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.