Custom-Made Angels

An African-American patient’s daughter gestured to the angel topping a diminutive Christmas tree in the hospital room and said, “I hope you aren’t offended, but could we have a black angel?” While I as her chaplain hastened to assure her I was not offended, I first drew a blank on what she meant. Her mother was virtually on her way out of this existence, so my first thought, which I fortunately did not say out loud, is that she wanted black to represent grief or death. Then I understood: first I thought about my own stereotype about the color black, and then I realized the actual decoration was as white as you can get. She wanted an angel that was the same race as she.

I was so taken with this, because I have never thought about angels having race or gender. I never thought about their whiteness representing Caucasians. In the Jewish tradition, the idea of an angel is perhaps even more abstract than not having race or gender because we don’t think of them as a class of celestial beings. Rather, we think of them as humans who wittingly or unwittingly have a mission to deliver spiritual messages to others.  Such messengers impart an insight or prediction or warning of spiritual import to the person intended to receive that message. Many of you may be familiar with the story in Genesis where three mysterious strangers tell Sarah and Abraham that they will have a child despite Sarah being waaaay past menopause. And perhaps you have met someone who had a transformative effect upon you that has changed your view of things ever since or who has influenced you to make a life-altering decision.

A scholarly friend of mine named David Schwartz pointed out, however, that if angels can superficially assume race and other attributes similar to the person the message is intended for, the one getting the message might be more receptive to receiving it and letting it “penetrate the heart and spirit”.  I could see where an angel of color would comfort an African-American family and give them a celestial being or messenger they could identify with. (Just a curious note, another friend of mine informed me that until very recently, “angels were always portrayed as male, because the Bible consistently uses masculine names, male pronouns and male attributes.” Okay, one Black female angel for that daughter coming up!)

When the Black angel arrived at the tree I wondered what message it conveyed to that family.  Perhaps it was, “God is not a stranger, but the One who speaks your language, discerns your needs and accompanies you at every step of the way. Especially when your loved one is embarking on a path no longer intertwined with your own.”

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The Camel Who Avoided A Broken Back

“Previous straws are more crucial than the last one. Take one away and the last loses its power.” (From an old Tweeted proverb of mine based on the much more ancient original proverb about that unfortunate mammal.) I recently realized from my own experience that sources of stress can be like those straws. They pile up in layers one at a time, each obscuring the previous ones yet taking a deeper and deeper cumulative toll. We sort of “get used to” each straw and try to ignore it or shrug it off best we can, especially while dealing with the latest incoming one. We lose track of our tally of how many straws have accumulated and to what extent each exacts its price, and this suppression of our awareness is what threatens our well being.

Let us ask ourselves, How many straws are we bearing now? Perhaps the first one is a family estrangement from 20 years ala Jacob and Esau. The second one might be credit card debt that never is completely cleared from month to month. Others vying for recent provenance might be watching Death stalk a family member, ready to snatch him from behind, or having to discontinue a work or personal relationship that has more and more dysfunction and less and less benefit. And then to top it off, bronchitis might come around to make a call on one of us.

As the straws gather up like the increasing numbers of leaves now stealthily taking over the ground, we habituate to the point that we forget about the first covering of leaves, never mind the ground itself.

No one can advise us which straw to tackle first, but it does not have to be in order of their arrival. Simply becoming more self-aware of the whole conglomeration of ‘em will help us in analyzing which one we should topple off first, making us like the lucky camel.

Film Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Although this provocative and fascinating film is “old news” having come out in 2008, I heartily recommend it for its timeless themes. This fantasy captivates me because it challenges assumptions about youth and old age so much that I was tempted to title this post, “The Elixir of Old Age”. The movie is about an individual born in his eighties, found abandoned on the porch of a nursing home who then gets younger instead of older as time passes. At first this sounds marvelous: why not get over all the bad stuff like arthritis and forgetfulness and baggy eyes in the beginning and have things get better and better, not only physically, but spiritually? There we would be, with the wisdom of our mature brains reflecting how we could make better use of those years of being in top shape and be attuned to appreciating them more once we reach them. Sure enough, as Benjamin becomes younger, he luxuriates in being able to do more things. He abandons the wheelchair. He then abandons one crutch, then the other. He enjoys getting a job on a ship because it is fun to be doing things “and even getting paid for it.” But life gets very complicated as he forms various bonds, including romantic ones…..But in case you have not seen the film, I won’t say much more about that part of the story save that what happens is not hackneyed but also most insightful.

But picture how getting younger would actually work out.  If we were to grow younger, and the ones we love grow older, we would have less and less in common with them. We would have less and less to share with them and we would literally be growing further and further apart. Just think of how it would accelerate or mutate the changing roles in our relationships, especially across the generations. Say my 13-year-old niece gets married in thirty years, would I want to be around her age at the time? When they have their 10th anniversary, how would I relate to them as a much younger person? The feelings of loss we all experience arise at least in part from the loss of connection we have with others, and being out of temporal sync would be another spur to such loss.

This film made me think about how glad I am to be growing old along with my husband, other family, and friends. We are increasing and deepening rather than decreasing our connections in so many ways. We have a growing stock of shared experiences, challenges, and insights. We have a shared understanding of what it is like to be older, and therefore can empathize with the limitations that others face. As he “younged,” Benjamin Button found himself even cutting off relationships he was doing well in, because he feared the consequences of eventually having to be taken care of as well as being cared about. The darkest side of becoming younger became painfully clear to him as he wandered about as a teenager for many years with virtually no connection with others at all.  This is as close to a living death that one can get. Although some of our loved ones including ourselves may have to be cared for, I see in a vast majority of cases, the people involved continue relating to each other on whatever level that may be. Unlike Benjamin, I rarely witness the caregiver nor care receiver completely cutting themselves off from each other except of course due to certain diseases or other extreme matters.

Whatever our circumstances, I rejoice in the ever deepening connections I have with people I have known, as well as the increased quantity of connections with new people I meet. Our stories get longer and filled with recurrent themes as we journey in step. Benjamin ends up as a baby…with no memories… at last closing his eyes, uninitiated.

Can I Take Your Spiritual/Emotional Temperature Please?

When you were in distress and went to a social worker, therapist, chaplain, your favorite clergy person, or friend and they said, “I hope I have helped you,” could you ever have uttered in the thumbs-down case, “Um not really”?  Unlike a nurse seeing vital signs returning to normal, chaplains and all the rest cannot be sure if the “spiritual/emotional” vital signs have improved by virtue of what we said  and how and when we said it, or through what we chose not to say at all. And was our visit too long, or not long enough? So in our frustration we are tempted to ask for an evaluation. We’d like feedback please. And maybe a pat on the back.

Think of it this way. If you were the client and someone asks if they have helped you, that expresses uncertainty on their part, as well as a desire to shut down the conversation. It is like saying, “I sure hope I helped, but if I haven’t, I am not sure how else I can go about healing you, and so I hope you don’t ask for more help.” A similar problem arises if the health professional or friend says, too early in the conversation, so-and-so might be of further help to you; here’s their number.” Both of these reactions are a way of saying, “I cannot listen to you as long as you would like, possibly because your topic makes me too anxious, or I feel too inadequate or incompetent to handle it.”

Okay. So we try our mighty best to repress such anxious noises. But this still leaves us with the puzzle of how well we did. (I’d like an “A” like anyone else.) When I am really lucky, the client will actually say how much better they feel, or look more relaxed, or ask me how soon I can visit again, or ask me to stay longer. In rare cases, they write me a letter of thanks afterward—super rare in hospice. And when I make mistakes, some clients quite readily make it clear that they want the visit to end, or would be more comfortable with someone else. Some have even become angry. I think to some extent or in some cases we will never really know if our visit benefited the client and will have to trust that if we intently and calmly listened, that alone did some good in the overwhelming majority of cases, because no matter what, everyone wants to feel cared about.

Full disclosure: While I was in the deepest throes of my own grief process, I had to go through several people before I could find those who would hear my story. The ones who did not make the cut said the things I noted above (They got a “C”) or made worse remarks than those (They got a “D” on a generous day). Maybe  being a chaplain myself intimidated some folks. I remember being nervous early in my career when I found out a client was a nun, pondering what I had to offer. Wasn’t I bringing ice cubes to the Arctic? In another case the client was a retired hospice nurse. Once again, the answer is simply to listen with full attention.This is what we all yearn for, no matter what our credentials are or those of the client. Just as the top three considerations for real estate are “location, location, location,” the top three for people in spiritual and emotional distress are, for the one asked to help: be quiet and “listen, listen, listen.”

The Words Of Our Mouths

The following guest post by Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff is about the trickiness of offering group interfaith prayer that includes all and offends none. He is a retired Navy chaplain and former Special Assistant for Values and Vision to the Secretary and Chief-of-Staff of the U.S. Air Force. Fittingly for this time of year he refers to the Constitution and to the Gettysburg Address:

“In a scene from TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, a surgeon tells family members he’s done all he can, and the rest is up to God. He invites them to pray together, but they say they’re not religious, and don’t believe in God.

All right, he says, perhaps we could take a moment to hope together instead. But what about organized public prayer: a leader’s call to prayer in a secular setting?

Such prayers follow a tradition dating back to the same Continental Congress that wrote about religious non-establishment, so the question of constitutionality is complex. But the separate question of sensitivity is more straight-forward: given today’s pluralistic society, how specific or “sectarian” can a public prayer be before it is simply inappropriate?

There is also a question of lost chances: when people feel excluded, they stop listening—and an opportunity is lost to hope together, reflecting on shared goals and common dreams.

Religions are not all alike, but neither are they completely different. The more we focus on visions of the end of days, the more we differ. The more we focus on getting through the end of today—and making this day better for the hungry, homeless, and hopeless among us—the more we find common ground, and a potential for shared prayer.

In the Capitol for a ceremony honoring Holocaust survivors and liberators, I prayed “if the time has not yet come when we can see the face of God in others, then let us see, at least, a face as human as our own.” My goal was to remember shared nightmares within a context of common dreams.

Some maintain that Christian references in prayer are always appropriate, because we’re a “Christian nation.” But even setting aside the Constitution’s non-establishment clause, as early as 1796 Congress unanimously ratified a treaty with the Islamic nation of Tripoli of Barbary that explicitly declares “the United States of America is not in any way founded on the Christian religion.”

We’re a unique civil society, not founded on any specific religion or faith, and public sensitivity to the beliefs and feelings of others is part of being…civil. It would be inexcusable for a rabbi to invite an interfaith group to pray for faith “despite the fact that the Messiah has not yet arrived.” In a public setting, it’s just as inappropriate—and uncaring—to offer prayers that assume he has.

There are challenges for all faiths regarding inclusive prayers, but there are precedents for such prayers from the Psalms to the Our Father, and theological solutions for every challenge. For example, since “God hears the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts,” prayers can begin with inclusive language and end with silent words grounded in the leader’s faith.

Non-religious military personnel with whom I’ve served—including many atheists who, despite the old saying, have spent more than their share of time in foxholes—prefer no mention of God, but still appreciate shared words of hope. (After all, “Humanist Chaplains” in foreign militaries participate in official ceremonies.)

Some friends who call themselves secular tell me they experience “degrees of discomfort,” and prefer “faith inclusive prayers” that use broad references to God rather than narrow images tied to specific religious beliefs. Legal discussions sometimes refer to this distinction as ceremonial deism. It’s a compromise between no religion and no-holds-barred religion — and a way to use the approach to religious language in the Declaration of Independence as a guide.

In some ways that Declaration is a prayer—as is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It’s not clear, based on reporter notes and early written versions, whether Lincoln explicitly referred to God at Gettysburg, although “under God” is included in some later written versions of his remarks. Either way, his words invoke God’s presence. I imagine many listeners joined together in prayer by saying amen. For all present that day—and for us today, as well—his words are a call for hope.

Not a bad model for public prayer.”

And If I may add, many of the points in Rabbi Resnicoff’s article are relevant to health care chaplains too. In my post, The Rosary and the Rabbi, I show how I struggled to strike a balance between serving a patient of a different religion and maintaining my own integrity: https://offbeatcompassion.wordpress.com/2016/11/13/the-rosary-and-the-rabbi/

As a final note, of possible interest to my regular readers, my blog is now four years old. Thank you for your readership.

Reprinted with the author’s permission, this article appeared 12/20/2013 | and was updated Feb 19, 2014 in the Huffington Post online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-arnold-e-resnicoff/the-words-of-our-mouths_b_4481122.html

No Pain Much Gain?

Just think: Suppose I had a condition called “congenital insensitivity to pain.”  This means I could slice my way through mosquito-infested swamps and not feel insect bites. This means I could go on a Polar Bear Plunge as easily as taking a dip in a heated pool and look heroic with nobody the wiser, and romp about in extreme heat without feeling like I was wrapped in cellophane. Best of all, I could impress my dentist by being unfazed by any procedure and brag about not needing Novocaine. “That? Oh that’s nothing. You should see me on the operating table.”  Or  I could consider a boxing career…

Actually this condition is no joke. Not experiencing the warning signs of pain makes serious injury quite certain. But even if in the future I was fitted with artificial sensors for hot and cold and pain so that I would react in time not to be injured, would I still feel deprived in some fashion? Would I be alone in my lack of pain, the way the android  Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation  feels like he is missing out on something by not having emotions, painful as well as pleasant? Setting aside an extreme case such as intractable pain, if I had the choice, would I opt to have this condition?

I am not sure because I do not know how it would shape my personality and assumptions. And if it happened at birth, I might have become insensitive not just to my own pain, but that of others. Poof! That would have derailed me from a chaplaincy career faster than saying “Clinical Pastoral Education.” If you could have congenital insensitivity to pain starting now, how do you think it would  influence your outlook?  What do you think it would be like?

Arc

We tend to think literature has an artificial structure that separates it from how real-life interactions go. But what happens during my visits as a hospice chaplain can have just as much of a “narrative thread” as any short story, with an arc that goes from building a connection with each other (the background), to pent-up emotion let free (the climax), to a peaceful aftermath (the resolution).

Why just yesterday I saw the patient Isabel (all names are aliases), relatively young in her mid-sixties, and her mother Gloria, fervently devout Christians originally from Cuba. Gloria and I began with greeting each other and some small talk, all tinged with a resigned air as we entered the bedroom and she gestured to her daughter lying in bed. Isabel dreamily opened her eyes, wanting the respite of prayer and song. Isabel encouraged me to keep going: “my eyes are closed, but I still am listening.” I had started with some traditional prayers, and some simple hymns. I felt the calmness in the bedroom, decorated with so many religious pictures they practically could count as wallpaper. The daughter was riding on the warm current of the comforting religious words and music. The mother was letting herself feel their message of peace. I paused, and Gloria let a memory rise out of her: “Even when Isabel was a child, she wanted to go to church. Every day she went to church. Both of us went. Every single day. When we were in [she names a place in the U.S.].” As she remarked on that, I pondered how her faith contrasted with  the Cuban government’s discouragement of religious expression. This much was, so to speak, Chapter One.

After a moment of quiet, I said I would offer some  “more modern” prayers, a shift to Chapter Two as it were. I recited a “prayer for caregivers” and “a prayer for the sick.”  It was then that Gloria’s emotions bloomed and she let her tears be released, the most intense moment of the visit. I said God was receiving her sacred tears. Perhaps for her these were tears of acceptance of Isabel’s fate, because during  my previous visit, anger was the emotion that took center stage. As I said goodbye to them, the mother asked me to bring copies of those modern prayers next time. Isabel acknowledged my departure with an opened eye, closing the third and last chapter of this human interest story.