Saturday, January 31, 2009

It's All a Matter of Perspective

Law and Gospel posted a couple of days ago about a friend's critique of her chaplaincy work. "You're a gas station attendant offering a quick fill-up," her friend tells her, as opposed to what she might be in parish ministry with the long-term relationships it produces.

When I did my chaplaincy internship this past summer, our supervisor often reflected upon the intimate conversations with which our patients would honor us. "They will tell you things they would never tell their pastor," she said. "The elder in charge of the capital campaign is probably not going to mention to her visiting pastor that she no longer believes in God, but she will discuss her quandry at some length with the chaplain who stops by late at night before her surgery."

On the other end of the spectrum, my pastoral care professor, while holding up chaplaincy work as an important and speicalized calling, often says that when asked to complete surveys asking for "the best preachers in America, " he always writes in "the local parish pastor." "It's the pastor who knows and cares for the congregation," he says, who is their best preacher, "not the guest preacher with the resume of homiletics awards." And, he emphasizes, a pastor visiting a parishoner in the hospital walks into the room with a completely different perspective than the chaplain making his daily rounds ~ the implication being that the patient will tell the parish pastor things he would never tell the roaming chaplain.

Both are right, of course. I did have some astonishingly wide-open and candid conversations with hospital patients, family members, physicians, and nurses last summer, some of them with people I saw once or twice for less than an hour, others with folks with whom I spent time daily over the course of several weeks as they awaited a transplant or sat with a sedated amd dying loved one or cared for patients in crisis. I also had some unsatisfying conversations, and was always left with the sense of having played only a brief role in a story, the outcome to which I would never be privy.

Parish ministry does bring with it the satisfaction of long-term relationships. And it is true that the parish preacher does have the advantage of a long view from which to preach: she knows her congregation, and she has a vision for its future; she knows its individual members, and she sees immediately when she looks out from the pulpit on Sunday morning who has just joyfully welcomed a new son-in-law into the family, and who has just buried a child. Preaching in the hospital is a bit different: my brief experience indicates that the congregation is considerably smaller, and might include a family member driven to a service for the first time in decades by a crisis unfolding several floors above and a surgeon who shows up whenever her schedule permits. (The advantage, I suppose, is that the topic is always the same: life is precious and scary, suffering is pervasive, bad things happen to every kind of person, and so, sometimes, do miracles.)

I am giving a lot of thought to hospital chaplaincy as my long term call. My reasons are numerous, but two of them jumped out at me as I thought about Law and Gospel's post. For one thing, many people in the hospital, whether patients or staff, have no clergy to visit with them. They have no ties to a religious institution; perhaps they have no "official" religious beliefs. I developed a number of relationships with individuals who fell into that category. Serious illness has a way of bringing questions about the meaning of life and death and pain to the fore, and people with no connection to a religious community in "the outside world" find their way quickly into conversation with people wearing ID badges indicating that they are comfortable with the exploration of those questions.

Secondly, chaplains are in posession of time. When Musical Friend's husband died in Giant Famous Hospital last spring, her Methodist minister was with her almost 24/7 for that horrific week-end, at one point leaving to preach his three Sunday morning sermons and then coming right back. But my observations tell me that her experience was the exception to the rule, particularly in a big-city teaching hospital. Many of our patients had traveled a considerable distance for their care, making it virtually impossible for their clergy to visit them. (The exception? The Nazarenes! I could go into a pre-op unit at 6:00 a.m and be almost guaranteed of finding at least one Nazarene, often one who had just driven 100 miles, sitting with his parishioner.) Others had pastoral visits on occasion and usually for short periods -- people employed by congregations, unless specifially for pastoral care, just don't have the time (or perhaps the inclination) to hang out in the hospital. A chaplain not only has the time -- he also has the time to follow up; having ruminated over a conversation for awhile, he can go back upstairs a few hours later to pick it up again, perhaps with some new insight gleaned from another situation he's encountered in the interim.

So -- I don't think hospital chaplaincy is gas station ministry. And if it is, it comes with premium gas and a stack of coupons.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday Five HGTV Edition

One of my favorite kinds of Friday Five:

1) If you could, what room in the place you are currently living would you redo first?

Oh, where to begin, where to begin? In a perfect world I would begin with the outside: tear down the garage, tear off the back porch, and build something new and creative that combines outdoor living and car storage space to make better use of our cramped outdoor quarters. There are people nearby who have made garden decks (with hot tubs!) on their garage roofs. We would need a garage that isn't falling down first.

2) What is the most hideous feature/color/decor item you have ever seen in a home?

The shag carpeting and fake paneling of the 70s, I suppose.

3) What feature do you most covet? Do you have it? If not, is it within reach?

The feature I MOST covet is the ocean outside my door. Not within reach of the great midwestern tundra.

The somewhat realistic feature I covet: A gazillion built-in slotted shelves in every room to deal with all my STUFF which, as a piler and not a filer, I must have in sight. But I need a completely different kind of house in order for that solution to blend into an organic whole rather than to jump out as a jarring add-on.

4)) Your kitchen - love it or hate it? Why? It's fine. I'm not much interested in kitchens and it meets the main requirement: big enough for lots of people to congregate in.

5) Here is $10,000 and you HAVE to spend it on the place you are living now. What do you do?

I would redecorate the living room which, with its 25-year-old wallpaper and kid-and-dog safe furniture, looks like the backdrop for a garage sale rather than the inviting home for conversation that I imagine it might be. And then I would transform what was once The Lovely Daughter's childhood bedroom into a soothing guestroom, with gentle colors rather than cats on the walls, a comfortable queensize bed instead of a hand-me-down trundle daybed, and generous storage space for guests rather than for my overflow of clothes and papers.

BONUS: Why do you think there was such a surplus of ugly bathroom tile colors showcased in all homes built from the 1950's right through the early 80's?

I reject the assumption inherent in this question. I grew up in a ranch home built in 1955 and I still love the yellow tile in the bathroom of that house. All the original bathrooms in the 19-teens and 20s houses around here have black-and-white octagon tiles -- I want to know: what was with that? (Ours has been replaced with beautiful white and cobalt tiles.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Moving Into the 21st Century...

In a completely uncharacteristic move for me ~

I joined Facebook!

I'm keeping the blog(s) anonymous, but if you want to connect on FB, email me at gannetgirlatsbcglobaldotnet.


Ten Things

Due to the Giant Storm, I decided to skip my Tillich class today and drove home from seminary last night ~ apparently a good idea. The last 25 miles on the interstate were treacherous, an hour-long trip with cars every which way, since no one could see the lines, and judging from the looks of things, I would not have been able to come home tonight. I thought that I would spend the day holed up in the house finishing a paper, but I am still procrastinating (actually, I just got up) and have given myself a 10:00 am start time.

Therefore . . . since I see that my friend Stratoz is playing one of those list memes, I thought that I would make one up for myself. I am 55 so: ten things about myself, one for every 5th year starting with age five (and ignoring this one, which has nothing to recommend it):

1. When I was five, I went to the second half of kindergarten in a church in Vero Beach, Florida.

2. I rode a horse for the first time, on the trails of Grand Teton National Park, when I was ten.

3. I went to the Harvard-Dartmouth game in Cambridge when I was fifteen, which was followed by an unfortunate double date involving my boarding school rommate and two Dartmouth freshmen.

4. When I was twenty I used to wake up in my dorm room in Williamstown, Massachusetts listening to classical music on Morning Pro Musica with Robert J. Lertsema of WGBH-Boston.

5. When I was 25, we lived in an apartment two blocks from where we live now and one of our upstairs neighbors, now a city councilman who lives two blocks in the other direction, led our tenants' revolt when the furnace broke down during a storm like this one.

6. When I was 30, we had a large and silly black dog, named Renko for the character in Hill Street Blues.

7. I don't remember many details, but I would venture that 35, with two four-year-old boys and a year old daughter, was one of the most perfect years of my life.

8. When I was 40 my three children were in Montessori school and I opened my family law practice.

9. When I was 45, we took a family trip to Italy. Our favorite parts were ~ everything! The Duomo, the monastery out in the middle of nowhere, Pompeii, the Cinque Terre, the Vatican Museums, the Roman Forum, the gelato, St. Peter's, the full moon over Florence. Lots more.

10. And when I was 50, I had one of those completely unexpected and life-changing encounters, when I resignedly signed up for a graduate class with the Jesuit who would a couple of years later guide me through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and become the mentor, counselor, guide and spiritual father who would nurture me through the seminary process and now through this horrible past year.

I see that I did not make my 10:00 deadline. Guess I'll procrastinate a bit more and look for photos of Florence.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Or Maybe Not (Lazy, I Mean)

Grief consumes energy. Psychic energy, physical energy, spiritual energy, mental energy.

Everything I do requires a long recovery period. Everything I think or feel requires an even longer one. A lot of effort precedes infintesimal movement and then a slide backward.

I have been thinking about the story attributed to Cherokee tradition that Sharon Watkins preached at the National Prayer Service earlier this week (I picked it up at Meaning and Authenticity):

One evening a grandfather was teaching his young grandson about the internal battle that each person faces. "There are two wolves struggling inside each of us," the old man said. "One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment, self-pity, fear... "

The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope, truth, love..."

The grandson sat, thinking, then asked: "Which wolf wins, Grandfather?"

His grandfather replied, "The one you feed."

The problem with grief, I think, is that both wolves are integral components of its reality. You cannot, at least in the first months, nourish one to the exclusion of the other and expect to emerge intact. It sounds heroic, I suppose, to say that you will choose to feed hope over fear, compassion over resentment. But the truth of loss is that it calls you to friendship with the scary and the disheartening as well as the brave and the wise.

Maybe there is a third wolf. A wolf whose compassion and faithfulness enable her to acknowledge that the fullness of experience requires her to feed self-pity and resentment at times.

Does that sound awful? Resistant and pathetic?

I don't think so.

At the end of the summer, a few days after our son died, one of our friends, a woman who lost her husband to an accident a few years ago, talked about the resentment she sometimes feels when she sees an elderly couple walking down the street together. Why couldn't that have been us, she wonders? Self-pity? In a way. But her articulation of genuine pain was an act of generosity to us. Had she starved her anger and resentment, she would have less openness and compassion for a family beginning a new journey of loss.

I don't think you should be feeding steak to the angry wolf. But I have a feeling that if you kill it off, it will find its way back, viscious and snarling and larger than life. Better, perhaps, to stroke it gently and nourish it with kindness so that, someday, the third wolf will emerge, the one who blends joy with sorrow and power with rage into a shaggy and compassionate whole.

(Image: I can hardly believe that this painting of three wolves and more by Jody Bergsma popped up when I google-imaged "wolf.")

Friday, January 23, 2009

Too Lazy ...

... to cross post. Go on over to Desert Year for today's writing.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Communiques from The Lovely Daughter

Landed safely in Chicago . . .

On the plane for Portland . . .

In the train station in Portland, where it is SUNNY AND WARM.

We so live in the wrong place.

Friday, January 16, 2009


At a time in my life when I have not been much of a friend to anyone, a time when I am at best vaguely conscious of trying not to suck up all the air around me, I was startled and honored to receive the Friends Award from Kate, Diane, and Purple:

"The Friends Award isn't about being the most popular blogger or having the most read blog. It is just because you consider the author a friend. These blogs are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in self-aggrandizement. Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated. Please give more attention to these writers. Deliver this award to eight bloggers who must choose eight more and include this cleverly-written text into the body of their award."

This is a hard one -- eight means a lot of links to cut-and-paste. I'm focusing on some of my longterm blogging friends, and thinking that maybe I need to invent my own award for the new ones. A number of people have shown up here in the past few months and some have stuck around, and I've been very grateful for their support. So maybe in a few weeks... .

But for now: mostly old and not-quite-so-old friends:

Lisa at
Coming to Terms ~ perhaps my blogging friend of longest standing; we discovered one another back in the early days of the old AOL journals and found an instant rapport.

Kat at Walk with Me ~ another AOL-er with whom I felt an immediate connection: the walks, the photos, the birds, the family.

Judi at Judith HeartSong: An Artsy Blog ~ artist exraordinaire; somehow in the move I lost track of her but I've been getting re-aquainted with her wonderful work and the story of courage and resilience behind it.

Cynthia at Sorting the Pieces ~ as I make this list, I realize that AOL brought me the friendship of women of extraordinary grit and beauty, inside and out, and Cynthia is another whose responses to the lousy hands life deals leaves me astounded and grateful to know her.

Known as Joan Calvin at PresbyOpia ~ one of my newest blogging friends, and I'm going to offer her a friendship award, since we've recently met in real life and discovered how many things we share.

Quotidian Grace, who I think just may be my oldest RevGals friend, and whose graciousness and good humor permeate Presby-land online and in real life.

PresbyGal, who does, all the time as far as I can tell, exude the warmth and kindness that a friendship award is all about, along with wit, talent, and energy.

Stratoz, who makes beautiful stained glass and sees his whole life as pieces merging into a work of art.

And Michelle of Quantum Theology ~ off on a retreat for now, but still posting some of the most elegant writing to be found online.

OK, that's nine ~ so what? ~ if any of y'all want to nominate eight MORE, go for it!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Lovely Daughter and Noble Tipper

The aging Tip is having an awfully hard time jumping onto the bed, but she is welcomed with much affection when she makes it!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Key West in No Particular Order (5)

In honor of Gene Robinson's having been asked to offer the invocation for the opening event of the Inaugural Festivities (hat tip to Mary Beth), I offer images of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Key West. It's a good day for the Episcopalians, and any winter day is a good one when 80-degree temperatures permit the church windows to be flung wide open. ( I suppose there's a metaphorical as well as a literal meaning in there.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Spaces We Inhabit, Part I

Mrs. M over at The Kitchen Door has posted an interesting piece on the spaces in which we live. Prompted by considerations involved in moving to a new apartment, she moves on to what she has seen and experienced in various churches and what the different frameworks for worship mean. I am always fascinated by physcial space, and so I thought that in response to her questions I'd give it some thought for a few posts. Today I'm focusing on a few churches, Protestant and Catholic.

The Presbyterian church to which I belong, which I have served as an elder, in which I have participated and been supported in so many ways:

Think austere and elegant New England. The walls are a pale shade of white with a hint of blush, the trim a bit more on the creamy side. Two sets of pews with aisles down the center and down each side. The communion table on a raised platform, a lectern for the readings to the right side as the congregation faces the front, a pulpit for preaching to the left. The cross, a contemporary rendition which I have contemplated a great deal and hope to use as the subject of a sermon someday, hangs from the ceiling over the steps leading up to the communion table. No artwork whatever in the sanctuary. The windows are clear glass panes. The choir stalls are in the front, behind the communion table, and the organ is built into the wall behind them, so the choir is always visible and the music pours directly into the sanctuary.

The Methodist church in which our entire family participated energetically for many years:

The main sanctuary is modeled on a 13th century French Gothic cathedral, huge and cavernous, with breathtaking stained glass windows and elegant piers, columns, and arches. The layout is almost identical to that of my current church, with the exception of the music-related features: the choir stalls are in the left transept, so that the choir is all but invisible to the congregation, and difficult to hear, and the organ is built into the back wall above the balcony. When the church is full and everyone is singing and the organ is playing, the effect is impressive. The pulpit, lectern, and baptismal font are all made of wood, intricately carved exponents of the theme of vine and branches running through the entire space. A Renaissance reproduction painting of Mary and Jesus hangs over the baptismal font.

The sanctuary of my Presbyterian seminary:

Again, New England and austere, but without the intimacy of my home church. High, high ceilings, and high, high, clear glass windows. Now that I think of it, the interior shape must be something of a half-hexagon; the pews do not follow the lines of the walls and the effect is somewhat confusing. (From the outside, the building appears to be a square.) One of my readers may correct me here. Both organ and choir stalls are in the balcony. And here's something Mrs. M mentions in another context: the single pulpit (no lectern) is smack in the middle of the front. I had never heard of such a layout until just before I went off to seminary and wondered what it would look like -- and there it is! To me it seems rather an astonishing illustration of the Protestant emphasis on Word at, perhaps, the expense of Sacrament. It was awhile before I was able to shake off the sense that the human preacher rather than God was at the center of the worship service. When we have communion, it is served from a small table below the towering pulpit.

The Carmelite chapel, where I have spent some time this fall:

Another austere space, this one shaped somewhat like a barn, with white plaster walls. There is a statute of Mary with the baby Jesus in a side alcove, and that's it for artwork. The windows are clear glass and the furnishings are made of wood, with simple and spare lines, and entirely mobile. When I have been there we have always sat in rows forming a semi-circle the long way across the rectangular space, with the altar front and center and the lectern/pulpit off to the right. No choir; a small organ in the back, but I think it can be moved around.

The suburban Catholic church I sometimes attend which is, not surprisingly for me, also a Jesuit church:

You might call this one a contemporary version of the Methodist church described above. It's huge, wide with high ceilings, but no arches, no columns, and boxy rather than rectangular. Most of the stained glass windows have geometric art deco designs, except for those in the front which tell some of the Ignatian and Jesuit story. The organ is in the balcony, which is usually where the choir is, too, although often the music is provided by soloist or small group vocalists and musicians from the front to the right. There are a couple of very small side chapels, and large statues of Mary and Joseph, one on each side in the front, and a large lectern/pulpit to the left. The priests sometimes preach from the pulpit, and sometimes walk down and stand in or wander the aisle There is no doubt that in this church the emphasis is on the celebration of the Eucharist: the elevated altar is huge and set back at some remove from the congregation and the majestic crucifix takes up the entire wall above it.

My current favorite, even though I have only been there once ~ a downtown Catholic church restored over the last decade or so:

Inside, a wonderful semi-Gothic space with soaring arches and white walls and huge stained glass windows that somehow still enable bright light to filter through. A little bit in the way of sculpture and statues, not at all intrusive. There is an altar but, as with the Carmelites, everything is moveable. The day I was there, we sat in two vast semicircles; the reading was from the (beautifully carved) lectern placed toward one end and the homily was preached from the center of the congregation. The communion elements were consecrated on the altar, but the entire congregation of several hundred surged forward and encirled it, as we had gathered and encircled the bapismal font in back half-an-hour earlier for the full dunking baptism of a baby girl. I can't describe this church as well as I'd like since, as I've said, I've only been there once, but its combination of elegant and historical stone, glass, and archways with contemporary and spare furnishings and artwork, its infusion of bright light, and its generous balancing of space for both Word and Sacrament, is completely appealing to me.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Expressing Condolences

Last night I received an email from a friend, writing to say that the teenage son of business acquaintances had died suddenly in the night. She added that she was astonished by some of the stupid things people have written on the funeral home's website page for condolence notes.

It is not, not for me and not for anyone else willing to think about it, difficult to imagine that first encounter with a beloved son's lifeless body.

My friend didn't ask, but I am a little crazy these days, and so I blundered right ahead and offered her two suggestions, elaborated below for anyone who fears (which should be all of us) doing or writing something stupid at such a time:

1. Make a note on the calendar for three months, four months, five, six months from now, so that you can send a note or stop by when most everyone else is gone.

There is a woman from my church who has written me a paragraph or two every ten-to-fourteeen days for the last four months. Not a pastor, not a deacon (one of the people officially in charge of such things in our church structure), not a BFF. A woman whom I know a little from vaious contexts and who has taken it upon herself to take the time to let me know that she is thinking of us. Often I can't digest the words, but someday I will be able to and, in the meantime, the very fact of her concern and intentionality about it is registering as remarkable and considerate.

2. The words of condolence, whether written or spoken? Say something specific about the gifts or adventures or life of the person who has died, and convey in some way your knowledge, whether first or eighth-hand, that he or she was a joy to the people who loved him or her. Unless you are at least 150% certain about how your words will be received, this is not the time to share whatever convictions you may have about God's plan or purpose or goodness ~ especially where a young person has died, or a person has died after much suffering, or a person has died sudddenly and unexpectedly, or in pretty much any situation at all. Even someone whose life has been an endless demonstration of certitude and conviction of faith may be rocked to the core by the loss of a loved one, and assurances that might have seemed helpful in the abstract can be heard much differently in the starkness of concrete reality.

The very best words I have received, some by email and some in person, have come from college and work friends of my son - filled with stories and conversations, expressing their own doubts and confusion and terrible, terrible sense of loss -- but always in concrete terms, always accompanied with illustrations and memories, both humorous and haunting. Those 20-somethings could teach the rest of us well.

I hope that people remind my friend's friends, again and again this week, and again and again months from now, that their son lit up this world with his life and love.

(Cross-posted at Desert Year.)

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Key West in No Particular Order (4)

Bahia Honda Key. There's a rainbow in the second one.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Doubt: The Movie and the Reality

Doubt is a movie of intensity, probing and challenging and ultimately satisfying in the ambiguity of its conclusion. All of the of the major actors -- Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis -- give brilliant performances and the imagery -- the various forms of light and darkness, the gray skies and blowing leaves, the endless opening and closing of windows and doors -- while a little heavy-handed at times, creates a sense of seamlessness that both oppresses and frees.

If you haven't seen the movie, I won't spoil it except to say that its rendition of 1964 Bronx Catholicism seems to me right on target, and that its exploration of the priest sex abuse scandal weaves numerous subtleties into a storyline that might otherwise have been handled with a sledge hammer.

I went to see it last night with Gregarious Son and Lovely Daughter and, if the passionate conversations overheard in the hallway and restrooms afterward and carried right on through our late night dinner are any indication, the movie resonates with all kinds of people in all kinds of ways.

After the three of us finished, at least for the evening, debating the possible angles of reality behind each of the characters, we moved on to that all-encompassing question of faith and doubt. For me, faith has always been twin sister to doubt , and I wondered what the kids thought of some of the discussions I have been part of recently. In a nutshell, I am in a pastoral care class where the professor insists that parishoners count on knowing that their priest or pastor is a woman or man of certainty, and I am in a reality in which I feel battered and insulted every time someone attempts to foist his or certainty on me.

My children, who are certain in their unbelief and sure of the role of faith, tell me that most people believe in God because they need explanations, and that my capacity for existential angst puts me in a distinct minority. I prefer to think that people veer toward mystery to whatever extent they are able on any given day, and that my inclinations are more toward integrity than angst. But then, I have been wrong about many things in my life.

I am going to go and see Doubt again as soon as possible.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Christmas Eve

Some of our friends spend some time on Christmas Eve lighting up their neighborhoods and, in our absence last week, they stopped by our place to ensure that we remained bonded to one another.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Key West in No Particular Order (3)

Gregarious Son and Lovely Daughter