Tuesday, August 28, 2012

lower like Jesus

I wonder if Jesus wore the same clothes as a carpenter and a traveling minister guy. His Nazareth neighbors knew him as one of the wood workers who scraped by for years under the security of his dad's local business. Calloused hands, an eye for detail, at home with wood shavings and dusty shop floors. That's what they saw. That's what they knew. Did this twenty-something construction worker ever yearn to tell them he's more than what they see, that he has ideas born from another world, abilities to change lives? That he has desires to help people? That he longs to heal? That he has an "in" with the Creator of the world? That he knows people are really lost and hurting, and that he can join up with them and lead them back to the right path? That he knows that the role you play isn't always the same as who you really are? The humility and restraint not to expose and correct and prove. The faith to let it come out in due time.

Is it the the quiet people who are more misunderstood, or the ones who talk a lot? Jesus is probably the best model of someone whom people didn't get. I picture him on the quieter side than the noisier one. I wonder what went on in his mind when he was walking alone. He had lots of compassion, but compassion wears you out after a while. Did he ever just long to go back to the shop and rip some Lebanese cedar planks? To get lost in work, the kind you do by yourself with your hands? To make something and see it completed, unlike the work of ministry?

I used to think he was of such a single mind, so seared to his purpose of being the bridge to eternity, that he couldn't get distracted while he walked through the Middle East. And this left me with the familiar feeling of not measuring up. I try, but my mind isn't like that. It's not that single. It drifts from the long-term goals of financial security to the immediate needs of daily work and provision to the planning of rest with my family to the frustrations and challenges of waiting and knowing with more certainty the eternal purpose for my life. I wished Jesus was more human like me. But maybe he was. Distractions were, in fact, his norm. People were always touching him and bumping into him and bothering him with questions and pleas, even traps. And he just rolled with it. He was casual but unwavering. And that just attracted more people, more demands, more distractions, more compassion. People still didn't get it, but that didn't seem to throw him off. In fact, he just lowered himself more to meet them in their obscurities and misunderstandings. He came from heaven, from somewhere in eternity, to the earth, but once here, he didn't stop descending. He kept descending so people could have a chance to see and hope for that eternal connection with their Creator. He lowered himself into people's lives all the way till he died, and then he reversed things.

I wonder if I could, or should, try to copy that way of life, the lowering kind, the descending kind, the kind that steers away from upward mobility and climbing for security and gathering more stuff and trying to be significant and noticed. Maybe that's where the true treasure is, in the deeper parts of life, the parts you have to descend into to genuinely connect with people in those gray places of pain and hope and relief from the burdens of trying to make it all the time. Maybe that's where God's currents of grace run less hindered, even wilder, in those places under the surface a bit. Maybe there's more room for me down there than up here.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Chaplain Intern

It was January 1999. I was in the final stretch of finishing a Masters program. All 144 units of  academics were checked off. I just had one final semester of a CEU to complete, off campus. Methodist Hospital in Arcadia, CA would be my daily destination for the next 12 weeks. After three years of classroom study (actually five for me doing it part-time...I was working to avoid the loans), the higher-ups at Fuller wanted you to take some time to get practical with all that cognitive wisdom. Take a practicum. Challenge yourself. Make it real. I chose to work as a chaplain in the hospital. Not really sure what I was doing.

I was part of a group of graduate students who were also looking to finish their degree. Over the weeks we bonded, not in the lifetime sense of bff's, but in a unique way that only raw experience with death and sickness can create. I would spend half my time visiting patients, letting them know that no, I'm not the doctor, I'm the guy you didn't request who's supposed to talk to you about God or faith or religion. The other half of the internship was reflective, process-based. I and my fellow chaplains would meet together with our supervisor and discuss spiritual care or journal our thoughts and experiences. The first few weeks I felt like a fish out of water. Little did I know of the land mines that would have to be crossed before Spring.

The first day on the job we were informed about proper attire. I don't know if they meant hospital attire, or ministry attire, or "you  pseudo-religious cadets who think you know about life now that you've almost got a degree in something" attire. I had expected (three words that will mess up your life if you're not careful) that we could wear clothes that were nice/casual, clothes that didn't make us look like a doctor or nurse or administrator or priest. Just nice jeans and a buttoned shirt, maybe untucked, probably not flip-flops so as not to contract scary diseases that might ooze on the floor, but just regular clothes that say I'm not guarded, I'm casual but deep, I'm good-looking. Instead, we had to wear slacks, long-sleeve polyester shirts, ties, and even jackets. Really? This is not a 1950's prom, nor is it grandpa's funeral. I already felt like I was in someone else's skin, and now I've got to walk around with this formal camaflauge and pretend I feel natural talking and listening to the sick and dying.

So I walk up to the nurses' station, hoping one of these elite and seasoned helpers of the sick can point me to the starting gate of my rounds. After about two and half minutes of gossip with her fellow RN's and scribbling in notebooks, she raises her eyes with obvious disdain for the interruption. "Yeah?" she says, communicating to me in a short tone that she's a 24 year old female who doesn't have time to digress from her social and professional space, that she and her co-workers don't need some newbie chaplain to supplement their more-than-adequate care of patients, and that the patients, doctors, janitors, everyone in the hospital, don't want any religious interns walking the halls of this institution.  She points me away down the hall, but then her eyes move to my name tag. "Joey?? Is your name Joey? Isn't that a little boy's name?" The RN crew behind her look up from behind the counter and glance at me, then back at her, then back down to their notes, cracking smiles and smirks, another casualty, another victory. I walk away in my suit, feeling the stares pushing me into my first room. I thought I'd feel more prepared for my first patient visit.

Dagmar was my supervisor for the next 12 weeks. Her English was fair, a bit broken. She would have preferred to speak in her native German. As we all sat in a circle sharing tid bits of our life the first day, I learned that Dagmar was raised in a small Protestant town steeped in old German piety. I wondered if she was related to Martin Luther. Somewhere along the way she broke off from the tradition. She was now a graduate student at Claremont studying process theology and living life with her partner and serving as a woman chaplain in the hospital. My mind is starting to drift. This is my new boss. My supervisor. My pastor, sort of. The pieces don't fit. And after a few days (well maybe the first two weeks), I was so grateful they didn't fit. Dagmar became a friend, a mentor. And I was becoming someone more. So many people with strong convictions are afraid of a slippery slope. And to me, this just shows that their convictions aren't all that strong. You can stretch and grow without abandoning or compromising your core beliefs. In fact you should. If you have a Rock foundation, then the storms and challenges and uncertainties and puzzle pieces that don't fit are only going to make you more humble and interesting and Jesus-like. Because of Dagmar's leadership and pastoral care to her students, I became a better chaplain, a better pastor, able to stand in the gray and hold more uncertainties (welcome to hospice ministry), strengthened in my faith and my somewhat conservative biblical convictions. And I grew stronger, not in a reactionary way to Dagmar, but precisely because she was not reactionary. She simply guided us to integrate our theology, faith, and ministry in this unglamorous institution of death and dying and suffering, a place that most people, including professional ministry people, tend to will off their radar. Dagmar wasn't over-confident either. She was still searching, still unsettled somewhere inside. But she showed me how to be Jesus, tender, compassionate, non-anxious, uncompromising, to hurting people.
We all took communion together in the stain-glassed chapel. And all my red flags were flying. Can I do this? With her? Does she believe in the infallibility of Scripture, especially Romans and 1st Timothy? Where is she with the Trinity? Atonement? Are there Christians at Claremont? We passed the juice and we broke bread together. "The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you, for forgiveness of your sins." A year before I was strangely and wonderfully aware of God's presence, almost tangible, while visiting an AA meeting in the basement of a church for a class assignment, with all the coffee and smoke and shared stories of daily setbacks and victories. True confession with and among others is a shortcut to touching the Creator. Here in this closet of a chapel at Methodist hospital at 10:00 on a Tues. morning it happened again. Our Creator was visiting. Two or more were gathered...Inhabiting the praises....Sweet communion with our Lord. Somewhere inside I was breaking and rebuilding. Jesus was getting bigger. I was getting smaller. Probably better suited for ministry.
"Here, put this tea bag inside your mask. If you feel like you're gonna faint, just walk out that door. Don't talk. Just observe." This wasn't chaplain protocol, but an opportunity presented itself to the director (Dagmar's boss), and she was in to unique, off-the-wall experiences.  I'm pretty sure this qualified. In the lowest chambers of the hospital, a cadaver was scheduled to be opened up, and what chaplain intern can say they ever got to witness an autopsy bedside, next to the doctors and scissors and plastic sheets. It was a 65 year old woman. She lay lifeless, literally, under some florescent lights, while the two doctors began the process of incisions and organ removal, all within feet of my face. We  watched with some curiosity and some horror. This wasn't a movie.  It was real, but strangely ironic. The two surgeons, a male and female, were chit chatting the whole time about anything other than body parts. The conversation was well-paced, weaving from Starbuck's lattes to home remodeling to summer vacations with the kids, all the while marking and cutting skin methodically and professionally.

After a short while, the aroma from an open dead body will overtake you. It will make your stomach hurt and your head dazed. I was leaning now. Swaying. The tea-bag wasn't cutting it. I needed something stronger, like a large splash of Polo in my face. The pleasant tones of the doctors' words were receding quickly, as were the lights and the masked tea-bag faces of my fellow interns. I made it to a chair in the other room, dry land from a week at high seas, and I sat until it was time to take the elevator back to our station, back to the place where the alive patients were. And I was aware of the final, tiny margin of space in their lives. Some would get better and be discharged, but most would find themselves in a large elevator descending to the basement, prepared to be shipped to the local mortuary, or perhaps opened up by two friendly doctors.
Mark was a fireman friend of mine. When I lived in Pasadena, we would hang out, eat lunch sometimes, talk about work, God, faith, sex, our wives, carne asada. Just typical stuff. Because he was a fireman, he had time. And one Wednesday we decided to meet at Baja Fresh for some burritos at noon. It was one of his days off, and although I was committed to visiting patients and their families all morning, I had planned to take an hour lunch to meet up. About 9:00 am I was called into a dying patient's room to be with the patient and the family as they pulled the plug. The woman was 92 years old, she had suffered a stroke which affected her brain among other things. In fact, the only thing working was her heart. The doctors said she would pass shortly after they unhooked her. At about 9:15, in the midst of quiet sobs and hugs from children and grandchildren, the nurse turned off all machines, leaving the patient to herself. "It won't be much longer," said the nurse quietly as she exited the room, leaving the extended family with me in a tense silence in the shade-drawn room. "Chaplain, would you hold mom's hand...I think she'd like that.""Um, of course," I said, as I gently grasped the 92 year old bony fingers wrapped in wrinkled, mottled skin. "Say a prayer, Chaplain." I looked over my shoulder. "O.K." I mumbled out some words of gratitude for the wonderful and pleasant years shared together as family, presuming this clan was the exception to the family rules governing the human race, and asked that God would comfort each person as they grieved their loss. "Thanks Chaplain." I still held her hand, staring at her face, the lines from the recently-removed oxygen mask still indented around her mouth and nose. After a few minutes, I noticed the absence of whispers and crying. I turned over my shoulder again, never letting go of the jaundice-stained hand, and half the room had left. Grandchildren, nieces, nephews, now gone, back to work, back to somewhere else but here. Only the the 67 year old son and his wife remained. But at 10:30, they looked at their watch, at each other, then at me, and eased their way to the door. "Thanks Chaplain. You did good. Just fine. We, uh, we'll be back to arrange things.... thanks." I watched the door close. "Yeah, O.K." I was alone with the 92 year old. Her hand in mine. Her brain was dead, she was gone, I think, except for her heart, which, according to the monitor, was beating like a track star's. It was now 11:30am. I'd been in here over two hours, and I had a lunch appointment for some Mexican food in 30 minutes. The nurse popped in. "Wow. She got a good ticker, don't she?  Shouldn't be long now," and she left the room. It was getting harder to ignore my growling stomach, and I knew Mark was punctual. Now the guilt was setting in. All I could focus on was the solid beep and the flat line that was supposed to have been here a couple hours ago. 11:50am. A quiet, still room, but inside my head and chest the stress was multiplying. What kind of chaplain am I? "I know. You're the loser kind." The voices in me awakened. "The kind that values punctuality and a steak Baja burrito over a life passing into eternity. You're the kind that pretty nurses make fun of because of your stupid suit and baby boy's name. Joeyeee." But from somewhere deeper another voice emerged. Maybe my subconscious, my soul... probably not. Probably God's voice, because it was so much more sure and solid than my taunting conscious. "A non-anxious presence. That's what you are to be. That's me, God, showing up through you. You can let go of her hand now. She's been with me for the last hour and half. But I appreciate you being calm and thorough.  Go have some lunch. And by the way, I don't like the suit either, but it's just for a few more weeks. And I love your name. Joey. It's perfect."
Dagmar wanted us to fill out an evaluation and then trade it for hers. It was the last week of the internship. I checked the usual high marks without giving them much thought. A couple sentences saying thank you for the experience. We traded papers. She handed me two paragraphs of well-articulated thoughts personalized to me, mostly encouraging with one particular challenge: "You've got a good heart and you've been a good pastor to many families and patients. But I'd like to see you spend more time pastoring yourself. Jesus took the time. So should you." Sometimes we spend so much energy balancing and walking the course as straight as we can, like a train fixed on the metal tracks. And being derailed is something to avoid or correct if it happens. Dagmar derailed me with that. She put a crack in my theological paradigm. She threw me a square and said to make it fit in my circle. It was knowledge being hit with wisdom. It was color splashing on my black and gray pages. It was a chisel splitting the years of cured concrete, and my foundation was shifting. Because if you pastor yourself, that means you're putting yourself first, above others, above things that are urgent and important, above things that matter, above worthy things. Worthy things. The crack just got really deep. Oh, the pursuit of downward mobility, as  Henri Nouwen penned it. Soul excavating. And here come the voices... "Gosh, you are gifted. And look at all the needs. In the community, in your church. There's so much to do. Remember the leaders that invited you to join up with them. You're needed. There's a lot of ministry opportunities. You gotta do it." Or "Seriously? You're that narcasistic to think that your needs come before others? Pastor yourself? What's that? You're supposed to sacrifice for others, bear the burdens of others, deny yourself, everyday. That's how you grow." Or "Taking time for yourself sounds good and fine, but you already do that. You don't work that hard where you don't have time for yourself. You have down time all the time. Your drive home, your weekends in the yard, your occassional lunches with friends. And if you actually got intentional with pastoring yourself, it's gonna get messy. There's no way to measure it. It's a weird structure, if any. Just keep doing what you're doing. You're a fast-moving train. Just get back on the tracks." Dagmar told me to pastor myself, and I had no idea what that meant. But I longed for it. I longed for the feeling you get when someone recognizes something deep in you and tells you it's O.K. to let it out. Like finally being picked for kickball after years of recess alone leaning on the chain link. I wanted to take the time to figure out how to do this, but even more, I wanted to believe that I was worth it. Could my supervisor be right? Could she have enough insight to alter my course? Was I just overthinking again?

I finished the ten weeks and graduated with a degree. I didn't know what to do with it, so I kept my little painting business going. But I did know what it feels like when someone gets you and sees something in you that's worth paying attention to. I wanted others to know what this is like. Maybe being authentic with yourself was the key to healthier relationships. Maybe families and churches and work places move too fast, like freeways. I learned to slow down a little and I liked it. It was good. I just wished it would have lasted longer.