Finding God “in Disorder and Imperfection”

My original reflection started off in a different direction.  It was about how quickly my imagination was engaged by Richard Rohr’s writing, which I’ve read for the first time through my recent class.

I have been told that I have a fixation for trying to see almost all things as both/and – or as a “collision of opposites”…  I am, in fact, a values conservative and a process liberal.  I believe in justice, truth, follow-through, honesty, personal and financial responsibility, faithful love, and humility – all deeply traditional values.  Yet, in my view, you need to be imaginative, radical, dialogical, and even countercultural to live these values with any depth. Whether in church life or politics, neither conservatives or liberals are doing this very well today.  Both are too dualistic – they do not think or see like the mystics.  [1]

I’d never heard anyone describe the importance of mysticism in quite that way before.  And he was speaking my language.  The collision of opposites, the both-and thinking that he spoke of reminded me of observations made by my seminary mid-course assessment team about how I described my life – as one-filled with tensions and paradox and places in between; I have been learning to own and consciously live into that reality since then.

On a recent afternoon, though, a chaplain resident walked into my office and something in our conversation about Sacraments and patients, a memory was triggered for me and it has led my reflection in a different direction.

I remember my first encounter with patient Patrick.  I remember it was late evening.  I remember the pager had been beeping itself into a frenzy.  I remember the room was dark and felt empty and lonely when I finally stepped in and began our conversation.

Patrick wasn’t even from around here.  He had come from out of town to bury a brother and got sick.  He suspected, I think, that his days were numbered when he came to the hospital.  That was the story of his family.  The men never lived past age their mid-40′s.  They all got cancer.  They all went through treatment.  They all died.  Now, with his brother gone, Patrick was the last man of his generation.  The only men left in his family were his two sons, both under 10.

I listened as he told his story.  I suggested the inherent unfairness of it all and joined him in his grief and sorrow.  I smiled as he spoke of his sons and felt how much he missed them.  He’d just wanted to talk with someone.  He hadn’t really known what else he wanted or needed, but he knew his heart was heavy and full.  There were moments when there were no words.  His aloneness and disconnection became palpable in the starts and stops and threads of his story.

I was surprised when I first began thinking about Communion in that room.  My theology was one of communal sacraments and missional Communion, one of liturgy, of repentance and celebration. The empty med-surg patient room and the situation seemed like none of those things.  And Patrick was Catholic.  Would he even want to receive Communion from me, a Presbyterian woman?  But it also seemed so right.  A remembrance of a warm meal and a connection to saints past, present, and future, a story that weaves us into God’s story and reminds us of a future hope – it seemed to be what he needed in that moment.  The thought grew louder and louder until I finally offered, feeling a little sheepish.  He accepted with a smile and we came up with a plan for me to procure the elements in the hospital cafeteria the next morning and to return, possibly with a nurse in tow to represent the greater body of Christ.

When I returned the next morning, Patrick was awake and ready.  I spoke the age-old words of invitation and institution, prayed the words of God’s story, and we shared a small, signifying meal with tears in our eyes.  I learned that Patrick left the hospital against medical advice a few hours later.  I imagine that he went home to be with his wife and children.  I imagine he went home to check in with his doctors, to find out for sure whether his own cancer had come back.  I imagine that he underwent treatment again for his cancer.  I imagine he’s died, leaving his two male children with the awful family legacy.

But I also imagine that Patrick and I, along with the nurse, “found God in disorder and imperfection,” as Rohr suggests, as countless saints before us did and countless others will after us.  I imagine that we took the journey and asked the substantial questions, breathed our prayers, and knew God’s presence that morning.  And I imagine that in our venture in deep sadness and hopeless inevitability we discovered hope and union with God and with God’s world.

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[1] Rohr, Richard.  The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009) 10.

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Beginning Again

It is exciting to be writing again.  Until June of last year, I had been blogging about my experiences and my reflections, about chaplaincy and Sabbath and food and art.  One day, I just stopped, and it took a while for me to notice the numbers on my stat sheet for May at the hospital, to notice how many deaths I had attended, how many patients and families I had journeyed with, how many gut-wrenching moments I had been witness to, and I realized I had just gotten too tired, maybe even a little traumatized, by the sheer pace and volume.  Then, with staff transitions and changing responsibilities during those times, the energy drain and the blogging hiatus continued.  Reflecting on the last 15 months, it seems only natural that I am now, finally, ready to begin taking a class again for my D.Min., and that the class would be one on theological reflection and one that will get me in the rhythm of reflecting and writing again.  It is part of the assignment to write reflection papers every week, and we are reading a lot of material that is new to me. 

One of our first readings was “The Art & Practice of Theological Reflection” by Killen and de Beer.  I suppose it could be ironic that during the time in which slowing down and reflecting – the entering into experience → encountering feelings → arising images → insight → action sequence that Killen and de Beer describe – might have been most needed was the time in which I had trouble finding space and time and energy to engage.  And it wasn’t that I wasn’t doing any reflecting or processing.  I was.  Pretty consistently, actually.  I was having some major insights into myself, God, faith, and the world, too, but as I began reading the book, I became mindful that while the “smaller” experiences during the last 15 months have been reflected upon, I still have this need to reflect on the “larger” experience of that time.  Somehow, I still feel a bit ungrounded, as if I can’t quite see the whole picture, as if there is still a loose thread or two that has yet to be woven into my story.  

Perhaps this is where Killen and de Beer would remind me that self-awareness is different from making/finding meaning (p.39).  True, and yet my self-awareness has led to action and transformation in the ways that I relate to self and others and God, and led closer to wholeness, and these are the hallmarks, they say, of true theological reflection.  Yet, I still feel a bit ungrounded.  Maybe I am looking for more nuance.  Maybe theological reflection is always recursive in concentric processes, and I am only at the beginning, and the recursive process feels tiring.  Maybe the reflection that Killen and de Beer are talking about are for non-traumatic events and experience.

I find myself feeling frustrated and trapped and curious as I reflect on my context and remember patients and families with whom I have worked. Their stories, their images, their feelings, their standpoints lead me to keep asking the questions I have been asking: how does meaning-making of traumatic experiences relate to this?  What about those who need to work through their thinking to get to their feelings?  What about non-canonical, continuing witnesses of the saints? How does one re-enter experience when one was essentially absent to oneself during the event of trauma (as some trauma theorists might say)? I remember the patient for whom it took 10 years of living post-diagnosis of a chronic and life-limiting illness before that theological reflection happened, and perhaps was only then possible.  Is it the need to re-enter the experience and the great pain associated with it that sometimes makes the months and years necessary before theological reflection is even possible? I remember families whose grief and feelings of loss and loss of control, their renarration of the events, their images of the “nightmares,” didn’t lend them a different viewing angle or affective relationship to their experience.  It just was. There were no words.  Their frameworks weren’t just insufficient.  They were shattered.  It was pure chaos.  The only thing that gave any shape to their lives, any hope of their putting one foot in front of the other that day to leave the hospital to go home, was the standpoint of self-assurance or certitude.  

Lex Orandi… Lex Credendi.  How we pray shapes what we believe.  “We have heard and trust that you are a God who hears and sees our prayers that are sighs, and deep groans, and tears, and the breaking of hearts.”  This is often my offering to God, to families, to myself when it feels like there aren’t words.  And there are sniffles and tears, weeping and holding, “yes, yes, yes” and “no, no, no,”  “O God” and “Lord Jesus”… and there is silence.  There are no words and no need for words.  I imagine that we are praying in those moments… centering ourselves and trusting that God will give us what we need and keep true to the promise that God will never leave us nor forsake us.  

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By the Side of the Road

Yesterday, as I was reading some more about the Enneagram, especially about my own Enneagram number (8), I came across this paragraph:

Eights’ main concern is personal freedom.  They hate to feel controlled.  They’re already encumbered by too many rules, too many bureaucrats, and too many brain-dead drivers on the road.  Traffic is a small instance of Eights’ inner predicament.  When the energy’s up, they want to be weaving through the cars and barreling down the highway, but there they are, strapped in by a seatbelt and stuck in a mindless morass.[1]

I’m not implying that being stuck in traffic is fun for anybody, but y’all, this is what I wished I’d written when my CPE supervisor asked me what my assertive driving was about.  It’s not about winning.  It’s not even really about getting my anger out.  When I have all this unused/potential energy contained within me, getting stuck in traffic is just another way that I am forced to contain my energy and forward momentum.

Of course, if I weren’t stuck in traffic from time to time, I would miss sights like this by the side of the road:

“Crucified By the Side of Dekalb Avenue”

I drive past this area every weekday.  I don’t know how many times I passed by it before I noticed it because I was stuck in traffic.  Children’s toys.  Crucified.  By the side of the road.  Subtle.  Striking.  Visible.  Invisible.  Somehow it feels a bit prophetic.

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[1] Palmer, Helen.  The Enneagram in Love and Work: Understanding Intimate and Business Relationships (New York: HarperCollins, 1993) 212.

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Sabbath by Pinterest: Pickling Onions

Recently, I came into a 25 lb. bag of Vidalia Onions.  I like onions, but not enough to eat Vidalia Onions like apples as some people reportedly do, and given enough time, they are likely to start sprouting and growing, so I gave about half the bag away while they were still fresh.  That still left me with about 12 lb. of onions.  What to do… what to do?

A while back, I’d pinned onto one of my “Recipes” bulletin boards a quick pickling recipe. Given my onion situation, I decided pickling onions might be a good idea for this Sabbath day.  I gathered these materials to do my pickling project today:

cleaned, washed, and cut

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1.5 large Vidalia onions
1 small radish

1 cup water
1 cup white vinegar
splash lemon juice
2 tsp minced garlic
20 whole black peppercorns
2 pinches mustard seed
1 bay leaf

I didn’t add any sugar, because Vidalias are naturally pretty sweet. I added the minced garlic, because… I’m Korean. I kept things pretty simple this first time pickling anything.

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off the heat and soaking in the pickling liquid

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  • I cleaned and cut the onions and radish. I added everything from the water to the bay leaf into a pot and brought the mixture to a boil.
  • Once the mixture was boiling, I turned off the heat, and added in the onions and radish.
  • After 20 minutes, I transferred everything to a Ball jar.
  • The pickled onions and radish are sitting overnight in the refrigerator.

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.. 

In the meantime, I used more of the onions and a half tomato to dress up a box of Annie’s Shells and White Cheddar mac & cheese. 

mac & cheese with onions and tomato

A simple Sabbath-day dinner of mac & cheese with a glass of 2009 Mas des Dames, a nice rosé with Grenache (40%), Mourvèdre (40%), and Syrah (20%):

wine and mac & cheese dinner

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Sabbath by Pinterest: Cross TP Art

Toilet Paper art on Pinterest is not the stuff we used to do in school.  At least in my classes, we used to glue yarn and googly eyes to our TP rolls, or maybe even colored cellophane paper.  It was fun, but it was never anything I wanted to hang on my walls.  The craft-y people who blog about such things have taken the TP roll to a new level of sophistication.  I’ve been pinning TP art ideas for some time, and last week, I decided to give it a small-dose try by creating this Pinterest-inspired TP Art to go along with my Easter Season Meditation.

This past week, I decided to keep going with the canvas, TP, paint combination to make a seminary graduation gift for my cousin.  I’d given her crosses at the end of her first two years of seminary: one that I painted at a pottery place and one I brought back from South Africa.  I looked for a nice cross for this third and final year, but nothing seemed quite right.  After last week’s creation, I felt energized to make something.

I started off by painting the canvas to create a background:

Background created using blue, black, and white.

While the canvas was drying, I painted the TP rolls half black and half dark gray.  As last week’s experience taught me, it takes too long to paint after the roll has been cut, especially if the pieces are all going to be the same color.  I cut them into even pieces after they were dry.  For the bottom two pieces of the cross, I notched them to connect better with the top, right, and left pieces, and to connect the two bottom pieces together without glue.

TP rolls painted with black and dark gray acrylic paint, then cut.

While I glued the pieces of the cross together (held together using a paper clip and a small binder clip – others on Pinterest use clothespins) and let them dry, I cut a piece of vellum out and used a permanent marker to write.

Vellum cut and words written.

I used Mod Podge to glue the vellum to the canvas.  This did not go well, because the vellum curled up very quickly.  I used Mod Podge over the vellum, and “uncurled” the vellum.  It ended up creating an interesting look, but I’ll have to do something different the next time.

The finished product!

I used Mod Podge over the whole canvas, so it is a bit shiny.

Next time I want to do something different with the vellum, and maybe do something to create a better border.  Any advice?

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God’s Motherly Love

Today, I preached in Korean for the first time at the New Korean Presbyterian Church of Georgia.  It’s not that I haven’t had invitations to do so before.  Since being ordained, I’ve been invited to lead the Saturday dawn prayer service or to preach the Sunday morning service at my under-care church.  Every time, it’s been during one of my visits home and I’ve held firm to my boundaries about not preaching while on vacation.  To be honest, there’s also been some fear on my part that my Korean would somehow fail me, that my language skills wouldn’t be good enough to preach the Word of God.

Today, I was invited to be a woman’s voice from the pulpit on Mother’s Day.  Today, the congregation received me graciously and my language did not fail me.  The following is a longer version of the illustration I used to tie 1 John 5:1-6 with Mother’s Day:

“Are you looking for me?  I’m here.  I’m right here.”  Those were the words a mother spoke to her dying daughter as they waited for the mechanical ventilation to be removed.  The daughter had been sick for some time, and they had journeyed together on that long road.

“Pieta” by Michaelangelo
(Source: Wikipedia)

Now, at the end of that long journey, mother laid a gentle hand on her daughter’s face and whispered her presence and her love.  It didn’t matter that her daughter spent most of her time with her eyes closed… not really interacting… not really seeing… not really responding.  It didn’t matter that her daughter seemed to be far away at times… slipping away into another world.  

What mattered was that mother, heart-breaking and soul-hurting, wanted her daughter to be comforted, to know that she was not alone, to know that mother would be along with her on the journey until the very end, where she could no longer follow.  

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. - Isaiah 40:1 

Her suffering would soon be over.  And even when the daughter’s eyes could not see mother’s face, maybe when the daughter feels all alone and forsaken because she cannot see anymore, mother is there.  “I’m here.  I’m right here.”  Even when others forget, mother cannot forget.  The daughter is mother’s heart, inscribed into her very soul.  The daughter will never be forgotten.  She will always be mother’s baby.

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.” Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.  - Isaiah 49:13-16 

As this mother whispered her love and her presence to her daughter, so God whispers God’s motherly love to God’s people who are suffering in an imperfect world, tearful in grief, weighed down by oppression, and heartbroken and heart-congested, “Are you looking for me?  I’m here.  I’m right here.”  God whispers so we may remember that we are not alone.  God whispers light into our darkness.

As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bodies shall flourish like the grass; and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants, and his indignation is against his enemies. - Isaiah 66:13-14 

“Amor Materno” by Anchise Picchi
(Source: commons.wikimedia.org)

For mothers whose love and presence has comforted their children throughout the ages and around the world… for a compassionate God who is like a mother who comforts, nurses, and wills good and flourishing for God’s world, we give thanks.

As those who have received such love, we have also received a calling to share God’s motherly love with God’s beloved world through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. This is not just for the sake of our salvation.  It is for the redemption of God’s world that we, who believe in God’s great love for us and know the light of God’s presence, participate in God’s mission and ministry in the world in thankfulness to God and love for our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, and for creation.  May we be the benediction of God’s presence that reminds the world, “Are you looking for me?  I’m here.  I’m right here.”

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Easter Season Meditation (3)

A Prayer by Karl Barth during the Easter Season

Pinterest-inspired TP Art (made 5/6/2012)

Lord, God our Father,
through Jesus Christ, your Son,
in the power of the Holy Spirit,
give light to our eyes, that we may see your light, the brightly shining light of reconciliation! For this is the greatest sickness, when one cannot see the light, even during the day. Free us from this sickness, us and all Christians who celebrate Easter either well or poorly, the entire human community, both near and far, who are again and again being confused and endangered anew.

Bless what comes to pass in this church and in the other churches and communities that are now still separated from us, that it may be a testimony to your name, your kingdom, and your will! Reign also over all the various concerns of the government authorities, administrations, and courts here and all over the world!

Strengthen the teachers in consideration of their high task for the growing generation; the people who write newspapers, conscious of their grave responsibility for the public opinion that they influence; the doctors and nurses, for genuine attentiveness to the needs of those who are in their care! Substitute your comfort, your counsel, and your help for all that would accuse the many lonely, poor, sick, and confused among us! And let your mercy be apparent and powerful to all who are here in this house, along with their families!

We place ourselves and all that we lack and that the world requires in your hands. Our hope is in you. We trust in you. You have never let your people be put to shame, whenever they earnestly called on you. What you have begun, you will surely finish. Amen.

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We’re All Alive and Nobody’s Happy

I wonder if you’ve seen this YouTube video of Louis CK being interviewed by Conan O’Brien.  In it, he pokes fun at all of us, including himself, who complain about our first-world problems… like getting delayed on our transcontinental flights, and not having WiFi on those same flights.  His point is that everything, all the technology we have, is amazing, but nobody’s really happy.  It’s funny… and convicting all at the same time.  The last time I was complaining about a thrice-delayed flight that would get me home long past midnight, my friend reminded me that it was truly amazing to be sitting in a chair, flying in the air… like a bird.  I watch this video from time to time when I need a reminder that I am losing the capacity for awe and wonder.

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Recently, we had a reminder-moment like that during morning report.  Morning report for our chaplaincy department is the time when we give a quick overview of all the calls that have come through the pager and the office phone in the previous 24 hours. Because of the mission and nature of this hospital, most calls that come through our pager are critical.  Also because of the mission and nature of this hospital, we end up seeing just about everything.  Even so, there are times when even those of us who have been here “for a minute” sit with our jaws agape and say, “You mean that can happen, too?”

I can’t remember what exactly had happened to the patient in question that particular morning, but we sat puzzling out the details for a moment before someone finally made some comment about looking up things we could do to keep ourselves healthier, and someone else made a comment about the very narrow range of lab values and vitals that are considered “normal.”  And we talked about how so often, the response to such bodies-gone-out-of-balance stories is, “Why couldn’t our bodies be made to withstand a wider range of stuff?” or “Why is it so easy for the blood chemistry to fall out of normal?”

The reality, I think, is that our bodies, through the constant, unseen work of our inside-stuff, are so intricately balanced that sometimes it’s a wonder that we continue to be able to function at all for all the stresses we put upon them.  And for all the horrible things that we see coming through our doors, sometimes it is a wonder that as many people leave the hospital alive, bodies having found a new balance and beginning to heal… fearfully and wonderfully made… and remade.

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.  My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. – Psalm 139:13-16

Maybe one day, I will get all ambitious and make a “spoof” video about how we’re all alive and nobody’s happy.  But in the meantime, I remind myself that it is truly awe-inspiring and wondrous that I am alive and healthy this day… that I am breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide, and that my body is silently producing/ recyclng my body weight in ATP so I can move and breath.

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Easter Season Meditation (2)

(Prophets of) A Future Not Our Own
A Prayer by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw
In memory of Oscar Romero (1917–1980), Archbishop of San Salvador

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s
grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

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