Too Mutch

...a safe place to dance with ideas, play with theology, and re-create a life implicated by God

Monday, March 26, 2007

Lenten Reflections from a Hospice Chaplain #3

I begin this reflection with an excerpt from Traveling Mercies, written by an unruly author in the world of spirituality, Anne Lamott…

Rick is the editor in chief of Yoga Journal. He moved in with his girlfriend at the far end of our street a few years ago, and then about ten minutes later he was diagnosed with lung cancer. It had metastasized to his brain. He had done surgery, chemo, radiation, and every imaginable alternative medicine but is still living with both his beautiful girlfriend and stage-four metastatic lung cancer. He usually drives by our house a couple of times a day and seems to be in a quietly good mood most of the time.

I just do not understand this conceptually.

Several weeks before this latest flu, when I had a simple head cold, I pounded on his windshield when he attempted to drive by and said, “Why are you doing this to me? Look at me—I’m congested.” He smiled. He loves me, loves my emotional drag-queeny self. He’s ten years older than I, and he looks a little like Stephen Spielberg, especially because he wears a baseball cap most of the time now and does not shave every day.

I read an interview he did for a Buddhist quarterly recently, in which he said he’s so savoring the moments of his life right now, so acutely aware of love and small pleasures that he no longer feels he has a life-threatening disease: he now says he’s leading a disease-threatening life.

I ask myself--Is this possible? Is this real? Is this…really possible? Or is this merely a semantic summersault…playing with language so as to trick my mind and my heart and my soul into believing something desirable, yet unattainable? Having been at HOM for only a few days compared to many of you, I must defer to the experiences you’ve shared with the patients and families you have walked with. Have you ever experienced this? Ever witnessed life invading death even though death slowly keeps winning the battle? Perhaps you don’t work in the world of patients—have you had loved ones, friends, family members who have lived boldly in the face of terminal illness, hardship or suffering?

I sense, intuitively, that it is real. Mystical? Certainly. But no less real than the lights, angels and family members that many of our patients have reported seeing just prior to their death.

Further down the page, Lamott pens these incisive words from her friend with cancer—“I’m going to live until I die. And the doctor is going to live until he dies. He thinks he knows when I’m going to die, but he doesn’t even know when he’s going to die.” The somewhat grim reality is that we all have a terminal illness. On this Lenten Journey we have been engaging and interacting with our own mortality…our journey of life and death. When push comes to shove, I am invited to follow the lead of Lamott’s Buddhist friend. Will I continue to live a life that is being threatened by my terminality? Or will I gird up the energy and passion within my heart, soul and mind and LEAP (even if out of control) headlong into a disease-threatening life?

In a memorable Seinfeld clip, George asks Jerry if he “yearns.” “I don’t think so,” says Jerry. “I’ve desired, longed for, hoped for, but I haven’t yearned.” Well, I yearn for the latter to be true for me. For us. For our patients. For their families. For you, the BOA, Medical Director, IS guru, RN, etc. I yearn to leap into the current of vibrant life. Maybe you’ve stood on the banks of the river and viewed it’s beauty up close, but slightly removed—watching but not partaking. Perhaps you’ve dipped your hands in the stream and tasted the icy freshness that startles you awake. But you’ve been wary of the chaos found within the banks. You are uncertain (ie, worried about control) because you can’t see beyond the horizon where the water flows. Life is full of chaos and we all know there is no controlling it. But in the midst of it all there is a cool, refreshing, life-giving energy and joy and connection and identity and purpose and—well, the river just keeps running.

I hope (yea, even yearn) for you to feel full of life. For me, the march towards Easter reminds me that death doesn’t win and I am indeed living a disease-threatening life. Perhaps you draw your inspiration from another source. Whatever it is, may it lead you, draw you, compel you towards the water. And may you, with whatever courage and determination and foolhardiness that you can muster, LEAP IN!

Grateful to be here walking with you,


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Lenten Reflections from a Hospice Chaplain #2

One of the nagging frustrations of this whole metaphor of “journey” is that it implies movement. Can I get a collective “ugh” with an accompany sigh on that one? Movement, as simple as it may sound, can sometimes be TOO much. What about the days when I don’t want to get out of bed and go ANYWHERE! So sure, we can talk about journeying in life, journeying towards death, journeying through lent. But do you ever feel stuck? Do you ever feel that something very real is clinging to your ankles—holding you back, tripping you, controlling you, debilitating you?

This might seem a bit odd to some of you, but try to hang with me. I’d like to offer some spiritual, theological, etc. reflections on a Coldplay song. I believe that a variety of mediums are able to engage us, speak to us, and teach us. Often, it is something quite out of the ordinary that can prick our hearts, open our eyes, and soothe our souls in a whole new way.

The opening lines of the song…
when you try your best but you don't succeed
when you get what you want but not what you need
when you feel so tired but you can't sleep
stuck in reverse

Do you ever feel stuck in reverse? So tired you can’t sleep? So anxious you can’t really live? What is that at my ankles that is holding me back? I was unemployed for nearly a year before coming to HOM. I was stuck wondering what sort of meaningful work I would be able to find. Would it even be meaningful? Who am I? What is wrong with me? Much of the time, I was spent. No answers. Lots of questions. It was a kind of deathly existence.

and the tears come streaming down your face
when you lose something you can't replace
when you love someone but it goes to waste
could it be worse?

Perhaps tears fall down your face because of a loss or a wound. Is there a broken relationship that you long to see mended? A sibling, a parent, a friend, your’self’? Is there a wound that has been covered over but not healed? Something that causes fear, doubt, anger—and inhibits your ability to live with the kind of freedom you were created for? Do you long for something more, something healthier, something that resonates? What is that “something” for you? (pause, soak, breath).

The Refrain…
lights will guide you home
and ignite your bones
and i will try to fix you

I’d like to take these three lines one at a time…
1. There is a place called home…and inside is the warmth of a fire delivered in an embrace. It’s an embrace meant for you. It’s an embrace designed for you. And “lights” will guide you, Coldplay tells us. The New Testament tells us something very similar. One of the predominant metaphors and images of Jesus is Light. “lights will guide you home.”
2. “and ignite your bones.” That sounds especially nice this time of year! But the image is one that resonates clearly to anyone that can slow down long enough to let it rouse their attention. Is there a greater feeling of “alive-ness” than to be welcomed home in embrace? There is a passage in the OT book of Ezekiel (Chp 37 if you are interested enough to read it) where God shows Ezekiel this pile of bones and asks him “can these bones live?” The paraphrased response from Ezekiel is “uh, say what?” And God has Ezekiel say this to the bones (yes, he is going to talk to the bones—I believe there may be a DSM-IV diagnosis for this), “I will make breath enter you and you will come to life.” I want to be those bones. I sometimes feel stuck in reverse…can you bring me back to life? Someone? Please…
3. “and I will try to fix you.” Here I take some liberty to rephrase what Coldplay is “really” wanting us to hear. I don’t think we can be fixed. Cars get fixed. Machines get fixed. A couple of weeks ago, I took my coffee pot apart and fixed it. We don’t get fixed. Rather, we get made whole. We get put back together by God’s embrace. This is what peace is. It is NOT the absence of conflict, it is the re-making of us and the world we live in. It is wholeness through and through. It is restored relationship—to God and others and to creation. It is bones coming back to life. It is breaking free from the things that plague us and hold us back. It is what we long for at the end of the journey…it is why we journey. We must continue walking, jogging, running…and always lifting our heads to get a peek at what is ahead of us at the finish line.

Here are the rest of the lyrics for you to dwell on without my rambling. One more thing before closing this reflection. Indulge me, please. You MUST LISTEN to this song. Very Very Loudly!! In your car or on your headphones. I will have copies on my desk you can sign out, borrow, and return. And notice this while you listen…
The song starts out slow. Down. Heavy. It is how we sometimes feel on this journey. But in the score of the music one hears and feels life waking up, of bones catching fire, of hope calling us forward. Even without the words to this song, it inspires.

high up above or down below
when you're too in love to let it go
but if you never try, you'll never know
just what you're worth

lights will guide you home
and ignite your bones
and i will try to fix you
tears stream down your face when you lose something you cannot replace tears stream down your face and I... tears stream down on your face I promise you I will learn from my mistakes tears stream down your face and I... lights will guide you home and ignite your bones and i will try to fix you

When the journey gets long, hard, oppressive, lonely, etc.—you are not alone. We journey together. And there is light ahead drawing us, calling us, compelling us forward. And up around the bend there is an embrace with your name all over it, too.

Blessings on the journey,

Monday, March 05, 2007

Lenten Reflections from a Hospice Chaplain #1

Yes, it is late...and I don't have the staying power to generate a new entry tonite, so I'm cheating--a little. The following is something I labored over a couple of weeks ago now. Another chaplain and I at work have decided to write a weekly Lenten reflection for our entire staff, sent out over email. I'd like to share with you what I wrote on Ash Wednesday. In the weeks following, I will have a couple more to share with you. Plus, I hope to throw some other things in too. Maybe something about fasting. Perhaps something from my Nouwen reading. OR--this week I'll be working with my buddy Micah to prepare a worship gathering for his church. Maybe I'll share some thoughts from that, too. But for now...

Here it is...and as always...I welcome your feedback, critique, insights...

I met a woman for the first time today at one of our long term care facilities. A stunning woman with a lot of years behind her...a woman with a story to tell. And though she is only able to utter a few soft words, they will only emerge from her depths with great effort, yet full of grace and beauty. Today, one word has been seared into the core of my being. I don't need the wet, black ash smeared onto my forehead unique to Ash Wednesday. I have the word "afraid" tattooed on my heart to remind me of my mortality. This lovely work of art could barely speak the word through her tears. The nurse who was with me told me that she had experienced a delightful and terrible array of emotions from this woman, but had never seen her cry. Why today? Why was she crying outside of the chapel following the Ash Wednesday service?

While we were visiting with her and trying to put all these puzzle pieces together, an employee of the facility stopped by and spent a couple of minutes trying to cheer the woman up...suggesting that she should exchange the tears for smiles. So, we have one young woman attempting to draw another woman out of this place of tearful sobriety. Which woman, I ask myself, is on the Lenten journey? Which one is really "doing okay”?

Lent is a journey, sort of an annual pilgrimage that doesn't require a passport, celebrated through much of the history of the Christian community. As any significant journey has, it contains a point of origin and a destination. A beginning and an end. Start. Finish. And points of significance along the way.

Why participate in this journey? It is, for many, a deeply significant journey. Yes, for some it has been routine. For some, a misunderstood religious tradition. It was for the bulk of my life, anyway. But rather than discard those things which have become tarnished, why not re-explore, re-engage, and re-imagine? That's what I hope this series of "deep thoughts on Lent" will be for those of you that are interested.

So, finally, what is this journey about anyways!! It is a phenomenal journey of reconciliation, rebuilding, and transformation. At its starting point is Ash Wednesday, where we come face to face with our mortality and our brokenness. Maybe it is personal brokenness or a particular struggle that plagues. Perhaps it is a relationship that has lost traction. Maybe a rhythm of life that is way out of "sync." On Ash Wednesday, we sit and acknowledge some of these things. And, perhaps, we will cry. Maybe we will be afraid or regretful or tired or frustrated. Just as I would say to my new friend (if she could catch the lingo)--It's all good. Today is a good day to be sober and reflective. Today is the start of the journey. Thankfully, it is ONLY the start. We do not finish here. We don't. Not here. Not if HE can help it.

In the Gospel accounts of the last days of the life of Jesus, the disciples were stunned, perplexed. Though this man they had followed for three years had told them how the journey was going to end, they did not want him to start the journey into Jerusalem. They were completely confounded that he would walk the path that led directly to death. Yes, dead man walking. What was he thinking? Why engage and encounter death? Why suffer the frustrations of mortality? Why? Because it was ONLY the beginning of the journey.

From dust we have been made and to dust we will return. Ash Wednesday sets us on the path, though it be a rocky one. We sit and acknowledge our brokenness, our pain, our junk. And, in a weird, melancholic and fascinating way, it feels good. Off the chest, so to speak. Breathe. It's a long journey. But don't let your eyes be cast down too long. Stop, occasionally, and peek ahead. Read the last page. There is a destination to this journey and it is the spring from which pours forth reconciliation, wholeness, health, love, beauty, and restoration.

For the next several weeks leading up to Easter, the chaplains here will be offering some short reflections for the Lenten Journey. On Wednesdays, we will send out an email to the staff, which has been written by one of the three of us. We recognize it isn't for everyone, so no offense will be taken by a gentle touch of the delete button! And, of course, your feedback, ideas, and questions are always welcomed.

Join us, if you will, on this journey from brokenness to breathtaking wholeness.