Learning new ways to care

When I was first ordained and called to serve congregations in two rural towns in North Dakota, it was fairly common for me to receive a phone call from an employee at the local hospital informing me that a member of my congregation had been admitted. Although the congregations I served were very good at keeping their pastor informed about the needs of members of the congregation, there was a sense that the wider community was also exercising care. My congregations were fairly small and it was possible for me to visit those hospitalized every day if the circumstances warranted. Our small hospital, however, did not provide all of the services that members of our congregations needed. Someone needing orthopedic surgery or a heart procedure, chemotherapy, radiation, and a host of other life-saving procedures was required to travel for those treatments. While we lived there, or son required orthopedic surgery and the surgery took place in Rapid City, 175 miles from our home. It was not uncommon for me to drive to Rapid City or to Bismarck (150 miles one way) to visit a member of our congregation receiving treatment. It was not uncommon for me to drive 30,000 work-related miles in a year during that time in our lives.

When we moved to a larger city to serve a congregation in Boise, Idaho, the hospitals did not call us to inform us of members admitted. I could, however, inquire at the front desk of either hospital in our town for a list of persons admitted. Both hospitals kept lists organized by denomination, so I frequently visited members of the United Church of Christ who were in our city from other communities for medical treatment. I remembered the long trips and less common visits I was able to make to members when we lived in a remote location. Boise was a medical center with all services including pediatric intensive care, cardio-vascular surgery, infusion and radiology services available, It served an area with a 150-mile radius.

Eighteen years into my career, about a year after we moved to Rapid City, The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPA), changed access to information about who was in the hospital. No longer could hospitals legally provide access to lists of people admitted to the hospital. Patients had to designate who was allowed to see their medical information including the fact that they had been admitted for care. We had to develop a network of care within our congregation that encouraged family members to notify the church when there was a desire for a pastoral visit. I was spending as much time as before providing care for members receiving medical treatment, but I spent less time actually visiting people and more time discerning who needed visits. Often I would learn about a member’s hospitalization only after treatment was completed and the patient was released from care.

Despite the limitations imposed by HIPA, I enjoyed access to the hospital and the members of my congregation receiving care there. I had an official identification badge, issued by the hospital, that allowed me access to lists of names of patients who had indicated that they wanted a visit from a pastor of a particular denomination. The name badge required that I take regular instruction into the rules of the hospital, including the specific requirements of HIPA. There were times when I had access to information that I could not share with the wider congregation. This was nothing new to me, however, because I regularly found myself in situations where keeping confidences was part of my role. It is one of the requirements of ministers expressly stated in our code of ethics.

For the last seven years of my career as a pastor, I also carried a law enforcement identification badge. The badge was recognized by hospital employees and gave me access to information within the hospital. Like the hospital badge, it came with strict and careful restrictions on what information could and could not be shared with others.

As a result, I became used to being able to go where I wanted within the hospital. I knew the procedures for visiting in restricted areas such as the Intensive Care Unit and emergency room treatment areas. I knew the proper procedure for donning gowns, face masks and gloves. I knew when I should step out of a room to allow medical procedures to be conducted. Within the guidelines of the law and the hospital, I used my access to provide pastoral care to members of the congregation and law enforcement officers. I became used to being allowed to visit outside of normal visiting hours and having access to those receiving medical treatment.

Then, in the final months before my retirement, everything changed. The Covid-19 pandemic restricted visiting in hospitals and care centers to only the most critically necessary visits. Pastoral care in institutions virtually came to a halt. I was allowed access to provide care in a few critical situations as a patient neared death, but I had to made a quick shift to providing care over the telephone in many cases. I had to learn a new skill of offering prayers over the phone, something that I had rarely done before.

And now, being fully retired, I don’t have any official identification badges. I am a member of the general public. I have a friend who is undergoing a surgical procedure this morning and I know that I will not be able to sit with his spouse in the waiting room as the procedure is conducted. I’ll send a text message with a prayer but it isn’t the same thing. The procedure will be complete and my friend will be back home by the end of the day so face to face visits will be possible, but I realize that there is a difference in access to information.

Regular members of congregations have learned to provide care without special access for as long as there have been restrictions on access. I am no different, and I don’t need to have special status or official identification badges in order to show my care for others. It is just another skill I am learning in my new role in the community.

And always, I trust the power of prayer to transcend physical distance. I continue to include in my prayers those who are far away including those whom I have never met firmly believing that prayer opens me up to recognize God’s presence in the world.

Prayers continue.


Sorry, dear readers, for the late posting today. I forgot that the web host migrated my site to a new server yesterday and so this morning failed to publish it to the correct address. Hopefully this didn't cause too much confusion.


A brief unsolicited sermon

One of the theological terms with which preachers struggle, often during Advent, is repent. It is the commandment, or at least the invitation, that John issues in preaching about the coming of the Messiah. In Matthew 3:2, John declares, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent carries many meanings including: change your inner self; change your way of thinking; regret your past sins; live your life in a way that proves you have changes; seek God’s purpose for your life.

The word in the original Greek of Matthew’s gospel is metanoeite, which means “to change one’s heart and mind.” A literal translation of the term is “to change direction, to stop going the wrong way and start going the right way.” Preachers have long proclaimed the invitation to stop going in one direction and find a new direction in their exposition of the concept.

Less commonly included in preaching is another subtle bit of language and translation that is part of understanding the evolution of the concept in theology. The distinction between regret and repent is a concept in contemporary English and other modern languages, but it does not really exist in ancient Greek. In our way of thinking, repentance is born of deep regret - regret that is deep enough that it inspires a change of mind or a change in course of conduct. In the ancient world, however, the distinction between thinking and action is absent. The change of behavior is seen as the sign of the change of mind. It is all a single concept in the original Greek. There can be no change of behavior without a change of mind and to change one’s mind is to change one’s behavior.

In our world, however, there are plenty of examples of people expressing regret without actually making any changes. Public apologies often seem to be more of an expression of sadness over getting caught than sadness over the actual behavior. Politicians will express regret and continue to do the same thing as before. There seems to be a disconnect between being sorry about something and actually changing one’s behavior.

I’m not sure that this distinction serves society. Would we not be better off if regret actually produced change? Is not change the solution for the problems we experience?

As long as I am geeking out over language and the meaning of words, let me introduce the etymology of another term that is common in contemporary usage, but not so common in ancient literature. The word trauma is common in reference to the wounds experienced by victims of violence in our contemporary world. Although the word has some roots in a Greek stem word, its use in the contemporary sense is not very ancient. The first uses of the word in reference to wounds or injuries is from the 17th century French and probably comes from the Proto-Indo-European root “tera” meaning “to rub, turn.” That same root yields words referring to twisting, drilling, piercing, and also the term for the process of removing husks from grain or threshing. That same root is also the basis for the modern word “attorney,” with its sense of a professional who can bring forth a different outcome. The roots of that word are distinct from the biblical word that carries a sense of counselor or one who stands in your place to advocate for you.

Attorneys and Lawyers aside, the origin of the word trauma is not just wound, but piercing and turning - tearing apart. That sense of being torn apart has a reflection in some of the ways we talk about grief. We say we are “beside ourselves” with grief as if we had become two entities that simultaneously exist. I have often heard survivors of trauma speak of their experience as one of undergoing a twisting and tearing process of becoming something different than what existed before. Their experience has caused them to experience more change than they previously thought was possible - or even survivable. They thought that they could not bear the events that came to pass and yet somehow they have survived. Somehow they have born grief that was once beyond imaginable.

Those suffering trauma, however, do not easily come to an understanding of the process as somehow good or positive. Although I might speak of the possibility of “good grief” in counseling a survivor, I am careful not to introduce such an idea too early in our conversations - before the victim has been able to pour forth the negative emotions which rise up when they reflect or re-experience the trauma.

In a sense, trauma forces a kind of repentance. The old ways are no longer viable. Life as it once was ceases to exist as a possibility. The only way forward is a direction that was not previously possible. One does not get over trauma. The only course of action is to go through trauma. The future after experiencing trauma is forever altered. A new way of living emerges. The old is not fully forgotten, it is simply unattainable. There is no way to go back to what it was like before.

What emerges is a new way of seeing, understanding, knowing - a new way of living. We often use the term “survivor” to refer to this new post-trauma way of life. What has been survived is the end of the old way of being and the birth of a new way of being. The survivor carries knowledge and memory of what was before and what can no longer continue. The new being is literally beside what once was. There is a distinct separation between the past and the future - a turning point - a repentance. For a survivor, change was not the product of individual will, but rather something for which there was no other option. There was no possibility of not changing. Yet there still is a choice. The choice is to survive. One might perish from the trauma. One chooses to survive.

A survivor exists through a miracle of imagination - a new heaven and a new earth opens up where no way forward seemed to exist. It is a rough and jarring process. Such deep change is a triumph of the human spirit.

It is this new life to which we are called from the traumas of our time.

Grace has brought me safe thus far

I seem to have developed a very positive relationship with my family doctor. It is a good thing because I am in contact with her a bit more than I think might be normal. Then again I have never before been this age and I am not sure what is normal for my age and stage in life. When I was a young adult, I was a pilot, which meant that I needed to have a Class III medical certificate. The certificate required an annual physical by a flight surgeon that included general health, vision and color vision checks, and a few other tests. I didn’t worry much about the examination except for the vision portion. I’ve worn glasses or contact lenses since I was 6 years old and each year I emerged from my medical exam with a notation on my certificate that required me to not only wear glasses when exercising the privileges of my airman’s certificate, but that I also carry a spare pair of glasses with me when flying. I kept an extra pair of glasses in my flight bag so they were always at hand. Never did I need to reach for the extra pair when flying, but they were there.

These days I don’t worry much about eye exams. I’ve been told by my optometrist that I have some early stage cataracts, but that there is no need to proceed with surgery until they become more prominent and there is no predicting when that will be. I’ve had a lot of friends, including my wife, who have had successful cataract surgery and I’m not worrying about that one and so far, I have been able to obtain corrective lenses for my vision deficiencies. As far as I know I’m seeing well and I am able to do the things I enjoy such as reading, playing music, driving, and going on outdoor adventures without a problem. I’m pretty careful to wear a strap on my glasses when paddling so that they don’t get lost should I take an unplanned dip into the water. It has happened to me before.

What seems to be the case, however, is that being past 70 means that little things crop up. I’ve learned by experience that scanning symptoms on Web MD or the Mayo Clinic site late at night isn’t a way to promote an optimistic outlook on life. In general my symptoms are not indicative of all of the various calamitous conditions about which I read on web sites that are supposed to help people with illness. I find checking in with my family doctor to be much more reassuring when little symptoms persist. And, when I did have something serious going on - when atrial flutter suddenly showed up - she was quick to respond, make a referral to a specialist, and help me arrange for prompt and helpful follow up.

Mostly, however, being in my seventies doesn’t mean severe illness. It means a few more general aches and pains that I remember being a part of my life when I was younger. I have had a bit of swelling in one of my ankles the past few days. At first I thought it was sprained. However the symptoms match a condition I had in the other foot a few years ago which was determined to be mild edema. Being careful about salt intake, wearing compression stockings, and being sure to elevate my feet when sitting and reading provided a solution. Those are things I can do without needing to consult my doctor.

I seem to be less sure these days about when to consult with the doctor and when to apply simple home remedies.

I do know that I don’t want to discuss my symptoms with everyone. I have a friend who is quite an expert in natural remedies, medicinal plants, and such. If I so much as mention a symptom to her I’m likely to go home with some kind of tea or poultice that is supposed to solve my problem but about which I know nothing and lack the usual confidence that inspires successful treatment with placebos.

The last thing I want to be in my old age is someone who is constantly complaining about my health. After all, if there is one thing that I would like to communicate to younger people about attaining my age is that it isn’t as bad as I had imagined. In fact, I’m not wishing to turn back the clock at all. I’ve had a good life to be sure, but I have no need to repeat any of it. I feel like I’ve earned the measure of wisdom I possess through a lifetime of making mistakes.

Actually, it isn’t that strange being in my seventies. I know that I used to think that such an age was old, but my friends who have moved on into their eighties keep inspiring me with their clear thinking and lively discussion. Somehow my sixties sped by much faster than I expected and I’ve weathered some of the greatest life changes including retirement, to which I did not take too kindly, especially on my first attempt. Selling our home of 25 years and moving over a thousand miles away to a whole new climatic zone took a bit of adjustment, but it turns out that it was a good thing to do. I’ve learned to say good bye to some of my possessions and I’m appreciating my somewhat trimmed down lifestyle. A smaller home is a bit less work and a smaller yard makes a bit difference. I used to budget two hours a week to mow my lawn. These days if I’ve taken a half hour it means that I’ve been taking it slow and stopping to dig in the garden along the way.

Being in my seventies allows me to worry just a little bit less. I can still get myself into a tizzy about the challenges our children face as parents of lively young ones, but I am also amazed and encouraged by their competence as parents. I think we were mostly winging it when our kids were that age. They seem to have things under control a bit better than we did. Then again, I know that appearances can be deceiving.

I’m learning to calm down and make jokes about my forgetfulness and to give myself permission to make mistakes from time to time. Others seem to be remarkably accepting of my failings and willing to give me a second chance.

I’ve got another birthday coming up in a couple of months. I plan to wear the new digit after the 7 with pride and joy. I’ve been through a lot to get this far and as far as I know I’ve got plenty more birthdays ahead. I am, however, grateful to have a doctor who answers my email questions with amazing patience.

Seeking the resurrection story

I am aware that I can sometimes rush to judgement. I know that this is not an admirable trait and I think that I am a bit better at keeping an open mind than was the case when I was younger, but still there are times when I wrestle with judgements I have made. I know that my judgments might not be accurate. At least they are not the full story and yet sometimes when I get a notion - usually about another person - I have trouble looking past that notion.

This Eastertide, I am struggling with my sense of the direction our leaders are taking worship at our church. Here is the judgement that is probably keeping me from fully participating in worship with our congregation: I think that our pastors are having trouble with resurrection. Perhaps their personal beliefs simply do not include specific ideas about what happens after death. Perhaps they have decided that some of the historic teachings of religious leaders about heaven are misleading and not culturally appropriate in modern times. I don’t really know, but it is almost as if the topic of resurrection is being avoided in our church this Eastertide.

On Easter Sunday, the liturgy and sermon focused on the short ending of the Gospel of Mark. Many scholars agree that the most ancient versions of the Gospel end with 16:8, in which the women, when they discover the empty tomb early at first sunrise on the first day of the week, are instructed to Go and tell the disciples, but instead, “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” This is one of the possible Gospel texts for Easter Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary. The alternate Gospel for Easter is the full resurrection story from the Gospel of John. When I prepared Easter worship in this cycle of the lectionary, I usually opted for the text from the Gospel of John, but I have also preached on the short ending of Mark. When I have done so, I have spoken of the scholar’s agreement that this is likely the most ancient version of how the gospel ended. But I also raised the question of why our traditions have given us both the intermediate and the long ending of the Gospel. If it were true that the women told no one, somehow their silence did not keep the story from being told. In the first place, the empty tomb is part of the most ancient versions of the Gospel. Furthermore, subsequent generations of faithful people felt the need to include post resurrection appearances of Jesus in the endings that we now find as part of the text. I think it is a mistake to discount portions of the text as we have received it simply because there is evidence that they are later additions. We still have to wrestle with the question of why the additions have become a part of our scriptures.

I left the church on Easter morning feeling that the service simply avoided the topic of resurrection. I felt the same the following Sunday. And this morning I’m a bit uncertain of what to expect. The lectionary for today includes Acts 3:12-19 which is Peter’s sermon to the Jews of Jerusalem in which he directly asserts that Jesus is the Messiah and that he was raised from the dead. The Gospel for the morning is Luke 24: 36-48, one of the reports of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in which he eats in their presence and reminds them that they are witnesses of his resurrection. However, this week, as was the case last week, there is no Gospel reading in our congregation’s liturgy. And the reading from Acts is “selected verses from chapter 4.” I’m always wary of “selected verses.” It can be an indication that the pastor is choosing the text to reach a conclusion previously drawn instead of being led by the text to proclaim the Gospel.

I know, I’m being judgmental. I know I’m drawing conclusions before even attending worship. I will be in church and I will try to approach worship with an open mind.

I know that resurrection is a difficult concept to understand. It is a difficult concept to preach. I wrestled with resurrection every year of my career and in preparation for every funeral at which I officiated. But I also know that some of my deepest experiences of resurrection have come from spending time with grieving people mourning the loss of a loved one. Their stories and memories have brought their loved one to life in my experience. It is clear to me that death is not the end of the worth, the meaning, and the value of human life. It is not the end of love.

I know from my experience of membership in this congregation that our lead pastor is not a reader. She does, however, listen to a lot of audio books. And research has shown that people who listen to audio books retain more information than those who read digital books on electronic devices. While I still prefer reading paper books and do about 75% of my reading from paper books, I do read a fair amount from a digital reader. I love its convenience for traveling and generally have several books loaded on my reader and will travel with it as my only reading device. So perhaps our pastor is retaining as much information from audio books as I do from my combination of reading.

Nonetheless, I think that avoiding direct talk about resurrection during Eastertide is a disservice to a congregation. It is not just my age that forces me to face mortality and to think about death and resurrection. I’ve thought about these issues for all of my life. I know I’m not alone in squirming when I hear a minister say something like, “heaven or wherever we go when we die” at the funeral of a loved one.

Our pastor is very modern and keeps ups with the latest trends in preaching. And I know that there is much I can learn from following one whose direction is different from my own. So, for the most part, I will keep my discomfort to myself. Still, I may check out another perspective through another congregation’s online worship in addition to our church’s worship. I’m longing for some resurrection preaching this Eastertide.

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