Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger?

So, last night in CPE group my verbatim got completely shredded and I got to see that I had in fact been waaay directive with a patient in a way that I hate to look at. And got to see that based on extremely DIRECT feedback. Have you ever felt overwhelmed by two entirely separate processes, so overwhelmed that you can't speak? That's me:

Process 1: I heard the worst and I survived.
Process 2: God, this is really, REALLY awful.

Last night I had to stay with process 1 in order to get the information being offered. For the rest of the night and now this morning, I'm stuck in process 2. This really, really hurts, to see that I would 'take over' for the patient in this way. It contradicts a value at the core of my understanding of pastoral care. And now I don't trust myself even one whit. Feels like being run over by a semi. AND, this afternoon, I am to be observed by my clinical supervisor, a man whose personal style is on a different planet from mine.

On the other hand, there is one more piece of info: the patient survived, and was even seemingly pretty happy with the encounter, awful though it was.

Any extra prayers, send 'em my way. Or maybe the patients' way!!!


Friday, September 23, 2005


I have a front yard that is the worst-looking on my block. In our years of drought some bindweed variants took over, and I let them, because after all they were green! This year, though, we have had more moisture, and so I've decided to clear and re-seed some areas (one large area will be xeriscaped although I haven't got a plan for that yet). So every day I go out and pull weeds, from 15 minutes worth to an hour's worth. I've realized this is the spiritual discipline I've been looking for--there is something about sitting in the earth, the sun beating on my back, tugging each stem slowly and patiently to pull up as much root as I can, that is very centering. It also feels very metaphoric. My soul is full of weeds, and as much as I would like one, there is no quick fix. As with the lawn, if I look at the whole picture it is too daunting even to start, but if I commit to some time each day, I make steady progress. Yesterday I realized I've almost filled a 32-gallon trash can with pulled weeds. And one of the areas I'd committed myself to clear is about halfway done!

I'm going to go out and pull about 15 minutes' worth now. I need this time. Badly.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

CPE adventures, or, what DO chaplains do anyway?

Actually chaplains do a lot as it turns out. I am doing my clinical hours for CPE in a very medical setting with some very awesome professionals both religious and otherwise. The title of this entry comes from a patient I met in an earlier exercise in a long term care facility--the patient had both dementia and severe hearing loss. We were figuring out ways to communicate when all of a sudden the patient asked, "So what do YOU do, besides just sit there?" Talk about a question to set me back on my heels!! Talk about instant defensiveness!!! Talk about instant feelings of worthlessness!!!! Yikes. I realized almost immediately that it would do no good to attempt a lengthy reply because the patient had great difficulty with conversation, and me blabbling would probably only cause distress. So, I gave an exaggerated shrug and rueful smile, and said (loudly), "Not a whole lot, actually." I didn't know what would happen, figured the patient might get angry or might say what I should be doing, and we'd go from there. To my utter amazement the patient was delighted, saying, "Well, you know, I can't do much either."

In the medical setting I find that chaplains differ in their assessment of what their job is. With patients near death, my CPE supervisor takes the view that the chaplain's job is to support the patient as the patient thinks/feels through whatever is present for THEM at the time, whether that be fear, positive memories, questions about fate, resting in faith, welcoming death, hating death, seeking reconciliation, WHATEVER. I've met others who feel the job is to teach/help/make the patient feel good about their life and their contributions. These two approaches can be in conflict when a patient expresses negative opinions or emotions. And my CPE supervisor's approach makes more sense to me, because if I were near death and feeling estranged from God, I'd want someone who could sit with me THERE, not try to cheer me up in some way.

I suppose I'm extra sensitive to the differences in approach because I'm working through my own grief process over the years I have spent, that are now gone, in jobs and ways of life that were not my passion. It helps immensely to spend time with those who understand that grief and don't try to rechannel my thoughts into 'positive' directions.

Anyhow I love my current clinical placement, having already met some patients and family members who are heroic in ways that I'm not sure I could live up to, as well as some of the usual convoluted family dynamics that are so utterly human and ordinary. It always amazes me that simple acts of kindness, things that are within even my ability to do, are so generously received when people are in crisis. It shouldn't amaze me, because at the worst times in my life the simplest things, the simplest acts of concern and caring, have pulled me through. It is somehow immensely satisfying to be able to offer such acts 'back' or 'forward' or whatever. And it is somehow immensely healing to perceive that, at least once in a while, being present as the utterly ordinary human being I am is enough.

Friday, September 09, 2005


I am now PLACED, meaning I have a new clinical placement for my CPE unit. As the actual classroom component started in August, it's a bit late for the clinical end, but... the students were all planning to do our clinical hours with the agency which employed our supervisor. Note the past tense. His organization was acquired by a large corporation which has now implemented a new staffing model that eliminated his position and three others. It's a real shame IMHO as they have lost some very talented people in their reshuffling (or series of reshufflings--the corporate entity has been making changes since the acquisition as most do, but these things are *very* hard to live through even for those whose positions remain). So CPE has been fraught with unusual drama for me and the others in my group. I thought briefly of abandoning ship but I really like this supervisor and have a huge amount to learn from him, so... starting over with placement! As of yesterday, I had my second interview and was accepted for a different clinical placement which actually may let me gain some learning in a wider variety of settings, which is all to the good when one is a rank beginner. The folks at the new placement are being very helpful with the time constraints; they have me starting orientation and shadowing activities Monday. Very kind. As if they don't have enough to do without fast-tracking a student intern.

So I am excited and nervous all at the same time. My supervisor has been most supportive (as well as challenging), assuring me that he does in fact believe in me, which I need to hear at times. We were talking about encouragement and he said that sometimes one needs to hear, spoken, what one already knows. I said, sometimes one needs a swift kick to get one to actually know what one should already know. And he kicks gently, which I appreciate.

For anyone from RLP chat who happens by: being PLACED is almost as good as being LOOSED (in the chat). For anyone who has not encountered RLP chat, visit and get yourselves signed up; then sit back, fasten your seat belts and tray tables, and prepare for a wonderful ride.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Back again

...after a week of drama over car trouble, working toward a new CPE clinical placement (more later), a weekend trip (that I abandoned mid-journey owing to car trouble) and so on. Yesterday morning I had to give the homily at our 8 AM service and lead the congregation in prayer at 9:30 and 11:00. RevStacey had some wonderful thoughts on her blog--the main preacher at 9:30 and 11:00 had picked the readings and so at 8:00 I had Philippians 4:4-9 and the difficult task of addressing how and why we can and must Rejoice in the Lord in the face of the unimaginable sufferings so many are enduring due to Katrina. To say nothing of the rest of the world.

I think, in agreement with RevStacey, that we cannot not rejoice in denial of suffering--God has never called God's people to deny suffering among them, but to be aware/have compassion/alleviate it. But I said at 8 AM that to become overwhelmed with awareness of the suffering--with no other view to balance--makes us vulnerable to the twin demons of rage and hopelessness, which paralyze us. And, also, in time of catastrophe, we who are not so personally affected must sometimes hold the hope and the knowledge of God's presence for those who cannot do so. I think that is part of community--when I am knocked flat, when I lose hope, when I lose sight of God, I need to know that someone will still hold that for me, offering it back to me gently, until I am able to take it up again.

For myself, I have found immense comfort in "ordinary goodness of life" in the past days. To return home safely with my dogs, to look deeply at the faces of my friends, to pause to enjoy the smell and taste of my morning coffee--all these things fill me with profound thanksgiving. All could so easily be lost, and all are so easily overlooked.

I so wish that our country would take Katrina as a wake-up call, to evaluate again how we prioritize use of our resources to care for our most marginalized and vulnerable citizens. In thinking about the patients I used to see in my basic field placement, I realize these precious children of God were characteristic of some of those left behind in the evacuation: poor, disabled, without powerful advocates, some of color, etc. I think of the irresistibly lovable older man who, when I first met him, was happily finger-painting with the remains of his dessert. I think of the ladies who no longer speak but who still communicate, who still maintain connection with those around them. How can we change our culture so that treasuring these people begins to seem like ordinary, loving, expected behavior and not a burden and a cost that can/should be cut? We have drifted as a society so far away from the values of the Scriptures we claim to love.

As for myself, personally--I have become aware in my own life that I am engaging, sometimes unconsciously, in a process of deep grieving that is the necessary counterpart of my joy at reinventing myself in middle age. As I become more aware that ministry (however it will be shaped) is at the heart of who I am, I also am hit in waves by grieving for all the years spent doing other things, all the years when I did not believe God could call me, all the years when I did not believe God wanted me to be happy, all the years that I will never get back. It is a time of intense sorrow, although I judge myself as trivial in the face of Katrina--but, again, that's a common tactic I have used in past to deny my own grieving. I need to just ride the waves of this one, trusting that the new place in which I end up will be closer to where God wants me.