Sunday, August 30, 2009

Katrina + 4

I should have posted this link yesterday to New Orleans Times Picayune reporter Chris Rose's 4th Anniversary column. Rose's first hand account of life during the storm and its aftermath, One Dead in Attic, originally self published (I bought my first copy from Rose's wife over the phone while in NOLA doing relief work a year after the storm) published now by Simon and Schuester, is a modern day lament Psalm.

"When I am introduced as someone from New Orleans, people sometimes say: "I'm so sorry."
New Orleans. I'm so sorry.
That's not the way it was before,not the way it's supposed to be. When people find out you're from New Orleans, they're supposed to tell you about how they got drunk there once, or fell in love there, or first heard the music there that changed their lives.
At worst people would say: "I've always wanted to go there."
But now, it's just: "I'm sorry."
Man, that kills me. That just kills me."
— Chris Rose (1 Dead in Attic)

Please keep the city and all its people in prayer.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Prayer for the Beginning of School

"Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner; put yourself in his place so that you may understand… what he learns and the way he understands it." Søren Kierkegaard

School is starting. No matter what our actual jobs or defined roles, we are all sometimes called to be teacher and at other times called to be student. May we pray in these days for the student’s heart and wisdom; the hunger to learn whatever we need most to know and the wisdom to recognize the teacher wherever she or he appears. And may we pray that when students appear, our teacher’s soul would guide us into their hearts and minds so that we might learn what they understand and understand what they would learn from us. Only in such prayer, we are joined by the Teacher becoming there students of our own deepest longings to be understood even as we seek to understand. Amen

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Whatever Comes Thy Will Be Done

I found a first edition of Thomas Merton’s, Thoughts in Solitude, at a Used Book Sale awhile back. I’ve read a little Merton almost every day for several years now, so I was quite excited about the find and also about the price, $1.50. After a long week at work solitude seems a necessary prescriptive* so I’ve been reading and meditating on small passages. I am particularly drawn to this: “What is the use of praying if at the very moment of prayer we have so little confidence in God that we are busy planning our own kind of answer to our prayer?” (p.31).

Not my will but thine be done and we are seized with Abrahamic faith, raising the knife poised to strike down our most cherished and dearly beloved, those very things, or ideas, or whatevers which are sign and the seal of our blessedness. Prayer is radical business. Growing in faith requires an ever deepening willingness to trust more and more of ourselves to God. Especially, the very things which we have come to believe are God’s special gifts for our lives and our living.

Today, I will pray to learn to trust my work to God, for in truth it is not mine but God’s work. All that I bring to it are God’s gifts to me and the doing is God’s blessing for my life. If this past week it seemed to big and too much and too many and more than I could imagine doing, and people somehow still felt cared for and felt compassion and knew grace and went home with a little bit more wholeness, and if God showed up and cradled us all in her hands and kept us safe it had little to do with me and everything to do with God. A miracle of grace in every group and pastoral-therapeutic encounter.

I pray for confidence in the coming days that whatever comes thy will will be done. Amen

*Truthfully however, this is a second-line medication, last night all I had the strength for was renting “Mall Cop” and watching it half comatose on the couch.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pray Carpe Diem

You never know in life, this might be my last win as a golfer,” Yang, smiling, said through an interpreter. “But this is a great day. It’s going to be a great foundation for me to continue playing on the PGA Tour. It means the world right now. It hasn’t sunken in, but I do know the significance of it.” New York Times, August, 17, 2009, Y. E. Yang, quoted, Sunday at Hazeltine National after shooting a two-under-par 70 in the final round to win the P.G.A. Championship with a score of eight-under 280.

May we pray this week in gratitude and joy for what we have been allowed to accomplish with the gifts we have been given. May we celebrate the living of these days with gladness and a heart of thanksgiving. And may we be made ever aware of the foundation of mercy and grace upon which our future rests, whatever it may bring. Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

It Is A Horrible Thing To Trust

I am frequently slow and dull to the Lord’s prompting despite my hubris which lulls me into the belief that I am somewhat attentive, on some days, to the movements of the Holy Spirit in my heart. Last Sunday’s Psalm 51 invited me to pray with it all week; being especially drawn to verse 8b, “let bones you have crushed rejoice,” “let me hear joy and gladness” (verse 8a).

Dearest Jesus, crush the bones of my anger, they feel hard and stiff within me and provide the framework for so much that I pray the Holy Spirit would remove from me, for my anger separates me from my sisters and brothers, and most especially from you: “For it is against you and you alone that I have sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (v.4). Crush these bones that I might hear, ever more clearly, your still small voice speaking from the depths of joy and gladness for my soul. Amen.

Today in church I lifted heart and mind with my sisters and brothers in confessing: “Ruler of all, we confess that we have sought to please ourselves instead of glorifying you. We have set aside the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom, and have relied upon our own strength rather than upon your Spirit.

“Forgive our stubborn insistence on doing things our own way, and serving you on our own terms; teach us to seek your kingdom first, and your justice above all else, confident that your care for us is fully trustworthy, and hear our prayers which we offer to you in silence.”

In silence the Spirit prayed: It is a horrible thing to trust your pain to the comfort of God’s love rather than the solace of your own anger.

Yes it is. So much of this journey is not so much about faith, but about learning to live within toward even deeper levels of trust and hope. May the Spirit guide me in the coming days, to seek to comfort and compassion of Jesus for all those pains, real and imagined, which keep me from loving my sisters and brothers as fully as I can. For, dear Jesus, it is only in loving them that I can love you as you love me. Amen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"Jesus Loves You"

"Untitled," Jackson Pollack, 1943. Guggenheim Museum, NY

"Howard" was my patient for many months, many years ago, his name and identifying details have been changed.

Howard came to us when his sister dropped him off at our Behavioral Health Emergency Room. “He’s only been here two days, but he’s dangerous, unpredictable…I’m afraid he’ll hurt my kids,” is what his sister said to the intake worker. Then she left; leaving Howard with us for treatment with only these, the condemnatory benediction of the last member of his family willing to care for him and the clothes on his back.

Howard was twenty–five years old. His wild curly, black hair stuck out all around his head and reached half way down his back. The dirty, unkempt beard on his face was matted and wet; the wetness a result of the constant stream of drool that poured out of his mouth. The steady stream was a side effect of one of the meds he was taking for his schizophrenia. Sadly, for Howard, this med, a sort of drug of last resort for schizophrenia seemed to do little to relieve his suffering, leaving him to contend with this indignity and some other much more dangerous side effects. One more assault to the dignity of a young man for whom such a basic human need was already a rare commodity.

As we came to know Howard slowly over the ensuing months, we learned quickly that his sister’s “diagnosis” was, if not compassionate, correct. Howard was dangerous and unpredictable. When the voices and hallucinations became more than he could tolerate, Howard became violent. He sent two mental health counselors to the ER and broke several chairs and tables before the doctor discovered a combination of medications, which enabled him to control his behavior.

Though they never visited again, Howard’s family did call the unit occasionally. Most often to call was a brother from Arkansas where Howard grew up. It was this brother who, unable to care for Howard himself, had put him on a bus to the sister in the Chicago suburbs. According to his brother, Howard was, “scaring the neighbors” and had to be sent away before the neighbors turned violently against Howard. It was from this brother that we learned more about Howard’s story.

Howard was diagnosed with learning and emotional disabilities in grade school. He was always in special classes, according to his brother. Because of this, he had difficulty fitting in with the other children at school and, though he tried very hard to make friends, never found them.

By junior high the other kids, especially the boys, loved to taunt Howard. They would pretend to be his friend only to take advantage of him. As they grew older the taunting became more physical, with school yard beatings a daily occurrence. By high school the other boys were feeding Howard hallucinogenic drugs so they could watch “the retard go crazy.” Sadly, all the while, Howard sought only their friendship. In those days, Howard was the victim of the ignorant violence.

By the time we came to know Howard, it was impossible to tell mental illness and disabilities from the brain damage that resulted from the repeated head traumas of the beatings he sustained at the hands of others and his long-term use of hallucinogenic drugs which he became addicted to by those same hands.

Once his behavior was under control, Howard was integrated into the unit milieu which was dedicated to treating people struggling with psychotic illnesses. A part of that treatment included daily participation the in Spirituality Groups I led. These groups focused not so much on great spiritual or theological truths, but rather more on enhancing the patient’s self-esteem, encouraging patients to value themselves and their miraculous abilities to live in hope that treatment would bring them relief. We would focus too on the courage they manifested daily vis-à-vis their years of suffering and anguish, from both their diseases and our meager and often harrowing attempts at ameliorating their pain.

Howard came to Spirituality Group, day after day, and I wondered how much of the group content he was taking in. Whenever it came to be Howard’s turn, he would sit and stare seemingly unhearing, with that at once pained and flat, preoccupied look schizophrenics often have on their faces. Or he would answer in his own uniquely disorganized speech, which seemed to combine elements of what is termed clanging and word salad: “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so, I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands, ABCDEFGHIJ, I love to tell the story of Jesus and his glory…”

Clearly, from these nonsense sentences, Howard had been “churched” by someone at some time in his life. But it was impossible to tell just what that meant for him. And I anguished over how to respond to him. For me, the most important part of the group experience was being able to offer a place where the patients could feel, if only for a moment, valued in their humanity; a place where maybe, in that moment, we could glimpse together the beauty of their inherent dignity before God. That, I think can do more for healing than any group program or content. If Howard had had an experience in church that in any way resembled his school experiences, I was hesitant to affirm his religious ramblings. On the other hand, Howard kept coming back to the group. Group was not mandatory, but was offered and strongly encouraged, as were all groups, every day.

One day, with much fear and trembling , I responded to him, “Howard, Jesus loves you.” The bottom dropped out of my stomach as I held my breath waiting for some pained or angered response. None came. In fact his affect never changed. I tried it again the next day, “Howard, Jesus loves you.” Still no change in affect and Howard kept coming back to group. This soon became our day ritual in Spirituality Group.

1:1’s followed a similar pattern. Howard would seek me on the unit and approach me to talk. His sense of social distance for discourse was about six inches from my nose, so every encounter began with my reminding him that I needed my space while gently placing my arm around him and establishing an appropriate distance by turning us both slightly sideways. Sometimes in our 1:1’s there was silence between us and at others he would talk a blue streak in that distinct style of his, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so, I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the republic for which it stands, ABCDEFGHIJ, I love to tell the story of Jesus and his glory…” Always I would respond, “Howard, Jesus loves you.”

Howard was hospitalized with us for about six months before he was transferred to the State Hospital. Not long before his transfer, Howard stopped me in the hall one day, again establishing himself no more than six inches from my nose. As I put my arm around him to establish a more appropriate distance between us, I noticed something different about Howard. In that moment he was standing straighter, his face no longer bore that pained-flat, preoccupied schizophrenic affect and the flow of drool had stopped. Howard gently reached out and touched my shoulder, looked me square in the eye and said, “Bless you.” Then he turned and walked away.

I wanted to cry. To beg Jesus to cast his demons into swine that would hurl themselves out our third floor unit windows*. When I regained my composure, I looked to Howard who was then sitting in his favorite chair by the nursing station. The flow of drool had returned, as had the pained-flat, preoccupied schizophrenic affect. Howard was once again as he had been. I would never be in this ministry in quite the same way again.

*Mark 5:1- 13

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.

We'll walk hand in hand,
We'll walk hand in hand,
We'll walk hand in hand, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart,

We shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart,

We shall all be free,
We shall all be free,
We shall all be free, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart,

We are not afraid,
We are not afraid,
We are not afraid, TODAY

Oh, deep in my heart,

We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome, some day.

Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.

Joan Baez, the 8th performer on the first day of the concert. Her rendition of the iconic, “We Shall Overcome” was the anthem which carried the, estimated, 400,000 in attendance over until the next morning.

May we pray from our deepest hearts this week for the assurance that we can overcome: overcome our deepest worries and fears, struggles and trials, and in so doing find the lives of peace and true freedom for which our hearts so long. May we pray deep in our hearts to take the hands and walk toward these lives with our families and friends, and all those who come to us seeking our care. Amen.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Seeking the Divine in our Humanity

“Self Portrait,” Leonardo daVinci, c. 1512

A person cannot approach the divine by reaching beyond the human. To become human, is what this individual person, has been created for. Martin Buber, February 8, 1878 – June 13, 1965. Austrian-born Jewish Philosopher.

May we come in prayer this week, reaching for the depths of our humanity as we seek the heart of the divine. In so doing, may we come to know better ourselves at our most human finding within us the heart of the divine; for it is only in so doing that we can reach out to our sisters and brothers who come to us for care with the heart of our common humanity. Amen.