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.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Created in the image of God

If I am totally honest, part of the reason that I went to seminary was to learn enough about the Bible so that I could feel like I could defend myself, my sexuality, to those people who were telling me that I was an abomination in the eyes of God. I spent most of my life feeling like there was the word of God, which I was told was extremely clear on issues of homosexuality, and then there was me.

I was a Christian, but I just did not feel like I belonged in the body of Christ.  I always felt like the promises of God’s grace and love were for other people.  Those people who were straight. As a teenager, and young adult, I had a ravenous appetite for devouring scripture. I read the Bible with desperation of someone starving for acceptance. When reading the Bible did not yield the answer that I so deeply wanted, that I was loved by God despite my sexuality, I pursued graduate theological studies.

I read every book that I could find that talked about sex and marriage and love in the Bible.  I learned Greek and Hebrew, so that I could read scripture in its original language, hoping against hope that I would find what I was looking for. I engaged professors and fellow students in energetic discussions, arguing with every person throughout my life who told me that I did not belong. I joined progressive Christian communities, and I even preached the radical love and acceptance of God, but I struggled to believe it could be true for me.

Around this same time, I met the love of my life, my partner Katrina. Our love is a glorious thing and it is through this beautiful relationship, that I have come to know God’s love for me as a queer woman. As I wept bitterly that I was graduating with my Master’s of Divinity degree and still did not have definitive proof that I was loved by God, she simply said, “God has created us and our love for one another, and it is good.  Because how can something so beautiful as our love be anything but from God?”

I am created in God’s image, including my orientation towards intimate partnership with another woman, and it is good. I have read the Bible cover to cover multiple times, I know the history of sexuality in the Bible and in the ancient near east and the Greco-Roman world, and yet, I never dared to believe I was loved by God until I dared to be loved by a woman.

I could argue all day about why homosexuality as we know it now, as a consensual, loving relationship between two adults simply did not exist in the past. I could argue that the Bible contradicts itself and that at the center is love and acceptance. But that will never be enough, because “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1) It is love that changes everything.

To those of you who are wondering if God loves you because you are gay or trans or genderqueer, the answer is yes!  To those of you who have never heard that you are loved by God’s people and that you belong in the body of Christ, you do! If you will let me, this queer Lutheran pastor will never stop telling you that you are made in God’s image and that you are loved by God and by me and by so many others who follow Jesus. Because how can anything so beautiful as you be anything but from God? 

Sunday, June 07, 2015

What is the will of God?…a sermon on Mark 3:20-35

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

Wow! This Gospel text has all the ingredients for a particularly pungent fire and brimstone sermon. Satan, demons, blasphemy, the fire of the Holy Spirit, eternal sin and the will of God. And it appears to offer a simple solution, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  Basically, if you do what Jesus tells you to do, you will be “true kindred.” But since I am about the farthest thing imaginable from a revival preacher and have no intention of scaring you into following Jesus, there will be no fire and brimstone today. We need to dig a little deeper.
Jesus has just returned to his hometown after wandering through the countryside, healing and casting out demons.  He has appointed his disciples.  And he has caught the attention of the authorities. At this point, we hear that the crowd is pressed so closely into Jesus that he cannot even raise his hands to eat. There have been murmurings of discontent among the religious authorities when Jesus and his disciples have not adhered to religious laws regarding fasting and the Sabbath, but it is this massive crowd trailing Jesus that prompts the big guns from Jerusalem to make their way to Nazareth.
Even Jesus’ own family is concerned about all of this attention that he is getting. Instead of a welcome banquet, his family has decided to stage an intervention. Jesus has been doing all sorts of socially unacceptable things and hanging out with generally undesirable folks.  Jesus seems to have amassed a ragtag collection of groupies that follow him everywhere he goes, and he has caught the attention of everyone. His family decides that it is time to get this behavior under control, because it is reflecting badly upon them, and they go out to restrain him. Not exactly the most hospitable homecoming.  At best, Jesus seems to have boarded the express train to insanity, and at worst, he is possessed by a demon.
We would like to see the religious authorities as evil, because we have the benefit of hindsight and we are reading the story knowing who Jesus is. But the scribes who come down from Jerusalem are enforcing order to prevent chaos. At the time, possession by a demon was the default explanation for any sort of behavior that was outside the rigidly controlled social and religious norms. Because it was believed that closely adhering to the laws that ordered the world, would save you. This crazy Jesus character, I imagine him as filthy and unshaven, sunburned and weary, was casting out demons and healing. He was doing it all without the involvement of the temple priests and temple offerings and in doing so, was threatening the economic system that was intertwined with the religion of the day. But perhaps even more troubling he was threatening the status quo, by bringing socially undesirable folks right into the consciousness of the community, when they were typically relegated outside the city gates, and was providing an uncomfortable reminder of the systems of power that perpetuate oppression. In some ways, we are not really all that different from the religious authorities attempting to order a disordered world.
We attempt to control the chaos in our world with social, religious, and political norms.  Those who are progressive think that those who are conservative are evil and those who are conservative think that those who are progressive are cavorting with Satan. We want to see ourselves as loving our neighbors, yet we perpetuate systems of injustice through our complicity in power and privilege that oppresses the most vulnerable among us. We eagerly move into newly gentrified urban neighborhoods and pay skyrocketing rents without consideration for those forced out by mixed-use development. We fiercely cling to the myth that financial prosperity or even financial stability, is a result of our own hard work instead of a mixture of our social location and privilege. Perhaps most painful to consider, we are inclined to see ourselves primarily as individuals instead of part of the great human collective, the body of Christ.
Jesus makes a powerful statement to the religious authorities with his confusing little parables in the middle section of this text. They say that he must be possessed by Beelzebub, Satan or demons.  He says that there is no way that Satan can cast out Satan. They say he must be motivated by evil, because such a threat to the carefully constructed social order must be evil, Jesus says that anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness. This pronouncement is harsh and it is intended to be. Jesus is saying that “eternal sin” is to fail to see the work of God in the world, to attribute Jesus and his work to the devil. To fail to see God in Christ walking among us. To deny the continued creative and life-giving activity of God’s spirit in the world is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. And it is an indictment of us too.
After this exchange with the religious authorities, we return to the conversation between Jesus and his family. Still wanting to do their intervention, Jesus’ mother and brothers remain outside the house where he is teaching a large crowd.  They call for him, and someone conveys the message to Jesus.  “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”  And Jesus replies, “Who are my mother and my brother?”  He gestures to those sitting around him, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
This doesn’t feel like good news. Jesus’ family is feeling compelled to explain Jesus’ behavior and wants to prevent him from further embarrassing them or himself.  They want to whisk him away, take him home or ship him off to a 90 day rehab where he can learn how to behave respectably again. Yet Jesus is stating that he does not know them and would rather call the crowd surrounding him family. This is not the kind of Jesus that we want. We want to see Jesus as gentle and loving and oriented towards family. This Jesus is rebellious and insistent and abrasive. For his family, who wanted the best for him, this was probably unbearable. None of this really seems like good news until we put ourselves into the place of the crowd. 
The people who pressed in to see Jesus were desperate for a word of healing and a word of belonging.  They were the outcasts of the time, the people who had mental illness or disfiguring ailments or who were homeless or otherwise not part of respectable society.  We would probably see them lining up outside the Denver Rescue Mission or struggling to survive in a Syrian refugee camp or imprisoned in part of our prison industrial complex. The belonging and acceptance and even healing offered by this prophet and teacher Jesus who wandered the countryside, was good news.  To be called brother and sister and mother, to be part of a family, when you felt nothing but indifference and disgust from those around you, this was the good news of Jesus.  Jesus looks to those gathered around him, and says, “These are my brothers and sisters.” 
We are not that different from the crowd pressed in to see Jesus. In a world that seems to value individual fortitude above all things, we crave solidarity with others to bear the burdens of being human. In a world where relationships crumble and leave us aching and heartbroken, we need to feel loved and cherished. Many of us have come from faith communities that have hurt us or tossed us out because of who we are, or perhaps we have been afraid to venture into a church until now because we have heard how others have been hurt. And many of us come from families who aren’t sure how to love us.  Or from families that don’t understand us or who have abused us.  We come to this place, this community called church, because we need to hear that we belong. We yearn to hear that we are loved. Even when we feel like we have no where else where we belong, we belong to Christ and in the body of Christ.
But we tend to get stuck on what Jesus says next, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  Because it is a basic human impulse to want to control our destiny and make sure we are doing it right, we make our best guess at what God’s will would be, which is often strangely similar to what our will would be, and make belonging to the body of Christ contingent doing those things.
Jesus calls us family FIRST, then calls us to do God’s will.  Our belonging is not contingent on doing something right first.  Belonging to the Body of Christ has nothing whatsoever to do with what we do, but rather, what has been done for us. We already belong to Christ, and we begin to follow God’s will by drawing close to Jesus and bringing our brokenness and our whole selves with us. But we are not invited to bask in our belonging in a community of faith, we are sent out for the good of the world. What we do in our work as disciples flows first from our identity as Christ’s beloved. Doing God’s will comes from our being freed in Christ to serve our neighbors. It means recognizing that we are part of a community and that what we do or fail to do has a rippling effect on those around us. Because we have a voice, we can advocate for affordable housing in our neighborhoods and we can vote for political representation that attends to the needs of the community, not the needs of business. It means speaking out and acting for justice and mercy, because that is the way of Jesus and the will of God. Whatever your particular passion, whether that is rights for transgender youth or equitable mental health care or early childhood education, live deeply into that calling for justice and mercy.  Engage in work that makes our world a better place, by using your God-given time, talents, and treasure to invest in loving your neighbors. Do your paid work for the glory of God. Engage in volunteerism and advocacy and financial giving for the sake of the world. This is the will of God. Beloved community, you belong to Christ and we belong to each other. Thanks be to God! 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Chaplaincy series: a new kind of praying

A.Hanson, Boulder, CO 2010
A long time ago, probably when I was a teenager or something. I read a magazine article that stated that it was cruel to say that you were going to pray for someone and then not actually do that. At the time, prayer to me was a very specific practice.  It was undoubtedly shaped by the Bible, and probably a few zealous sunday school teachers, and my own family that insisted that if your eyes were not closed during the prayer said before a meal, it didn't count.  In my mind, prayer was kneeling down, folding your hands, closing your eyes and bowing your head.  You could pray your prayer silently, but it was better if you prayed out loud.  I also had a particularly formative experience regarding prayer at Bible camp.  There as a well-meaning (if probably wrong) pastor who did a sermon illustration.  He held the end of a long rope and the other end was being held by someone on top of a tall rock at the side of the outdoor chapel. He would wave the rope up and down, and the person playing God, on top of the rock, would wave the rope back.  He implied that prayer was a transactional communication process and you had to put something in to get something out.  And that is how most of us think of prayer.  We put in some intercessory effort and God gives us an answer.

I am the witness to thousands of unanswered prayers. Fervent, pained, hoping against hope kind of prayers for something, anything, to be different. Prayer as a transaction just doesn't stand up to the rigor of a trauma center.  I need a different understanding.

About seven or eight years ago, when I was in the midst of one of the myriad faith crises of my twenties, I told a friend that I would "keep her in the forefront of my consciousness."  This was the closest that I could get to saying that I would pray for her. I didn't think that my humble words to some far off deity would change anything, but somehow I instinctively knew that I could hold her and her pain together with something greater than myself. As I got more involved in the church in recent years, this kind of hippy-trippy sort of prayer was shoved to the back burner in favor of liturgical prayers and ancient words that felt more meaningful to me. Many of the prayers that I heard being offered and even spoke myself in church were offered in earnest, but were without any real teeth.  Prayers like "courage", "wisdom", "understanding", and "acceptance."  These sort of blasé prayers happen without really putting God's feet to the fire.  They are general enough that it is possible to interpret any variety of outcomes as God's answering prayer.

The trauma ICU doesn't have time for well-intentioned prayers for understanding. Part of what I adore (and simultaneously abhor) about my work in the ICU is that all extraneous stuff is stripped away. There is literally no time for small talk or euphemism.  Life and death are so real that you can smell them. The prayers that are offered in the ICU are for life in the midst of death, relief in the midst of unimaginable suffering, and merciful and quick deaths.

I can no longer see prayer as a transactional form of communication with God.  Because most of the time, medical conditions in the ICU are more comparable to a runaway train than they are to a polite conversational exchange. Everything chaotic seems to happen at once, and time seems to stop and pile up on itself.  I, along with my patients, need a more comprehensive understanding of prayer.

I will continue to speak the intercessory words, because that alone is an act of pastoral care.  But I will hold them, and you, with a spirit of consciousness, along with the God of the universe. My tears are a prayer. That I carry you home with me and think about you when I am not at the hospital is a prayer.  When I hold your hand, careful not to disrupt your IV, that is a prayer. Prayer doesn't require wearing out the knees of your jeans, but it does require getting your hands dirty.