One Moment at a Time

After I jumped into a relatively surprising on-call, I met a kind family during the long night. Just days later, the small futures we spoke softly about came true.

As in many cases, I don’t see families once they’re gone. I “say it all” when we’re together because that’s all we have. I’ve learned to be fully me, to minister with my best skills, to discipline myself to what’s true to that moment. When the moment is gone or the family has discharged, they’re gone.

But I often want to keep speaking with them when things change. When they’ve left and I haven’t seen them again. It may be truer to say that I always “have more to say,” not that I want to keep speaking with them. My view is that I have said all that I need to say usually. But that’s another post.

For one family that I met last Friday late, I want to say in short-form: It doesn’t always matter what you did or didn’t do. At least, in this moment, it matters that you’re here, now, in this moment. It matters that you’re facing this current set of challenges. There will be time for all your befores and all your afters. I want to sit with you and hold this moment.

Of course, your past matters. The unresolved always matters. But you will get to that. For now, for right now, sit in this moment. Feel the bones of your bottom in the chair. Take the breath that you haven’t since you heard the news, since you rushed to the hospital, since you left and, days later, returned for this seeming goodbye.

Sit in this. You aren’t alone. I’m here. And when I leave, someone else will keep the care going.

Soul Stuff: Entrusting Yourself

I shared this quote as part of a presentation I led last week with physician-fellows in palliative care. They are finishing up a year with their fellowship; they’ve come to palliative care from a variety of disciplines. For three years I’ve been shadowed by different fellows, working side to side to care, to listen, and to participate in the sacred sendings of patients.

Palliative care doctors are a good group of people, and our work as chaplains borders a neighboring region if I can put it that way. Unfortunately palliative docs are often thought of as last resorts and though that view is changing, their import is only beginning to emerge for addressing pain, discomfort, and the large matter of the unanswered. The affinity between their work and ours in spiritual care makes me think of the word integration.

My talk was on cultivating patience in the medical intensive care unit. The MICU is my primary pastoral context these days outside of my supervision of ministry students, and I pulled materials together for a similar group last year. Toward the end of our discussion, I was reflecting upon the wonderful work of Rachel Naomi Remen, whom I’ve quoted before on the blog.

Dr. Remen is among a small circle of life sustainers for me, especially from this last calendar year. She works with caregivers, teaches physicians of the body and physicians of the soul. And she helps me see better some of the portions of what’s ahead in my own future. That said, this quote was toward the end of my presentation with the staff from My Grandfather’s Blessings:

An oyster is soft, tender, and vulnerable. Without the sanctuary of its shell it could not survive. But oysters must open their shells in order to “breathe” water. Sometimes while an oyster is breathing, a grain of sand will enter its shell and become a part of its life from then on. Such grains of sand cause pain, but an oyster does not alter its soft nature because of this. It does not become hard and leathery in order not to feel. It continues to entrust itself to the ocean, to open and breathe in order to live. But it does respond. Slowly and patiently, the oyster wraps the grain of sand in thin translucent layers until, over time, it has created something of great value in the place where it was most vulnerable to its pain. A pearl might be thought of as an oyster’s response to its suffering…Sand is a way of life for an oyster. If you are soft and tender and must live on the sandy floor of the ocean, making pearls becomes a necessity if you are to live well.

I hope these words and anybody’s words which sit in your ears give you an anchor in the oceans of your life. Being an oyster, being a giver of hope, being a caregiver can irritate you until you release your own soft nature. Remen doesn’t likely mean by soft nature anything but a positive description of the best part of you and me.

When my training supervisor wrote my evaluation from February to September, he remarked upon my growth that he’d seen from two years, though he’s only supervised six months of that time. He gave a high compliment when he said that he’d seen me soften over these months, over these years. I had read these words but forgot about them until the other week. In working on this presentation, I reread that the oyster softened, too.

May your nature only soften. May it never harden. May you be as soft as you need to be to produce the pearls that await the context of your own soul. May every sand grain get used to your softness rather than your softness falling into hard, gritty sharpness. Don’t clamp your shell. Don’t give up. Don’t harden.

Something You Said

When I left you, I thought to myself that patient rooms are the best classrooms.

Better than graduate seminars and intensives. Better than syllabi with supplemental reading lists so long they make your eyes hurt.

The simple wisdom coming from the lives of pained people is exquisite, expensive truth that I get for showing up as a chaplain. I didn’t have to pay tuition or get reimbursed for my travel. I didn’t have to buy a book or copy an article. I, simply, answered a page.

You told me something I’ve heard in different ways by other people. You said, my words not yours, that our conceptions of God are ours, that they are personal, and that they can be taken only so far. You used the image of the stars and suggested that we ought to be humble as humans because we “perhaps just stumbled upon the ability to think.”

You said that our ways of understanding God should be humbled by such things. And I’m considering the depth of your words. We ought to be humbled by such things.

Giving & Receiving Hugs

I approached her the way I would anyone in her situation. Softly. Gently. Quietly. My head was bowed. It was a form of what I’ve explained to my wife is my chaplain walk.

The woman was crying. It’s not all she was doing but crying sums it up. More broadly she was at the side of her dead father. I had already been with him. Now, I got to meet his daughter and stand with her to witness life once father is gone.

I came to her side. I asked her if I could touch her shoulder. I did so, recognizing the tender permission you give to a stranger you realize is only there for you. You may never see him again. You may never have to explain yourself. You may never have to re-live that moment. So you say yes with a shrug that can be interpreted as a grief heave, even though it’s the answer to his question.

My hand was on her and at some point, she turned to me. She asked me if I could hug her. My arms were already open. That opening was not planned, though it was intentional somewhere in my soul. My posture knew what it meant to be there, knew those tears. I knew something about that woman’s grief. And we both gave and received each other’s hugs.

My Blog: Good Decisions

I was in a room listening to physicians talk about intensive care and how timelines were important to patient care and to providing health care. Patients get better when they’re treated. Or they don’t.

If they get better, doctors know why. And the same is true if patients don’t get better. If certain things were going to happen, like recovery, then they would have happened.

The importance of recognizing that trend along with all the other information available is freeing. It can free you to choose well. It can enable a person to have a good death and a good life in the sense that there’s life to live after the next decision.