Monthly Archives: August 2015

I didn’t want to be so doggone serious but…

This last weekend I visited my husband’s aunt Margot and her partner Ginny.  Margot will be 90 years old this January and we have visited her every summer for the last 18 years or so, maybe longer.  We would stay with her as a part of visiting my husband’s family at their lake cottage in Indiana.  Now that both of my in-laws have died we make sure to take time every summer to fly east and spend time with Margot and Ginny.  It was wonderful being with family and getting away, but it left me with a lot of things to think about.

Margot has dementia.  She had dementia last time I saw her and probably the time before that as well, but this time…ouch.  She would ask the same questions over and over again.  She often couldn’t remember something for more than three or four minutes…even if that something was as simple as “Have I eaten lunch?”  She would forget that I had sat next to her eating breakfast as soon as I left the breakfast nook to head upstairs for my shower.  It took me a few days to realize that Margot was not always oriented to time either; sometimes she seemed to forget that Phil and I have been married for 27 years and aren’t fresh-faced newlyweds anymore. I wish I could remember more examples of her behavior, mostly because I want to convey to you how alarming it was to realize how much she was deteriorating.  I remember Margot as the consummate hostess, on top of everything.  I expected her physical health to deteriorate as she aged and for her ability to be the hostess to come to an end; I guess I didn’t expect her mind to leave us before her body did. The hardest part was realizing shortly after I boarded the plane to come home that Margot wouldn’t remember our visit by the time dinner rolled around.  We left her home for the airport shortly after lunch.

I had a number of discussions with Margot’s partner Ginny about the challenges of taking care of Margot.  I won’t go into details because Margot would be horrified if she knew I was telling you about her struggles. I realize that she will never read this blog (and even if she did, she wouldn’t remember the content for more than a few minutes) but hey—I love the woman and I don’t want to do anything that would cause her pain, whether she’ll actually have a chance to experience that pain or not.

The thing that has been picking at me ever since I started speaking frankly and honestly with Ginny about the challenges of being a caregiver is how deeply we fail, as adults, to prepare ourselves for becoming old.  I realize that most of us think about the money we’ll need when we retire, and where we want to live when we’re old and done with our career…maybe we even think about final things and write a will or create a medical power of attorney so that we can insure that our wishes for our own final days will be carried out faithfully.  All of those things are great, but these are not the things I’m talking about.   I’m talking about the stuff that few of us plan for, the stuff that has nothing to do with finances or who gets what.  So for the sake of this blog post, let’s just assume that all of will live to be 95 years old before we die.

So…what goes along with being old? Sagging skin…age spots…difficulty moving as quickly and as deftly as you used to…aching joints…Medicare…those kinds of things.  And I think all of us can accept those kinds of things, as long as nothing worse than those things happen.

Except things far worse than those things happen when you grow old.

I have taken care of both of my in-laws as they died, and I am here to tell you that if grow old before you die, you will probably lose the ability to take care of your basic needs before you die.  This is the point where you say “Duh!  I think I knew that!” and I say “Really?  Are you ready to have someone change your diaper?  Wipe your bottom?  Shower you while you sit there naked?”

I’m betting you’re horrified at these thoughts.  Most of us are horrified at the possibility that we won’t be able to go to the toilet alone, or shower alone; that we may need to have someone help us do something as simple as eat a meal.  Basically, we avoid thinking about the possibility that before we die we will be as helpless as an infant and require as much care.

Sticky problem, isn’t it?

You and I really cannot do much to avoid such a future.  Oh, we can eat healthy and exercise, do things to prolong our healthy years, etc. but there is no way to avoid the slings and arrows of aging.  We cannot predict if we will become debilitated with cancer, or if we will lose our minds and abilities to dementia, or become disabled because of a stroke…we have NO idea what our future holds.

The truth is that we have never been able to predict our future. But I am betting that many of us have had children, and at some point in that journey we asked ourselves what we would do if ____________ happened to our child.  You can fill in the blank with all sorts of challenges.  What if our child is born with Downs Syndrome? What if our child is deformed or disabled?  What if our child commits a terrible crime? What if our child is a genius? What if our child is mentally ill?  What if our child uses drugs? What if our child is a musical prodigy? What if our child goes against our religious beliefs? What if our child is gay?  What if our child never marries? What if…what if…what if…

I don’t know about you, but my husband and I spent hours and hours thinking about how we would handle different scenarios, and I must admit it gave me comfort to think about some of the challenges that we might face as we raised our daughters.  Some of those challenges actually came true and I believe (although I may be wrong) that we faced our challenges with greater grace and peace because we had already made some decisions in advance.

What stops us from thinking about our own aging?  Why, when we are so careful to think about the challenges we may face in our marriage or with children, do we fail to think through what might happen as we age?  It’s not that hard to do.  Try it.  For a moment, think about how you would LIKE to handle it if you would need to have someone clean you after using the toilet because you are unable to do it yourself.  Go ahead…imagine the scene, and then imagine yourself dealing with your feelings, your impulses, your loss of independence and power…think about how you would like to act without suddenly granting yourself abilities (like independence) that you might not actually have.

For myself, I would hope that I would have the grace to thank my caregiver for their help.  I hope that I will take the time to make conversation with my caregiver, get to know them and perhaps become friends with them.  I would hope that if I was struggling with humiliation at my situation that I would remember that my caregiver has feelings and needs and that I would pray for them to have patience with me; then I would ask for as much grace as God could grant so that I could let go of my ego and sense of humiliation over needing that much assistance.  Do I like thinking about this scenario?  NO.  Do I need to think about this scenario?  My experiences with taking care of my in-laws speaks a resounding YES.  When it comes to caregiving, I have already done diaper duty and I pray that my mother-in-law could felt my love for her radiating out of me as I cleaned her bottom.  I hope she felt no humiliation and simply knew that whatever she needed was okay with me.

After all…that’s how I felt when I cared for my own babies.  We forget that babies are born totally helpless and remain helpless to effectively care for themselves for years after their birth.  I was still showering with my youngest daughter until she was 11 years old and finally achieved puberty.  Once puberty hit I couldn’t get her to stop showering and had to limit her to three showers a day. Why was it so easy to care for my children and love them unconditionally no matter how much care they needed and how often their needs changed? And why is it that when I am faced with becoming just as helpless in my old age do I have this idea that my worth as an adult rests on my ability to care for myself without assistance?  We act as if babies are priceless…as if young children are worth their weight in gold…mostly because this is absolutely true.  How is it, then, that we do not grant ourselves the same worth when we become old and need the same assistance that small children and infants do?

I do not understand why aging and our eventual helplessness is such a bitter pill for us to swallow.  What I do know is that we will all find ourselves in the position of being caregiver for an elderly person, and we will all find ourselves in the position of being the elderly person who needs care (unless we tragically die before we reach our old age.)  I challenge you to decide NOW how you want to think about being elderly and needing care for your most basic needs.  I challenge you to decide how you want to think about caregiving for your parents, your elderly relatives, and maybe even your siblings.  I challenge you to think about how you want to understand yourself and your personal value when you can’t do anything and have to allow others to take care of you.  Do it NOW while you still have time to think about it with leisure and clarity, because there is no guarantee that you will have any clarity left at the point you begin to need care.  The decisions you make NOW may be the difference between being miserable in your old age and being one of those elderly folks that others want to grow up to be.

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Yeah Rah Mom!! Not really. And I’m just a little late.

I went to give blood yesterday and found myself sitting in the little room where the technician does the interview and makes sure that you have sufficient amounts of iron in your blood.  The technician and I began talking about other things after a while, and I found out that she was a young mom with a four year old son, which led to a discussion about parenting. She said that she felt like she was “the weirdest mom on the face of the earth” mostly because her mother disagrees with some of her choices as a parent.  I understand that, but parenting has changed quite a bit over the generations so I suggested that she look at this way: her son is an expression of who she is and her particular style of parenting is probably the exact style of parenting that he needs. I told her that I went through the exact same thing with my parents–not that they made a big deal about it–and both of my daughters grew up to be beautiful, self-sufficient women that I am very proud of (and so are my parents!)  We would have talked longer but I was supposed to be donating blood, not counseling medical technicians, and so I shut up and got ready for the needle stick.  I hate donating blood but I’m a universal donor (O+) and I am really healthy, so I feel obligated.

Waiting for pint of blood to flow out of you takes a few minutes and I realized that I should post about mothering/parenting on my blog. I was going to write an entry, and then realized that I already had something written and the video version of what I’d written would be better than the text. A friend invited me to preach at his church on Mother’s Day earlier this year, and I chose to focus on what I would want my daughters to know about being a mom–what is truly important and what is not.

Promise me that you won’t comment on how goofy I look when I speak. What can I say? God gifted me with a rubber face. The nice way of saying this is that I’m very ‘expressive’. Yeah…whatever.  Rubber. Face.

Enjoy!  Mother’s Day at FUMC Mesa AZ May 10, 2015

I Have No Idea What I’m Doing

The hardest thing about being in ministry is the overwhelming desire to do ministry well—to minister to others effectively and consistently.  Basically, what I’m talking about is the desire to do ministry like you do almost any other job, focusing on deliverables and achievements.  Ministry does not work that way.

And all the ministers reading this immediately exclaimed “Oh yes it does!” because every minister in the world produces reports about how many people they baptized and how many families joined the church this year and how many newcomers attended worship this quarter, etc.  I swear some of us are drowning in paperwork that aims to quantify the impact of ministry.  But this is not what I’m talking about—what I’m referring to is the desire to be effective in ministry with the person standing in front of you, right at the moment you are speaking to them.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am both a licensed mental health counselor and a pastor.  Both jobs require me to be with people quite a bit, and to be present to their needs and their distress in order to help them.  I have noticed something very strange about my jobs: I do my best work when I have no idea what I’m doing.

Let me clarify: it’s not that I don’t know what I’m doing.  I have two Master’s Degrees and a license to practice counseling in Arizona that I’ve had since 2005.  I can tell you my theological orientation as a pastor and my theoretical orientation in counseling, as well the eclectic set of interventions I use to help my clients achieve their goals and what theoretical background those interventions come from.  I know what I ‘m doing when I’m doing it.  That isn’t my point.

My point is that when I try to be a “good pastor” or a “good counselor”…when I’m all up in my head, well aware of my theoretical orientation or the intervention that I’m about to introduce…I’m good, but never as good as when I have no idea what I’m doing.

I’ll give you an example:  the other day, I was talking with someone at church.  She was sharing her concerns about her ministry and how it was going, what her next steps would be, and how unsure she was of what those next steps should be.  We started talking about the interesting coincidences that happen in life that later on turn out to be God-inspired, and how God gently guides us along the way in our ministry and how long it can take us to catch on to what God is doing.  It was a great conversation, and I really enjoyed hearing about her ministry because this is a very talented lady that has been sharing her talents with our church for a long time…it’s about time the rest of the world got a share of the joy, you know?  The best part was getting to share in her achievements and the happiness they bring her.  It’s not often that I get to hear all the good stuff—people usually contact me when things are going wrong because it’s my job to help folks when things are going wrong—and so I really enjoy it when people share the good things God is making happen in their lives.

Later on that day, I got a text message from this same lady thanking me for my words and telling me what a God-centered person I am and I thought “Really?” because I couldn’t remember saying anything meaningful to her.  I’m embarrassed to admit it.  It’s not that I don’t remember the conversation; I remember quite of bit of what she said to me…I just don’t remember anything I said in reply to her.

And this is a perfect example of what I mean when I say that I do my best work when I don’t know what I’m doing.  You see, it gets really easy to get caught up in the whole ROLE of being a pastor or a counselor (or a mom, or a wife, or a good friend, or…you get the picture.)  When I get into that space, I start trying really hard to be a good (insert name of role) and then I get all up in my head and start thinking about what I should do or what I should say.  I suppose that this has its value in my counseling office where I do have to be aware of what intervention I’m using to help my client…I can’t just bumble through the session and then charge the insurance for an hour of “I listened…isn’t that enough?”  But the truth is that even in my counseling office, the best stuff happens when I’m busy being Tina, not “Tina the good counselor.”

I suppose that I could start talking about mindfulness and the power of being present…and that’s a blog entry for another day.  What I want to say right now is that we do a lot more for each other by being present than we do for each other by being a good (insert name of role.)  God didn’t create “Tina the counselor” or “Tina the mom” or “Tina the pastor”…those are things that I chose to be and do with what God created.  God just created Tina—plain old untitled Tina.  And while I don’t represent the gold standard of anything (trust me on this, and if you don’t, try asking my kids or my husband) I do know that nothing I could attempt to be can exceed the good that exists in what God created.

This shows up when I accidentally do good ministry by simply listening to another person share their story and then share my unedited, authentic reaction to what they had to say.  My authentic reaction to their story is often exactly what they needed to hear…whether I’m their counselor or their pastor or just a friend.  I know you’ve heard this before, but God didn’t create human DOINGS or human ROLES…God created human BEINGS. Our greatest value is not in our doings or in the roles we fill, but in the power of simply being with other people; being real with them and sharing our truth.  We have more to give and more power to give it when we stop trying to be anything other than who we are, even when we feel that we aren’t enough.

And that is all I have to say, mostly because that’s all I have right now, and it happens to be my truth.

Squished…

Today is one of those days when I feel squished. Everyone seems to want a piece of me, and I just want everyone to go away. In reality, I am certain that people do not literally want a “piece of me”—what they want is my attention; my services; my assistance. But having this realization does not leave me feeling any less squished, in fact, it makes it worse.

Why do I feel so squished? Why do I feel like I cannot get a real day off? I tried going on vacation, heading to another state or to a nice tourist destination a few hours away, but I found that my phone makes me available everywhere I go. I hear you over there saying “Turn your phone OFF!” but I can’t. I’m on call 24/7 for my clients because I’m a behavioral health counselor in private practice. The law says that I have to be available for those people whose mental health I am responsible for. So as long as I have phone service, I’m available. When I leave the country, I have to find someone to cover phone calls for me because my phone doesn’t work internationally…this is the one and only time I am truly unavailable.

Please understand, it isn’t just my clients that contribute to the feeling of being squished. I have an entire church-full of people that contribute to this feeling. I am United Methodist clergy and my colleagues know that I am also a licensed behavioral health counselor. My colleagues in ministry call for advice on how to deal with the mentally ill, or for referrals when one of their parishioners is struggling. Sometimes they call looking for me to come preach or teach a class, especially if the class is about mental health, sexuality, or family issues. And let’s not forget about the people in my parish…they call for advice and referrals as well, and then some of them just call to talk and receive spiritual services.
When you wrap it all together, it leaves me feeling like I can’t get a breath and that there is always someone tugging at my sleeve asking for my attention, and this is why I feel squished. So what to do about it?

I’ve tried quite a few different things in the hope of relieving my squished-ness. One of my colleagues suggested declaring a Sabbath…a time set aside for play and rest when I did not answer phone calls except from friends and family; when I would not do any work (not even housework), and when I would do only those things that were enjoyable for me. Many Christians consider Sunday their Sabbath, and that makes sense…until you’re a pastor and then Sunday is a work day like every other work day. So I declared Friday after 5pm to be my Sabbath and refused to work again until Saturday morning, and…it was disappointing. Nothing special happened. I didn’t feel rested. I didn’t feel renewed. I didn’t feel different. The phone would ring, and I would still have to check it…and if it was a client that I knew was struggling or who was suicidal, I still had to answer the phone because I am legally responsible for their care. Sabbath was a good way to get me to stop doing housework and paperwork, but it wasn’t real rest. Sabbath wasn’t the solution I needed.

Another thing I tried was exercise. I have found working out to be a great stress reliever, and so I started adding extra workouts when I found myself feeling particularly squished. It worked to an extent, because it is impossible to think about anything else but the choreography when the music is blaring and you’re shaking your booty to songs by Pitbull. I also discovered that you cannot bring your cell phone into the yoga studio, so that hour was blissfully free of distraction as well. Zumba and yoga and Pilates did a lot to reduce my overall stress and increase my health, but once I was out of the class I went right back to feeling squished.

I tried a few other methods: short vacations; a glass of wine; long vacations; a second glass of wine; international vacations; getting someone else to answer my calls for a few days…none of this worked very well. Clarification: international vacations work really well at reducing the squished feeling, but they only work for as long as you remain out of the country. In the end, you still have to come back home and go back to work and as soon as I did, I was back to feeling squished.

Then recently I read a sermon by Nadia Bolz Weber on the feeding of the 5000 (Mark 6:30-44, Matthew 14:13-21, Luke 9:9-17) that struck a chord deep within me. She said:

“I am too easily overwhelmed by the hunger of the multitudes and I look around trying to figure out what I have at my disposal that might feed them and I keep coming up short – short on compassion, short on skill, short on will. And I think of how God called me to this and needs me to feed God’s people and so I lean on my own resources and when I do I quickly see how little there is. A few loaves? A couple fish? It’s never enough.”

I find myself right there with her. That squished feeling comes from feeling overwhelmed by everything that everyone else seems to need—and they seem to need it to come from me and I keep coming up short—short on energy, short on wisdom, short on patience, short on just about everything. And when you consider that I believe my counseling practice is my ministry and representative of God’s call on my life, coming up short is a major failure. Coming up short is to fail God and it leaves me feeling inadequate and overwhelmed and…squished.
Obviously I am not the only person who feels this way, and I am positive that most ministers feel this way, since Nadia Bolz Weber is a Lutheran minister and the quote above is from a sermon she preached to other ministers. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that this overwhelmed, squished feeling is actually part of the human condition. We want to be more; we want to be the answer to something, to anything, and no matter how hard we try, we come up short and end up feeling inadequate and squished.

Later in that same sermon, Nadia went on to say:

“Maybe the more important and transformative the work is that you do the more you need to know that you are loved by God with or without doing that work. The more you need to know that when Jesus looks out and asks where are these hungry people going to get food (that) he is including you in the category of hungry people and himself in the category of bread…

When I rely only on my strengths which, trust me, are few, when I think I have only my small stingy little heart from which to draw love for those I serve…(when I am) filled with fear that I don’t have what it takes to be a leader in the church, filled with fear that everyone will see nothing in me but my inadequacies, I have forgotten about Jesus—my Jesus who’s making something out of my nothing…

There is not one category of people who minister and (another) who need care. There is just one category: hungry sinners in need of a savior. So together we come away with Christ to sit in the grass and be fed…and you are in as much need of being fed, healed and ministered to as those who you care for. Because the work you do IS important and it is transformative but you, my sweet, dear friends, are loved entirely and completely by God with or without doing that work.”

These words bring tears to my eyes, because in them is the rest that I need so much so that I can stop feeling squished. I am not the well that others are drawing from when they come to me for advice, counseling, resources, spiritual guidance, prayer, or just a listening ear. I may be the body that delivers the services, but I am not the source. Christ is that source. And even more than that, when I am tired and overwhelmed and Christ comes to feed the 5000, I get to eat with everyone else because my needs are just as important as everyone else’s and it’s okay for me just sit and eat and take in the presence of the living Christ without having to be anything or do anything for anyone else.

Turns out that I didn’t need Sabbath as much as I needed the attention of the King of the Sabbath. And so I tug at His sleeve just like other people tug at mine, and luckily He is never short on compassion or time or patience or wisdom or…anything.

If you’d like to read Nadia Bolz Weber’s sermon in its entirety (which I heartily recommend) go to:

Sermon on the feeding of the 5000