Early Bird COVID-19 Sermon for the Jewish New Year

Fans of my blog know that I never preach here, but given the pandemic, readers and colleagues may be curious how I am taking on the challenge of dealing with this topic–with no platitudes I promise– on one of the holiest days of the Jewish liturgical calendar. And as far as a sermon goes, it is not all that preachy:

There is a prayer we say only during the High Holy Days that for me is one of our most chilling prayers of all. The most famous part of it is,

“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time and who in an untimely death. Who shall have rest and who shall wander. Who shall become rich and who impoverished.”

And so we are talking about fate, most basically, about life and death, and more broadly, about mental states such as calm versus anxiety and restlessness, and social states such as high and low classes. Then at the end of this prayer it proclaims,

“But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.” Somehow, for me, this is scant consolation. Look what has happened since the last time we said that prayer a year ago. The plagues of climate change, social turmoil, and of course COVID-19, with its offspring plagues of job loss, economic ruin, depression, loneliness and anxiety. Breathing room has been threatened globally and individually. Breathing itself has been put into question.

Last March, our congregation started having our Friday night Sabbath services on Zoom as soon as we could no longer meet in person. We did not miss even one service. At our first or second such service, fear and disorientation ran high. Someone said, “we are in exile yet again.” And even I, hospice chaplain that I am, was taken aback when someone asked me point blank, “How do we prepare to die?” “On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass away and many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die.”

As our services continued, and we saw that we were still alive, even after some of us had suffered from COVId-19, we relaxed some and looked forward to Friday nights. We were sustaining our community and even enlarging it to include people who could not leave home or who lived too far away to have come to our services in person, such as former members in south Jersey. True, the squares on the Zoom screen that looked so cute at first, became obnoxious reminders of how cut off from each other we were in certain ways. The squares became reminiscent of prison bars. And we could not share the earthly delights of a Sabbath dinner or feel the energy and comfort of sitting next to other members.

But we became more and more absorbed in the Torah discussion and felt the comfort of our voices and of the prayers and songs that we included. Which is what we are doing right now. Judaism has thrived through the centuries due to our resilience, our flexibility., and our creativity. We are masters at adapting to even the most dire of circumstances. We all have heard stories about secret seders during the Holocaust with the strangest of substitutes standing in for the ritual foods.

A very long time ago, we shifted to a religion based on the sacredness within, rather than to the sacredness of a particular external place called Israel. Here we are again expanding the idea of location, from a physical one to a virtual one. In fact, we are not tied to a specific location anywhere at all. It’s as if we are praying together here in another dimension…well who knows, maybe that will be the next change in a million years or so. Services by then might just be vibrations and emanations anyway. We have survived centuries of exile from the Land of Israel. We are surviving exile of another sort—,God grant it not be permanent,—- from physical connection, the connection of place.

What we still have, however, is a connection through time. We can now say, there is a time, but not necessarily, a place for everything. In writing about Shabbat, the modern sage Abraham Joshua Heschel says, Shabbat is “a palace in time; it is in a spiritual wonderland.” I think what he says about the Sabbath is also true for this precious time of year.

We have to make do, now, with less material connections and more spiritual ones. Ironically, the virtual reality we are now in, is just what the themes of the High Holy Days have to do with. This year, Yom Kippur, with its fasting and constant prayer and saying confession and not making love and now, no friendly hugs and no sensation of warmth from those seated next to us, will be even more like the rehearsal for death that tradition says it is supposed to be. As a New York Times writer said, “Yom Kippur asks us to look at our mortality in the face. Can we sustain the glare?” Here we are, for good measure, for Rosh Hashanah as well as Yom Kippur ,on the phone or on the Internet, de-materialized and disembodied.

We don’t want to be in this situation. We don’t want to live in fear. And those darn masks, that hide our smiles and looks of concern and interest and amusement and pleasure. Of course they also hide our frowns and looks of displeasure. Fully acknowledging all the negatives of a COVID world, what does it teach us, what opportunities exist, how can we be resilient?

You know as a chaplain, when people ask me questions point blank, like how to prepare to die, there is no way to directly answer; not really. They and I muddle through together and try to come to a new understanding or perspective, and it various depending on who is interacting with me and what my own circumstances and knowledge are at the point our paths are crossing. The fact that this congregation is having a service and to say the least, that we are sharing it under strange conditions can jolt us into spiritual growth. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to ask each other during the intermediate days of awe what we experienced, learned, disliked, focused on and grew from? Since I will have to wait until AFTER this sermon to find out, I’d like to offer at least a conversation starter. I came across an alternate kinder and gentler version of the Unetanah Tokef, which goes like this:

On Rosh HaShanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

That this year people will live and die,
some more gently than others
and nothing lives forever.
But amidst overwhelming forces
of nature and humankind,
we still write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters,
and nothing goes unrecorded, ever.
Every deed counts.
Everything you do matters.
And we never know what act or word
will leave an impression or tip the scale.
So, if not now, then when?
For the things that we can change, there is t’shuvah, realignment,
For the things we cannot change, there is t’filah, prayer,
For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life
for the Holy One to read. -Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler

Some Jews might think this is a wimpy version of the more terrifying traditional prayer. But you know: we’ve been through a Gehenna (hell) of a lot, and we all could use God’s more compassionate side right now. This IS the time for compassion: FROM God, directed TO God, and freely given to each other. Every deed each of us does, even if it affects just one person, counts. Even if you contribute one extra word, one extra syllable, even one extra letter, to the Book of Life, you will have crafted a holier edition for God to read.

(Note to colleagues: Feel free to use this sermon all or in part, but please refer to my name and my blog. And if you really want to avert the severe decree, mention my book Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died.)

 

Religion Out The Window

Add this to my job description in the new normal: intermediary. In the bad old days, when a family wanted a priest to give Sacrament of the Sick to their seriously ill loved one, I would go fishing for a priest, and they often slipped out of my reach as I left voice mails and talked to gate-keeping receptionists, all the while hoping to find one before the loved one slipped out of everyone’s reach if you know what I mean. Talk about contests.

And now? An anecdote about how a family, priest and I negotiated the new waters that have come rushing before us. Let’s call the loved one Diana and her daughter Katherine and the priest Father Anthony. I first told Father Anthony the family did not want more people in the home than absolutely necessary due to the risk of bringing in you know what. They wondered if Father could do the last rites over the phone or by video conference,which some priests have been doing. “Oh no,” said Father Anthony, “I must be in person at the home, or say the prayers on their behalf in the church.” I found out that when I asked for details that the family would not be able to witness the latter in any way but would have to take his word for it. I thought to myself that would not go over too well. Bad enough to remove their participation in the sacred rite through the impersonal glow of a Zoom screen. So I said I would talk with Katherine. After I told her what seemed an unsavory forced choice,she said, “You know what? Mom’s bed is right near the window. How about if he stands outdoors by the window and does the ceremony from there?”

That is what he did, and I imagine the scene unfolding thus: Katherine told Diana, bored and worried and in bed, that her priest was coming to visit, but not in exactly the way one would expect. She was not sure what that meant, but she perked up at the news. It was a fine day and Katherine said the priest would be talking with her by her window. There he was now, with a small container with the oil, which he handed to Katherine to put on Mom at the right moment. His benedictions, loud and sure, made an arc from his mouth to the wide-open window to her ears, and her “amen” resounded through the window over to the priest’s affirming ears, and upwards, as her fear dissipated among the breezes.

 

These days, we are getting lots of examples of offbeat compassion.

The Plague And My Pet Peeves

Case # 1: I get emails that wish me comfort peace and good health during these trying times that begin with “Dear Friend”, which is not my name. Look out, when we get lazy even about providing comfort to others, we are in trouble. These emails going to untold numbers of people are almost worse than no email from those individuals at all. To me, an email to comfort everybody is an email that comforts nobody.

Solution: choose a few people a day, address them by name, personalize the message, and separately push “send” for each. Yes, my dears, I know how painstakingly slow that is. Alas, being a source of comfort takes time and attention to detail.

Case #2. (See, I’ve been saving these up.) Someone who unquestionably has a heart of 24-karat gold attempts to give me solace by saying “I know how stressed and frightened you are but just think how much harder it is for (fill in the blank with one of the following:) a. home health aides b. immigrants (never mind the undocumented) c. delivery persons d. grocery clerks e. you name them.”

Yes, of course, I do count myself lucky that I am better off and safer than all those necessarily taking more risk, and very privileged that I can work from home. But where does pointing that out leave my own negative feelings? It’s like saying I am not entitled to them. Worse than not recognizing my distress, a possible spin off is I should feel guilty about my distress and/or being safer. How dare I feel scared about grocery shopping when doctors and nurses are within breathing and even touching distance of COVID-19 patients?

Solution: acknowledge the feelings of people better off than the category you are thinking of, and assume that maybe we privileged persons are doing our part to help out and not just indulge in feelings. For example, 60 Minutes this evening featured some factory workers who are donating work hours so two people could share the same job rather than either having no job at all. Or less dramatically, folks with extra money can support a local restaurant through ordering more take-out than usual from them, and the like.

Prime real estate is about location, location, location.

Prime spiritual state is about compassion, compassion, compassion.

______________________

For more offbeat compassion, see me on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

In Place Of Comfort Food

When New Horizons was churning through three billion miles of space to reach Pluto, a nine-year trek ending five years ago comforted me the whole time. Even the memory of it does. You no doubt are wondering, “Comforting?. Aren’t things like soft chocolate chip cookies with their smell trailing behind them as they come from the oven more like it? Or gentle embraces or timeless lullabies? You find comfort from frigid lifeless Pluto?”

Perhaps one person’s comfort is another’s reminder of loneliness and distancing. Let me hasten to explain lest you find this essay anything but comforting. Each time during those nine years that I paused to think about New Horizon’s progress, I pictured the spacecraft progressing smoothly and steadily toward its known and certain goal. Earthlings could patiently wait as it slowly but surely followed its predictable trajectory. Perhaps the certainty of its route ( a nonstop to Pluto) soothed me as well as the clarity of its mission and the promise of safe adventure. (I mean come on, how likely would an unidentified object nearing Pluto prompt the release of deadly aliens?)

As we connect with broader swaths of the Universe, I feel like I am being included within more of it, and that all humankind is too. I like taking my humble place within a bigger picture as I journey from self-importance to humility. Even Pluto itself has taken a like journey since 2006, taking in stride its demotion from an honest-to-God planet to a “dwarf planet”.

What is comforting you these days that might be surprising to others?

 

 

Lessons My Older Self Taught Me

Today I took my time machine back about fifteen years and 60 days ago so I could make my younger me a better chaplain right away. Why let her waste her time, and not benefit her clients at the same high (ahem!) level that I am employing right now? And I tacked on the extra days so we could luxuriate in some better weather; if one has a time machine, one should use it to best advantage. A transcript of our conversation follows:

Karen the Elder: “Karen, I’m here to do us a favor: I’m going to make your life easier, which means making my life easier. I figured by the benefit of my experience accumulated all these years, I’d clue you in.”

Karen the Younger: “That’s mighty nice of you. I’m all for diminishing the amount and degree of tough times ahead, as I’ve already had my share before now. And it’s good to see I will still look relatively pretty in my sixties. I’m burning with curiosity to hear what you’ve learned. You know me, curiosity is what drives me on in this job. And are you still highly curious?”

Karen the Elder: “Are you kidding? I even wrote a gentle science fiction book called Curiosity Seekers. I was gonna say, ‘check it out’ but it won’t be written until 2017.”

Karen the Younger: “What a tease! Now I’ll have to wait all those years.”

Karen the Elder: “And not only that. You will be getting a book published four years before that about hospice called Encountering the–”

Karen the Younger: “No way!”

Karen The Elder: “Well, that’s another story so to speak. I can’t stay long, because being in another time is a strain on the body. So I must go to my suggestions for how to be a better chaplain with the bonus of less stress at the same time:

First off don’t worry so much about drawing information out of a patient, as if you had a fishing line and had to reel in a heavy fish with all your might. You know about spirituality. You know about the mystics talking about receiving. And of course you know about mostly listening and being silent. So put those all together: You quietly sit with the patient, let the conversation meander in a natural way after you make a couple of open-ended remarks, and see what the patient releases for you to receive. As one of my mentors long ago said, “Each patient you see is the face of pastoral care.” So everything you are receiving is a gift arising of their comfort with you and their needs to share it and how special that is that you are there to receive it.

And so I think of receiving what the patient says as a spiritual act. In some cases the patient will sense it too and not only feel that you are honoring what they choose to say, but feel a summoning of God’s presence. I know there are requirements for the medical record, but I think whatever information arises out of the client’s need to impart it will ultimately result in what is truly spiritual care. It will be more to the point for what a chaplain should say in the clinical note as opposed to a social worker.

Karen, of course you already know about chaplains listening and being silent as much as possible. But the trick is not to feel anxious about it when both the client and you are silent, as if there was some contest as to who will break the silence first. Rather, be lost in thought as the patient may be, sojourn with their quiet and just listen for something that might burst through the surface for either of you. If not, close the visit by saying it was nice to spend a few quiet moments together.

Another thing: I used to think when a patient or family member expresses strong emotions I should be calm and soothing. That only goes so far. It’s better to broaden the tent of whatever emotion they are expressing to extend over you. If they are angry, join in being angry at whatever they are angry at; if joyful, then join in the celebration. Guilt though is another matter. You do not of course want to heighten this form of what I call ‘anger at the self.’ Acknowledge it as something they feel, but suggest in the future this may ease as they get a different perspective with the passage of time.”

Karen the Younger: “And what about—”

Karen the Elder: “I wish I could spend more time, but I am getting fatigued and must return to my present. But let me just add one more thing; Don’t be so intent on what you want to give a client. Find out what they want to give to you. They might want to reveal their pain, their sorrow, their regrets, their love, their beliefs, their hopes. Don’t forget what I said: maybe it will make the book Encountering The Edge a better book. Bye now! Oh, and you’ll be starting a blog called OffbeatCompassion… Bye!”

Karen the Younger: (teardrops fall)

The Temperature Of Water

My curiosity can get me into trouble, so I was very careful not to ask about a pattern I have noticed regarding some of my African American patients. I was afraid that if I asked one of their family members about it, they might think I was being prejudiced. Same thing about asking about it online. I might give the wrong impression to readers. But finally I found the right context and right person to ask. And now that I have gotten your curiosity up, I will reveal the pattern: it struck me how important it is for many of my African American patients to get water that is iced or at least very very cold and fresh. They also emphasize that the remaining water in their cup will absolutely not do. White patients in general have not made much of a point about this.

A patient’s wife who I will call Catherine explained it to me thus: “When our ancestors were slaves, working in the fields, they had to drink lukewarm water that they had taken with them. It was hot out in the fields, so their water was not refreshing and tasted stale.” Catherine thought some more about this and talked about later times: “And this memory passed down through the generations. In the old days, Whites had iceboxes and refrigerators, but Blacks did not, and besides the money being too much for us to have those things, Whites thought luxuries did not matter to us. So we went on having lukewarm unappetizing water for some time more. I think that’s why you hear this from your patients about drinking nice cool water.”

If you are an African American, I would like to know what you think of Catherine’s theory. And besides taking requests for fresh ice cold water very seriously, I would like to know if there are other matters I should be sensitive to when I serve as a chaplain to African Americans. Of course generalizations for any race or ethnic group are hard to come by, but if there is some particular example in your own experience we can all continue learning together.

 

You can also discuss this with me through Twitter:  https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

Less Is More, Chaplain Style

Got your timer out? One of my hospice visits last week clocked under five minutes. Jonathan, from a culture vastly divergent from mine, let me know when the visit was over. It wasn’t that he had had more than enough of me; it was because our task was done. He wanted prayer, and as usual, I first ask patients what they want to pray about before I begin. He said “about my family.” He went from a seated position in his bed to a lying down one as he prepared to listen. I thought about the fact that he was only in his fifties, with his children keeping to themselves in a back room during the visit, and his wife out on some chore or at work. I took out a very handy booklet with modern freshly created prayers, Jewish-based but as about universal as you can get. I turned to the prayer called “For Family and Friends.”(From Gates of Healing, CCAR Press). Part of it says, “Let them feel free to bring me their own joys and sorrows that I may continue to participate in their lives even as they share mine.” I recited it to him slowly, so he could savor the words and also so he could leisurely convert the foreign language of English to Amharic. He then sat up and softly said, “that prayer went straight to my heart.”

Getting ready to lie down again, he remained quiet and confirmed when I asked, “Is that enough for today?” I consumed more time putting on all my winter wraps and making sure I had everything in my bag than making the visit itself. I called to his daughter to let her know I was leaving, and she sweetly thanked me and opened the door as I stepped back out into the clunking and clanking of the ongoing construction outdoors.

 


For writing shorter than that visit, see me at https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

Careful! Metaphor Ahead

Sure, the metaphor hounds are well-meaning when they try to soften the blow of a calamitous diagnosis. The two top contending  metaphors for facing disease are (1) doing battle with it, and (2) going on a journey. Yes, I get it, war imagery can be energizing and drive the patient and family to do diligent research and pursue any treatments that bear a reasonable promise. And yes, a journey might comfort some who think of joining others who are on the same trajectory, especially if the endpoint involves arriving home to a congenial God. But for some people, these particular images are as off putting as the bromides they have to endure from family, friends and medical professionals.

Think about the military imagery for a moment. Our bodies do have natural defenses, with our antibodies doing their best as the good little soldiers they are. Medicine acts as reinforcements to join the fight. But we ourselves do not have to employ our mental faculties in a certain fashion to add money to the war chest. The effort itself to do so can be draining, as we feign cheerfulness and optimism. And what if the war effort results in a long drawn out inconclusive struggle with the disease, like so many wars in our world like the conflict with Afghanistan? Or even worse, what if “our side” starts to lose or even face final defeat? Then the patient will feel they lost the battle, and God forbid think they did not try hard enough or that they failed their loved ones. You get the idea how this might be a risky metaphor. And even apart from that, wars are a negative phenomenon to dwell upon anyways.

Given the inherent negativity of war and the image of division within our bodies, it is tempting to think of a journey as oh such a sweet and nonviolent alternative. But journey to what? Even if the journey is to God, or if not so dramatic, a journey to physical or mental limitations, what if you do not want to undertake such a journey just yet?  (Excuse me, Sir, I’d like to get off at the next station and I want my money back.) In the image of a mandatory journey, there is no sense of control, and this can be scary.  I think too, it obscures the idea of our whole lives as being a journey, which we do play a part in shaping. We  have some control, making choices that shape the subsequent stages of the journey, creating as many pleasant or at least educational stopovers as possible. In contrast, the disease journey image may make the patient feel the disease is boss and that they have no say in what will happen.

For those readers who do relate to these images, that is terrific. My concern is when people foist these metaphors upon those who might feel distressed by them, or when the  timing is wrong. So what to do? Whether you are the one who is sick or you know someone who is, the picture is complex. Let us take the latter. I think when a health professional is searching for metaphors it should be more towards the end of the process of offering help rather than at the beginning. One has to know a lot about the person in question to ascertain what might fit, and that takes time. One has to know the sick one’s attitudes toward disease, how they’ve coped in the past, what in life has given them meaning, and what they most care about. If the patient takes a scientific approach and is agnostic at best, the journey metaphor might strike them as pure hocus-pocus. A pacifist might not appreciate the war metaphor, and so on.

Just like a bromide, the proffered metaphor can be the lazy and anxious way to attempt a quick salve (or salvation). Real help takes an investment in time (oh, that!) and attentive eliciting of concerns and attitudes and beliefs. Real help is making way for the sick person to create or co-create with you their own metaphors if any. If you are currently chronically sick, do you have your own image for making sense of it? Do you have your favorite “pet peeve” images?

Since I want to leave the reader with at least one example of another sort of metaphor aside from battles and journeys, I will offer my own. I am not now chronically sick much less facing the end, but I can imagine what might work for me: I find nature, when it is peaceful, a great source of solace, and I subscribe to the notion of God as a Presence. So I think for me, as a part of nature myself, that my metaphor of  choice will stem from that. Perhaps I will feel more and more blended into it and more at one with it and with the Presence that dwells there and dwells within me as well.

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.”

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.