Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Voice in the Silence

(Our CPE program requires that we plan and lead two hopsital chapel services over the course of the summer. Most of the congregation consist of chaplains, but family members of patients and nurses, doctors, and other staff also show up on occasion. Here's my first effort at hospital preaching.)


When this passage popped up a couple of weeks ago on a website I often use as a prayer resource, I immediately thought of our experiences here at Gigantic Hospital. On the whole, GH seems to move at a measured pace -- appropriate for an institution in which so many events marked by layer upon layer of complexity take place each day. There are detailed plans and protocols for every kind of development, with numerous team members from different areas and levels of expertise involved in decision-making -- all necessary to ensure the best possible care for the variety of people and conditions that show up on our doorstep.

And yet, metaphorically speaking, we are in a place of earthquake, wind, and fire. We are in a place where crucial things happen, where God, our God who is in all things, appears in situations, in questions, in decisions, which are not routine to most people. For the patients and their families, a hospital stay, whether for a few hours or for months at a time, is a detour from the usual road, a breach in the fabric of ordinary life, an abrupt jolt out of the familiar and expected. For the people who care for them, the plans and procedures and outcomes may be anticipated and carefully monitored, but the fact that they involve individual human beings, each with his or her own needs, means that even the most perfunctory of proceedings brings with it the potential for response across the spectrum of possibility.

The text before us offers some insight into the stillness with which we can encounter God even in the wake of momentous events. I love this story from the Hebrew Scriptures in which Elijah, prophet to ancient Israel, offers a potent demonstration of God's power. Calling the prophets of Baal, viewed as the chief competitor of Elijah's God, to a challenge, Elijah initiates a contest in which both he and they will present an offering to their respective gods and await the gods' setting fire to their offerings. The Baal prophets pile up their offering on their altar and entreat their gods to ignite the fire, but nothing happens. Their noisy and completely ineffective entreaties are drowned out by Elijah, who taunts and ridicules them for relying on gods who do not exist. And then Elijah, unable to resist heightening the drama, doesn't limit himself to stacking a heap of offerings upon an altar; he sloshes water all over the whole thing, completely saturating it -- and his God still sets it ablaze, soaked wood and all. Elijah then finishes off the prophets of Baal, and for all of his trouble -- what happens? He has to flee to the wilderness to hide from the vengeful Jezebel, who has vowed to destroy him. It is while he is hiding out in a cave in the wilderness that he encounters the angel of the Lord, who tells him to head for the mountain and await the passing of God.

Elijah has already encountered God in fire; his God is, after all, responsible for the fire which has landed him in this mess. He knows something about the God who appears in mighty things, but he also seems to know that this time, God is going to speak to him differently, more intimately and, perhaps, more powerfully than God has before. And so Elijah waits, inside his his cave. A wind passes by, so strong that it rearranges the geologic features of the mountain, tossing rocks and debris this way and that, but Elijah does not venture forth. An earthquake causes the ground to tremble, and opens treacherous crevices, but Elijah remains in his cave. Flames spring from the earth and smoke saturates the sky, but Elijah does not move.

And then he hears it: the sound of silence, through which he recognizes the still and small voice of the Lord. He covers his face and steps into the opening leading from the cave into the light, and God says to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

For all that he has initiated, for all that he has withstood, Elijah knows that God, God who is surely in all things, can sometimes be heard most clearly in the quiet that follows the chaos. Here at GH, thanks to efforts to keep a lid on the external stimulii, the hum of machinery and the blinking and beeping of monitors tend fall into the background, but the internal upheavals -- the internal winds and earthquakes and fires -- are not so easily subdued. The procedures, the decisions, the tensions -- they threaten to overwhelm each of us from time to time, and we need to distinguish the still, small voice of God calling to us in the silent eye of the storm. We need to find openings in our days and nights to stand quietly and wait for the God who says, "What are you doing here?"

We can respond that we are listening for what God has to say through the words and expressions of our beloved friends and family members. We can respond that we are listening for what God has to say through our patients and colleagues. We can respond that we are listening to what God says through the things that happen and the things that don't. And most of all, we can be attentive to those openings leading into the light -- openings in which we, like Elijah, wait for the God who speaks with more stillness than we might think possible, so that when God says, "What are you doing here?" we can respond: "I am listening for you."

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Catbird Days

Stratoz offered me a blessing in the last set of comments:

May a bird of much beauty brighten your day... and may it be a common one that has been a friend for many years.

That would be the catbird. They are everywhere these days. Many, many years ago, when I was a neophyte birder, I spent an afternoon at the Quiet Husband's grandparents' farm chasing after a bird in the brush. It's obvious now, but that day I was mystified by its monchromatic gray, interrupted only by its black cap and russet rear. Catbirds are mimics, which adds to the confusion for the new birder -- the signature "mew" is a giveaway, but the other calls convince you that half a dozen species perch nearby. Nope -- all one bird.

I have seen and heard catbirds on all of my walks this past month. And yes, it is awfully nice to walk in the company of friends.

Bits and pieces of my life: I am trying to keep up, in the most minimalistic sense, with the adventures of this year's PC(USA) General Assembly, mostly thanks to Quotidian Grace. So far I am happy, albeit not ecstatic, with the various decisions. I think we have some distance to go, but the conservatives among us are downcast, to put it mildly, and want to travel in the other direction, so maybe we are in about the right place for now. My hostess, I am pretty sure, disagrees with me, but she is her usual gracious self in providing an even-keeled overview of the proceedings, unencumbered by polemical diatribes. Much appreciated!

Last night one of my patients died, someone whose rather spectacular family I have spent time with over nearly two weeks. This is the first time this summer that I have carried a hospital death home with me. It felt like quite a sad and heavy load last night.

And. . . I just got off the phone with the Lovely Daughter, whose camp counseling seems to be a tremendous success. The camp website has some beautiful pictures of her with the six-year-old girls in her cabin. Today is a day off and tomorrow the next session begins. She is moving to a cabin of eleven-year-olds -- on the upside, her new co-counselor has, as she does, a long history there as camper and counselor and, in fact, the girls were SITs together several summers ago; on the downside, they are the two shortest counselors in camp, so their campers will probably all be taller than they are.

This afternoon we are off to the first of our three summer weddings. We have apparently reached a new stage in life -- the brides are all, from our vantage point, daughters!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Pointing East

The someday-Christian-pastor is the part of me getting the most of a work-out in CPE.

But the whole-world-interfaith me and the spiritual-director-who-loves-to-help-people-with-prayer me get to play, too.

This morning a woman from the Mideast wanted to know, through the family member interpreting for her, which direction from her hospital room is east. Although I am gifted with no sense of geography whatever, I was able to respond with confidence by looking out from her window down onto the hill that leads to my house - on the east side of the city.

And so today I got to provide pastoral care for a Muslim woman from far, far away by helping her with her prayer. Spiritual direction in the literal sense of the word.

How cool is that!?

Of course, that does not obviate the fact that last night I lost my pager.

There is always something lurking out there just waiting to confirm one's level of incompetence.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Ghost Ranch Sunday

Early in May, a group of twenty members and friends of our church made a pilgrimmage to Ghost Ranch, a Presbyterian retreat and conference center in New Mexco. Last Sunday, they led our worship service, incorporating slides, chants, music, and reflections from and about their journey, which had them climbing through rocks to mesas; visiting Native American, Muslim, and Benedictine communities; sharing personal journies; and learning new music.

I was particularly taken with this version of the Lord's Prayer which they brought home to us, from New Zealand in the Anglican Maori tradition:

Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and shall be,
Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven:
Let the hallowing of your name echo through the universe,
The way of your justice be followed by the people of the world,
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings,
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever.

(The image is from Christ in the Desert Monastery.)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Tiny Break

The Quiet Husband chairs the board of the local Ten Thousand Villages, which is planning a benefit for next fall. He recently learned that one of his colleagues at work, a young woman from India, participates as a dancer in a local arts organization which offers all kinds of programming, lessons, workkshps, and camps for kids, all geared toward the goal of bringng people together and combatting racism across international borders. So off we went last night to watch her group dance, since it looks like it will be performing at the fall benefit - what a fun evening in the small storefront rooms that serve as the organization's headquarters, rehearsal and presentations space, and art gallery!

Another young woman from India playing the
veena, an ancient lute-like instrument. A gentle young man from Mexico, dreds down to his waist, playing folk music on a guitar and other Mexican stringed instruments. A gentleman singing Italian opera. And then ~
WOW! The drummers (from West Africa and Israel) and the dancers, performing dances from Guinea and India ~ unbelievable energy and joy pouring forth from the tiny dance space into the warm city night. Children leaping to join in. A Turkish woman from the audience, offering belly dancing (yes, definitely sensual!), followed a performance by one of her male companions on a Turkish stringed instrument, with one of the African drummers and the Israeli drummer joining in for a multicultural jam session.

This afternoon the Lovely Daughter, having once again morphed into the Lovely Camp Counselor, called from North Carolina. One of the co-counselors in her cabin is from Australia; the other is from Charlotte, but her parents live in Saudi Arabia and she's just returned from a Habitat semester in Jordan. The Lovely Daughter, as you know, has herself just returned from Prague.

The world is spinning around me. I'm looking forward to the time when I can put the books aside and get back out there!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

CPE Impressions

A week of orientation and a more-or-less regular week behind us.

More or less ~ because one of our little cadre of CPE interns collapsed and died of a heart attack while on call last week-end. To say that people in our program and across the hospital are stunned and, in many cases, devastated, would be an inadequate observation.

And yet, of course, as we all know, life continues.

I am borderline ecstatic to be back in a diverse community. Last week one of the family members with whom I spoke was Buddhist, talking through a Japanese interpreter. A Jewish woman agreed that I might pray with her before her surgery ~ trying to be polite, I am sure ~ and then looked pleasantly surprised and expressed genuine gratitude when the words that came out of my mouth were, apparently, peace-inspiring rather than offensive. Christians describe every kind of belief and practice, or lack thereof, across the spectrum. I feel a profound sense of privilege to be present to so many people who are themselves in so many places of spiritual engagement.

I expressed my surprise yesterday at how quickly and completely people often open up to us, and it was pointed out to me that folks are often much more willing to speak candidly with a strangers than with say, their own pastors. Of course, I thought to myself. How else to eplain my intentional seeking of spiritual directors who differ from me in gender, religion, lifetime committments? Over time they cease being strangers, but I trust them with things I would be unlikely to share in my own community.

And on the subject of chaplaincy care and spiritual direction: I am SO glad that I was pushed into this. Yes, I tried to get out of it -- not because I was disinterested, but because time and money are in short supply and I knew that next year in my spiritual direction practicum I will be doing similar work -- meeting with a supervisor, writing verbatims, exploring my own reactions. I had no idea that hospital chaplaincy would afford me a completely different experience. (Duh.) People who seek spiritual direction are already engaged in a religious journey of some depth; they have to initiate the process, after all. In the hospital, however, I am the one taking the first step, and I am often meeting with people who may have never given much thought to the spiritual dimension of their lives, or think about it in ways other than my own, or have no interest in thinking about it at all. They each call for something different from me, and nudge me to develop skills distinct from those required for addressing the needs of people with whom I share an experience of faith.

I think this is going to be an incredible summer.

And now ~ I am going to the funeral service which is also a part of everything.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Summer Nights

I was on call the other night. Maybe two hours of sleep between 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 am. Three people died. Three others came close. One had arrived by ambulance, one by helicopter. Other things happened, too. And each of the NICU babies grew a tiny bit stronger.

Tonight the Lovely Daughter and I took the dog on a walk around the block and then sat on the front porch for awhile and talked. I told her all kinds of stories about my family that she has never heard. She is a young woman now, able to hear the things that almost no one discusses. Tomorrow she heads off to North Carolina for her job as a camp counselor.

I should have thought about this a little more carefully a few months ago when I was encouraging her to spend one last summer playing in waterfalls. If my days (and some nights) are going to be filled with people who are dying or who are watching other people die, if I am going to hear over and over again It's God's will God takes people when God wants God never gives us more than we can handle God is in control, if I am going to offer prayers that result in tears breaking through, if I am going to be prowling the halls of a giant hospial at 4:00 am ~ then I am going to long endlessly for hot summer night conversations on the front porch with the young woman who was once my tiny girl.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Making the Transition

I had so looked forward to casting my ballot for Senator Hillary Clinton for President of the United States.

Not to be.

The fact that she is a woman played a big role in my hopes, no question about it. (Although not so big that I would have voted for a Republican to be our first woman President.) I have a photograph of the Lovely Daughter shortly before her first birthday, taken as Gloria Steinem spoke at the Chautauqua Institution. Twenty years later, the LD, like many women of her generation, eschews the term "feminist" and probably does not find it particularly remarkable that a woman and an African-American have been vying for the Democratic nomination, which I see as wonderfully indicative of the tremendous changes that we have witnessed since I was her age. Nevertheless, it would have been something had she been able to cast her first ballot for a woman.

I'm glad Hillary has conceded the nomination with grace and dignity, and I'm glad that she will be in the arena as we seek to put an end to Republican tenure in the White House. If another Republican were elected President in my lifetime, it would be too soon for me. So, while it will take me a few days to come around to the reality that Senator Obama will be our nominee, I'll get there.

But first I plan to give a little time to some grateful reflection for Hillary Clinton, for whom I would have been so honored to have voted.

Friday, June 06, 2008

A Little Friday Five

I can't get the links to work, but this is from Sally at RevGals:

1. How important is the "big picture" to you, do you need a glimpse of the possibilities or are you a details person?

I am totally a big picture person. The details are. . . well, they're just details. Not things I can keep track of.

2. If the big picture is important to you how do you hold onto it in the nitty gritty details of life?

Memory . . . will . . . desire . . .you know the routine.

3. Name a book, poem, psalm, piece of music that transports to to another dimension ( one....what am I thinking....)

Tschaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

4.Thinking of physical views, is there somewhere that inspires you, somewhere that you breathe more easily?

I am not overly discriminating about this. There are hundreds.

5. A picture opportunity... post one if you can ( or a link to one!)

Hmmm . . . I have a number of images of Looking Glass Rock (NC), none of which I can locate at the moment. So I've borrowed one:

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Not Blogging

I'm really not blogging about CPE. Most of the would-be grist for the mill is confidential. The rest is personal growth stuff. And anything leftover would mostly be whining.

Except for now: I AM going to post, just this once, from the leftover category.

I go in tomorrow at 8:00 am per usual. Since I am on call tomorrow night I will next see my home, gutters or not, sometime the following afternoon.

Tomorrow night a resident chaplain will be there to back me up. Next time, it's me, the sole would-be chaplain on call for the whole entire gigantic maze of a hospital filled with critically ill people.

I'm really not whining. I'm really pretty excited. But also pretty terrified.

And hoping I will have recovered by the week-end. My boys are coming home, so our entire family will be together for the first time since last July!

Monday, June 02, 2008


It has been SO nice to focus on people and matters outside my fairly self-absorbed space of the past year.

My spiritual director made his final vows as a Jesuit on Saturday, so the Lovely Daughter and I went to the mass. It takes at least twelve years to get from first day to final vows in the Society of Jesus, no matter what you've done before you get started -- in his case, an M. Div, and then many years as a parish priest. It's pretty cool to observe the solemnity (and humor) with which the Jesuit community marks a man's final and most complete commitment to membership in its ranks.

A friend of mine, a religious studies professor, had asked a small group of people to serve as first readers on a book manuscript he's working on, and so Sunday three of us got together to discuss its current manifestation. Another process of coolness -- to be a tiny part of a book in the making.

Tonight I've just returned from a lengthly planning meeting for my own church's adult ed program for next year. My days of chairing that enterprise are behind me but I still get to participate. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity, because as a group we are way up there on the imagination-ometer, if I say so myself.

And . . . I started CPE today. The hospital has 35,000 employees and covers I don't know how many city blocks. Enough that I am beyond description in terms of being geographically challenged. The chances of my actually answering a page within a day of receiving it would appear to be limited at the very best. I am more likely to find the North Pole than I am any destination on that campus.


And yeah, the gutter guys are still here. I suppose I should look at it this way: the gutter-and-soffit catastrophe is absorbing pretty much all the stress I might otherwise direct toward CPE. As a lining, though, that one looks more like rust than silver.