Friday, October 26, 2007

Learning the Hard Way

When I moved to Omaha, Nebraska from the Dallas area, I wanted to continue my hospital ministry, so I called the closest hospital to see if I could volunteer there. They had a much larger Pastoral Care Department than the hospital I had been volunteering at, and it was also a training center for chaplains.

The very nice man, Bob, who took my call, told me that in order to work in any pastoral care capacity at the hospital, I would have to complete at least one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). My informal training through the hospital ministry organization at my previous church didn’t count. Nor did my years of experience. Both of those, and the fact that my husband is an ordained Permanent Deacon in the Catholic church, would qualify me to enter the CPE program, but weren’t enough to let me volunteer.

I’ll admit it. I had a bit of an attitude about that. Who was he to discount what I had done? I was trained by a woman who had years of experience with Hospice. And didn’t he know I was a good person and only wanted to help people?

Actually, I think he did. And when I was able to let go of my attitude and sign up for that first unit of CPE, I started to understand. To be a chaplain, it takes more than being a good person, and we are not there to help people in the way most people think.

When I think about the first few months of that first unit, I cringe remembering all the poor people I tried to “help.” Bob was the CPE supervisor, so I met with him weekly to debrief and go over Verbatims. I would feel so smug because of things I did to help people, and Bob was quick to point out that wasn’t my role. “You aren’t here to ‘fix’ things,” became his typical response to me, until I finally started to get it.

I went on to take three more units, which then qualified me to work first as an on-call chaplain, then part-time and finally full-time for several years. That was an incredible experience, and I am so glad that Bob stood his ground.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Why Bad Things Happen

One of the questions I am inevitably asked when talking to people about situations like Rene’s is, “Why?” Why would a loving God take a young woman like that?

Well, actually, God didn’t do it. The tumor grew in her head without any help from Him at all. Good medicine and positive thinking kept it at bay for a while, but it was inevitable that it would come back.

But wait, what about miracles? Couldn’t God have done a miracle here? Well, actually, yes. I do believe in miracles. And maybe it was a miracle that Rene had 5 good years instead of only 6 months. But that is only speculation. I think we can put an interpretation to almost anything after the fact.

And the fact is, God doesn’t make things happen to people for whatever reason. He created us and the world we live in – at least some of us think so - but He turned control over that world to us. He could intervene on our behalf, and at time has done so, but most of the time He lets us chart our own course. He is not sitting up in heaven with a computer keeping track of how good we are – I think it’s only Santa and the Easter Bunny who do that – so he can bring down a terrible sickness on those who are sinning.

So many of us grew up in religious experiences where we learned that we had to be good to please God. And in some way that started to equate to “Be good so nothing terrible happens.” But as Rabbie Kushner points out in his book, “Why Bad Thing Happen to Good People”, personal tragedy is not linked to personal morality.

It is from Kushner that I learned about the workings of natural law that operates with no moral judgment. He believes that natural law is blind, and God does not interfere with it. God does not intervene to save good people from earthquake or disease, and does not send these misfortunes to punish the wicked.

Does that mean that we should stop being good? Or stop praying for miracles? Absolutely not. We should always be good to please ourselves. And I believe that God is dispensing miracles all the time. It’s just that sometimes it is not the miracle we asked for.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Blessings Are Sometimes Sad

While Rene was amazing me with her simple theology and delighting her family with her recovery, the doctors were cautious about celebrating. Even after weeks of radiation, followed by a CAT scan that showed the tumor was gone, the neurologist told the family that this could only be a temporary victory. The kind of tumor Rene had rarely disappears forever.

Rene dismissed the doctor’s negative prognosis and resumed her normal life, going to school, visiting with friends, and going to church. She had named the tumor “Herman” and said she was convinced the radiation worked because she had told Herman to “get the hell out of my head.”

Herman stayed away for five years - four and a half years longer than the doctor had predicted – and when he came back, it was with a vengeance. By the time Rene was showing any symptoms, the tumor was larger than it had been originally, and surgery was not even an option. They could try radiation again, but that might only buy her an extra few months.

She was pissed about that. She was also one of the few people I’ve met who openly expressed feelings of anger. She said a few nasty things to God about allowing this to happen to her, and her mother was horrified. “You can’t talk to God like that.”

“Actually, she can,” I said. Then I told Wilma what a very wise woman had said to my daughter when a close friend’s child had been killed. My daughter was angry, and this woman told her to go into her room, close the door, and tell God in no uncertain terms how she felt.

“But I’m mad,” my daughter said. “I want to say ugly things.”

“That’s okay,” the woman said. “God can take it. He’s got strong shoulders. And he’d rather you yell at him, than turn away.”

Over the next few weeks I helped Rene and her mother prepare a memorial service. Rene picked out a couple of readings from the bible, as well as asking for a particular song and a spiritual reading. The family wanted my husband to conduct the service, and his homily was focused on what a blessing Rene had been in our lives.

She was that.

Monday, October 1, 2007

I thought I Knew It All

After my last visit with Rene in the hospital, I thought that would be the end of our association, but something about her tugged at my heart, so when her mother asked if I would visit at home, I told her I would.

I went once a week so we could do some catechism classes in preparation for her to make a full profession of faith in the church. Not knowing how long she might live, our pastor recommended that I do a condensed version of a year-long journey that people take to become Catholic. We spent some time on the Bible, church history, and then I wanted to introduce her to a bit of theology. I told her in the simplest definition, theology is knowledge of God, and that one of the purposes of the practice of a religion is to deepen our knowledge and understanding of God. To be aware of His presence in our lives. So what would she like to learn about Jesus?

“Oh, I already know about him,” she said. “He was there in the hospital with me. We talked and He said I was going to be alright.”

I remember thinking, “Wow! What other lessons will this young lady teach me?”

Until next time….