when I attended a Reformed Presbyterian church in college. At RP services no hymns are sung, and there is no musical accompaniment. The congregants sing the Psalms a-capella, often breaking into multiple lush harmonies as the verses change. I just stood and listened. It was beautiful, but I was a spectator, not a participant.

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Hospice Chaplain Interview: Reblog

I picked this up of the Web and wanted to repost it; the original is here.

A reverend’s rounds: Hospice chaplain ministers to the terminally ill

October 30, 2013  6:30AM ET
Demand for hospice chaplains grows as more Americans seek deathbed spiritual counseling
NEW YORK — Sunlight permeates the Upper East Side apartment of hospice patient Kam Hi Tse, 78, as he arranges himself in a half lotus position on the sofa and places his hands, facing upward, on his thighs in what’s known as open-palm mudra. The former chef explains in Cantonese to the Rev. Mary Chang, an ordained Lutheran minister sitting next to him, that this pose makes him open to receive blessings from the Buddha. Chang, 70, nods and opens her palms upward, too.

A hospice chaplain for MJHS, the largest hospice and palliative-care program in the Greater New York City area, Chang makes daily visits to the terminally ill and dying, offering conversation and prayer to patients and grieving loved ones. She typically sees at least four patients a day, in hospitals, nursing homes, hospice centers and private homes. Unlike clergy of the past who usually only served people of their own faith, hospice chaplains take a multifaith and sometimes even secular approach. Chang meditates with Buddhists and sings hymns with the Russian Orthodox. She prays with atheists and speaks with people uncertain of their faith.

“I am here to listen, to be present, not to convert or judge,” says Chang, a sprightly Chinese-American woman who on Sundays leads a congregation at the Lutheran Church of the Incarnation in Cedarhurst, NY. Favoring brightly colored clothes when she visits patients, she usually eschews the formal collar and title of her Protestant calling.

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Joshua 4: Message for a facility memorial service

I thought I’d pass this recent message from a memorial service our hospice hosted at a personal care facility. They had started a rock garden and we donated a tree to serve as a memorial marker.

…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.” Joshua 4:4b-7

This scene marks a pivotal point in the history of Israel. This nation of former slaves has survived forty years in the wilderness, scraping by only at times by means of miraculous intervention, to arrive at the land promised to them several generations before. Nobody who heard that promise is alive to see it fulfilled. Even Moses, who lead the bedraggled group for those 40 years and who was for all that time their closest connection to God, died before this scene. This nation of nomads has finally arrived at the end of their journey from slavery to freedom.

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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

Faith and Dying Well

I recently came across an article on a Christian site discussing why it is that Christians seem to have so much difficulty with end of life choices such as hospice care (unfortunately I can’t link to the article right now as I can’t find it again).

As a hospice chaplain for seven years I can say the following:

  1. most of my patients and families have some kind of faith background, and I would guess that it is about 90% Christian
  2. about half of my Christian patients are Roman Catholic
  3. of those that can tell me, most of my patients are not afraid of dying and neither are their families.

That said, I would say that obviously not all Christians die poorly, and a good number are quite accepting of God’s plan and, even when there is a very real fear of the dying process, that fear is tempered by the hope of Heaven.

However this is only a sample of those who have already chosen hospice. It would stand to reason that patients and families that are in some way afraid of dying or the dying process don’t consider hospice at all. One would think that this group is mostly atheist/agnostic and so on, but I don’t think that’s the case. I’ve had atheists on service before, and they look at death as a release from their pain and struggle and accept it as part of life. On the flip side of the coin, there are many Christians who struggle with decisions at the end of life and hang on even when recovery is impossible. The “why”s in these cases are plentiful I’m sure, but faith itself itself can be one. Continue reading

When Prayer is Trivial

While driving out to my first visit today I ran through the presets on my radio as I usually do. Not finding anything of interest music-wise I jumped to the Christian talk station to see what was on there. The speaker (don’t remember who, but he’s well known and I think nationwide) was talking about the need for us to pray in order to maintain our connection to God. He laid out several other benefits as well, but then made a bit of a quizzical move. God apparently wants us to pray, but God doesn’t want to be bothered with “trivial prayers”.

Prayers for mundane things – he used the example of picking out his clothes – are trivial in that they aren’t about important matters, or about things we can take care of ourselves. He got a laugh about his comment about his clothes-picking skills, but I was a bit perturbed.

I did a quick little search for “trivial prayers” on Google and got an interesting list of results: nonbelievers who said that any prayer was trivial or that prayers for personal gain were trivial, as well as people who called their own prayers trivial because they didn’t seem to be about important things. I even ran across a video of a minister teaching that God doesn’t want our “help me! help me!” prayers or petitions at all.

I brought this up to my client that I saw today, an elderly man with heart failure who prays the Rosary daily every day he can. He too was surprised and not very happy with the comment. He said, “Any prayer is important to God! Something that seems trivial to someone else can be very important to me. Say I cut my finger and I pray that it gets better. You could say ‘just put a band-aid on it, don’t bother God!’ But if that cut gets infected I could lose that finger. Prayer is all the more important to me!”

I replied, “I think the only kind of prayer that is trivial is one that isn’t said.”

And it was probably the smartest thing I said all day.

What are You Fasting From?

Ok, maybe my grammar is a bit sketchy title-wise, but I like it.

I never fasted in my life, save for bloodwork or the occasional operation. Most of this came from my Presbyterian/Calvinist upbringing, which saw fasting as something a bit too “Catholic”, which is code for works-oriented. It was spiritually good but unnecessary at best, idolatrous at worst. Lent tends to be interesting at times because, as I’m the hospice chaplain in a secular company, I’m seen by some as this pillar of sacredness. Especially by our Catholic staff. It freaks them out when on a Lenten Friday I pull out a ham sandwich and dig in. It has provided some opportunites to teach what I know about grace and works.

But I’m rethinking things a little this year. Not so much about abstaining from food or drink or whatever. I understand why fasting from things that are pleasurable is supposed to connect us with the suffering of Christ. However there have been plenty of folks who, rather than fast from something, try to increase the good that they do. I think that’s a good way of looking at things and not quite so self-centered. But I was thinking today that if I’m going to fast, I’d rather fast from the things that pollute my life…worry, fear, self criticism. Life without chocolate only promotes misery and desire. But life without worry for 40 days? Hallelujah! What would it be like to not be afraid for 40 days, or critical of myself or others, or anxious? What can be more enriching and spiritual than that?

So I’m going to fast from worry. What are you fasting from?

Calling

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.

Awareness

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.