Friday, December 31, 2004

Bang Bang

Suburbia hasn’t yet paved over my neighborhood. We still are somewhat of a rural community with gunfire celebrating New Year’s Eve rather than middlin’ to pricy wine corks popping in contractor grade kitchens. We do have “Little box” developments rising like tombstones out of formally gorgeous meadows but fortunately we’re not overrun with overdevelopment – yet.

I bring this up because as I was ambling toward the study out under the poplars tonight, I could hear the guys up the road firing at the moon and I was enjoying it. Screw the development. I’ve always hated the same ole’ singsong, ticky-tacky little houses pasted together in rows on streets with idyllic names. “Meadow Brook,” “Oak Wood,” “Maple Grove,” “Deer Run;” all names to give the illusion of what was once there and what the developers want people to believe it’s like living there and people just buy into it. “Well, people have to live somewhere,” and “You can’t stop progress,” are platitudes that I’ve heard over and over.

I think rather than “progress” it has more to do with making money at the expense of the future. I can’t figure out why people – especially my generation, buy into such lies. Such incredible mediocrity – such blandness and trite living that fills our lives in this time. God, I hate it. The billboards, TV and radio ads are lies. I know this for a fact not because I have some divinely imparted wisdom but because I’m with real people in their homes when they don’t have on their Avon or Mary Kay faces. I get to wade through muddy yards and dog crap to visit in old junky singlewide mobile homes and park on concrete drives next to the Jags and the Benz in other neighborhoods. I get to really know what makes life – and death worthwhile. And I want you all to know this – it absolutely has nothing to do with what the Pretty People tell you. It has nothing to do with what comes out of those sensuous lips pasted on the well-groomed heads that stick out of GQ forms. Life is about good family, faithful friendship and most of all unmitigated love. Period.

Tonight as thousands pack Times Square and Hollywood types wax sentimental about trivial glitz, other “thousands” are doing the stuff that makes the world go round and being paid little to nothing for it. Personally, I love that little button every electronic device has called “OFF.” I prefer to push it firmly and plant big sloppy kisses on my boy’s faces while they struggle to get away. I prefer to stroke my wife’s magnificent undyed, unstreaked, untouched red hair and hold her hand. I prefer to stroll to my study to write to you about what’s in my heart and stop to listen to the guys up the road aim high and plug the moon in celebration of a new year.

Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes all the same
There’s a green one & a pink one & a blue one & a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky & they all look just the same

And the people in the houses all went to the university
Where they were put in boxes & they came out all the same
And there’s doctors & lawyers & business executives
Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes all the same
There’s a green one & a pink one & a blue one & a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky & they all look just the same

And they all play on the golf course & drink their martinis dry
And they all have pretty children & the children go to school
And the children go to summer camp & then to the university
Where they are put in boxes & they come out the same

Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes all the same
There’s a green one & a pink one & a blue one & a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky & they all look just the same

And the boys go into business & marry & raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky & they all look just the same
There’s a green on & a pink one & a blue one & a yellow one
Little boxes all the same

“Little Boxes” By Malvina Reynolds

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Rev. Flea Collar

Sunday’s are my day to do my ministry in a flea market. (I can visualize heads snapping to attention all across the land – “Did he say flea market?”) Yep – I said flea market. I get up on Sunday mornings, get my black trousers on, iron a black clerical shirt, open a fresh Harts Mountain collar, and slide it into the tabs of the shirt. (He snickers into his sleeve)

Seriously (that’s what all those really bad stand-up comics say isn’t it? “But seriously folks”) Really, y’all, I have a ministry in a flea market. It’s the best ministry I’ve ever had. One of my former students from Forsyth Tech called me one day four years ago and told me that he was opening a flea market and wanted me to come over on Sunday Mornings and do a service for the vendors.

Wade built a chapel in the market and gave me office space and BOOM- I was a flea market chaplain. I minister to the vendors by holding a 30 min. service from 8-8:30 Sundays, write a devotional newsletter and make rounds. Wade gave me a little contract as a small business chaplain and I’ve done everything any pastor does except have nervous breakdowns. I’ve got none of the pettiness, egocentricity or craziness of the typical parish ministry. Most of my congregation are recovering alcoholics, people who want nothing to do with the church and don’t expect me to wear a tie or any other form of uniform. They let me minister to them, pastor them and care for them without pretentiousness or bickering over - whatever church people bicker over that seems so important to them. They are risk takers and the kind of people who scrounge and scrape for a living and aren’t a bit impressed with my collection of degrees. I get hugs, they laugh at my jokes and listen to my messages (which- by the way are quite extemporaneous. I’m not at all compelled to spend 8-10 hours a week in sermon preparation every week. I’ve done funerals, weddings, counseling and settled some disputes in the market. Most of what I do is community building. There’s another church that rents space in the market and Bruce (the pastor) and I don’t have any sense of competition. Sometimes he even invites me to speak and once in a while he fills in for me. Bruce is one denomination and I another and guess what – it just doesn’t matter.

My own pastor is a woman who once said to me after a day of meetings with other pastors that she was “sick of white men in business suits.” Whew, me too. I love pastoring in jeans and pull over shirts. I love being with the common people that Jesus loved. I love being one of them in my flea market ministry.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

So Tired

I’ve had enough. About noon yesterday, I packed my care book, filled out Paid Time Off forms and clipped my unfinished work onto a clipboard and left for home.

Three funerals in two weeks is plenty for me. I couldn’t stand the idea of looking at another dying face. The feeling that I get is like some inner tank is sucking air and there is a sort of sputter in the engine. There’s no power and it reminds me of the greasy shops that I’ve worked in where mechanics said stuff like, “She’s starving fer fuel.”

I cruised on home genuinely relieved that I didn’t have to share in any more grief until after Christmas. Some of is my own stuff. My own Dad died at Christmas and that anniversary is tomorrow. I need space to do my own grieving. I know that I can’t be with patients when I’m “starving for fuel.” I made a terrible mistake one time while doing a rotation in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) where I was the resident chaplain for over thirty babies and their families.

One day I was exhausted from work on another unit and I decided that I needed to get a break. It occurred to me that the NICU energized me so it might feel good to be with the babies. After I was in the unit for some time I was called to the bed side of little one who was in crisis. I’m not going to relate the whole story because the upshot was that the family read the tired set of my face and my demeanor to mean that I was convinced that their baby was dieing. The next day I was called into the nurse supervisor’s office for that unit and told that I was forbidden from going near the baby. It was like I was slapped. The family believed that they were protecting their child from some sort of magical influence in me and that my presence would kill the child. As my supervisor and I processed this insult, I realized that there are some things that cannot be hidden. When I’m tired, I just need to rest. I’m NOT Superman.

We are incredibly stupid about this in our country especially in the helping professions. We have this whacked out notion that we must never stop and that rest is a waste of time. I tell the people on my team the self-care is not selfish care. One thing that bugs me is the attitude from some of my fellow ministers that I’m weak if I rest properly and use my time off wisely. That gloating little smirk pasted on some nerdy little “man of the cloth” when I announce that I’m tired irritates me. A country lady who was a member of a Friend’s meeting I once pastored used to say, “I believe I can lay the Quaker down long enough to handle that.” I don’t believe the lady was really prone to violence but I thought the saying expressed my feelings exactly.

Well, I’m going to be and sleep late tomorrow. I believe that Monday I can see my patients with a full tank and a rebuilt carburetor.

Friday, December 10, 2004

My Half of Georgia

Part of my job is to drive all over hell and half of Georgia (No offense intended to people who live there. It’s just a saying but God knows, they do have my sympathy). The mileage that we accrue in hospice home care is pretty incredible. The up side is that we get a lot of fresh air but the down side that every mile increases the odds that we’ll be involved in accidents or experience some of the harsh reality of the road first hand.

My turn came today when I hurried to a twisted pile of metal on a busy interstate and helped four other men pry a demolished door off of a little girl’s foot while her daddy held her bleeding head and tugged her loose. She was a beautiful little 5 year-old with red ribbons tied in her hair and stomach contents running from her nose. I noticed how her long, silky eye lashes and honey brown skin contrasted with the blood seeping from her eyes and my soul staggered with sorrow for I suspected the meaning of that leak. But she breathed and her heart pulsed. As her daddy sobbed her name, I rubbed his shoulders and told him that God was near. The eyewitness to the accident was clutching my hand so hard it hurt while she prayed in Spanish. I heard her prayers going to Mother Mary and I loved she and the Holy Mother for it and I’m a born Protestant.

Soon I got my beautiful prayer partner and our frantic daddy out of the way of the pros. We were about 3 feet away when a paramedic walked up to daddy and knelt at his feet. He started to back away when I realized what she was doing and I said, “Stand still.” Daddy’s boot had come untied and the paramedic in her immaculate uniform knelt on the rain-puddled interstate and tied it without a word then went back to her place near the ambulance. My soul staggered again, this time with awe, for I knew I’d seen Christ.

There’s no need for me to become sentimental about the spiritual implications of the scene nor is there a need for a sermon. The rest of my life I will see that grief-filled man standing in the middle of the road with the paramedic kneeling in the rain performing that simple act of compassion. That awful, obscene wreck became a sacred place for a few minutes because it brought together at one point in the universe a critical need, authentic and compassionate people, and the presence of God.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

A Hospice Memorial Message

This is the message that I was asked to deliver to about nine hundred attendees at our annual memorial service today.

It’s hard to be still, isn’t it? When we’re quiet, there is a fearsome change within ourselves that clears the way for stuff to come to the surface that we almost cannot bear. Maybe that’s why we are such busybodies in this day and time. We seem to be franticly keeping our minds occupied so that the silence will not draw out our deepest hurt and we’ll have to face our injured souls. That could be what all this running around with cell phones glued to our ears; window rattling music and madness on the highways is about – avoiding our wounded souls.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the holidays are so hard for those of us who have lost loved ones. It is the silent night – holy night of our year. It comes upon the cold clear midnight when sacred time settles on us and we feel the traditional stillness leaking up all around. My Dad died at Christmas a few years ago and since then the holidays are different for me. I kind of avoid them. I drift right up to Thanksgiving, help my wife fix the food and float along until January 2nd. I don’t know what else to do with the ache in my heart but to ride it out. Others seem to scamper around kicking up sparkly tinsel dust, spending themselves into oblivion to keep the hurt deep under the surface. Whatever our strategy is, we want to avoid the pain of our losses and find ways to keep our souls under wraps until it’s safe and, you know – sometimes it never is safe. Our deepest places are locked down and we move further and further from ourselves until we are machine like in the way we live. I once met a young woman in a psych unit here in the city who had cut herself and when I just had to know what made her do that, she said, “Well, Ken the only thing I can tell you is that the pain on the outside is less than the pain on the inside.” I was stunned at the power of her statement. Most of the people in this room can relate to the terrible hurt that lurks in the heart from losing loved ones and the experience of finding it bubbling up at this time of year. But suffering is a part of being human. We all suffer with our losses. We all know the overwhelming ache of our wounded souls.

But what to do with this hurt? Can we live with it day-to-day and year-to-year? I think we can. First we can learn to live with this ache in our hearts. We never “get over it” as some well meaning folk want for us. We just learn to live with it. Grief is like a stream of water. If the loss of our loved one is like a rough, jagged rock that is thrown into the dry bed of our sorrow and the stream of grief is allowed to flow over it, eventually the edges of the loss begin to wear down and round off like stones in a creek. That’s why the hospice professionals that cared for your loved one wanted you to begin the grieving as soon as you were ready. They know that it is truly a healing thing. So one thing that we can do is allow the stream of grief to flow over us.

Another thing we can do is to practice our faith as fully as we know how. There are lots of different religions represented in this room and I know that if you have a good, healthy spiritual life, you can find comfort in your practice. I don’t mean going to a church or synagogue where people will be small minded and cliché, I mean to be with people that will uplift and comfort and practice the rituals, prayers and traditions that will help heal our souls when the holidays open up those still spaces that we seem to dread so much. In doing these two things we can be ready to do the most important piece of living with the sorrow. We can be prepared to never forget the love and the warmth of the one who has left us.

Allowing our grief to flow as it should and learning to be with it when it does permits the sharpness and the pain of the loss to heal. Practicing our faith fully gives us hope and comfort beyond what we can immediately feel and holding our missing loved ones in our hearts gives us the memories we need to carry on with our lives, as we believe they would have us do.

My dad was a high school graduate who was replaced in his job by two college-trained engineers. He was a stalwart Christian and he had a capacity for cruelty. I’ll never forget his untrained intellect and how dedicated he was to his profession; it helps me commit to my calling. I’ll never forget his devotion to his faith; it helps me keep my faith. I’ll never forget his cruel teasing because even that helps me remember to be caring and compassionate with those who are weaker than I.

Do you let the grief flow freely as it should? Do you find ways to practice your faith? Do you remember those that you’ve lost and the gifts they gave you to help you go on? And while the ache of the loss still pulls the strings of your heart tight in this holiday season, are you able to find way to play beautiful music on them to comfort yourself and others?