Saturday, July 18, 2015

chaplaincy series: Pastoral Theology

Explanation of project: CPE students were tasked with writing and delivering a “pastoral homily”, a message that would speak to patients in a pastoral way. This is not a sermon, but rather, an exploration of a pastoral concern.

My initial reflections: Proclamation is something that comes quite easily to me.  I write and deliver sermons on a regular basis. I have preached homilies at funerals, weddings, prayer services, worship services, graduation and confirmation liturgies, and other events in the life of a pastor. What would be of greater learning to me is to engage in dialogue with my peers and supervisor regarding the topic of this homiletical reflection, disability and pastoral theology.

Limiting the scope: There are many definitions of what it is to be disabled.  There are physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities, invisible disabilities such as autoimmune diseases and mental illnesses, and other conditions that may or may not be disabling such as deafness or blindness. The scope of this project does not allow for extended consideration of all of these topics, so the term “disability” for the remainder of this project refers to paralysis, specifically the inability to walk as a result of a traumatic injury. Additionally, since I am not a part of the disabled community, my reflections are limited to my own social location. I can reflect upon these topics, but I am perpetually outside this community. Finally, since I am a minister in a Christian tradition, specifically a Lutheran pastor, my perspective is Christo-centric and is guided by scripture. 

Images of paralysis in scripture:  (NRSV)
Mark 2:1-12:
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’”

Matthew 9:2-8:
 And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.’ Then some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’ But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—‘Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.’ And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.

Luke 5:17-26:
“ One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. When he saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven you.’ Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, ‘Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the one who was paralyzed—‘I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.’ Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today.’”

Matthew 8:5-13:
 “When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, ‘Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and cure him.’ The centurion answered, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.’ And the servant was healed in that hour.”

John 5:1-15:
“After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.” ’ They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.”

Acts 9:23-25
 Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years, for he was paralyzed. Peter said to him, ‘Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!’ And immediately he got up. And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.

Scriptural Reflections:
-All four Gospels have some account of Jesus telling a paralyzed man to “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.”
-There is an additional account of the healing of the Centurion’s servant and of a man named Aeneas.
-Scriptural accounts pertaining to paralysis tend to be closely related to healing happening when a person proves their faith or when their sins are forgiven.

Pastoral Reflections:
It is extremely problematic to link paralysis with sin or with faith.  To link paralysis with sin is to say that someone did something to deserve their condition/injury/illness. To link paralysis (or healing from it, “take up your mat and walk”) with faith puts someone into the position of feeling like they can do something to pray their way out of their condition. Additionally, to link paralysis with faith means that someone who is paralyzed can be seen as “not praying hard enough” or not “having enough faith”, because if they had great faith, they could be healed. Both of these are cold comfort to someone who is paralyzed. I have been present many times during this residency year when a doctor told a patient that they would not be able to walk again as a result of a car accident/ski accident/fall/other trauma. Patients frequently respond, “what did I do to deserve this?” The pastoral response is, “absolutely nothing, there is nothing to say except, ‘I am with you’” and yet, so much of Christianity wants to pray for a miracle when a severed spinal cord is not going to ever be repaired.

There is something left wanting when we link disability to sin or implying that a person’s traumatic injury could have been avoided or that it could be healed if they only had enough faith or prayed the right way. There needs to be a different concept of disability and theology.

Re-imagining disability with theology:

A. The interdependent God: posed by Kathy Black in A Healing Homiletic. This idea of Christian community is a place where “all are called to work interdependently with God to achieve well-being for ourselves and others.”[1]  This idea begins from the place that we are profoundly interconnected to one another and to God.  Physical limitations are merely a different manifestation of “normal” because we are all connected. Those who depend on the assistance of others with daily activities are essentially no different than those who depend on the assistance of other people who have expertise with other tasks, such as financial management, construction, and so on. Black argues that “experience of disability allows us to see what is often invisible to others: all people, disabled or not, are dependent on other people and the resources of the natural world for survival.”[2]  Black emphasizes the connection between God and between human beings, saying that “the universe is interdependent and God is part of that interdependence.”[3]

Scripturally speaking, I see evidence of this interdependent God in Exodus 6:7a, “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.” God is God because of God’s people. God is not a puppet master subjecting people to whims of pain and suffering. In this image of the universe, human choice and God’s will are just a couple factors in a myriad of factors determining our lives.  

What does this look like in a hospital setting? Patients in a hospital are acutely aware of their dependence on others.  I made a visit to a patient last week who said that she was unable to chat at the time because she was waiting for her nurse to take her to the bathroom. The eventual treatment plan for most patients is to return home and to return to health, and to get to that point, patients must rely on caregivers. But what if this interdependence works the other way as well?  Nurses are nurses because they have patients to care for. Chaplains are chaplains because they provide pastoral care. Care is not provided in a vacuum, it is provided as a part of a web of interconnected relationships. In this model, disability is not a deficit, but rather, another way that we are connected to one another.

B. The Disabled God: Nancy Eiesland, in The Disabled God, posits that traditional images of disability as a curse or as a blessing (something to overcome) are simply not adequate and make it impossible for a person with disabilities to see themselves as part of the imago dei, as divinely inspired creatures made in the image of God. Eiesland suggests that the image of the crucified Christ can point to the disabled God.  Jesus died as a result of physical limitations. He was crucified on a cross and suffocated because he was unable to lift his own body weight enough to fill his lungs. Eiesland states, “Christians do not have an able-bodied God as their primal image. Rather, the disabled God promising grace through a broken body is at the center of piety, prayer, practice and mission.”[4] Eiesland’s image of God divorces physical disability from the notion of sin, because Jesus was free from sin and yet he became disabled. She also argues that the stories of the crucifixion and the resurrection show that God is in solidarity with those who have disabilities or who are otherwise marginalized. God knows what it is to be physically limited and knows what it is to experience pain.

This has major implications from a pastoral perspective for patients in the hospital. As Jesus appeared to his disciples as a survivor, with wounds from his suffering, even inviting the disciples to touch him and place their hands in his wounds, so too patients are marked with wounds and scars from their own suffering. This speaks of a God in solidarity with those who suffer. God knows what it is to suffer and God knows what it is to die. As someone who has suffered, I would much rather have a God who suffers (a theology of the cross) than a God who is seen only in glory. As a patient, I would rather have a chaplain who is willing to acknowledge that God has experienced the worst that this world can offer and is not too quick to pray for healing or for wholeness because that feels cheap.  As a chaplain, I would rather have a disabled God, because that is a God that I can believe in and that I can bear witness to as I sit with patients in their suffering.

Reflecting Together:

1.     What do you think about people “deserving” their condition?  What about drunk drivers or suicidal folks or someone else who actually did something, even if it was mere stupidity, to bring about their paralysis?
2.     What do you think about God as being disabled?  Does this expand your vision of God or does it limit what God is capable of doing?
3.     What can paralysis tell us about God?
4.     Do these thoughts challenge your theology? Expand it?  Are you indifferent?
How does this sort of reflection shape our w


[1] Black, Kathy. A Healing Homiletic, 1996.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid
[4] Eiesland, Nancy. The Disabled God, 2002.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Sabbath Coffee Tour: Part II, Pablo's Coffee (6th and Washington)

Pablo's Coffee is a Denver institution, and has two locations as well as a roaster. Coffee is roasted at a small facility at 7th and Lipan, and coffee is served at the original location at 6th and Washington, and at a newer location at 13th and Pennsylvania.  Their coffee is served by a variety of Denver metro area coffee shops and restaurants.

Today I am meeting a friend for a mid-morning coffee break.  My standard drink for this coffee tour is a medium sized dark roast with room for cream.  The dark roast of the day is "Breakfast Blend" which is described as "milk chocolate, raisins, and roasted peanuts."  I do not particularly taste these notes, but the coffee is hot and fresh and smooth. I fix it up with two packets of sugar in the raw and soy milk. I also order a slice of gluten free coffee cake.

This coffee shop is crowded and crammed full with small round tables and chairs. Sitting on either the front or side patio provides for more comfortable seating. This coffee shop can get really crowded and loud, as there is really only one large space which includes the coffee bar. There also seems to be very loud music playing much of the time, which I do not particularly care for. One thing that I really love about Pablo's is that there is no wi-fi available.  This means that there are not people camped out at tables for hours on end and the space is more conducive to conversation.  This is an intentional way to build community (What's the deal with the wi-fi?) and it works.

In terms of parking, this coffee shop has street parking available as well as a very small lot with about 8 spots.  It is generally easiest to park along Washington, as 6th Avenue is quite busy.

Overall: Pablo's is part of my rotation of regular coffee shops, the place where I end up when I want to have coffee and conversation with friends.  Their Danger Monkey roast is my favorite. Baristas are generally friendly, although they sometimes seem to be more interested in talking with one another than with taking orders. Solid coffee, decent pastries (including vegan and gluten free!), and a space dedicated to community and conversation.


A tale of two parties…a sermon on Mark 6:14-29

Preached at a neutral pulpit site in Massachusetts on July 12, as part of a first call interview. 

Preface to Gospel text:
This text from Mark’s Gospel begins with Herod’s internal reflections on hearing about the work of Jesus and his disciples as they went about the countryside casting out demons and healing the sick. We hear that some people were attributing this work to Elijah or to one of the Hebrew prophets or John the Baptist.  Herod says to himself, “John, who I beheaded, has been raised.”  Herod had originally arrested John the Baptist and threw him into prison because John was speaking out against his marriage.  We hear the story of John’s death in today’s Gospel. This strange flashback story in Mark’s Gospel is included by the Gospel writers to make a point about who Jesus is, what he does, and why he has come into the world. 

 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’
 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.


Greeting: Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.

Thank you so much people of Redeemer, for welcoming me into your midst as guest preacher, as I explore the possibility of a call with a congregation in the New England Synod. I am blessed to be here today and I thank you for your hospitality. Pastor Cindy is probably silently giving thanks right now that she does not have to preach on one of the most bizarre passages in Mark’s Gospel, and I am wondering how in the world I happen to be preaching on the beheading of John the Baptist as part of a first call interview.  Since awkwardness shared is awkwardness diminished, or something like that, together let’s dig a little bit deeper into today’s Gospel text.

This ghastly birthday party seems to include all the worst things that humanity can offer.  Corrupt officials, abuse of power, child abuse, sexual objectification, drunkenness, violence, false imprisonment, AND murder. It is tempting to think that this horrible little birthday party is something confined to the excesses of the Greco-Roman world, but unfortunately that is not true. 

We too are held prisoner to the oaths and expectations of this broken world.  We lust for power and influence.  We objectify others. We hold grudges and nurse bitterness. We hurt each other and kill each other. Black churches burn while we debate whether or not we live in post-racial society. Cupcake shop owners debate whether or not they should have to provide cupcakes for a gay wedding when over half the country still legally allows for workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  ISIS militants kill dozens of people vacationing on a beach in Tunisia for no apparent reason at all. There is no doubt that we live in a “Herod’s birthday banquet” kind of world. 

However, it is dark inside us too.  The expression “I’d like to have their head on a silver platter” came from somewhere, and it’s because we know all too well the uncontrollable anger and resentment that Herodias experiences. I have more than a little bit of Herodias in me, and I suspect that the same might be true for all of us. We all know the white hot blinding desire for revenge, and while we might not act on it, we are still held prisoner to it.

If we only read this story as a stand-alone text, it is a grim prognosis for the state of our world and of our humanity. We must look before this text and beyond it.  John the Baptist comes into the world shouting “Prepare the way of the Lord!” and as all the people of Jerusalem come to him to be baptized he says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me” and heralds the coming of Jesus into the world. Jesus is God showing up and doing a new thing and it is no wonder Herod is conflicted and frightened. People were being healed, demons were being cast out, and the disempowered were finding their identity as beloved people of God. It was a threat to the status quo, to the systems of power that humans have used throughout all of history to attempt to order our world. Like all those who benefit from maintaining the existing power structures, Herod was resentful that something new was happening. He tried to put an end to the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. 

But fortunately Herod’s birthday banquet is not the only banquet in Mark’s Gospel. Immediately following this passage is the feeding of the 5,000, an entirely different sort of banquet.  The “one more powerful than I” of whom John spoke is here in the world, walking among the people. Jesus hosts this banquet, in the middle of nowhere with thousands of hungry people. People who were the outcasts and unclean of their day, people who had no power or influence to offer, who came because they were like “sheep without a shepherd”, the lost, the lonely, the forgotten. And Jesus not only has compassion for them and teaches them; he feeds the crowd with only five loaves and two fish. And there were twelve baskets full of food left over. At this banquet greed and lust and fear have no place. Just the breaking of bread together in a place filled with compassion. Through this simple act, Jesus is making a statement about the radical love of God for all people.

While it seems like we live in a Herod’s birthday banquet kind of world, Jesus came into the world and says, “This is not the abundant life that I want for you!” Abuse of power is not the end. Corrupt political authority is not the end. Violence is not the end. Abuse is not the end. Even death is not the end. Behold!  I am doing a new thing here.  I have compassion for the great crowd of broken people in this world. I will shepherd you and feed you and prepare you for the journey.  You may feel as if you do not belong anywhere, and yet, you belong to me. You are mine.

This is good news for all of the broken, lost, and lonely people of the world…which is all of us in one way or another. Those of us who participate in the systemic injustices of racism and white privilege, and those who suffer under our continued ignorance. For those of us who have power and influence, and those of us who labor under that power. For aging adults who despair at their waning years, and for parents whose hearts are broken over and over again by their children. For all the gay teenagers who wonder if they belong in church or anywhere else. For those of us who continue to give free rent in our heads to the resentments and blinding anger towards people, things, and institutions. For those of us who act on those resentments, and those of us who seethe silently for years. For those of us who would be invited to Herod’s birthday party, and those of us who would be at Jesus’ banquet in the desert. Christ came into the world to save us from ourselves and bring us new life.  

Brothers and Sisters, let us cling firmly to this promise: Jesus is God putting on flesh to dwell among us. God is doing a new thing in Jesus, breaking into the world to conquer sin and death. And we are made anew each day in the image of God as we are given new life.  God wants more for us than to be ruled by our resentments and lust for power. God wants us to come to the table and be loved and accepted just as we are, among the other beautiful and broken people in this beautiful and broken world. THIS is a reason to throw a party!  Amen!


Sunday, July 05, 2015

Chaplaincy series: when chaplaincy is so heavy...

I have a job that brings me up close and personal with the absolute worst that this world has to offer. I see people on the worst days of their lives.  I am with people in their last moments. I deliver news that no one should ever have to hear. I see horrific injuries. I bear witness to death, usually on a daily basis. I ask grieving family members to donate their loved one's organs and tissues and corneas. I have seen the death of children and of parents and grandparents.

But all of that is distinct from the heaviness of the loss of one of our own.  A hospital staff is a tight-knit family.  A trauma center functions as a well-oiled machine and we all depend upon each other in some macabre symphony to play our part and somehow we end up saving more lives than we lose. On friday, one of our Flight for Life helicopters crashed during takeoff. Two of our flight nurses were critically injured and one of our pilots lost his life. I know all of these people and this hurt will be with our hospital family for a long time.

Sometimes chaplaincy is so heavy. And I can only carry what I see and hear and experience like smooth stones in my hands. Laying down these burdens as I can in safe places.

Please pray for the chaplains that you know and love.  This work is a sacred calling but it can be so very heavy at times.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sabbath Coffee Tour: Part I, Novo Coffee (6th and Gilpin)


I drive by this coffee shop frequently and have never been in.  It is located on the corner of a residential area, in the same tiny strip mall as a local meat market. Novo has three coffeehouses in the Denver metro, as well as a roastery located at 3008 Larimer Street.

I order my standard drink, a medium dark roast with room.  I am informed that all Novo roasts are light roasts.  So I ask for the least acidic roast and am directed to the Shakisso (an Ethiopian roast).  I fix it up with two packets of Sugar in the Raw and some cream, enough to make it a beautiful "cafe au lait" color.

My first impression of the coffee is that it has quite a bite to it and I am not sure that I like it.  I decide to let it settle and sip more later. After it settles, the coffee is much smoother.  It goes down without much bite and it has a pleasing creamy aftertaste.

The environment of this coffee shop is simple, exposed brick and wood floors.  Minimal artwork on the walls.  Well-lit, courtesy of the wall of windows in the front.  There is music playing but it is neither too loud nor too distracting. There are plenty of tables and chairs, as well as stools at the bar.  Baristas are friendly and social. There seem to be an equal mix of patrons working and socializing. There do not seem to be many outlets available, I can only see one from my vantage point.

In terms of parking, I cannot comment as I walked to this coffee shop. It is located off a very busy street (6th ave) so parking could be a challenge at times.

Overall: this is a great neighborhood coffee shop that I will visit again!  The friendly and helpful attitude of baristas, the comfortable work space, and the delicious coffee.  Lots of patrons are drinking iced coffee, so perhaps that will be my next adventure.