Sunday, October 1, 2017

More than Fair

Last week I had the privilege of preaching and leading worship at Joy Lutheran Church in Parker, Colorado as a supply pastor (similar to a substitute teacher).  While I've led several interfaith chapel services at the hospital during my chaplain residency program, it had been over a year since I presided at Sunday morning worship.  I loved it!  The community could not have been more welcoming.  I even struck gold as the Women of Joy group hosted a bake sale that weekend, and I left church with a mint chocolate cake, assorted cookies, and zucchini bread in hand.  All for the sake of helping refugees.

I am including the audio version of my message here.  I did not realize the congregation recorded the sermon for their website until after the service was over.  I give credit to preaching gurus Matthew Skinner and David Lose with help in the preparation of this sermon.

More than Fair sermon on Sept 24, 2017

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Art of Being Centered

Since my move to the mountains, I have taken up two practices that are related in ways deeper than the fact that they both happen to take place on Wednesdays.  One practice is not new to me and the other is totally foreign; both are a challenge and delight.

On Wednesday at noon, my church offers a half-hour of minimally guided Centering Prayer.  Typically, the pastor or other church leader begins and ends the session in the sanctuary with a chime of a prayer bowl.  Those gathered, ranging from 3 to 9 persons, sit in silence with eyes closed.  We may use the quiet time however we most need, with the intention of being centered internally.  For me, that means it is an invitation to connect with God through reflection on and release of my longings, joys, hopes, and hurts.  Sometimes I spend the bulk of the time focused primarily on one issue that is pressing on my mind (i.e. concern over a loved one's health, worry over finances, stress over the state of our country and deplorable leadership, etc).  Other times, I have no pressing issue on my mind and I show up to the session empty and open.  Especially on those occasions, I have encountered or received an image, word, or thought during the prayer time that helps frame the rest of the day or week.  Meeting God in silence and intention, with the support of community, has helped center me in God's love for me and my work.  Even though it can be a challenge to remain still and the time can feel like it's dragging, this prayer practice has been a gift smack dab in the middle of my day and week, and I miss it when I am unable to attend.

Second, a few weeks ago I started taking a pottery class.  The first session was awful. My hands and thumbs hurt, I came home with clay everywhere including my hair and glasses, and I was discouraged that I couldn't seem to work with the clay in a cooperative way.  I kept messing it up when I tried to make the assigned cylinder.  Basically, I couldn't make anything pretty! What I have come to appreciate after a few more sessions is the importance of... wait for it...CENTERING.

The first thing we do after sitting down at the wheel with our wedge of clay is throw it down and center the clay on the wheel.  The success of everything else depends  on this first step.  If it's off-center, we can't properly open the inside.  One part of the cylinder's wall will be thin and the other thick, and eventually the structure will collapse.  Experienced potters can center pretty quickly and effortlessly.  For novices, it can take several minutes which feels much longer.  While it may be trying on one's patience and physical abilities to keep hands firmly placed around the clay and thumbs on top while it is spinning,  the centering practice is necessary in order to do more challenging things with the clay layer such as open it and "raise the wall" which refers to lengthening the sides of the cylinder.

It doesn't take much probing to see how the two practices of prayer and pottery are related.  It's not only clay that functions better and more fully once centered; it is also humans: Mountain Chaplain in particular.

Daily I give thanks to God that I AM HERE -- alive on planet Earth at this time in world history, but also that I am specifically working and living where I am in the mountains with my beloved partner and animals.  I don't remember the last time everything felt this aligned.  I recall feeling similarly excited by God's guidance in my life and call at the beginning of both my church positions, so I believe there is something to the so-called "honeymoon" period in a new ministry.  But I think my current sense of alignment also has to do with the renewed practice of centering which for me means intentional engagement in activity and thought which connect me to God, my fullest self, and the world.

I thank God for new guides and learning in this art, and I hope to maintain and seek out centering practices when these opportunities end.  TBTG +

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Humble run

While visiting a friend for a long weekend, I went for a jog at sea level. It was a perfect day to be out: sunny but not too hot with a cool breeze. I am extra appreciative of pleasant weather these days while Hurricane Harvey continues to batter Texas. Prayers abound for my Texan friends.

I have been wondering this summer if my difficulty breathing during excercise in my new mountain town - at 9,000+ feet - means I am still adjusting to the altitude or if I am simply unfit.  Today I learned the former may be a factor but it's the latter that is more true!  Running at sea level with all the oxygen proved to be a challenge as well. Even though it was tough to make my legs move forward at more than a walking pace, I kept going around the lake near my friend's home. I was encouraged by the many people and dogs of all ages and sizes who were also making their way around the lake, one step at a time, mostly with a smile on their face.

As I was pushing myself forward, I heard a runner approach and I tried to stay ahead of her for several minutes. Eventually, she caught and passed me. I was humbled to see it was a "they" passing me: an adult woman, pushing an infant in a stroller, ran by with no visible huffing, puffing, or sweat beads pouring out like my body was doing (for an hour after the run as well).

We exchanged a few encouraging words and soon she was out of sight. Way to go, bad-ass momma! But also: ugh! I felt badly for being such a slow-poke.

I mention this vignette here though this very thing has certainly happened to me multiple times before as a reminder to myself and anyone reading this  that the important thing in seeking health is that I simply DO IT, not that I do it better or faster than others.  Comparison and judgment is not helpful most of the time.  Maybe comparing and contrasting  my speed, distance and overall health today to the same measurements in 6 months or a year would be helpful but I need not begrudge the stroller-pushing lady for being a better athlete than me or think less of myself for being slow and a heavy-breather.

I choose now to let it serve as motivation. To help me get up and hit the pavement or trail tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. And slowly, I may become a bad-ass runner again, too. Humility leads to honest self-assessment which ideally leads to setting and pursuing goals. Hello to humility.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Surprise on Straight Creek Trail #51

"The Lord directs the steps of the godly; He delights in every detail of their lives..."
Psalm 37:23

Today was a slow work day due to the hospital having a mere three patients in house. That meant I clocked out early and went home before lunch.  In a brief pause between rain showers, I took my beloved canine out for a exploratory hike.  I meant to take him on Tenderfoot Mountain trail but ended up accidentally on Straight Creek Trail #51.  Considering the options in this county, it was a pretty boring hike (no major viewpoints and paralleled I-70 the whole time), but it was great for Jack with its access to the creek and gentle incline.  As we were headed back to the car, I passed a lone hiker - the only other hiker out on this rainy day.  He happened to be someone I just met and whose home I had been in one week ago in another town.  In my car, I was carrying around a Thank-you letter addressed to him and his wife but had not yet mailed because I had no stamps.  We stopped for a pleasant conversation about wild mushrooms, skiing, and his church group.  I'm sure this will not be the last time our paths cross.

The incident got me thinking about how I have run into just the person I have wanted or needed to see multiple times while hiking in the woods, something I usually do for solitary reflection and quality time with my dog.  A couple times that came to mind were in Connecticut.  A few miles from the trailhead at my usual reservoir trail, I crossed paths with a young woman from my church whose family member had recently died.  She was attending college in another state and I didn't know how to reach her directly.  It meant so much to make a connection and be able to check in with how she was feeling in the midst of grief and transition.

Another time was in my last days of being a pastor in Connecticut.  I had said goodbye to the congregation and was preparing the next day to begin a cross-country move.  My partner and I took Jack to Cotton Hollow Reserve in Glastonbury for one last jaunt in the New England woods.  There on what I recall was another rainy afternoon, we ran into the Sunday School director from my church, to whom I had not yet personally gotten to say goodbye. She and I had attempted to arrange a time for goodbyes and failed.  And then we ended up at the same large rock in the same creek on the same trail at the same time.  Maybe it was a coincidence, but the serendipity and oddness of our timing indicated something more was helping us out.

I believe that God invites us to be co-creators and has given us the precious and sometimes fraught gift of making decisions for our lives (aka free will).  But I also believe God directs our steps in specific ways I cannot totally understand.  There have been too many chance encounters in my life that were just what I needed or what the other person needed to think it's actually and only about chance.  This happens in the hospital frequently in my pairing with patients and families.  There are individuals and families who I know I was supposed to have met because of how much they impacted me, and hopefully, vice versa.

I'll close with a quote that a friend shared with me earlier today.  While it only peripherally ties in with my story on the trail, it expresses well the experience of being gifted with a genuine, not-only-by-chance encounter with another human who gets you and whose life path intersects with yours.

"The real marriage of true minds is for any two people to possess a sense of humor or irony pitched in exactly the same key, so that their joint glances on any subject cross like interarching searchlights."
-Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The gift of hospitality

A beloved elder in my extended family died last month from a sudden, severe stroke.  It was with a mix of gratitude, sorrow, and honor that I attended his packed and beautiful funeral last weekend in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he lived with his wife and many children and grandchildren for the past 55 years after immigrating from Nigeria.

What I will remember most about the father of my brother-in-law and grandfather to four of my nieces and nephew, is his hospitality.  His kindness and genuine welcome compelled me and opportunity allowed me to keep crossing paths with him over the years.  A year after we first met - at my sister and brother-in-law's wedding - he and his wife Bernice helped sponsor my year of service in Guandong Province, China.  In the years since, I moved across the country multiple times: (1) from Chicago to Berkeley, CA in 2003 (2) from Bellingham, WA to Connecticut in 2011 and (3) from Connecticut to Colorado in 2016.  Each of those times, I made a stop in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Obasi and Bernice gave me a warm embrace, comfortable shelter, and always a hearty breakfast before I continued on my journey.  I recall that in my first trip when I was a full-time student, I left with cash for gas and new towels for my dorm room.  In my most recent move, the Onuohas also graciously accommodated my significant other and dog who traveled with me, with thanks to their daughter Sue.

An especially touching part of the funeral service was when Obasi's grandchildren spoke about his influence on their lives.  Each of them shared a way they hoped to continue his legacy of service and commitment to education and family.  One way I would like to honor Obasi's life and impact is by extending hospitality to others in my work, home, and whole being.  I hope to reflect further here and elsewhere what extending and embodying hospitality looks like and means for me. 

You can read a little more about Obasi's remarkable life here:
Obasi's obituary

Friday, August 4, 2017

From Longing to Belonging

"Blessed be the longing that brought you here and quickens your soul with wonder." - John O'Donohue

I am living in a time of blessing.  The past year has been a whirlwind, so much so that regular writing was squeezed out of my schedule to make room for much change, new experiences, and a lot of hard work.  I spent the last year in a chaplain residency program at the University of Colorado Medical Center (Anschutz Campus) in Aurora.  I was assigned to be chaplain for pre-op and PACU, Surgical Trauma ICU, Surgical Specialties, Internal Medicine, and Transplant units.  In addition, I spent every sixth night at the hospital as the on-call chaplain, sleeping in a tiny room whose simplicity and proximity to other on-call rooms reminded me of a monk cell. On those nights, I was the only chaplain to serve, as need arose, the whole hospital of 600 beds plus the Emergency Department. I worked an average of 45-50 hours/week, and I was emotionally exhausted at the end of each week.  I accompanied people through death, life, and re-birth, and everything in between.  I did this with excellent supervision and accompaniment by the peers in my program.  There were seven of us CPE residents: one of whom exclusively served the addiction-rehab center connected to the hospital and one who was assigned to Palliative Care.

Earlier this summer, I began my first staff chaplain position at a small Catholic hospital in an equally small resort town in the Rocky Mountains.  I am six weeks into the new job, and I love it.  I work an average of 24-30 hours/week, and spend my additional on-call hours at home gardening, biking, walking my dog, playing tennis with the love of my life, and going on small hikes. I am also in the middle of moving my home and belongings from the Denver area.

All this brings me back to my first line: I am living in a time of blessing. I try to be aware of this blessedness and give thanks for it daily.  God knows I have lived in prior times that could not easily be called a time of blessing.  I have been through rough, heart-breaking experiences in which I did not feel at home or thriving in my relationships, work, or community. Perhaps I will write about those heart-breaking experiences one day.  But in this case and in this moment, I feel at home in all three respects: relationships, work, and community.  It is clear to me that all of this is God's gracious gift and an answer to prayer and deep longing.

It seems right that I should give thanks, and tell about it! I hope that my words and actions of love and service will themselves be an expression of my thanks and an extension of blessing to others.  As a patient recovering from a double knee-replacement said to me yesterday: "If we could all just leave the world a tiny bit better than we found it, our lives will have fulfilled our purpose."

Photo taken after first day at my new job in late June 2017.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Lessons from my lab

I realize that even in sickness, Jack is teaching me important life lessons:
  -- Whining doesn't help healing come faster.  No whining from Jack in these 24 hours post-surgery or the month of lameness before surgery even while he was obviously in pain.
--   Slow and steady is the best approach.  This is not Jack's style when a squirrel or bicyclist whizzes by, but most of the time, he is pretty chill and low-key.  This quality is already helping in recovery.
--  The mere thought of meeting a new or old friend is enough reason to wag and smile.  For Jack, the encounter with another [person] means he will get to sniff someone up close, receive love and attention, or get a treat.  Therefore, he wags and smiles all the time.  I am more cynical, and certainly more shy, than my pooch.  But after such overwhelming community support, I too find myself wagging more and barking less these days when it comes to encountering the other.