Saturday, December 17, 2016

It's Never Enough

I sat beside Brenda’s bedside on Thursday afternoon. I had received a request from one of our nurses to make the visit, so I drove the 25 miles through the winter sunshine to the home. It was cold outside, but in Brenda’s room the ceiling fan was whirring. There was also a pedestal fan blowing on high and the air conditioner was on. Brenda was still complaining of feeling too hot. That happens when your lungs are ceasing to function. My phone was playing church hymns from YouTube and I was reading passages from the Psalms and the Gospels. Brenda was listening but she didn’t try to speak. It was too much effort.

We’d talked a lot in past visits. We talked about God. We talked about family and the mixture of joy and frustration a family can be. We talked about fear and faith. Brenda was a person of faith who always wanted to be a better person than she was.

Brenda’s mother came in and sat beside me for a few minutes. Tears filled her eyes as she looked at her daughter, who was two years younger than me, and watched C.O.P.D. squeeze the life from her.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” she said.

“I know that it is,” I told her. “No one should have to do this.”

Even as I said the words I hated how inadequate they were. There was nothing that I could say that would change anything or make anything any easier. Mentally, I cursed my inability to do something miraculous. I wanted to make it better, or at least different. I wanted somehow to make life less unfair and easier to bear. I desperately wanted to make life make sense to a mother who would have to bury her child. I couldn’t.

After talking to the family and saying a prayer over Brenda I took my leave. Before I left, I told her mother that I would be back the next day to check on everyone. She thanked me for being there. “God bless you,” she said. “Thank you,” I replied, not knowing what else to say.

A few hours later, I received a text from the nurse telling me that Brenda was gone. I was left to think about all the words and prayers. Did they make a difference? Will they make a difference to someone one day? I spent years in seminary listening to professors pontificate and classmates theologize about the nature of God and man. We were pretenders, thinking that we understood the Mystery in ways that others did not. The truth is, when we get to that place where all our thoughts, hopes and feelings are laid bare to be examined, we find that we know next to nothing.

I thought I was more comfortable with the Mystery than I am. I thought that I understood more about the order of the universe than that, more about how God chooses to work in the world. Today another family has to deal with the death of a loved one two weeks before Christmas.

Tell me – what am I supposed to do with that?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Lost

It was a nice day in a nice suburban neighborhood. The sun shown down upon people working in flowerbeds or taking walks. Not a thing wrong or out of place to be seen. I entered the home and was led from the front door into a sun room at the back of the house. I could have found my way alone by following the tube running from the oxygen concentrator in the living room.

He might have been a big man once. Today, the man sitting in the corner chair seemed shrunken in on himself. He had dark circles around his eyes and a slight tremor in his hand. His head was bowed. Sitting before him was one of his three daughters, gently touching him and holding his hands. Tears moved silently down her cheeks, but she smiled when I introduced myself as the chaplain and she moved so I could sit near her father.

J. T. was a veteran of the Vietnam War. He had come back to make a home, raise a family and then to help his daughters by being a doting grandfather. At age 67, congestive heart failure was cutting that dream cruelly short.

We talked a while. I gave him whatever comfort and faithful assurances I could give. When I rose to leave, J. T. thanked me for coming. Smiling, I said that I was glad I had found him – that I had almost gotten lost.

J. T. bowed his head and said so softly that I almost missed it, “People like you never get lost.”
I paused for a moment and said, “I seem to need help in finding my way a lot. I’m still learning from people who showed me the way a long time ago.”

He nodded quietly and I left, passing the local priest who had arrived to administer the sacraments. After speaking briefly with J. T.’s daughters, I got into my car and sat there.

“People like you never get lost,” he had said. God, if he only knew! Sometimes I feel like getting lost is what I do best. I’ve tried to do and to be a lot of things in my life. Sometimes I’ve been successful and a lot of times I’ve failed miserably.

One thing I have never done is to know exactly what I’m supposed to do and how I’m supposed to do it. At least not all the time.

I’ve wandered in the wilderness mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I spent a year trying to figure out where I fit into the Church (still working on that). I spent more than a year wondering if I had anything left in my life to offer to anyone else. I always wonder why I haven’t been a better husband, a better parent, a better father.

Never get lost? J. T., if you only knew! I’ve survived by following the spiritual bread crumbs left behind by so many others. Without their help, knowing and unknowing, I’d have spent a Biblical amount of time wondering where I was and where I should be going. I still get up some mornings, look around me and wonder where the pathway went.

There are some people who seem to have all the answers all the time. I’m not one of those. I never will be. I will wander in the wilderness until I stumble upon some spiritual bread crumbs or a lamppost in a snowy forest to show me the way for a while.

You see, people like me get lost all the time.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Broken Hallelujah

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been thinking, although some might argue that fact. It’s really that my life has been kind of a kaleidoscope of late. Colors and patterns have been swirling around and have refused to settle on one identifying system.

I’ve relocated to the city of Athens, GA, home of R.E.M. and the B52s. It’s a place to get great burgers and to wonder why they refuse to spell the word “dog” correctly, preferring “Dawg.” At any rate this process of changing jobs, buying and selling homes and learning where things are have kept me occupied.

 I’ve discovered, though, that I cannot keep my own thoughts at bay for very long. Ideas keep cropping up. Some of them are new. Some of them are old, returning once again as if to say “You haven’t finished with us yet. We’re not finished with you either. Deal with it.” My thoughts don’t seem to respect me very much.

The other night, I was listening to music and heard a song that I had not listened to in a while - Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I love it. I can’t really explain to anyone’s satisfaction why I love it but I do. I love the simplicity of the melody and chord progression. I love the lyrics that touch on so many religious images and are at the same time so very human. I love the way other artists have taken Cohen’s song and made it their own. I love the way “Hallelujah” seems to invite us to make it our own, whether we sing it or simply allow it to wash over us, taking us to places inside ourselves that perhaps we’ve never visited before.

Most of all, I love the way the song invites us, entreats us and dares us to live the one word chorus, “hallelujah, hallelujah.” After each verse that shows a picture of someone who is broken or lonely or confused, comes the chorus again. “Hallelujah, hallelujah.” That doesn’t mean that all is well and everyone is happy. Sometimes, as Cohen says, “It’s not somebody that’s seen the light. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

I get it. There have been times in my life that “hallelujah” has been the farthest word from my lips. There have been times that I didn’t feel joyous, or happy or blessed and I just didn’t want to “Praise Ye the Lord” as the translation goes. I didn’t understand that when human beings speak the word, the word can be a supplication and a plea as well as an exclamation. 

Sometimes words fail me. Sometimes I just don’t know what to say or how to say it. Sometimes I can only feel. In those times it is permissible to whisper “hallelujah” in a way that is a plea or a prayer. “Hallelujah” because I hurt too much for anything else. “Hallelujah” because it’s the only coherent thing I can say. “Hallelujah” just because.

In one of his verses, Cohen says that “There’s a blaze of light in every word. It doesn’t matter which you’ve heard, the holy or the broken hallelujah.” He is right. However we feel it, what matters is that we say it at all. I would even say that a broken hallelujah is just as holy as any other, perhaps more so. The broken hallelujah, for me, is the moment when I have run out of words. I can only speak in tears. The only word is “hallelujah,” perhaps preceded by “please, please, please.”

The final verse of Cohen’s song is one that has rarely been recorded by others, for whatever reason. It’s the verse that ties it all together for me.

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah


There will come a time when all I can say is that I did my best and sometimes my best wasn’t much. I made mistakes. Sometimes I screwed up royally. Other times I came through victoriously, banners flying. Life went wrong and life went right. Standing before the Lord of Song, the only thing that I will be able to say – in a whispered plea as well as in celebration – will be “hallelujah.”

I hope that will be enough.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sad Places and Holy Moments

The nursing home was the same as it was last week and the week before. After getting buzzed in, I walked through the small lobby/common area, waving a greeting to the few wheelchair-bound residents that were present. As usual, a few responded. Others didn’t.

Nursing homes are among the saddest places I have ever known. Some people are there because family members are unable to give the kind of care needed. Others are there because family members are too busy with their own concerns to give the kind of care needed. Overworked employees move up and down the halls and back and forth between rooms. They give medication, mop floors and change bedding. Many do so with an air of detachment, as if they are moving through their day by rote.

This visit was going to be different than the one last week. Luewill, the patient I had been visiting for the past year, was declining rapidly. I walked through the hallway, the sights, sounds and scents familiar and unpleasant. You get used to it, but you never become comfortable with it.

I walked into the room Luewill shared with another resident. One look told me that it would be over in a matter of hours. I spoke to her as usual. There was no response, nor did I expect one. Still, I wanted her to hear at least a few words of care and support. I didn’t need to get an affirmation. It’s never been about me. It’s always been about what she might have heard and understood.

Many times on previous visits, I was unsure if Luewill understood what I was saying. I often asked, “Is there anything in the Bible you’d like to hear?” Invariably she would respond, “The Lord is my shepherd!” She might not have understood everything, but she knew what she needed to hear. We ended every visit with the comforting words of the 23rd Psalm. Sometimes she would make a sound to affirm my reading as I paused between phrases, as if she were still sitting in the church pew she used to occupy regularly before the cancer took over her life. Once, she tried to repeat the lines back to me. It may seem unproductive to some, to be reading the same passage each visit. To her, it was a reminder that even in this place God a quiet, eternal presence.

Today, I said a prayer over Luewill and stood silently for a moment. I began to hear her roommate speaking loudly. Very loudly. That was nothing new. The roomie was always loud. She loved to sing at the top of her lungs. All the time. Scraps of hymns, children’s songs and some things unidentifiable – they all were sung as if we were an audience at a Broadway theater and she the diva of center stage.

This time was different. As I paid closer attention, I heard her saying firmly, “Me! Me! Me!” I looked over at her, a tiny, white-haired woman in a reclined wheelchair. She was looking directly at me, motioning toward her chest with her open hand, saying “Me, Me!” over and over again. I moved over to her and our eyes met. “I hear you,” I said, holding her gaze. She paused. “I hear you,” I said again. She smiled a little. “What’s your name,” I asked her. “Jill!” she said enthusiastically, and offered her hand. We shook hands and I told her that I was pleased to meet her. “Pleased to meet you too, she said.”

Jill has dementia. She doesn’t always understand what people are trying to say. People don’t always understand what Jill is trying to communicate. She seems to be in a world of her own making, singing songs and shouting like she’s in the middle of a tent revival.

Today, something happened. Dementia opened a window and Jill looked out. We talked of how she loved singing in church. “I’m Presbyterian,” she said, smiling. “They’re good people.” I smiled back. “I know,” I said.

Too quickly, dementia closed Jill’s window to the world and she became difficult to understand. Closing our conversation, I said that I hoped that she would have a good day. For just an instant, Jill was at the window again. “You too,” she said. Then she was gone.

I don’t know how many times a day or week Jill is able to peer through the distorted windows of her dementia. I have no idea how often she is able to summon the strength to tell someone “I’m still here! I may not seem like it, but I’m here! I need to know that you see me, that you hear me! Please tell that you do!”

I moved back to Luewill’s bedside. Leaning over her, I quietly recited the 23rd Psalm one last time and left. I thought about it during the drive back to the office. Something holy had happened in that nursing home room. One person was in the slow process of leaving this world. She had been here and now was going away. Another person had been away and, for a few blessed minutes, was back. In one indescribable moment, all three of us were on the same holy ground.

I blinked back tears as I drove. I was sorry for Luewill, but was glad that she would soon be free of pain and fear. I was sorry for Jill, but was awed by the strength it took to force open a window and shout to be heard – to be noticed.

I suppose we are all the same. Deep inside, we all struggle to conquer pain and fear. There are times we all want to shout to the world or to even one person, “I’m here! I’m alive! I’m a person! Do you see me? Me! Me!”

Please, God, let there be someone at the window.

Friday, October 25, 2013

One More Wave

The setting sun created diamonds on Atlantic waves as they eased onto the shore of Crescent Beach. From my seat beside the huge windows upstairs in the South Beach Grill, I could see people finishing up their beach excursions, preparing to head off to find dinner or another family activity to keep the kids happy.

The restaurant was right on the dunes, so I had a great view of a group of teenagers as they sat bobbing on surfboards. On the beach a father was futilely waving both arms in an effort to get their attention. They didn’t see him or they chose to pretend they didn’t. Either way they sat waiting, eyes on the horizon, looking for one more wave. One last wave before calling it a day. One more ride. One more time feeling free before the world once again closed them in its tight grip.

We had come to the beach south of St. Augustine for a quick getaway. Linda and I both desperately need to be somewhere and do something that was not related to a job or some other obligation. We needed to feel free, even if it was only for a few days.

We rented a tiny condo directly on the beach. In the morning we could sit on the balcony and watch the morning sun dance on the water. We watched sea birds and shrimp boats as they went about their business. People and dogs and played on the beach. At night the moon rose, casting the visual equivalent of a siren song upon the softly undulating waves and the silent sand.

We did some of the tourist things that one does in St. Augustine. We toured the local winery and the haunted lighthouse. We even drank from the Fountain of Youth (still waiting to see positive results from that). We found a couple of local, non-chain restaurants where the food was great and the people were friendly.

In the evenings, Linda and I walked on the beach. As we walked, I looked alternately at the water and at the beach itself. I could see signs of the people that had parked themselves there earlier in the day, catching rays and running into and out of the sea. They had cleaned up after themselves, leaving only footprints and the imprints of their beach chairs.

One evening, I came upon some words written in the sand. “Rebecca loves . . .” someone had written in the unmistakable hand of a teenage girl. I don’t know who Rebecca loved. The rising tide had washed away the name of the other person. By now, that relationship might have gone the way of the waves. Someone else may hold Rebecca’s affections, or perhaps she still holds that person in her heart. I’ll never know. But I do know that Rebecca loved someone, and that’s the most important thing.

I needed these few days more than I realized. I needed to see the ocean and hear the waves. I needed to know that the world was different than I had been experiencing. Living day to day sometimes gets in the way of life. Thank God I have someone in my life that made me realize that we needed to get the heck out of Dodge find something else.

After all these years, I’m ready to acknowledge that I’m tired of always keeping to someone else’s schedule and being totally defined by someone/something else. Sure, I have a job and I understand the need to work within certain parameters. I have no problem with that. It’s just that I am, after so long, realizing that I can say what I think and make my own choices. I can pay attention to my own internal navigator.

It’s time to look to the horizon for one more wave and not worry about who may be on the shore telling me that it’s time to come in.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Heroes

Heroes.

I hear a lot these days about heroes. Apparently there are heroes everywhere. You just have to know where to look. Every day I hear the term “hero” thrown about in reference to someone.

I have to confess a certain jaded cynicism when it comes to applying the hero label. It’s been done so much that it seems that all you have to do to be a hero is get your face on the local news or have someone share it on Facebook, which happens about every 12 seconds.

Sports heroes are freakin’ everywhere! It’s football season, so we are about to be subjected to the term “hero” being applied to anyone who can carry or throw a football with any consistency. It doesn’t matter that they might be arrogant, selfish or greedy. As long as they help our favorite team win, they’re heroes to us!

Please, people – it’s just a game, no matter what we try to make of it. Off the field or court, life is still life. If my “hero” can score a touchdown, it really doesn’t make a difference in what life chooses to hand us. We can admire someone’s athleticism all we want and enjoy their performance in a game. Elevating them to the status of hero because of it is another matter.

Partisan politicians will get the label hero, as long as they continue to shout loud and long about how terrible/incompetent/evil their opponent is. Hero? No – just a person who enjoys power and influence without actually doing anything of substance. That’s nothing new. There’s still a sign in Dublin praising the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, calling him a real American hero. That’s not just inaccurate, it’s science fiction – bad science fiction – SyFy Saturday night movie science fiction.

With all the conflicts that have involved the U.S. military in recent years, the word “hero” has almost become synonymous with the military. Go up to a soldier and ask if he/she is a hero. I would be willing to bet that you’d hear that they were just doing their job. I admire that kind of humble realism. A lot of us are not that realistic. I take the risk of offending someone here, but the truth is that not everyone who puts on the uniform of the U.S. military is a hero. A great many of them are, but not all.

Someone is now asking if I have become so cynical that I can’t see heroic things being done in the world. Before you write me off as hopeless, let me assure you that I do believe in heroes. I think heroes are encountered on a daily basis, but we don’t see them. We’re too busy looking for the spectacular that we cannot see the truly heroic, the people whose actions chance a life and potentially change the world.

Here are just a few:

Firefighters and first responders: Often these people remain anonymous. We see only the helmets and gear. We rarely know their faces, but they risk their lives daily and even hourly for us.

Medical professionals: These folks work incredibly long hours to care for people who are ill or injured. Some get very little pay and no recognition. Still they labor on simply because they are needed and they have something to give. I work regularly with hospice professionals who are never recognized. They work long, hard and for relatively little pay. They give their hearts to care for the dying. When death inevitably comes, they take a moment with their private grief and then move forward to care for the next person in need.

Here’s one that tends to get an eye-roll from teenagers, but parents are on my list. Talk about a hard job! Being a parent is a job that never ends. The parent that helps with homework, cooks, cleans, provides needed income, tucks children in bed at night, plays silly games, gives guidance and disciplines when necessary is a hero. Single parent? Big hero.

I guess my point in all this rambling about heroes is simply this: heroes are not always where you would expect them to be, but there are also everywhere. Take a moment to think about the heroes in your life. Then do something about it.

You don’t have to embarrass them by making a big show about it. A real hero doesn’t want a big, showy display anyway. A simple and sincere “thank you” will go miles in encouraging someone who is trying his/her best. It will renew a tired spirit and lift up a sagging soul.

Do it while you have the chance.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Welcome to the Gray



Morning came and I was greeted by gray skies. A lot of people don’t like gray skies. They are symbolic of things like sadness, or the absence of love, or of loss. Instead people wish for bright sunlight and pure blueness overhead.

I don’t always feel like that. Sometimes I’m fascinated by the gray. Not always, mind you. I don’t like a sky that is flat and monochromatic (although any decent photographer will tell you that there is beauty to be found in monochrome). The gray sky that captures me is the one that contains multitudes of textures and shadows. The clouds are at their various heights and seem to be holding back secrets and truths.

This is the sky of introspection.

The shades ranging from light gray to steel gray to deepest slate gray remind me of my soul. Most of us come out of a culture that paints things in black and white. We are told by the Powers That Be that life is to be confined to the simplest terms and most convenient definitions. Our side is good. The other side is evil. Our way is right. Someone else’s way is wrong. Be like me and you’ll be free.

The Church and the State have colluded in trying to keep us in line. It’s all black and white, we’re told. There are two kinds of people in the world – us and them. If we don’t want to be like them (the definition of “them” varies with whomever you’re talking to), then you’ve got to be like us.

It’s a lie. It’s just not that simplistic. I’m not just one shade, be it either black or white. As I consider the sky that reflects my heart, I see that I am many shades as well. I’ve lived a lot of years and done a lot of things. I’ve tried to make most of them good things. There are some that weren’t. They are all part of who I am.

Whoever I am today is due in large part to who I was yesterday – and last year and 10 years ago and on and on. Without the textures and shades that make up our past we have no present and cannot make a future. I’ve heard people say that we can forget the past or that the past does not define us. I don’t think that forgetting the past is good advice. There are lessons to be learned and love to be experienced in the past.  While the past doesn’t completely define us, it certainly informs who we are now. To refuse to at least acknowledge that is to lie to ourselves, to others and to God.

Just as important as acknowledging the past, sometimes we have to embrace it. We may not like all of it, but it is who we have been and part of who we are. Like a family member that sometimes make bad choices and still shows up at Thanksgiving, our past visits us and calls upon us to be honest with ourselves. The shades and textures of gray come to bring meaning and perspective to our lives.

I have not always liked who I was. There have been times that I wanted to be something different – someone different. On occasion it is still a struggle. Still, there are the special gray days when I look at the sky and can come to a moment of peace with it all. My soul is not one pure, solid color. It is many shades and textures. Some of them seem to be permanent, at least so far. Some of them come for a while and move on, merging with others to create something new.

What will it be tomorrow? I have no idea. the only sky I have is the sky of today. Tomorrow will bring its own special blend of sun and shadow. I’ll greet tomorrow when it’s here.

Today, I’m watching the clouds.