Tag Archives: pastoral care

The Sharpest Sword and the Uncontrollable Arm

This week I met with a female client whose husband is incredibly self-focused and verbally abusive to her and their two sons.

I have been listening to her struggle with her anger and frustration with her husband for months now. At first, she wanted to know what she was doing wrong, thinking that she was the problem. Then she began to wonder if she was perceiving him and his behavior incorrectly, or if she was judging him too harshly. She repeatedly blamed herself for her inability to stop her husband’s behavior from impacting her sons, swearing that if she didn’t become upset when her husband was being verbally abusive she would somehow be able to stop him from verbally abusing their boys.  Then she started asking if there were techniques to help her ‘deal’ with his constant anger and demeaning words.

Lately, though, she has been asking me if he is doing this on purpose or if this is simply how God made him.  She calls her husband a narcissist (and I agree with her) and she wants to know if his narcissism is a choice that he is making or if he can’t live any other way—in other words, was he born like this and if so, does this mean that it’s not his fault that he behaves poorly?

That is a difficult question to answer.

You might wonder how we even know for sure that he is a narcissist. Well, his behavior speaks volumes, but it always helps to rely on greater knowledge.  The Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (version 5) helps me in my practice quite a bit, and it provides a list of diagnostic criteria.  Mayo Clinic provides a simplified version for the public here.

While all that is very useful knowledge, diagnosing my client’s husband won’t change anything for my client.  Also, because he’s not the one seeking counseling, any conjecturing we might do about what causes his behavior is only that: conjecture. It neither gives us a path to helping the situation nor does it give my client any real tactics for dealing with her abusive, self-focused husband.

So back to the question at hand:  what if he can’t help it? What if this is just how God made him? Isn’t it wrong to be angry at him for things he has no control over?

I have a couple of thoughts on that.

First, I don’t know that I believe that God created a narcissist. I can, however, accept that the perfect spirit that God created happens to exist inside a fleshy body that developed incorrectly, growing a brain that lacks empathy and expects total obedience to every demand and whim. Lots of us live with bodies that don’t quite function correctly.  Lots of us suffer with brain injuries after strokes or with dementia or with mental illness…and I don’t believe that God enjoys watching us struggle with our broken flesh.  I also don’t believe that God creates broken flesh.  I do, however, believe that God created a perfect spirit to reside in that flesh, and that God forgives us for the failings that our broken flesh causes.  And yes…that means that God forgives this man for being abusive, even though God didn’t create him to an abusive husband and father.

Having said all that, I offered my client an allegory:

What if her husband was born with a right arm that suddenly would strike out and punch? What if her husband had no control over the violence that his right arm would suddenly commit?  Imagine him, sitting there in a movie theater, enjoying the show when he suddenly his right arm threw a punch, striking the man next to him in the face.  “Oh, I’m so sorry sir! I didn’t mean to punch you like that. It’s just that my arm…I can’t control it. It just does that. I’ve been like that since birth. I’m so sorry.”  A few moments later, his right arm strikes out again, punching the gentleman next to him a second time.  And then a third punch. And a fourth.

How long do you think this could go on before my client’s husband would be forced to leave the movie theater? How long before someone said “If you can’t control your arm, then at least be responsible enough to sit where you can’t punch anyone!”

In other words, if you are an adult** you are responsible for the impact of your behaviors on others even when you “can’t control yourself.” Just because you “can’t control yourself” doesn’t mean that you are unaware of the impact of your behavior on others. You do not have the right to expect others to ignore the impact of your behavior on them simply because you can’t help yourself. You do not have the right to expect accommodation at the expense of the well-being of others.  You do not have the right to expect a consequence free life because of your twisted flesh.

Not sure about that?  Ask yourself…do you think that God leaned in to his sons when they were born and said “I made your Daddy in such a way that he’ll always be abusive and hateful. Too bad for you! He can’t help it so you just have to deal with it! It’s not his fault, so it’s your burden FOREVER!”

I don’t believe God is like that. I believe that God forgives us for the failures of our flesh, but I also believe that God desires for us to realize our responsibility to protect and respect others.

The saddest part?

My client looked at me and said “I know this is sick and wrong, but I wish that he’d hit me. Then I’d have no excuse to stay. I could leave him.”

My heart breaks.

All I can do is pray that she hears God whispering “Leave him. Don’t worry…I’ll take care of him. Please…for your sake, for the sake of your boys…leave him before he destroys you.”

Pray with me, please. There are way too many women and men staying in abusive relationships, worried that God will somehow judge them for leaving a relationship where the bruises aren’t physical and obvious.

As a woman who believes in a Christ who suffered a great deal before he died, trust me…words bruise and inflict wounds far greater than you can imagine. That’s why the Romans, who had already beaten Jesus bloody and were about to execute him, hung the words “King of the Jews” above his cross. They knew that whips and torture weren’t enough…they needed words to finish the destruction.

Through God’s grace alone, those who sought to kill Jesus won the battle but lost the war. Let us pray that all those who seek to destroy with words lose in the long run…and please God, sooner rather than later.

From my words to God’s ears!

** Adult in terms of mental development as well as chronological age. One of my colleagues has a son who is in his 30s and has the mental development of a 4 year-old child. In my opinion, his disability makes it so that he should never have to be fully responsible for the impact of his behaviors on others.

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In the beginning was the Word…

The last few weeks I have been working with a woman who is struggling with chronic and complex PTSD.

To put that in laymen’s terms, my client experienced a boatload of trauma, starting when she was just a child and ending only recently when she kicked out her latest abusive partner.  The litany of abuse is unbelievably long, including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse when she was a child, abandonment by her parents, and domestic violence with her romantic partners as an adult.

You might imagine that it is difficult listening to someone graphically describe the violence they have lived through, and you would be right. Sometimes I get a little sick to my stomach because the violence is so extreme; it stuns me to realize just how much violence can be done to a human being without killing them.  It’s even worse when the violence happened to my client when they were a child because of how helpless they were to escape their abuser and how reliant they were on their abuser for their daily needs.

And of course, my clients cry when they talk about the abuse. They weep, hug themselves, and rock back and forth, trying to comfort the invisible child within that just cannot stop screaming in anguish.

For all the pain that the violence causes, the violence is far easier to fix than the verbal abuse. Punches, kicks, and belts will never have anything on the spoken word when it comes to inflicting damage.

I know that you’ve heard that stupid childhood meme “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!”

What a load of crap!!

As a therapist I have tools to tear away the memories of physical and sexual violence; I have special techniques that help the brain reprocess and ‘de-fang’ disturbing and painful memories of violence and terror.  Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like I have a magic wand that I wave at my client that makes the bad memories fade away.  On the other hand, the methods currently used for treating trauma are effective and there are enough different methods to be able to find at least one that works well for the client’s specific needs.  If we work hard and the client is brave, we can usually eliminate most, if not all, of the symptoms of PTSD and free them the abuse of their past.

What is much harder is freeing them from the voices inside their head that repeat demeaning, hateful words that were spoken by their abuser in anger and disdain.  I cannot silence the demanding father that could never be pleased, no matter how high the grade or how many goals you made once he takes up residence in my client’s mind. I cannot pry off the negative label when my client’s mother labeled her a whore when she finally told her mom about the years of sexual abuse by her stepfather.  I cannot stop the horrifying, negative, self-abusive messages that play in my client’s head as their mind repeats endlessly the abusive words spoken to them every time they made a mistake or angered their parents. I cannot re-establish my client’s confidence after years of being told by their partner that they are the entire reason the marriage is miserable, and that they perceive everything incorrectly and do everything wrong.

Why am I telling you this?

Because we carry deadly weapons in our mouths: weapons that we can quickly deploy that produce deadly results without leaving any bodies behind as evidence.

Words are weapons, and our weapons are far more fatal than we like to realize.

It is so easy to succumb to irritation and strike out at our children or our spouse or our coworkers. It is so easy to blame our constant, low-lying agitation on the demands of our jobs and daily life. And it is so easy to forgive ourselves for the many ‘minor’ moments when we let our tone and our message get sharp and jagged, when we say a host of the wrong words. It is so much easier to ask forgiveness for our ‘momentary’ lapse of kindness than to actually try to control our tongue.

Have you ever tried to control your tongue?

It didn’t work for me either.

It won’t ever work.

It doesn’t work because it isn’t our tongue that we need to control.  It’s our mind. Our tongue has no will of its own. It can only repeat the words that play silently in our minds, waiting for our anger to give them greater purchase so they can be spoken out loud.

And why? Why would we house weapons in our minds, letting them silently fill our heads with words that can only do damage?

It’s because my clients aren’t the only ones who have been tortured with venomous words.

It’s you, too. It’s me.  I’m afraid that no one escapes unscathed.

Every single one of us, in some way, have been stabbed and beaten and shot with words that tore us apart.  Maybe our parents spoke them, or maybe it was a schoolyard bully. For some of us it was our partner that spoke the words that ripped us apart. The problem is that the damage never stops with us. As long as we let these wounds remain unhealed, they bleed sick, self-punishing thoughts that wound us even more until finally the words demand release and they turn their venom outward, begging to pour out of our mouth so they can go on damaging other people.

So now what? What do we do?

First, if you find your mind full of self-critical thoughts that tear up your self-esteem, it is important that you seek counseling. I know it sounds like your own voice in your own head saying those things, but those words didn’t come from you, and they don’t belong in your head. More importantly, if words are weapons, essentially you are beating and abusing and terrorizing yourself…and if you did that to anyone else you’d be arrested!  Believe it or not, you can spit those words out of your mind and never have to hear them again. If the counselor you find doesn’t help you, get a hold of me and I’ll share a few techniques that will help you evict the cruel inner critic in your mind.  Remember, those hateful words in your head have a habit of leaking out of your mouth and attacking others. If you want to tame your tongue, tame your inner critic.  Trust me, it works much better than you think. Also, it’s much nicer living inside your head when there isn’t any voice in there destroying your self-esteem and your confidence. Az-plc.com

Second, remember that your words have great power: power to wound, power to bind, power to heal, and power to set free. Lest you think this is a bunch of new age hokum, let me remind you that John 1 begins with the sentence In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  If everything that exists began with the Word and if the Word is God, then our words, spoken by someone who is made in the image of God, are no small thing!  God spoke the entire universe into existence; likewise when we speak we create. Do our words create love? Do they create wounds? Do they seek to carry God’s grace, or do they convey judgement and condemnation?

What you live inside your head becomes the reality you create around you. Please…let your life (and that of those you love) become a garden of life and love, not a pit of despair.

Have a blessed week! I’m on hiatus for the next week, and when I come back I hope to have all sorts of tales of new adventures.

Blessings!

 

Dear Parent of an Adult Child…PART II

Last week I wrote about dealing with adult children and codependent behaviors.  This week I want to make things a little clearer because it’s hard to change behaviors when you don’t know what you’re aiming to eliminate, and if you don’t have anything healthy to substitute in its place.

Let’s return to our initial example, that of my client and her mom, after my client’s breakup from the unbalanced boyfriend that her mom really liked.  What could mom have done instead that would have been emotionally healthy?

To make this discussion clearer and easier, let’s give these people names:

My client:  Trina               Her mom:  Mabel               Trina’s unbalanced boyfriend: Fred

Let’s break this down (and no, it’s not Hammer Time):

Until a month ago, 22 year-old Trina was living with 23 year-old Fred, who recently moved to the state where his parents live so that he can pursue an externship in his field.  He graduated a year ago and was unable to find an externship in Arizona.  After Fred moved back to his home state, Trina moved back home and is living with 48 year-old Mabel.

About two weeks ago, Trina admitted to herself she wasn’t in love with Fred anymore and broke up with him.  Fred didn’t handle it well, threatening suicide, which freaked Trina out pretty badly.  Not knowing what to do, she asked her mom Mabel for help, and Mabel ended up on the phone with Fred.  Mabel spoke to Fred and couldn’t calm him down.  During the phone conversation, Fred reiterated his desire to commit suicide.

So…what should Mabel do?

Before Fred threatened suicide, the proper response to Fred is listening. Listening is always good. We are always free to be a soft shoulder for someone to cry on, but listening and attempting to fix their problem are not the same thing. For that reason, Mabel should not offer her opinions about what should be happening between Fred and Trina in regard to their relationship.  Letting another adult unload their feelings and struggles to you should be an “in one ear and out the other” kind of moment.  Not that you should forget their concerns, but that you shouldn’t let yourself get emotionally invested in what happens next. If it’s not your life, don’t get emotionally invested.  The best thing that Mabel can do in this situation (if she’s going to talk to Fred at all) is to listen to Fred’s concerns, let him unload, maybe encourage him to express his feelings (some folks have trouble with that), and then listen some more.

Once Fred expressed a desire to commit suicide, everything changed. Always take threats of suicide seriously, and don’t allow yourself to be manipulated by them.  In other words, call 911 and let the police handle the person threatening suicide.  People who are seriously threatening suicide need immediate help, and you are not qualified to determine what constitutes a serious threat of suicide. Even mental health professionals and police officers struggle with that.  Finally, anyone who threatens suicide but isn’t serious about it is using the threat to manipulate you into doing what they want you to do.  Refuse to be manipulated by taking all suicide threats seriously and refusing to intervene except by calling 911.

What would a codependent response look like?

  • Begging Fred not to commit suicide and giving him a list of reasons he should live.
  • Agreeing to talk to Trina and convince her that she shouldn’t break up with Fred.
  • Agreeing to intervene with Trina at all, in any way.
  • Yelling at Fred for being over-emotional and encouraging him to “man up” or “get a grip”.
  • Doing anything other than listening to Fred and calling 911 after he threatened suicide.
  • Getting emotionally invested in the outcome…in other words, getting emotionally involved with what happens after the phone call with Fred ends.

Let’s take a moment to talk about getting emotionally invested in the outcome.  Please note that calling 911 to stop Fred from committing suicide is not ‘getting emotionally invested in the outcome’.  It is an ethical action required to save a life.  You don’t have to be emotionally invested in the outcome in order to care about a stranger enough to call 911.

Getting back to the point: we love our families and friends and of course we will have feelings and emotions about the things that happen to them.  Your daughter gets a promotion and a raise?  You will probably feel happy.  She has a breakup with her husband? You will probably feel sad and anxious about what will happen next.  That’s normal.

What’s not normal is getting emotional at the level you would be emotional if these things were happening to you.  The emotions we feel about our own lives are necessary to help us take action on our own behalf.  So…if our emotions are there to help us take action…what action can we take if the emotions we feel are about someone else’s life?  It can be very hard to restrain yourself when the impulse to act is driven by such strong emotion…and in the attempt to stop ourselves from taking actual action, we often try to emotionally influence the other person to do what we want.  This is called manipulation. The word manipulation is defined by Webster as to “control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.”  In my counseling practice I define manipulation to my clients as “using emotions or words to try and force other people to do what you want them to do.”  Force?  Dang…that’s a strong word, but that’s exactly what it feels like when someone is manipulating you.  You might think that getting emotionally invested in the outcome is an innocent thing that happens when you have a tender heart or you are a very caring person, but tender hearts don’t force people do things and caring persons don’t attempt to control or influence unfairly or unscrupulously.  If you are actually a caring and tender hearted person, take steps to protect your tender heart and care enough to control yourself (the only thing you actually control) and let others do the same.   We’ll talk about how to protect your tender heart next week.  Wow…it turns out that this codependency and adult children thing is going to take a while to discuss.

Now let’s talk about the furniture.

Fred called Trina and said that he had resigned himself to losing her and needs to move on.  He asked Trina to send him certain items that he left with her when he moved, thinking that she would move to his home state after graduation so they could continue living together. Fred only wanted the smaller items sent to him and was not interested in having Trina ship the furniture to him; those he wanted donated to Goodwill.  Then Fred called Mabel and said pretty much the same thing to her. He requested that his bed and desk be donated to Goodwill because he no longer wanted them and then he told Mabel that he could not bear the idea that Trina might sleep with another man in that bed.

What should Mabel do?

Let’s start with the fact that Mabel doesn’t need to be involved in this at all.  The fact that Fred called her after giving Trina instructions is a clear sign that Fred is up to another act of manipulation.  Remember how we defined that earlier as using words or emotions to try and force other people to do what you want them to do.  Do you get the picture now?

Let me remind you that Trina is a 22 year-old adult.  Other than the moral issue of keeping things that Fred requested be sent to him, Mabel has no reason to interfere with this situation.  She is free to ask Trina if she needs help getting things gathered up and mailed off, just as Mabel might help any other adult who needs to get a large number of items to the UPS store.  But what if Trina refuses to mail Fred his possessions?  That’s a little stickier, but we aren’t talking about criminal activity, just ethically and morally reprehensible actions.  If Trina decides to be unethical, then Mabel is free to share her disappointment and disapproval of Trina’s actions…and then Mabel needs to shut up.  Trina is an adult, and her choice to be moral or ethical is her own.  We don’t go next door to monitor our neighbor and make sure they return all their spouse’s property when they get divorced, and we need to be careful what we say to our adult children for the same reason.  If you disapprove of another adult’s choice, you are free to tell them so, but it is wise to shut up and let it go after you tell them the first time.  Anything more than that is harping and nagging…and a direct attempt to force them to behave according to your will…and that is manipulative and codependent.**

What about the bed and desk?  Fred doesn’t want them…so Trina is free to do whatever she wishes.  If Trina wants to follow Fred’s wishes, she can donate the bed and desk to Goodwill.  If she decides that she needs those items right now, she is free to donate them to herself (after all, Fred has requested that she donate them to charity…he doesn’t need them.)  If Mabel wants to follow through with Trina about that, she may want to ask Trina what she’s going to do…and Mabel is even free to have an opinion about what is the right thing to do. Let’s remember that Fred doesn’t want the bed or the desk.  Now you might think that perhaps Fred was trying to be charitable and would not be okay with Trina keeping those items because of their value.  If Mabel thinks that charity was Fred’s goal then she is free to suggest that Trina donate a certain amount to Goodwill to make up for what Goodwill could have gained by selling those items.  Then again, Mabel might want to tell Trina that she thinks it would be wise to get rid of those items, but no matter what Mabel thinks, it is Trina’s to decide what happens with the bed and the desk. Unless Mabel paid for the bed and the desk (which would make them her property) what happens with them is not her decision and she has no right to force Trina to do anything.  Then again, Trina is an adult…so Mabel never has the right to force Trina to do anything.  She can refuse to let Trina live in her house, but that’s about all the leverage she has when it comes to Trina’s behavior, and it is not okay to threaten to throw someone out of your house just because they won’t do what you tell them to do…that’s manipulative and codependent.  We will deal with adult children in your house who are out of control and have no respect for your boundaries two weeks from now.  Again, this adult children thing is going to take a while to discuss.

Several times in this post and the last, I have said that Mabel needed to ask Trina what Trina wants to do.  This is called respecting the agency of another person. Then again, you can just call it respect, and respect is always a good idea in theory and in practice.

What to take away from this if you want to be healthy:

  • Just listen…don’t fix. When other people are talking to you, listen! Don’t tell them what to do, and don’t attempt to fix their problem unless they ask for your assistance. Listening is kind and loving and lets the person talk through the situation until they come to a better understanding of it.  Telling them what to do or ‘fixing’ things by intervening without their direct request tells them that you think they are too stupid or utterly incapable of handling things on their own.  Just listen…don’t fix.
  • Ask before acting. You are always free to offer assistance, but ask the person what they want from you.  You have no idea what someone else really needs until you ask them, and it is possible any ‘help’ you would offer will be experienced as interference by the person you are trying to help.  Don’t assume you know what someone else needs. Ask before acting.
  • Don’t insert yourself into someone else’s drama. It doesn’t matter if they are your child, your friend, your sibling, or your parents…if the issue is theirs, let it stay that way. This includes practicing “in one ear and out the other” listening, as well as not allowing anyone to manipulate you into entering their drama (think: Fred calling Mabel about the bed and desk.) No matter how dire they say their situation is, no matter how upset they are at this moment, you don’t have the answers to someone else’s problems. In the end, all you are doing is creating a mess that will make a great episode of Jerry Springer or Maury Povich. Don’t insert yourself into someone else’s drama.
  • Don’t get emotionally invested in the outcome. I know I said this earlier but it bears repeating.  No one wants to be called controlling or manipulative, but that will be the label you get if you allow yourself to get emotionally invested in the outcome of things you do not actually control.

While we didn’t talk about these specific things in this post, here are two more things crucial to avoiding codependency and manipulative behaviors.

  • Let people screw up and make bad decisions. Essentially, let people fail. Failures can lead to all sorts of good things!  The inventor of vulcanized rubber was trying to do something else entirely and accidentally invented the rubber used in your car tires. Technically, his experiment failed, but I’m betting you’re not going to give your tires back.  You might think that failure is not always so positive in our personal lives, and you would be right. Failure is not always positive and good things don’t always come from failure.  On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that you can list quite a few failures in your own life right now as you read this…and you are still here, breathing, reading, and learning. Apparently, failure isn’t fatal.  So don’t freak out when someone you love makes a choice that you fear will lead to epic failure.  You are always free to tell them that you don’t think they’re being wise, but don’t try to stop them. Failure is often the doorway to great things and it always leads to learning important lessons. Let people screw up and made bad decisions. Let people fail.
  • Don’t save people from the consequences of their own bad actions and failures. This one is hard.  When you love someone, you don’t want them to suffer…but sometimes suffering is exactly what we need to cause us to change.  Consequences are our best teacher!  And it is really uncomfortable watching someone go through the consequences of a DUI, or of an affair, or of a failed marriage.  It is going to cause you pain to watch this person you love experience their consequences…and if you love them, you will suck it up and feel the pain—both yours and theirs.  If you love them, you will let them learn this lesson this time so they don’t have to go through this twice…or three times…or more.  Far worse than suffering through this pain with them this once would be suffering through it with them two or more times because you prevented them from feeling the pain the first time.  Don’t save people from the consequences of their own bad actions and failures.

Next week I am going to address the issue of being tender hearted.  Remember that a huge part of codependency is being unable to deal with emotions that other people’s actions cause you.  It is really hard sitting back and watching your child make a foolish decision with their life or their career.  It is painful to watch your sibling deal with the consequences of their DUI.  In general, the behavior of our friends and family can cause us to feel overwhelming amounts of anxiety, pain, shame, and anger…and what do you do with all those feelings?  Let’s discuss that next week, because dealing with the feelings was the hardest part for me to conquer, and it was the key to ending my own codependent and manipulative behavior.

**If you are having problems with letting an immoral / unethical person live in your house, please see last week’s post for a short comment, and then come back for the next two week’s posts.  I promise that we’ll work our way through the whole thing before we’re done.

The Path of Placeholders

A single story in fractured pieces.  We can never know in advance how our divergent paths will converge, even when the paths are all our own.

One: 1997

During my first year of seminary I was given the chance to take a one-week intensive class in pastoral care and chaplaincy at the City of Hope Hospital in Duarte, California.  City of Hope is known for its work with with cancer and terminal illness, and the one-week intensive promised many chances to work with patients and their families. When my professor presented the information on the program, I felt God pricking at my heart and I knew that this was something I needed to do. I filled out the application and sent my money to the program director and started looking for someone to help my husband Phil take care of our children while I was out of town for the class.

The date for the class was fast approaching and I called the director of the program at City of Hope to get information about housing and transportation, only to be told that the class had been cancelled due to financial problems.  The hospital had been bought by an investor who was less interested in the not-for-profit ethos the hospital had been founded under.  They were even less interested in providing training for chaplains that would never work at the City of Hope on a regular basis.**  I was deeply disappointed, but what could I do?

Two: 1998

I sat in the kitchen and listened to Phil share horrible news: Lee had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma.  Lee and his wife Tracy both worked at Boeing, and Tracy was on Phil’s team.  Phil’s team had lost their boss to cancer only a few years before, and now they were facing losing another coworker.  The diagnosis was all the more devastating because Lee and Tracy had three young daugthers.  Phil had spent many days taking care of our two girls while I was in California; he knew the burden of being a single parent intimately, even if he only had that responsibility for a few days a week.  He deeply sympathized deeply with Tracy and worried for her children.  I remember Phil asking me if I would be there for Lee and Tracy “at the end” as if somehow, they would ever ask for me…a coworker’s wife who wasn’t even an ordained minister yet.  Shocked, I said I would do anything for them if they wanted my assistance.

Three: 1999

Churches who accept student pastors do their best to make sure we get a full platter of pastoral experiences, and so I taught a Disciple Bible Study on Sunday mornings.  I had a class of 12 and we had become close as a group, praying for and with each other every week.  So when one member’s 18-month old daughter needed a heart valve replaced, the class covenanted to fast and pray on the day of the surgery.  I was going to be at the hospital with the parents and promised that I would pass on word to the class so that they could praise the Lord and break their fast when the surgery was successfully completed.

The surgery went on much longer than initially anticipated.  I stepped out into the parking lot so I could get a cell signal (ahhhh, 1999 cell phones…remember Nokia?) and called Phil to let him know that I would be home later than we had planned.  He was somber.  “They are transferring Lee out of the bone marrow transplant unit and into the hospice.  There are no more options.  He’s dying.  Can you go?”  Lee was only a few floors up from the surgical waiting room where I had spent the majority of my day.  I agreed to go but reminded Phil that Lee and Tracy had never met me and would likely want nothing to do with me at such a critical time in their lives.  I hung up the phone and headed back into the hospital to see what I could do.

Certain that I would be turned away, I got into the elevator and headed up to the bone marrow transplant unit, which was on the 12th floor.  As I stepped out of the elevator I looked up at entry to the unit and saw these words:

Welcome to the City of Hope!
An extension of the City of Hope in Duarte, California.

It took my breathe away.

Four: 1999

I went to the nurse’s station and asked them to speak to Tracy. I told them that I was a minister, that I was Phil’s wife, and that I would go away if Tracy was not interested in seeing me.  The nurse went in for a moment and Tracy came out of the room and invited me in.

Thus began several hours of going back and forth between the surgical waiting room where my friend waited for word that her daughter’s surgery had gone well, and the room where Lee was being prepped for transfer to a hospice bed.  It seemed that the timing was always perfect as I moved between locations; guided by God’s timing I arrived at each spot just as the doctors came to speak to the family, just as critical decisions were being made. I went back and forth repeatedly, watching the families receive words at opposite ends of the spectrum of emotions from their doctors.  Your daughter is doing well and her heart is strong.  Your husband’s organs are failing.  She’ll be going home soon.  He won’t home for Christmas; he won’t live that long.  I struggled to contain my emotions as they swung from one end of the spectrum to the other.  I called my class members to relay the good news and then to ask them to pray for a family friend who would probably not be alive come morning.

With the surgery over and the family comfortably settled in the room with their daughter, I headed upstairs to the hospice wing.   When I got there, Tracy asked if I would be willing to stay for a few hours while she went home to see her children in their Christmas programs at school.  She planned to tell them afterwards that their father would not live until Christmas and would never come home again.  I agreed to stay and prayed with Tracy before she left for the last fun evening her girls would have for quite a while.

Death can be a painful thing even with medications, and I watched Lee move in and out of pain as I sat at his bedside.  I wanted to be useful and comforting, so I tried reading the Psalms out loud, very quietly. I prayed between each Psalm.  As a sat there watching Lee suffer, I realized a horrible truth: every person faces their death alone.  There are plenty of pain medications, but not one thing that can be done to ease the pain of leaving behind everyone you love, knowing that they still need you.  And it disturbed me to know that there was nothing that I could do to take that pain away from Lee.  Essentially, he was all alone in this journey and I could do nothing but sit and watch.

So I sat and watched and wondered why I didn’t know what to do.  I was a pastor, I was trained…isn’t there something I’m supposed to be doing?  Isn’t there some relief that I’m supposed to bring?  Certainly I provided assistance to Tracy, but what could I offer Lee?  He was dying!  Reading scripture wasn’t going to help him much, and even if it could help, most of the time he wasn’t conscious to hear it. I prayed but he didn’t hear that either and what was I supposed to pray for…a quicker death?  I sat there for several hours feeling futile and useless and stupid.  The critical moment of pastoring had come and I had nothing to offer. I felt like a failure.

I finally made it home later that night.  Phil and I went into the bedroom, sat at the edge of the bed and cried bitter tears.  He felt Tracy’s pain and loss acutely, and I deeply identified with Lee who was leaving his children behind much like I left mine behind week after week to attend seminary.  We sat and cried and tried to comfort each other.  It was all we could do.

Five: 2000

Even student pastors go home now and then, and so I would occasionally cut out of services at my student pastorate and attend church with my family.  St. Matthew UMC was the church that confirmed my call into the ministry and sent me off to seminary; attending worship there felt like coming home.  It was springtime and we were all gathered on the patio after worship for coffee and doughnuts.  That was when Dan approached me.

“Thank you for being there for Lee at the end. We really appreciated it.”  I was stunned!  How did Dan know Lee, and how did he know that I was there at the hospital for Lee and Tracy?  I discovered that Dan was Lee’s boss at Boeing, and that he and his team had been devastated when they found out that Lee was going into hospice.  They hadn’t known what to do.  Should they call?  Should they send someone to the hospital?

“That’s when word came from Tracy’s team that Phil’s wife, the minister, was there at the hospital to take care of Lee and Tracy.  I knew you and I told the team about you…and we were okay after that, because if felt like one of us was there, because Phil is one of us, and you’re his wife, and I knew you…you know what I mean?”

I did know what he meant, but what Dan said had revealed something much larger to me. Suddenly, I understood what my purpose had been when I sat at Lee’s bedside. I was a placeholder. I sat there at Lee’s bedside as a placeholder for a number of people.  I sat there in Tracy’s stead until she could return so that Lee wouldn’t be alone.  I sat there in the place of each member of Lee’s team at Boeing, because they couldn’t be there and weren’t sure what to do.  I was there in place of each member of Tracy’s team who wanted to support her and be there for her in a terrible moment of need.  And I sat there with Lee to represent God, and God’s presence with Lee even in his final moments.  While there was nothing I personally could offer to comfort Lee as he faced death, I could hold the place of every person who wanted to be there.  I could be a placeholder for them so that Lee would know that he would be missed, that he was loved, that his life had value, and that God was present even as He eagerly waited for Lee to come home.

Six: 2000

When I returned to school after Christmas, months before Dan revealed my purpose to me, I told my Field Education professor the entire story.  I was still distraught and feeling worthless.  Strangely, several of my classmates had experiences similar trials in ministry and were feeling particularly broken as well.  The professor reminded us that God was not wrong when He called us to dedicate ourselves completely and entirely to the Kingdom.  She said that we can never know just who we are in the Kingdom or what good we have done, because none of it will be clear until all is revealed to us in Heaven. Until then, she said, all we can do is trust that God knows what He’s doing.  Then she read us this Psalm.  To this day, whenever I hear it, I think of Lee and Tracy and the revelation that all things, even me, have a purpose greater than what we realize at the moment.

Psalm 19:7-11, 14
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

** This was back in 1997, so please do not levy judgment on the current leadership of the hospital.

A Litany of Fear and Hope

Last night, my husband and I talked about fear.  Both of us think that the nation has been overcome by fear of violence; fear of terrorism; fear of refugees; fear of the government taking their guns; fear that the government will take their rights; fear that foreigners will destroy our freedoms in the US; fear of the unknown.  Can you blame people for being afraid? The litany of violence is overwhelming:

December 2, 2015            14 dead, 21 wounded in San Bernadino, CA, shot by a US citizen and his wife.

October 1, 2015                9 dead at Umpqua College in Roseberg, OR, shot by a US citizen.

August 26, 2015                2 dead, shot while broadcasting the news in Roanoke, VA, killed by a  US citizen.

July 23, 2015                       2 dead, 9 wounded at a Layfeyette, LA theater, shot by a US citizen.

July 17, 2015                       9 dead, 1 wounded in a church in Charleston, SC, shot by a US citizen.

October 14, 2014              4 high school students dead in Marysville, WA, killed by a US citizen.

April 2, 2014                       3 dead and 16 wounded at Fort Hood, TX, shot by an active duty US soldier.

Sept 16, 2013                     12 dead, 3 wounded at Washington Navy Yard, shot by a US citizen / former US Navy sailor.

Dec 14, 2012                       26 dead, 20 of the children, at Sandy Hook Elementary, shot by a US citizen.

July 20, 2012                       12 dead, 70 injured in a theater in Aurora, CO, shot by a US citizen.

Jan 8, 2011                          6 dead, 13 injured, including Congresswoman Gabriel Gifford, shot by a US citizen.

In case you are wondering, all of these guns were obtained legally, either by the killers themselves or by their parents (in the case of the Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza, who used his mother’s legally obtained weapons, and in the case of the Oct 14, 2014 shooting by 15 year old Jaylen Fryberg, who killed students at his high school.)

You may have noticed that this list is missing the recent terrorist attacks in Paris at Charlie Hedbo and the Bataclan as well as the shootings in Denmark. Why do I list these only these acts of terrorism? Because…all of these acts of terrorism were committed by US citizens on US soil with legally purchased weapons.  So much of the fear that I hear is of ISIS and foreign refugees.  It seems to me that Americans have developed a short and selective memory.


As a child, I remember watching the news with my parents.  My parents felt that watching the evening news, especially the World News, was something akin to a duty.  In my parent’s world, there was no excuse for being ignorant of the world around you.  My father repeatedly reminded me that those who were ignorant of history were doomed to repeat it; my mother echoed his sentiments by encouraging me to read about history and do my best to see the needs of other people, especially the poor, no matter where in the world those people were living.

All those nights watching Frank Reynolds broadcasting the World News gave me a view of the world I wish I didn’t have to remember: the 1975 LaGuardia airport bombing; planes being hijacked and diverted to foreign countries (so many I cannot remember all of them); Israelis taken hostage and killed at the Munich Olympics; US citizens held hostage in Iran for more than a year; people hijacked and then held hostage in Entebbe, Uganda.  This doesn’t include the many acts of terrorism that I witnessed after I became an adult, including the bombing of the Alfred P Murrah building by Timothy McVeigh that killed 168 people in Oklahomah City, OK in 1995.  I sat the couch nursing my newborn daughter Katie, horrified by the carnage that I saw on the TV screen.  I watched the television for hours on end, cuddling and nursing my baby girl that day, shaking my head and crying.  Again…this act of terrorism was committed by a US citizen, carried out with products purchased legally that created bombs of mass destruction, killing hundreds of American citizens.

Why am I sharing all of this with you?

Right now, thousands of Syrian refugees are praying that the US will grant them safe haven inside our borders.  At the very same time there are people who swear these refugees are terrorists waiting to destroy our country.  They will tell you that admitting 9,999 legitimate refugees is unacceptable if even 1 member of ISIS comes across our borders into the US, hoping to harm our citizens.  I am here to tell you that you have more to fear from your own fellow citizens than you do from any foreigner, to remind you that your own countrymen have taken up arms against you and slaughtered innocent US citizens in the name of their politics or religion, and that US citizens will continue to do so whether you admit thousands of Syrian refugees or not.  No matter who you ban from this nation, there will be plenty of people waiting to shoot you, hijack you, hold you hostage, or blow your body to bits and each and every one of them will be a US citizen.

Ted Kaczynsky (nationwide bombing campaign, 3 dead, 23 injured). Ted Bundy (30 homicides in 7 states). David Berkowitz (New York City, 6 dead, 7 wounded). Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City, 168 dead, 600+ wounded). Jared Loughner (Tucson, 6 dead, 13 wounded).

Is the litany of violence getting to you?  I’ll bet it is.  And yet…

The sun rises every day, revealing beautiful sunrises and later that day, another gorgeous sunset.

The world is filled with kind and wonderful people who love and serve each other daily. If you don’t believe me, go to your local food bank or your local hospital and watch as people come and go throughout the day.

Neighbors watch over each other, banding together in neighborhood watches so that the entire neighborhood can be safer.

Families take care of their children and adult children care for their aging parents, leading to ‘circle of life’ moments that are beyond beauty and that give testament to the depth of love we have for one another.

And it isn’t just at the macro level that we see kindness, generosity, and selflessness.

My daughter, who could be earning six figures working for a local micro-factory (yeah they really offered her that much money) instead chooses to open a business that helps other startups who are crowd-funding and prototyping their product; she and her partner and putting 2% of their profits into a vacation fund for their employees to encourage their staff to take their days off and be emotionally and physically healthy.

My friend, who could be a totally self-centered lawyer focused on earning a salary that would pay off her student loans, instead chooses to focus on serving Native American persons and joins the board of United Food Bank.

My colleague, now retired, spends her days volunteering at a hospice to help the dying and working with local Jewish leaders to create a new Synagogue where progressive Jews can gather and worship.  Her husband, a retired professor, spends his days rocking premature infants so that new moms and dads can take a break for a shower or a nap while their child gets the most loving care possible.

Another colleague, still busy with a full practice, works in the Buddhist community to create as much peace and reconciliation as she can create between wounded factions.

I provide low-cost (and almost no-cost) counseling to people who fall through the social safety net because everyone, no matter what their income level, deserves the right to mental health care.

My husband sits on the board of a local outdoor behavioral health organization, raising funds so that low-income families can receive the same high quality treatment for their children that the rich families get for their kids.

I suppose that I could list each and every person I know who is choosing to be a part of the solution instead of the problem, but I’d be here writing all night long.

THERE IS NOTHING WORTH GIVING IN TO FEAR.

There will always be terrorist, hijackers, murderers, haters, bigots, racists, and people who simply vote for anger and hatred over peace and reconciliation.  But that doesn’t mean that you and I need to give in to fear and despair.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”    Christianity    1 John 4:18

“Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  Christianity    1 John 4:18

“When a person responds to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, he has attained the highest state of spiritual union.”  Hindu Bhagavad Gita 6.28-32

“Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, even so, let him cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings. Let his thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world: above, below, and across without any obstruction, without any hatred, without any enmity.”  Buddhism. Sutta Nipata 143-151, Metta Sutta

“Have benevolence towards all living beings, joy at the sight of the virtuous, compassion and sympathy for the afflicted, and tolerance towards the indolent and ill-behaved.”  Jainism. Tattvarthasutra 7.11

“A man is a true Muslim when no other Muslim has to fear anything from either his tongue or his hand.”   Islam. Hadith of Bukhari

“Who sees all beings in his own self, and his own self in all beings, loses all fear.”  Isa Upanishad, Hindu Scripture

“We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.”   Islam, Surat al-Ma’ida, 48

“Indeed, Allah enjoins justice, and the doing of good to others; and giving like kindred; and forbids indecency, and manifest evil, and wrongful transgression. He admonished you that you may take heed.”  Islam, Al Quran 16:91

“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear.”    Gandhi

The world’s religions say it again and again: have compassion and love for one another, not fear.  When we let ourselves soak in fear of “The Other”, no matter who that other is: foreigner or citizen, male or female, rich or poor…none of it matters…when we let ourselves soak in fear of the “The Other” our decisions are made by fear, driven by pain, and not one of them is wise.

Only in unity can we be greater than all the bombers and mass shooters and terrorists that can darken our days with their violence.  Only in unity will greed be overcome by generosity.  Only in unity will we find the peace and contentment we seek.

For perfect love casts out fear…let his thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world…(have) compassion and sympathy for the afflicted…the enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.

Grace In The Water

Hebrews 4:14-16   “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

I went to see my counselor today.  She’s a great lady who gives me good advice and lets me prattle on until I actually hear myself and find my way to clarity despite all the clutter in my head. I see a counselor because I realized about four months ago that I was slipping into depression and needed some help to figure out what was knocking me down emotionally.  I also went to my doctor for a passel of blood tests to make sure that my health wasn’t giving me a run for my money, but pretty much all they told me was that I’m menopausal.  No?!  Really?  I would never have guessed that!  Actually, I’d already guessed that menopause was contributing to my depression.  Still, it’s always good to have a counselor to help you sort out your weirdness, so off I went to see Sharon.

Sharon and I had a lot to catch up on, since it had been a month since our last session and I told her all about my trip to Minneapolis and WX2015 (see earlier post from September 25) and my latest retreat with the Board of Ordained Ministry.  I found myself talking about how I continue to feel squished (earlier post from August 8) and yet how I feel called to take care of my colleagues in ministry.  I’m a licensed mental health counselor and a Methodist minister, and honestly, having a practice full of mentally ill clients to take care of is plenty of work to do.  I also do a lot of work for the Church that involves taking care of folks in my congregation who need spiritual care, working at the conference level to train people in health and caring ministries and working with the Board of Ordained Ministry to vet and develop of new ministers.  Believe me, I have more than enough work to do…and yet the minute I get some free time to hang out with my colleagues in ministry, I feel a deep call to provide pastoral care to some of them. Why?

Ministry is an incredibly draining job.  I won’t go into some long explanation to try and justify that statement because nothing I could tell you can describe what it’s like to be a minister…except to say that you do your best to be a spiritual guide for your congregation, a leadership coach to develop new ministry leaders, and an impartial referee to the many ministry groups at the church who want time and resources so they can do their very important jobs in the church.  Essentially you become the parent-figure to a huge body of adults who want the right to cry on your shoulder when they hurt, be comforted and guided when they are wounded, and get advice when they feel lost, while they retain the right to tell you to shut up, go away, and do what the congregation tells you to do when they’re feeling like you stepped on their authority. And don’t get me started on the power struggles between the various church leaders and ministry groups.  And let’s not forget that these ministers usually have families and that means children…sometimes teenage children…at home.  NOW you know why your pastor is so frazzled.

Anyway…Sharon and I were talking about why I feel such a strong calling to take care of my colleagues, to listen to them and cry with them and pray with them.  I told her that when I get together with my colleagues, I feel like I’m swimming in a sea of broken bodies, all of them doing their best to suffer quietly and not drown.  I told her that I often wish I could just swim by and go about my business but any time I try to do that, I remember that God never tells me that He’s too busy to listen, or too overwhelmed to stop and deal with my fears or my pain. You could say that it’s guilt that motivates me, but it isn’t guilt.  It’s an extreme awareness of the grace that is mine every day.

Then Sharon reminded me that this is why I feel squished…why I get so exhausted and exasperated.  Then she asked me why I feel so responsible about this, why I feel like I have to do something about it when in reality I am no less broken than the folks in the sea around me.  I know that she’s right, and yet…

Mark 6:30-34b30 “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.  31He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

This part of scripture occurs shortly after Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, is murdered in prison.  Jesus is grieving and his disciples are exhausted, so they try to escape to a quiet place to rest and recoup…only to be met there by throngs of broken people.   34b And he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

I don’t abuse myself with the notion that Jesus was infinitely patient at moments like these.  I don’t pretend that He wasn’t exasperated and frustrated and feeling squished.  But I know that despite all of that, Jesus found compassion for the sea of broken bodies He was swimming in and He reached out them, to heal them, to comfort them, and to listen to all their sorrows.

I’m not the greatest Christian in the world.  I fail the holiness test in a BIG way, every time.  I’m not doing justice ministries out in the streets.  I’m not out in some far flung location in a third world country, living barely above the poverty line as I reach out to those who live in far worse circumstances than I do.  I’ve never been on a mission trip, and I don’t do youth lock-ins. I’m not much for leaving behind my physical comforts.  I don’t do any kind of ministry that gets accolades for being really bold and out there on the cutting edge.

On the other hand, I am filled with compassion for the broken bodies that are all around me everywhere I go, especially when those broken bodies are my colleagues in ministry.  I am just as tired and exasperated as I think that Jesus was…and yet I can’t find my way to doing anything other than what He did, which for me looks like reaching out and grabbing onto the closest broken and possibly drowning person and listening to them pour out their frustrations and their sorrows. I can’t seem to turn away from their pain because it calls to the Christ within me, calling out the best parts of me that can only really be Him living within me, doing the healing work that only Christ can do.

I sat there in Sharon’s office crying while we talked about this because I feel it so deeply.  I told her that I don’t see myself ever doing anything great for the Kingdom, but that doing this one thing would be enough to serve Him.  And that’s why I can’t swim past the broken bodies of my colleagues.

All I know is that I follow an exhausted, exasperated Savior who stopped and cared for every gasping, drowning, broken body He found, including mine, and I would do anything to pay Him back for that.