Thursday, December 29, 2011

pastoral clinical week 11

(I'm late getting this written partly because it's not due to be turned in for another week and partly because I've been writing it in my head for a couple weeks. it's actually a reflection of a pre-christmas situation.)


I’m not certain how upset I ought to be over this situation, as it may be me simply over-thinking it by placing myself in the resident’s place. But I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have let the situation remain if I were still working in group homes.

Earlier this week I stopped in to visit a resident who’s been on a rollercoaster of health lately; sometimes in good shape, sometimes otherwise. When he first joined my floor he was starting the slow descent into dementia which has sped up in the ensuing months, to the point at which he sometimes seems uncomprehending of his surroundings. When I dropped in on him it was roughly 6:30 in the evening. His door was closed completely, which is unusual, and at first I thought he might be in bed already. But I knocked gently anyway and walked in. He was sitting in his wheelchair, indulging in his habit of ripping pieces of paper into smaller and smaller pieces of paper.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. We were having our usual conversation about how he was feeling and how he was doing when I noticed his sweatpants were down around his hips. I said, “Were you trying to change your pants?” He started to absently pull at them like he was pulling them up but I asked him to wait a moment I couldn’t see whether his undergarments were on. I looked behind him and realized he was sitting in a very messy undergarment that he’d obviously recently shat in.

I told him, “Wait a minute while I get someone.” I stepped out into the hall and caught a staff I knew and told him, “This guy's Depends are messed and I think he might have been trying to change his pants.” He said okay, and followed me back into the resident’s room. When we got there he gave him the medication that he’d been preparing, then asked if he was all right. The resident said he was. The staff couldn’t have helped noticing his pants were around his thighs and the undergarment was soiled but turned around and shrugged at me and then left the room. I stayed with my resident a few more minutes until I simply couldn’t take the smell any longer and left.

This disturbs me because I’m not at all certain I handled the situation right. My first inclination was to help him change (but I don’t do that work anymore) so my second inclination was to find someone who would help him change. However, that person seemed to take my resident’s word that he was all right sitting in messy undergarments.

On reflection that night, it struck me that the door might have been closed so that no one would enter and he could have some privacy to sit in his room. But I can’t imagine anyone opting to want to sit in a shit-filled undergarment, privately or not. The staff I approached is someone I’ve worked with on the floor for my whole length of time there and I trust his judgment. I didn't get the sense he was simply walking away from a situation but was acting on how he understood the resident to prefer. But I also can’t imagine allowing someone to decide for himself to remain in such a situation, particularly someone with the recent history of health issues of this resident. Should I have confronted the staff afterward and asked if we were making the best decision? Should I have alerted someone else?

I’m conflicted about the situation. My immediate reaction was to change the resident’s undergarments, and frankly I’m glad I waved that option away because I’m not qualified to do that anymore. I’m glad too of my second reaction, which was to recognize my role as being part of a team and report the situation to someone who could correct the situation. This is a role I've been working at. But I’m uncomfortable with the way the situation ended. Is it, I wonder, all right to let a resident opt to sit in shat-in adult undergarments, however privately, for an unspecified amount of time? Should that be within his rights? And can someone like this resident, whose thinking has been muddled at the best of times but is nearing the end of his life and is clearly showing increasing dementia, be permitted to make that decision?

Monday, December 19, 2011

TV dinners for xmas

A few days ago one of the residents at my CPE facility mentioned to me that his mother and most of his brothers were coming to visit on Christmas. “And they’re bringing TV dinners with them so the kitchen doesn’t have to cook for them.”
“TV dinners?” I said. “Was that a tradition at your house too? We used to have TV dinners every Christmas for dinner.”

He looked at me as if there were bugs crawling out of my nose.
“No,” he said slowly. “They just don’t want the kitchen to have to cook for them and TV dinners are easy to put in the dining room microwave.” He started to back his wheelchair up a little to get a better look at me. “My mom’s over 90 and I don’t think she wants to cook a big dinner anymore.”

My mom, on the other hand, never reached 90 but we ate TV dinners every Christmas as if it was a gift itself. The best part was that my sister and I got to choose two of whatever we wanted: her
taste ran to fried chicken because it came with a brownie, but I always chose two differing Asian dishes, Polynesian and Hawaiian. I loved the contrasting sweet and sour of them, the tastes of meat and fruit.

The official reason we ate TV dinners was so my mother didn’t need to cook a big meal on Christmas, but the truth is my mother never cooked a big meal on Christmas. I think we simply liked the ease and comfort food of TV dinners, which were the content of meals pretty regularly at our house, and wanted to extend that relaxation to Christmas, which for us was a really big day that involved watching parades, opening gifts, playing in the snow, watching my dad burn the wrapping and boxes in the fireplace, and drinking hot cocoa with little marshmallows.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

the pantisocratic pirates, part the 2nd

"We first came together in London in 1753," Wilberforce began. "This was after the Great Comb Riots and alien dissenters were being interned under the Sedition Act, that was us, you see. We were Poles, Prussians, Serbs, Dalmations, any nation you care to think of . Even a Frenchman. Anyroad, we all fetched up together in Newgate jail and waited for the business to blow over. Only it didn't. More tea?" Peter Rathkael-Herbert shook his head. "Very well, we thought, so we wait to be charged. Standard procedure, you see. Get charged, plead guilty, be deported, three days at Boulogne and you're back within the week. But time wore on and we still were not charged. In the meantime we kept ourselves busy, political debates, discussions, a little dialectics. We look back on those days as the birth of Pantisocracy. It was the only compromise we could reach. You see, when you've got dia-hard Anabaptists and Thuringian ultramontanists in the ranks, take it from me, you need something broad. Pantisocracy is broad, if nothing else."

Wilberforce reached for his pipe and began packing it with a gluey substance. "All men are equal," he said as he lit the pipe, and Peter Rathkael-Herbert smelt a sweet scent familiar from the Tesferati. "That's about it, really. The stuff about land ownership doesn't really apply aboard ship. Anyway, in the end we figured out the delay. The section of the Act we'd been charged under had yet to be passed, and with the threat of revolt over, no one was very interested in getting it onto the statute books. We couldn't be released until we'd been tried, and we couldn't be tried because the law didn't exist. We rotted there for over a year until the magistrate who'd arraigned us in the first place chartered a ship. This ship, in fact, though it was called the Alecto then."

Wilberforce sent clouds of sweet blue smoke wafting toward his guest. "The idea was: Stage an escape, hop aboard this ship, be charged with the escape, plead guilty, be deported to France and back in a few days. The only problem was the Magistrate. He retired that very week, leaving us aboard the Alecto. There we were, suddenly fugitives from justice with nothing and nobody between us and the gallows. Technically, we were already pirates. After a quick debate we decided to go the whole hog. We put the master and his crew in the pinnace, hoisted the Jolly Roger, and set sail that night for the Barbary Coast. It's been thirty-odd years now and I can tell you truly that not a man jack of us has looked back since. I still think of that magistrate and each time I do I raise my glass and toast him: 'Happy retirement, Henry Fielding!' Without him, we'd all be living under the English boot, but here we are and here we stay. It's the rover's life for us and a damn fine life it is too, right, lads?"

"Right, Cap'n," replied a trio of hoary-headed tars from the quarterdeck.

Wilberforce van Clam passed the pipe to the Internuncio. "Suck on that, m'boy."

Hot sweet smoke curled in Peter Rathkael-Herbert's throat. Small metal centipedes raced around the insides of his kneecaps.

"Nn," he said, exhaling and handing it back.

The sky was a vacant eye, massively blue. The sun flared low over the sea. He coughed and thanked the captain.

"Only for today," Wilberforce explained to him. "Wilkins is captain tomorrow, then Schell, we rotate, you see, all being equals 'n' all. Gets a bit confusing sometimes."

His head was spinning, slow half-rotations which blurred the ship and its aged crew, somehow making them even more fabulous than they already were. "Pirates," he slurred. The chair was so enveloping, a whole world.

"Look at it financially, morally, politically, however you like," Captain van Clam leaned across, "we're the most succesful pirates these seas have ever known."

--from Lempriere's Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk

many of the characters from norfolk's novel are real, including the title character john lempriere, who did indeed write a dictionary of mythology. henry fielding, of course, as any english major knows, is real, although remembered here for his legal work rather than his satire. peter rathkael-herbert might be a twist on baron peter herbert-rathkael, who apparently had something to do with the breakout of the first world war. anyroad, to quote the fictional van clam, the point is the pantisocratic pirates who are an inspired creation.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

the pantisocratic pirates, part 1

"At first it was the Tesrifati's own shadow. Some strage refraction of the nowhere-light had thrown a dark double of his vessel off to port. Then it was his imagination, an image rising out of the silent hypnotic hours, now redoubted and returning. And then it was a black ship bearing down on him out of the fog. Hamit turned and began to shout. A dark form was running alongside his ship, the angle of coincidence so narrow it must have been there for hours. Hamit scrambled down ladders, through hatches, along gangways, shouting, cuffing the heads of the crew. None of the guns were primed. He could hear water rushing in the channel formed between the hulls. Two or three of the men were stirring themselves. Hamit...saw the black ship loom out of the fog to fill the gunport. He was hammering down the powder, tamping the ball. Lining the wales of the black ship from prow to stern were faces withered with age. Two crewmen were pulling at his arms. He pushed them away. The ship was almost on him, filling the sky, blotting out the fog, huge and black as night. He lit the taper. The crewmen were shouting at him, moving backward. Hamit touched the fuse and turned to see them running away from him with their hands to their heads, away from the cannon. The fuse hissed, he heard the first grappling hook fall with a thud on the deck above. Then the cannon exploded.

"From within the confines of his crate, the Internuncio heard muffled shouting, a thud somewhere above, a deafening explosion, more thuds, a terrible grinding sound, and feet running in all directions around him. The ship was being boarded. He heard barrels being rolled along the gangplanks and manhandled out of the well. The hole through which his young friend had fed and watered him allowed a view directly overhead. Useless. Then his own turn came and he braced himself against the 'walls' and floor as the crate was shifted up to the deck, then seemed to hang in space before landing on the deck of the Tesrifati's aggressor. He heared voices speaking in English. The grinding sound came again. The hulls rubbing against one another, he realized belatedly, and then the ships were free of each other. He could hear the crew levering off the lids of the barrels. He raised his head to shout his presence and the sound died in his throat. His crate was positioned directly below the mainmast. Looking up through the feeding hole he saw swirling fog, bare spars, and rigging. At the top of the mast, a tattered pennant flew, and on the pennant was a skull and crossed bones. They were working down the line, staving in the barrels with jemmies. Peter Rathkael-Herbert cowered in his crate waiting helplessly, hopelessly for discovery. Then his turn came. Wood splintered above his head and shattered slats rained down on him as he curled up, burying his head in his hands. The lid was prized off and a croaking voice above him said, 'Aha!' before strong hands reached down to pluck him from his refuge and deposti him on the deck. Crumpled, racked with aches and pains, exhausted Peter Rathkael-Herbert looked up to see an old man, grizzled and weather-tanned, standing over him. The old man reached down and offered the Imperial Internuncio his hand.

"'I am Wilberforce van Clam,' he told the disheveled heap. 'Welcome aboard the Heart of Light.'

"The sirocco began to blow away the fog.

"Aboard the Heart of Light, Peter Rathkael-Herbert saw sunlight for the first time in a fortnight. Looking up into the rigging and around the deck where the crew were making ready to set sail, he could not help but notice the extreme age of the sailors. Not a one seemed to be under fifty. Wilberforce van Clam was at the helm.

"'Take some tea.' He gestured to a pot brewing on an occasional table by his side. 'Wilkins!' he shouted. 'A cup for our guest, if you please!'...Wilkins, a spry sixty-year-old with a long white mustache, jumped to the task.

"'You are...pirates?' Peter Rathkael-Herbert ventured, watching as elderly men leapt up and down the rigging.

"'Pirates? Oh yes, pirates all right, absolutely pirates we are, aren't we, lads?'

"'Oh yes!' came the reply from all quarters of the vessel.

"'But we're Pantisocratic Pirates,' Wilberforce van Clam went on. 'We never really wanted to be pirates at all.' He paused and sipped his tea. 'It's society made us what we is now.'

"'Society?' Peter Rathkael-Herbert was bemused by the notion. 'But how?'

"'Aha!' said Wilberforce for the second time that day. 'Now that is a tale worth the telling. Wilkins! A chair for my friend!'

"And so, seated in a splendidly upholstered armchair and fortified by tea, the Imperial Internuncio listened while Wilberforce van Clam unfolded the story of the Pantisocratic Pirates."

--from Lempriere's Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk

I have been reading this book for a little over a year and a half, having come across it for a dime at a library book sale in rural pennsylvania. I've read a lot of negative reviews but I have to say I am on the side of the faction that argues it's worth the staying with. it's got many red herrings and sometimes lapses into strange digressions in the middle of a sentence, but on the whole it's been worth the time it's taken to read it. the parts I'm posting today and tomorrow are a little better than 2/3s through the novel, and remind me of some of terry pratchett's discworld, and wilberforce van clam himself has made me think of cohen the barbarian.

part 2, the story of the pantisocratic pirates, tomorrow.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

pastoral clinical week 10

The most affecting experience I’ve had this week has been finding and then going through the artwork and photographs in a resident’s room for her memorial. I was lucky there was such a large cache to go through and I’m disappointed her remaining wants nothing to do with them.

First of all, the artwork is rather nice. It’s not something that will blow anyone away, some hidden Picasso or Chagall, but she had talent and a flair for drawing that comes through nicely. The photos of her sculptures were also impressive: some were horizontal, like a woman looking as if she were coasting through the waves, and were these massive, granite slabs often teetering as if playing with gravity, while others were vertical, like one that resembled a stylized milkweed, and willowy and slim.

But what really affected me was the implication of these photos and artwork that our residents were not always the people in the conditions that they are in now. Intellectually, we all know that. But as I sorted through the work in the interns’ office, sometimes holding something up and saying to anyone there, “look at this,” we were reminded constantly of that fact and commented on it. After her memorial, I showed the display to a nurse who had known her when she was still mobile and somewhat verbal before disassembling it, and she was like a little girl pawing through the work and saying over and over, “she was really, really young once.” I think that’s the takeaway from this experience, that while we’re all aware these folks had previous, maybe extraordinary lives, it’s nonetheless good to be reminded that those lives often didn’t include whatever illness or disability defines them for us now.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

teach naked

this is an essay written for a class on christian education expanding on an earlier essay defining the term.
“Now I Know Why I am an Orthodox Jew”

A recent issue of The Jewish Review of Books contains this anecdote to make clearer late neo-conservative founder Irving Kristol’s identification as a Jew “with an abiding interest in and respect for religion” first and as a political creature second.

A good clue to the answer [why he identified himself as a “neo-Orthodox Jew”] can be found in one of his later essays…Kristol there recounts an experience that his wife [Gertrude Himmelfarb] had while teaching a graduate course on British political thought in which she had spent several sessions on the writings of Edmund Burke. At the end of one class, she was approached by a “quiet and industrious” young woman. “Now,” this student said, “I know why I am an Orthodox Jew.” Needless to say, this wasn’t because Burke had supplied an incontrovertible proof that the Oral Torah had been revealed at Mt. Sinai. “What she meant was that she could now defend Orthodoxy in terms that made sense to the non-Orthodox, because she could now defend a strong deference to tradition, which is the keystone of any orthodoxy, in the language of rational secular discourse, which was the language in which Burke wrote.” (Soloveichik, 19)

This lengthy quote explains nicely, I think, what religious education ought to do: to inculcate in the educated not the dogma of the religion but a way of explaining what it is he or she believes to the non-member of the faith. As Judith Berling writes, “We not only learn through conversation, but we learn how to converse” (emphasis in original; 80). In my previous essay for this class, “We are Church when We are Gathered, We are Church when We are Dispersed,” I defined religious education as follows:

It’s a way of teaching children and adults how best to affect their world in order to make it more reflective of the type of world where they would want to be citizens. It reflects how they think a world of justice and equality ought to be (in Christian terms, bringing about the realm of God). Religious education determines the communities children and adults want to be a part of, discerns what is holy and how to talk about it, and most importantly, what the ethics, morals, and behaviors the members of such communities should participate in.

To this I would now add that in addition to helping the student make sense of the world it should also help her or him to explain to others how he or she sees the world. For many students, one of the most important questions revolves around how they can affect the world (hopefully, in a positive fashion). Craig Dykstra’s retelling of Philip Haillie’s book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, for example, provides

a story of how the gospel can be taught when the church comes alive to face both the dangers that beset it and the concrete needs and hungers of the specific world in which they live. It is a story of youth groups and schoolchildren, of classroom teachers and adult Bible study groups. It is a story of how worship and preaching and studying and acting all come together to make a community into a people of God. It is a story of how people read the Scriptures, lived their life with one another, and opened their doors to strangers as essential elements in their being the church in the world. But most of all it is the story of what happened to and in these people and in the world in the midst of what they themselves did. (57)

I’ve argued that religious education, in order to make plain the opportunity for learners to hear the questions that should be demanded of them, must emphasize the holiness of life and experience. Everyone’s life and everyone’s experience. Dykstra notes exactly the sorts of questions that we ought to expect students to ask: “Of what value are human beings, and how is that value secured? What is worth dying for? What is worth staying alive for? How should our lives be spent?” (7). If, as Mary Elizabeth Mullino Moore points out, holiness is found in the very “rhythms of life,” the stuffness of daily, average life—and I think it is—then it’s in that very experience of everyone’s daily life, its celebrations and atonements, that learners begin to articulate what holiness is.

For the graduate student in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s class, holiness resided in her ability to articulate her faith to someone outside it. To make this particular to my faith, in his pamphlet entitled Should My Child Go to Sunday School?, Unitarian Universalist minister Tony Larsen explains

We teach our children what Unitarian Universalism stands for today so that when people ask them about their faith, they can feel confident answering [their] questions. We help them understand that the inspiration of the divine is to be found not in one book but in many; that we are born not in sin but with the potential for goodness; that the doctrine of hell implies a cruel god, and salvation for members of only one religion would be unjust; and that we have a duty to cherish the earth and revere life instead of sitting back and waiting for some divinely sanctioned cataclysm to come and end it all.

I came to UUism in my 30s. While I spent time with various faiths between them, including Krishna Consciousness, Buddhism and Catholicism, I was raised a Seventh Day Adventist, a religiously and socially orthodox group for whom religious education is based

upon the philosophy that students at all levels of schooling possess individuality and should be educated to use their God-given capacities to become individuals of principle, qualified for any position of life. Education was to begin in the home where the basic values of redemptive discipline and mental and physical health were to be balanced with the importance of work…Adventists have embraced the philosophy that education should be redemptive in nature, for the purpose of restoring human beings to the image of God, our Creator. Mental, physical, social, and spiritual health, intellectual growth, and service to humanity form [its essential] core of values…(

My memories of my childhood Christian education at what we called Saturday School reflect some of this. I remember quite distinctly the emphasis on work and thrift as well as vegetarianism (for physical health) without which I would be unfit for the Kingdom of God, although I don’t recall a redemptive nature to my schooling. It may have been there and I was too young to appreciate it, although I also recognize a strong redemptive flavor to much of my current theology that may have originated there.

I locate much of my theology of religious education in articulating what is holy. To quote Mullino Moore, who cites Orthodox tradition for her definition: “[That] all of life is sacramental, that the church’s sacraments make visible the sacramentality of God’s creation, and that the human calling is to participate in the sacrament of life…[The] power of sacramentality and its interrelated movements…reveal holy presence in the rhythms of life” (emphasis in the original; 217). I would modify this otherwise excellent definition to reflect my UU perspective by substituting “reality” for “God’s creation.” I am especially influenced in this latter view by Joyce Ann Mercer’s early comment distinguishing practical theology from academic exercises.

For example, practical theologians are not content with abstract proclamations that God cares for all persons as God’s children. Practical theologians ask about the meaning of God’s parentlike care for children in contexts in which particular children experience pain and suffering. They work out visions of such children experiencing and manifesting that care in their everyday lives. They combine such visions with action strategies effecting transformation. (12)

Or, as she writes more succinctly later, “The suffering of children must be acknowledged and addressed…” (244). To paraphrase Jurgen Moltmann, a theology that doesn’t take into account the suffering and pain of children—and in religious terms, we are all God’s children—has nothing to say to us.

Doing this brings into sharp relief my earlier assertion that religious education, in addition to helping people sort out and articulate what they believe, also has to give them the opportunity to determine what the beliefs and actions a moral community of which they want to be a part should include. This attempts to answer questions put by Mark Yaconelli:

What would it mean if the goal of our ministries was simply to be prayerfully present to young people—to allow them to be fully themselves? Could we trust that our presence is enough? How would we treat youth if we weren’t trying to convince them of the importance of the faith, the worthiness of Jesus, the necessity fo the church? What would happen if we sought to minister to young people through our ears, through our presence, through silent prayer and an open heart? What would such radical acceptance evoke in young people? (122)

In her pamphlet UU Religious Education and Your Child, Gaia Brown quotes Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing in response to a similar question, “How can you teach without doctrine?”

“The great end of religious instruction is not to stamp our minds irresistibly upon the young but to stir up their own…to touch inward springs.” We have a strong faith in the inherent spirituality of children and see it as our task to nurture, not to indoctrinate. Our respect for the children teaches them respect—for themselves, for others, and for this fragile interdependent web of which we are all a part.

An emphasis on the concerns and experiences of students, supporting their abilities for recognizing the holy in existence, a trust in their abilities to come to sound conclusions, identifying themselves as individuals of principle and helping them to articulate to other people of faith what that means: I would argue that the result of such religious education will look and sound a lot like the experience of that graduate student in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s class. “Now…I know why I am an Orthodox Jew.”

• (2011.) “Seventh-Day Adventist Church: Education.” The Official Site of the Seventh-Day Adventist World Church. Accessed November 30, 2011, at
• Berling, Judith. (2004.) Understanding Other Religious Worlds: A Guide for Interreligious Education. Maryknoll, NY; Orbis Books.
• Brown, Gaia. (Undated.) UU Religious Education and Your Child: Frequently Asked Questions. Boston; Unitarian Universalist Association Pamphlet Commission Publication. Unpaginated.
• Dykstra, Craig. (2005.) Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices. Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press.
• Larsen, Tony. (1993.) Should My Child Go to Sunday School? Boston; Unitarian Universalist Association Pamphlet Commission Publication. Unpaginated.
• Mullino Moore, Mary Elizabeth. (2004.) Teaching as a Sacramental Act. Cleveland, OH; Pilgrim Press.
• Soloveichik, Meir. (2011.) “Irving Kristol, Edmund Burke, and the Rabbis: [A Review of] The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009 by Irving Kristol.” The Jewish Review of Books. Volume 2, number 2; Summer 2011. 19-21.
• Yaconelli, Mark. (2006.) Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"you don't tell anybody; you just deal wit' it."

just yesterday I read another local article about another former cop arrested for molesting kids. in light of the jerry sandusky and bernie fine stories, which seem to indicate that boys are more often abuse victims than girls are, this has been sitting on my table for about a month and I finally sat down to read it. it's quite a good essay full of information, much of which I've suspected, and some of which I hadn't. I was following the story it alludes to in the village voice back in march, so I was familiar with some of the issues and cast. it's a controversial topic--read the comments here and at the original march story for an indication how so--but even for someone coming into the subject cold (as if anyone has no preformed opinions about childhookups) it is altogether an excellent read. (as a sidenote suggesting that one of the essay's major points, that the media is invested in the false assumption that most victims are girls, when I looked for an illustration for this post by typing "child prostitution" into google images, with the exception of mug shots of perpetrators and a couple illustrating prostitution in other countries, all the images were of girls. I had to go outside that descriptor to find a boy's photo I could use.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

pastoral clinical week 9

(this is week 9 although it's my 8th reflection. last week was our midterm.)


If you could see the image reflected on my computer screen as I write this, it would be of me leaning forward and a large white cat curled against my chest so that my arms have to make a wide circle coming from extreme ends of the keyboard in order to type. This would be the most relaxed I have been this past week.

It hasn’t been a rough week, just a busy one. Generally, I think of Thanksgiving week as a time of rest and recharging. Normally, in the academic world, it is, and I did have off from seminary classes. However, between the time I spent at the facility and the time I spent preparing for another wedding, plus the time spent with my wife’s family, I ended up thinking (fantasizing, really) about quitting everything and moving back into a van.

Again, not a rough week, but a tiring one. Last Monday was a long, eventful day full of conflicts and confrontations among our group of CPE cohorts. While no major bombshells were dropped, and no new conflicts were begun, I had a feeling of lassitude and exhaustion throughout it. It was nice to hold the seminar in someone’s home rather than the boardroom at the facility, and that gave a nice change in atmosphere, but it also lent the day a sense of informality and ease that wasn’t really borne out by the discussions. Too often I feel as if we are developing artificial conflicts, each given the opportunities to open up and disgorge some wrong or imagined wrong that, in real life, we ignore or pass off on the other person as a momentary issue brought about by too little sleep or not enough fiber. I remember being in Direct Centering in the late 80s and undergoing this process for weeks at a time, and while CPE seminar is sometimes dreadful, I have to admit it has nothing on that.

But that’s not to say I don’t find some fault in the way we relate to one another. The emphasis on seeking some true rationale inside ourselves, while it’s a good idea, also lends itself to the opportunity for some of us to enlarge petty grievences into major issues. These take up a lot of time and energy that should be spent on more immediate topics (like clinical issues).

At any rate, adding to the tiring week for me was Thanksgiving Day itself, spent with my in-laws. This isn’t usually an issue, since we typically spend one day a week with them, but between my wife’s father being in hospice and her family congregating on him for a day, it just added up to a load of quiet drinking and football watching. I lit out for the facility for a few hours the earliest I could.

There was also the preparation for a wedding. I love officiating at weddings—of all the pastoral work I do it’s probably the element I enjoy most (next to just visiting churches). I love the meetings over coffee and talking with the prospective partners about their past and what they want to do and how they’d like their ceremony to look. I love pointing out to them little elements they hadn’t thought of, like the symbol behind a minor change in words or the subtlety of the two of them shifting from one side of the altar to another. I love writing the homily, using information I’ve gleaned from those visits to come up with a new metaphor for what their marriage can be. And of course I love the actual ceremony itself, the quickening of my pulse as I count down the final hour with them, making certain everything is in readiness and, if it’s not, making quick decisions about how important that element is (it’s rarely important). I often tell my couples my job will be to remind them, “Everything’s all right.” This Saturday’s wedding was no different except that my wife accompanied me, and that made all the difference to me. I really enjoyed sharing the ride over and home and having someone with me at the reception and dinner. She felt somewhat fifth wheel-like, she said, and doesn’t intend to join me again. But it was nice to share this part of what I do with her.

Finally, I was asked to do a Thanksgiving Seder for the congregation in Burnsville I sometimes preach for. I’ve done many of these and they’re all different. It’s all a matter of choosing words and rituals that will mean something to the congregation. This one wasn’t difficult to compile—I chose all the readings and communion that morning—but the emotional preparation is wearying and by the time I was finished I wanted nothing more than to sleep in the sun with my dogs, belly-up. The cat reflected in my computer screen will have to do for now.

Monday, November 21, 2011

2 psalms

Psalm of Lament

Spirit of Life, what was it you saw in me,
What pride, what anger, what uncleanness,
That you would do this to me?
Was I so bad, so inhumane, that I deserve
This humiliation? Spending my days crying out in a chair,
Impotently stamping my foot, eating through a tube,
Shitting into a diaper, waving my hands and arms
At everything near me, grabbing it, pulling it closer.
My tongue is coated in thrush.
My eye is filmed over. My drool pools in the hollow of my throat.
I rely on others to do even the smallest things I used to do thoughtlessly.
If I could, I would thank them in moves of platinum.
I would dance for them a dance of thanks and joy.
I would, like my husband, take them from their own chairs of humbleness,
And like him pivot them in a dance of thankfulness.

Psalm of Praise

Spirit of Life, thank you for the delight
Of geese in the sky against the gray morning.
Thank you for the opportunity to be what others need me to be.
Help me be a half-full bottle
Whose contents are added to without complaint.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

last saturday's wedding homily

Wedding Homily

On this beautiful autumn Saturday afternoon we are privileged to share with ____ and ____ their moment of supreme joy in the new life they begin together. Many poets and commentators have written that weddings are not for the bride and groom but for the guests, and to a certain extent that’s true. However, the focus and the hour of exultation is theirs.

Still, I would speak of new hope for them. ____ and ____, in the years ahead I hope for many things. That your wisdom will be steadily increased. This is in addition to the increase you hope to see in your family size as you move from two individuals, each with your own natures and wants, and with ____ children ____ and ____, into a single unit, complete with a home together. You have already begun that journey.

____ and ____, I hope for you too that you always apply tenderness and strength. Marriage today is a hard proposition, and while it may not be any harder than it’s ever been, many people still find being two people in marriage harder than being two people in love. There’s no way you could have known those years ago when you worked together, dated briefly, came apart and then rejoined, that this is a day you would eventually experience. You may have hoped for it, may even have dreaded it—after all, marriage is a frightening prospect, as any big change in a person’s life ought to be frightening—but together you accepted the prospect, planned for it, faced conflicts, issues and setbacks, and still, today, here you are. Joining together as husband and wife.

____ and ____, you have shared with one another and with me some of your concerns and some of your hopes. It will seem at times in the future that the hopes will have disappeared while the concerns and fears have taken up residence. That’s human nature. But the hopes never go away. I charge you to keep them in your hearts. But don’t keep them only there, silent and secret. Share them. Share them with one another. Share them with ____ and ____. After all, the four of your will constitute a new family. Times change, of course, and what seem like problems today will be jokes tomorrow. Never lose sight of your love for one another, any of you. Never allow changing customs and fashions and fears to dull the sense of loyal love and utter devotion you share.

____, you shared with me that “With ____, there’s always something there.” I submit that when the new life that is your marriage is added to the fellowship of the home you will make together, you give thanks for the blessings of relationship and love. Human beings long to be in community, yearn for companionship, but keeping it is never easy. In the years ahead there will be times of conflict and sometimes of trial. That is as it should be. There will also be times of joy and exultation. That is always as it should be. I will hope for you that the joys will outnumber the trials. The two of you are become a union. The four of you are become a union. It is your responsibility to keep your union strong.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

pastoral clinical reflection week 6

[I have only realized tonight as I wrote my week's reflection that I hadn't posted last week's CPE reflection at all. this week has been a very busy one for me between preparing for a wedding service and expecting a death at my facility. I have many things to post over the coming days. this will bring me up to the point where I want to be.]


I understand exactly why this disturbed me. This has been on my mind since last Tuesday when my seminary celebrated All Saints' Day by holding a Dia de los Muertos service as part of its daily chapel.

This is what happened. The ofrenda—the large ornate altar at the center of the celebration—created for the service was covered with photos and knickknacks and hundreds of small and large sugar skulls that were available for entrants to add at the front of the sanctuary. I picked up a medium-sized one and set it at an angle on the altar.

At a point after about 20 minutes we were given the opportunity to stand up and indicate what we had added to the ofrenda and explain its significance. I stepped up and said that the skull I placed there was for 2 people, one dead and one not yet dead. The dead person I honored was my mother who died about a year and a half ago. The person I wanted to honor who was not yet dead, however, was someone from my CPE site.

This is where it happened. I began to explain what I understand of this resident’s decision (without giving his name or specifics about him) for the way he’s decided to live the end of his life—that he doesn’t want to be flat on his back in bed, although that might prolong his life, but wants to be in his motorized chair and tootle around the facility and the neighborhood, seeing people and being with them—although his wounds have worsened. It was while I repeated the nurse manager's reaction to having seen bone while examining his wounds, and the way she nearly cried telling me, that I began to tear up myself. As I went further, telling how I was in awe of the decision he had made, knowing there is no turning back from it, and that the decision is incredibly hard, not only for the harshness of the outcome but also how difficult it is to make such a decision while coping with schizophrenia, I started openly crying. Someone handed me some tissues and I stumbled back to my seat.

That was what disturbed me, my crying. I often cry after someone’s death but I don’t feel right crying before that has happened. I’ve been examining this, asking myself if it’s because men aren’t supposed to cry. But that’s not the case: my father often cries when he feels sad or after someone dies, and I don’t feel ashamed by it.

The answer, I think, lies elsewhere, in the idea that I’ve often felt that, to remain effective in an emergency situation, I need to be the person who stays collected and keeps his emotions in check. This has stood me well in those situations—someone has to keep a clear head and watch for what needs to be done. After the end, when there’s nothing left to do, then I can let loose.
Here’s why I think I reacted the way I did. I’ve felt overwhelmed at times by the amount of work I’ve needed to do in order to keep up my studies and put in my time at the facility. That has made it hard sometimes to sleep enough and to stay up to date in reading and essays. I had spent that morning delivering a 20-minute presentation teaching other class members how to develop video mashups, a project I’d been working on for several weeks, and it had gone off better I think than I’d expected. However, I did have a midterm due that Friday which I’d half-completed and I
knew completing it would take much of the next few days’ time.

I’m not ashamed of having cried but I am confused by having done so while talking about someone still alive and talking about why I feel admiration for him. Part of me wants simply to chalk it up to stress and being tired, while another part is concerned that I’m going to begin reacting like this when I can least afford to: while talking with someone about his impending death or about a difficult decision she has to make.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

MLK essay

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is stuffed with relevant appeals to the same elements that make up James Bretzke’s Sources of Moral Theology. In short, Bretzke’s Sources are explained this way:

"Scripture (the sacred text which has a special sacred claim on the Christian community), Tradition (which represents the lived wisdom of the Christian community), Rational Reflection on the Normatively Human (e.g., human rights discourse, moral philosophy, and the whole tradition of natural law theory), and Human Experience…[which] involves not just individuals’ own experience, but the whole range of scientific and social scientific disciplines that help us to gather, organize, and interpret data drawn from our individual and collective human experiences."

These four elements together, according to Bretzke, make up the source for arguments appealing to morality and ethics.

King’s “Letter” makes use of each element. Given King’s profession, it would be surprising if he didn’t appeal to the Bible in his argument, and indeed there are many references to it throughout the “Letter.” He refers in several places to the Apostle Paul, to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, to Jesus, and the prophets Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah.

But he appeals also to what we might call uniquely Christian scripture—he quotes John Bunyon, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Buber (not Christian himself but recognized by Christians), Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, as well as his namesake, Martin Luther. And he references uniquely American secular scripture by quoting Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and American poet T.S. Eliot. He manages also to reference Socrates and Elijah Muhammad, two men outside the Christian sphere but whose works have long been considered a form of scripture to many.

These last names could be considered as King’s appeals to Tradition inasmuch as each writer has developed a following that hews to an exact reading of his words. But more importantly King contrasts the church as it was experienced by the early Christians who

"rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded ideas and principles…it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered town, the people in power…immediately sought to convict [them] for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” (28-9)"

“Things are different now,” he continues.

"So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanctions of things as they are. (29)"

Moving to the sphere of Reason or Rational Reflection on Normative Human Experience, King appeals to the recognition of the difference between just and unjust laws.

"An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power group compels on a minority to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal…A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising…the law…One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law. (20-1)"

Everyone, he argues, not simply the majority, wants to live justly and fairly under a system of law and order. “In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law…That would lead to anarchy” (20). But at the same moment “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal’” (21). This appeal to rationally upholding laws as well as whether the laws are just that fixes the reasonableness of King’s “Letter.”

Finally, King makes an appeal to shared humanity by evoking the experiences of Ruby Bridges, James Meredith, Mother Pollard and whites who have suffered along with black protesters. However, it’s his evocation of the experience of his own daughter Yolanda in the midst of a litany beginning “We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights”; then contrasting the slowness of American progress with the speed of Asia and Africa; the willingness of “those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait’”; the visions of lynch mobs and “hate-filled policemen,” the smothering by poverty; the need to sleep in the car on a cross-country trip “because no motel will accept you”;
when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”, when your first name becomes “nigger,” and your middle name becomes “boy”…and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”, when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. (20-1)

It is in the midst of this that King best articulates the appeal to experience as his daughter asks plaintively, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” King confesses himself tongue-tied in the face of such a question. But he recognizes it is also the best question to ask.

  • Bretzke, James. (2004.) Morally Complex World: Engaging Moral Theology. Collegeville, MN; Liturgical Press: 20.
  • King, Martin Luther, Jr. (2011.) “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Edited and Annotated by Earl Schwartz. Journal of Law and Religion: Hamline University; Minneapolis.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

worship service mashup

this is a mashup I made both for a teaching presentation for my xian education class and for next monday's CPE worship service. by that time we'll have reached the midpoint in our experience (which ends mid-january). what I wanted to get across was the sense that this is tough but it's an effort we, and our future congregants, will be the better for.

Monday, October 31, 2011

clinical pastoral experience week 5


What’s concerned me most this week is the newest development—that one of my residents is convinced that I tried to kill him while visiting him in the hospital. I’m not worried about legal or ethical repercussions from the accusation—that I didn’t do anything resembling what he remembers, pulling off his nose tube, is pretty clear to me and to others—but I am worried about how this will affect our relationship once he’s been discharged from the hospital and returns to the facility.

It’s possible he won’t remember the incident at all, that it’s a memory caused by his pain medication and just as ephemeral. It’s possible that he’ll return and his first words to me will be, “Isn’t that funny, that I thought you tried to kill me?” But it’s possible too that he’ll become more convinced of the reality of that memory and it will adversely affect the relationship we have and that’s the biggest concern I have. How do I move both him and me beyond that, especially if he remains convinced of it?

The Nurse Manager for my floor has pointed out to me that this experience is good in a sense, as it gives me an idea of what it feels like to the aides and nurses when the residents call them bitches and niggers or accuse them of ignoring them or trying to kill them, and she’s right. From the perspective of ministering to the staff this is an invaluable situation. If anything good could be said to come out of the situation this would be it. I thought I’d had nearly every experience in my group home years but this one is new and I don’t like the feeling much.

Otherwise this has been a good week. I think that as a group our CPE cohort is coming together better, seeing one another as individuals with needs and concerns and less as other people who simply do much the same things as we do, only not as well or in a different way. The conflicts that strained our initial coming together--one person's perceived distance because of his new illness, a threeway misunderstanding—have been addressed and I don’t see any new ones on the horizon.

My relationships with my residents are becoming more solid. Another, older resident has also been hospitalized this week and my visits to him have proved beneficial I think to him and me. After conversation with my floor social worker I’ve determined a way of connecting with two residents in vegetative states that involves simply sitting quietly with them, much the same way as I’d already been sitting with another. I’ve begun to have positive interactions with still a third who’s so self-isolating that I almost never see her, but who I’m certain to approach whenever I see her out. She remains distant but encouraging: she hasn’t yelled or called me a fucker which I take as positive signs. I’ve sat with her only as long as she seems to want, which is usually about four or five minutes, and I think something she likes is that I don’t have any demands of her: one of her first comments to me was, “What do you want?”

I’m concerned about the development of another resident's abscess. Or not his abscess itself but its effect on the staff and to a lesser extent on him. That he’s going to die from it is a given and that it’s probably going to happen sooner than later is something everyone, including the resident, has known, but while he seems to be resigned to it, I think staff members are realizing that the time has come for the actual process to play out. The floor nurse manager very nearly cried when she told me he has bone showing and the consequences of that. I’m watching this development closely and picking my way carefully.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

saturday night reading

in a short essay on the ezine he co-founded, gary kamiya has articulated some of the feelings many of us in the religious community have felt but have thus far been unable to communicate. I am in awe of his ability to simply and coherently wrap up one of the most important ideas about what occupy america is about.

"Yes, the Occupy San Francisco tent village is illegal. Yes, it is unruly. Yes, there are homeless people there. The movement is filled with oddballs and dropouts and nuts, and based on my own visits there, they outnumber the “respectable” types, the unemployed workers and students and housewives. And if real problems arise, violence or vandalism or disease, the city has the right
and obligation to take steps to remedy them. But since no such problems have arisen, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that the hand-wringing about the tents is all about image. The Occupy San Francisco movement is flawed and unsightly, like panhandlers and street people. The tourist-friendly solution: clean it up.

"But the crazies and dropouts and street people who are part of the movement deserve to be there, deserve to be seen. For they bear inarticulate witness to the inequities the movement is protesting. Of course, they didn’t all end up there because of society’s sins; bad choices and personal responsibility also played a role. They’re not the best spokesmen for the movement. But they, too, are part of the America that the movement is trying to make better. They, too, are our brothers.

"That isn’t liberal swill. It comes from a book called the Bible."

Monday, October 24, 2011

clinical experience reflection week 4

The incident that’s on my mind the most right now, perhaps because it has been simmering for the second half of the week and came to fruition on Saturday, is what I should tell the roommate of one resident who is very close to that person—think brotherly—but who, because of HIPA regulations and privacy concerns, can’t be told that his friend is not doing as well as everyone expected.

It’s not as if the resident is dying (although all of us are dying), but when he went in for routine surgery it was expected he would be discharged after a few days and all would be well. His roommate could be told he was doing fine, he sent his affections, he’d see him soon, all that. The roommate has a tendency to take into himself the concerns he has for his friend and internalize them, apparently fixating on his worries, until it absorbs him. When I saw him last, early Saturday afternoon, he was in a pretty cheery mood, smiling and saying, “Tell him I’m glad he’s okay and I’ll see him soon.”

The truth, on the other hand, is that the resident is not doing as well as everyone hoped. His blood pressure is lower than it ought to be. He’s being fed oxygen by a tube which is strapped to his head. He reports he’s in a lot of pain. Mentally, he’s more alert than he was the first day I visited him, but he’s reduced to answering “yes/no” questions by shaking or nodding his head. He remains in intensive care and his nurse tells me it will be at least several weeks before he’s allowed to come home.
Given all that, what’s my response when his roommate asks, “How is he?”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

is nick hornby writing about jubilee?

I argue that David, the husband of Nick Hornby’s protagonist Ann in How to be Good, is acting out a private, individual jubilee. I don’t know that Hornby is doing this purposefully, that he wrote David’s actions to be a comment on the Christian idea of jubilee. At best it is an interesting coincidence. Firstly, it’s important that David himself would deny that he’s doing anything Christian:

…I don’t think that David has become a Christian, although it is hard to fathom precisely what he has become. Asking him directly doesn’t really clarify things. The evening after we got the letter…Tom [their son] asks—mournfully but rather percipiently, I thought—whether we are all going to have to start going to church.

“Church?” says David—but gently, not with the explosion of anger and disdain that would have accompanied that word in any context just a few weeks ago. “Of course not. Why? Do you want to go to church?”

“No. Course not.”…Tom says. “Just, I thought, that’s what we have to do now.”

“Why now?”

“Because we give things away. That’s what they do in church, isn’t it?”

“Not as far as I know.”

Later, alone, Ann points out to David, “You do give off the air of someone who has undergone a religious conversion.”

“Well, I haven’t.”

“You haven’t become a Christian?”


And while Ann can’t put her finger on exactly what it is David’s become, she agrees that it isn’t a Christian.

But Tom’s connection between “we give things away” and “people who go to church” is important. This is the idea behind Jesus’ idea of jubilee, particularly in the parable iterated in Luke 16:1-13. The corrupt manager there, once he is found out, decides to remit to his debtors the actual sums they owe by wiping out the graft added for his share. He does this, not to escape judgment, as his master has already taken his position from him, but to be welcomed afterward into their homes, so he may rely on their largess and friendship. Jesus’ explains that “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…[If] you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters…You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:10-13).

John Yoder’s definition of biblical jubilee in The Politics of Jesus—leaving the soil fallow; remission of debts; liberation of slaves; and the return of family property to individuals—while not corresponding exactly either with David’s behavior is near enough to suggest that we can read his actions as a genuine attempt to do jubilee on a personal level.

For instance, David’s newspaper column and novel, both of which he has decided to scrap because he’s simply not angry anymore, although to which he might someday return (perhaps writing columns as “The Least-Angriest Man in Holloway”), are fields of endeavor that lie fallow. While David doesn’t have debts to remit, per se, or slaves to liberate, he does in a sense attempt to do something similar by finding rooms for local homeless kids. In that sense he’s doing both: he attempts to cancel out those who are indebted to him by selflessly taking on the work of matching up homeless and those with extra rooms, and he attempts also to ease the burden on those homeless—liberate them from slavery, as it were—by doing the same. Finally, of course, his misbegotten attempts to give away the family’s roast dinner and Tom’s computer can be seen, if not as returning property to their original owners, then as ways of redistributing his family’s wealth.

I’d argue that, while David is not participating in biblical jubilee—that “redistribution of capital…accomplished every fifty years by faithfulness to the righteous will of God and in the expectation of the kingdom” according to Yoder—he is participating in the spirit of what Jesus calls for in his parable of the widow who “out of her poverty has put in [the temple treasury] all she had to live on” (Luke 21:1-4)—that is, as Yoder writes, “a jubilee ordinance which was to be put into practice here and now, once…, as a ‘refreshment,’ prefiguring the ‘reestablishment of all things.’” Yoder is justified in his conclusion that “Many bloody revolutions would have been avoided if the Christian church had shown herself more respectful than Israel was of the jubilee dispositions contained in the law of Moses.”

Saturday, October 22, 2011

teach naked

below is an essay defining my concept of religious education that I've worked on the past week. if it seems to follow a pattern, that's because it does. the idea is that we define religious--specifically xian--education in the 1st part, expand on that definition in the 2nd, and then give implications of it in the 3rd. that wasn't really very hard but it took me several days longer than it should have because of a cold that knocked me flat on my back all day tuesday, necessitating not only the length of time it took to finish the essay but also, as tuesday is a 6-hour day for me at my CPE site, requiring me to pull extra hours the rest of the week to make them up.


Part I: Based on my experience and on the books we’ve read for this class, I’d offer the following as my current definition for the way I see religious education. It’s a way of teaching children and adults how best to affect their world in order to make it more reflective of the type of world where they would want to be citizens. It reflects how they think a world of justice and equality ought to be (in Christian terms, bringing about the realm of God). Religious education determines the communities children and adults want to be a part of, discerns what is holy and how to talk about it, and most importantly, what the ethics, morals, and behaviors the members of such communities should participate in.

Part II: The church, any church (or synagogue or mosque or temple or coven or any spiritual gathering, and for simplicity’s sake I’m going to mean all of these groups when I say “church”), is a community, an ecclesia in church terminology. It’s a community made up of individuals but of individuals who, unlike a geographical community or a working or public school community, choose to associate with one another. Their connections with one another are outside place or livelihood. There are some geographical considerations that might complicate that—while an individual living in the rural Midwest might have several Lutheran congregations in a 20 or 30 mile radius to choose from, including choices between which ELCA or WELS congregation to attend, whereas a Unitarian Universalist or a Muslim or Jew might have only one choice, while the options might be the reverse in urban areas or on the coast—for the most part one chooses which church to attend out of consideration of the congregation more than anything else. Craig Dykstra notes

[Faith] communities have formative power in the lives of people, nurturing faith and giving shape to the quality and character of their spirits. Spirituality deepens in community, rather than in individualistic isolation. The beliefs, values, attitudes, stories, rituals, and moral practices of a faith community are the human forces most powerful in shaping a person’s spiritual journey. (83)

More than one researcher has noted that, all other elements being equal, what determines which church a person chooses to attend is his or her fellow congregants.

Once we’ve determined the ecclesia we must determine the message the ecclesia intends to spread. Dykstra writes:

The life of Christian faith is life in such intimate relationship with Jesus Christ that, as Paul says, we may live ‘in Christ” and that Christ is ‘in you’…Similarly, we are now free to live ‘according to the Spirit,’ so that ‘the Spirit of God dwells in you’…This is contrasted by Paul with life ‘according to the flesh’…The contrast is not one between life after death and our life on earth. Both life according to the Spirit and life according to the flesh are forms of present, daily, bodily, human living. But life according to the flesh is life aimed at and directed by things that have no ultimate lasting value and power. ‘Life in Christ,’ ‘life according to the Spirit,’ is life-oriented, empowered, undergirded, and sustained by the Source of life itself. (23)

Modifying Dykstra’s message, it’s in the gratitude for what is bigger than ourselves, bigger than mere individual “birth-school-work-marriage-children-death” life itself, that we find a purpose that can bind us together. For Unitarian Universalists it is in the recognition that two people together are somehow greater than the sum of their parts. For Muslims it is in the adoration of the gift of life Allah bestows on each of us. For pagans it is in the interstices of the web of life of which people are themselves only one part.

This is being in community that acknowledges all of what one is rather than simply a part of what one is. It is looking for a community of challenge over a community of comfort. As Mary Elizabeth Mullino Moore points out, “Truth-telling is not easy to hear, and it demands a response, whether by individual action or social policy.” Her example of one such hard-to-hear truth-telling comes from historian Vine Deloria, Jr., who charges in “Open Letter to the Heads of the Christian Churches in America” that his addressees have “forced ‘opinions, myths, and superstitions on us…You have never chosen to know us. You have only come to us to confront and conquer us.’” Mullino Moore further notes that this “echoes the cries of South Africa and elsewhere, where generations of people have been denied basic human rights” (all quotes, 82).
Religious education should prepare people in the ecclesia to hear such questions, whether from Native Americans, the descendants of African slaves, undocumented workers and their children, the homeless and underemployed, and any of dozens of potential other aggrieved groups. It may not prepare them to answer those questions—it may be that the best answer is that they don’t have an answer—but it must give them the basics of what the aggrieved parties are referring to and that they have a right to be sore. It is in recognizing the legitimacy of these questions that religious education helps prepare citizens for the world of justice and equality they are trying to bring about.

How do we determine what is holy? And once we’ve determined what it is, how do we talk about it? It’s generally assumed that holiness differs according to the beliefs of individual faiths and to some extent that’s true. But while some of the particulars might differ—an icon is venerated by an Eastern Orthodox Church member while it is unconscionable to a conservative Muslim—the point is to find an agreed-upon perspective for all the members of the faith community without lapsing into lowest-common-denominatorness. Mullino Moore cites Orthodox tradition for her determination of what holy is (emphasis in the original): “[That] all of life is sacramental, that the church’s sacraments make visible the sacramentality of God’s creation, and that the human calling is to participate in the sacrament of life…[The] power of sacramentality and its interrelated movements…reveal holy presence in the rhythms of life” (217). My only modification to this otherwise excellent definition would be a change from “God’s creation” to “reality.”

Religious education, in order to make plain the opportunity for learners to hear the questions that should be demanded of them, must emphasize the holiness of life and experience. Everyone’s life and everyone’s experience. Dykstra notes exactly the sorts of questions that we ought to be prepared for: “Of what value are human beings, and how is that value secured? What is worth dying for? What is worth staying alive for? How should our lives be spent?” (7). If, as Mullino Moore points out, holiness is found in the very “rhythms of life,” the stuffness of daily, average life—and I think it is—then it’s in that very experience of everyone’s daily life, its celebrations and atonements, that learners begin to articulate what holiness is.

Finally, it’s in putting together these elements that religious education teaches learners what it is that their communities of justice and equality ought to look like and how they ought to behave. Dykstra’s retelling of Philip Haillie’s book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed provides an excellent and realistic example of the way these elements can be melded and the use to which that melding can be put. It is, he writes,

a story of how the gospel can be taught when the church comes alive to face both the dangers that beset it and the concrete needs and hungers of the specific world in which they live. It is a story of youth groups and schoolchildren, of classroom teachers and adult Bible study groups. It is a story of how worship and preaching and studying and acting all come together to make a community into a people of God. It is a story of how people read the Scriptures, lived their life with one another, and opened their doors to strangers as essential elements in their being the church in the world. But most of all it is the story of what happened to and in these people and in the world in the midst of what they themselves did. (57)

Part III: We can never be certain how our best intentions are going to be received—rather than flowers in the streets we may be greeted with looting and an endless war—and there’s no certainty that religious education delivered in this way will have the results we want. But there’s something to be said for trying and here are my hoped-for implications for this type of religious education.

Teaching religion this way, focusing on the ways, for instance, displaced people are treated by society and religion in order to provide context to understand the complaints of the aggrieved and, hopefully, a way to change it, can lead to greater participation by oppressed people in that church. Churches, especially in the US, have a long history of complicity in the way minority peoples have been treated as subjects rather than as persons by the majority. Being a place where such a history is addressed opens the church, and thus people, to healing. “People do not come to church in a vacuum; they come out of the totality of their lives. They bring the forces and experiences and needs of those lives to church” (Crain 1997, in Seymour, 101). When visitors feel addressed by church, that the church has something at stake regarding them, they become congregants.

The question of what’s holy is, for many churches, a matter of tradition rather than a matter of experience. We venerate the Bible not because of what it says to us but because our ancestors did. We venerate God in prayer not because of what God does in our lives but because we have been taught to punctuate services that way. Locating holiness in the everyday experiences of people lends those experiences not only familiarity but a sense of purpose outside routine. As Elizabeth Caldwell writes, in Christian terms, “Religious education seeks primarily to educate Christians for faithful living, for finding a balance between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the ordinary, between the sacraments in liturgy and the ways we live in response to our baptisms as we move out from the table where Jesus Christ is the host” (in Seymour, 80). Her example points up the benefit to be realized when the link between a duty and a sacrament (for instance) is bridged: “[learners] frame their lives in terms of a new way of seeing, hearing, sensing, being, and finally doing…” (80).

Ultimately, what may happen may be the actual discovery by adult and child learners that the world of justice and equality may actually be within their grasp, that it may be something they can actually bring about. Jack Seymour and Donald Miller articulate this hope:

While the problems of the world we address are complex and immense, we must address them through coalitions of people who are often very different from ourselves… Education empowers us to move from conversation to faithful living…[Religious] education fosters a movement theologically informed by the witnesses from the past to address the crucial personal and social issues of our day with faithful current analysis and a vision that is informed by the long-term history of God emerging in a people. [Religious] education provides open spaces to practice God’s presence and to share our lives and vulnerabilities in hospitality and love. (in Seymour, 120)

There is, of course, no guarantee that defining religious education in this way, as a means by which a church teaches its adult and child members how to make a world that’s more reflective of the just and equal world they want to be citizens of through determining the content of their communities, locating the holiness in those communities, and deciding on the appropriate behaviors and morals of its members, will lead to heaven on earth. But it’s certainly worth the attempt.

• Caldwell, Elizabeth. (1997.) “Religious Instruction: Homemaking.” In Mapping Christian Education: Approaches to Congregational Learning, Jack Seymour, Ed. Nashville, TN; Abingdon.
• Crain, Margaret Ann. (1997.) “Listening to Churches: Christian Education in Congregational Life.” In Mapping Christian Education: Approaches to Congregational Learning, Jack Seymour, Ed. Nashville, TN; Abingdon.
• Dykstra, Craig. (2005.) Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices. Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press.
• Mullino Moore, Mary Elizabeth. (2004.) Teaching as a Sacramental Act. Cleveland, OH; Pilgrim Press.
• Seymour, Jack and Donald Miller. (1997.) “Agenda for the Future.” In Mapping Christian Education: Approaches to Congregational Learning, Jack Seymour, Ed. Nashville, TN; Abingdon.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

clinical pastoral reflection 3rd week


My friends Mandy and Mel have a daily dinner routine for their extended family and guests; each person must voice a concern and a joy from the day before the meal. This week I’ve had two concerns and one joy. I’ll tackle my concerns first.
I’m not at all in agreement with the statement reported in her verbatim by a fellow CPE-er. I’ve got serious reservations about a Sister-Mary-Sunshine theology which insists heaven is a wonderful place full of light where elderly women are capable of doing cartwheels once there. I’m certain my fellow intern is sincere in her belief. But I am equally certain that, at the very worst, telling a dying woman what is at best an educated guess is some form of pastoral malpractice and, at the very least, fails to take seriously the questions the woman has about her death and the impact it will have on her husband and family and friends. It also may suggest to the woman that having such qualms is anti-God, since who wouldn’t want to hurry up to join such a lovely eternity? How selfish and spiritually ugly must be the doctors and nurses and husband that have tried to keep her in this horrible condition for so long.
My other disturbing situation was with a woman I spoke with about the death of another resident. She started our conversation by asking if the person for whom we’d had last Friday’s memorial was really dead (and this says something about the way people appear and disappear and sometimes reappear without explanation as the people caught up in the healthcare system, especially its mentally ill members, must experience it). We discussed his death and then her parents’ deaths and her own experience of God and trust issues, and I ended our time together by asking if she’d like me to pray with her. It seemed what she expected. I asked her to do the praying but she said she’d rather that I did, and that’s what left me discomfited. I’m all right in communal prayers but as I don’t pray on my own I’m not at all comfortable with one-on-one prayer. I gave it my best shot, stammering out some phrases she’d said and adding my own takes on them, and she seemed sincere when she thanked me. A few days later I spoke with my Christian wife who is more at home with this sort of thing and she suggested that what someone really wants in that situation is the sense she’s been heard and her concerns noted. She also suggested that I try praying out loud on the drive in each day to get myself in the mindset of doing it for other people. I’ve tried that now and confess that I feel a little self-conscious doing it but she is right about my feeling more at ease the more I do it. I’m not about to become an advocate of intercessory prayer or of praying away the disease, but I am better understanding the peace people feel when they hear their fears or their wishes vocalized.
What I feel good about is a short interaction I had with one resident on my floor who, after he’d refused my invitation to join a 7th-Day Adventist service on Saturday, wanted to explain why he’s “pissed off with God.” He was pretty angry about the deaths of his parents and the suicide of his brother, going into detail about the extreme measures his brother had taken to kill himself, all in the space of one year. “Where was God in all that?” he demanded. I said, “I don’t know. And it sounds to me like you’ve got every right to be pissed.” He immediately calmed down and said, “I’m sorry to get so angry, but it still hurts, y’know.” I said I’d have been surprised if it didn’t hurt and that we could talk about it if he wanted. He said maybe later but he was in a much better mood as he left than he had been a few moments before. It seemed a good end to the week.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

jesus does not belong to the oppressors

"as long as the religious leaders and scholars of the dominant culture continue to construct ethical perspectives from within their culural space of wealth and power, the marginalized will need an alternate format by which to deliberate and, more importantly, do ethics. through critical social analysis, it is possible to uncover the connection existing between the prevailing ideologies (namely, the ethics of the dominant culture) that support the present power arrangement, with the political, economic, and cultural components of the mechanisms of oppression that protect their power and wealth. anchoring ethics on the everyday experience of the marginalized challenges the validity, or lack thereof, of prevailing ideologies that inform eurocentric ethics.

"for example, the fact that once upon a time in US history the 'peculiar' institution of slavery was biblically supported, religiously justified, spiritually legitimized, and ethically normalized raises serious questions concerning the objectivity of any particular code of ethics originating from that dominant white culture. at the very least, the marginalized are suspicious of the ethics of those who benefit from what society deems to be xian or moral--then, as well as today. although hindsight facilitates our understanding of how unxian and unethical previous generations may have been, we are left wondering whether perspectives considered by some to be morally sound today might be defined as unxian and unethical by future generations."


"jesus can never belong to the oppressors of this world because he is one of the oppressed. the radicalness of the gospel message is that jesus is in solidarity with the very least of humanity. the last shall be first, the center shall be the periphery...the blessed and the cursed are separated by what they did or did not do to the least among us. specifically, did they or did they not feed the hungry, welcome the alien, clothe the naked, and visit those infirm or incarcerated? is the ethical lifestyle of individuals in solidarity with the marginalized demonstrated in liberative acts that led others toward an abundant life? so that there would be no confusion about god's preferential option, jesus clearly states, 'truly I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of these, the least of my people, you did it to me.'"

--from doing christian ethics from the margins by miguel de la torre

Thursday, October 13, 2011

a brief report from a (brief) time on the barricades

I spent a couple hours on one corner of government/people's plaza in downtown minneapolis, heart of the hub, last evening with an able complement of fellows from my liberal ecumenical seminary and luther seminary. I dubbed us the amen corner, as all of us are future pastors in our different faiths. we were representative of the faith contingent of people in solidarity with the 99%, a crowd of which we are both members and to whom we minister. (neither were we the only ones; several other pastors and students, some in collars, had been there earlier in the day and earlier in the week.)

I had to leave earlier than I'd intended as the fellow clinician I'd taken responsibility for had another obligation. but in my time there we were constantly and consistently honked at and waved at and given thumbs up and shoutouts by commuters in agreement with our signs--most of which had been penned by 2 women, one lutheran and one uu, and most of which were biblical quotations--without a single negative response to them. I was told the only time any of my compatriots had gotten a negative response was on the previous sunday and it seemed to all be from people wearing vikings paraphernalia. I hesistate to repeat that was not the reaction of everyone in vikings paraphernalia.

I had a couple especially good conversations. one was with a young bhikku in a knit cap and pajama trousers who had graduated high school last year and made arrangements to fly to africa and from there to ship out as a cook on a mercy ship. he wasn't a xian he said, or at least not a very religious one, but he wanted to be part of something bigger than himself and he was frightened and excited by what he expected and hoped for. the other was with a sister who works parttime for a tax preparation company and operates her own online design business. she was just overwhelmed by the number of people in plaza that week--her parttime job was in the tower in front of where we were standing and she looked out on the plaza several times a day--and had also felt overwhelmed by the ways life had gotten tougher and less friendly (my words, I can't remember hers) and knew she needed to make some comment on them. she'd been playing around with making a design but that would make no impact, so she'd been inspired by the protesters on the plaza to decide to come down each day she was at work and join them for a few hours a day, just to be there in support, maybe to hold a sign, maybe to march, maybe just to be there among other people.

on our way off the plaza I swapped thumbsup with several of the people who are actually sleeping under the concrete buttresses and overheads of the government building and told them, "stay warm." because of other responsibilities I may not be able to rejoin them physically, unless the occupation goes on as long as the main one in wall street does, but I will be there in contemplation and spirit and solidarity.