Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Moment With a Mother

I’m sitting in a room in the Critical Care Unit of the Cancer Hospital. Actually, the place tries very hard to stay upbeat, so they call this Special Care. Whatever. 

Next to me is a petite woman who is in her seventies. She’s a grandmother, a retired nurse, and the mother of the dying man who lies in the bed in front of us. The pain medicine does its work and he drifts in and out of consciousness. Sometimes he is with us, but most of them time he is in moments of the past where he is healthier and happier. He speaks to the people in those moments—the words make no sense to his mother and me, but fit perfectly in the context of his moment.

Our moments are spent watching him, waiting for that last breath, which is imminent but the exact moment is unknown. 

The woman rises from her chair and flutters about, straightening the room, speaking of the latest novel she’s reading, checking her son’s feet to make sure they are not cold. And then she sits again, ready to share her dread of the moment when her son will no longer be alive. 

She tells me about him as a child, how he related to his sisters, how smart and artistic he was.  She lets me see the tear slide down her cheek when she tells me that she just can’t leave this room. She takes her meals here, and sleeps in the recliner, which she says is quite comfortable. 

I reach over and pat the top of her hand. I’d like to do more. I’d like to hold and perhaps kiss her hand, but that would be too forward.  Actually, I’d like to hold her, and whisper that it will be okay, but that wouldn’t be right either. I’d like to promise her that I’ll take care of her, but I won’t be able to. I’ll have to move on to another room in another hospital soon enough to not quite help someone else who watches a loved one die.

After he’s gone, she won’t be able to come to church because seeing me reminds her of my being with her in the hospital room and she’ll remember I was at the funeral dinner and that I spoke at the service although she won’t remember any of the words.  From then on, she’ll associate me with the death of her son. Some people come to hate me for that, but she probably wouldn’t. She’d tell everyone how well I treated her, but find reasons not to come to church or see me if she can avoid it.  However, she’ll send in her tithe each month and promise everyone that she’ll be back soon. 

I’m sad for her, but I’m also sad for me because I like this one and I’ll miss her. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

True Names of the Church

I was thinking of how the religious landscape of the nation is changing rapidly, and the churches we’ve known as we grew up are disappearing, perhaps not fast enough. Actually, it’s amazing how long these churches have held on. I guess the same stubbornness that made them drive themselves in the ground has also kept them in existence longer than we would expect. 

I drive around the neighborhood and look at their buildings with their clever signs and I consider what their names would be if they reflected their nature.  Here are a few that came to me. Perhaps you recognize them:  

The Church of Hateful Condemnation  
Commonly referred to as “The Gay Haters Church.”
Formerly the Church of Racist Bigotry. 

First Petrified Septuagenarian (FPS)

First Errant Church of the Young and Clueless
        The grandchildren of members of the FPS but they're drastically different. They're new and fresh because they play the drums in worship, plus they have a new volleyball net.  

Baptist Bullies of Main Street 
          Sounds more like a bar, doesn’t it? Or maybe a Broadway musical?

The Church of MeTooism
  As in:  
     “We have a new volleyball net, too.”
     “We have an LED sign that looks like it should hang over a strip club, too.”
     “We stood up for Jesus and against the Gays by eating at ChicFillet, too.” 

The Self Righteous Brothers Bible Church
         A split from The Church of Hateful Condemnation because it was getting too liberal.  This is the exciting new nondenominational church that celebrates that good old time religion.     

Lackluster Saints Community Church
Celebrating the sanctity of dullness, bringing people to new heights of tedium

United Hysteria Fellowship
          Even they don’t know what they’re saying, but they’re so sincere

Sunday, January 5, 2014


This is the place I go to speak the things I can't say to anyone.... 

I was having a good day today until I went to the church’s grief support group. 

This week they addressed the loss of children. Some had lost grown children. Others had lost them when they were small.  My own children are alive and healthy, for which I am so thankful. 

But I had these... flashbacks, if that's the right word.
I remember being with a young single mother who stood devastated as she looked at the tiny body of her beautiful daughter lying in the casket. Less than a year later, I performed her funeral, too, and I listened to HER mother wail the words, “I can’t stand it!”

I remember tears of lots of parents as they mashed tissues into their faces in a vain attempt to squash their sobs. Other parents simply let it all out and wailed uncontrollably.  I remember them all.

The professional part of me looks at myself and thinks, “Post Traumatic Stress.” Actually, a more accurate term is "Vicarious Stress." But how does it help to know that? Say it’s true... what’s to be done? 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mirror Mirror

Something unusual happened today. 

A guy showed up at the nursing home just as I was about to begin worship time. I thought he was a street person  because of the ragged clothes and uncut hair, but he explained that he traveled from town to town singing gospel songs to nursing home residents.  And then he pulled out his beautiful Martin guitar that made me say "oooh," and "aaaah." He explained that a friend who supported him in his ministry had given it to him.  

I invited him to sing for us.  "I don't want to intrude," he said.  

I said that in fact I was tired and would be glad to let him take my place, and so he did.  

He went up and down the hallways strumming his instrument and getting people's attention and then he played for them for the better part of an hour, singing the old hymns like I do, telling amusing stories that I've told before, all with a kind smile and crinkly eyes. At the end, he went to all the persons, shaking their hands, touching their shoulders, blessing them with his words.  

He has been traveling across the country doing this for nine years and has been in all fifty states.  He has friends who send him a little support as he travels alone in an old minivan.

He held the hand of one nursing home resident and beamed into her face, and she looked over at me and said, "Pastor, he's a lot like you!" she said.  

I looked and he did resemble me in size and appearance (meaning he was big with a gray beard and long hair).  

While he played, I called my office and arranged to have a hotel room provided for him that night. When he was done singing, I took him to lunch and bought us hamburgers. 

He asked about my family. I told him we had two teenage boys. He asked gently if they gave me any problems.  I said no, that they had been free of trouble, made straight As and always made me proud.  

"I wish I could claim credit for them," I said, "But the truth is that they were born this way."  

I always say that, but this time I went on and told him the rest of the story. "The fact is I haven't done enough for them.  I've left them alone too much. I've worked too much, and been too tired to do much for them."

My throat closed and my eyes teared up. I never told anyone that part. He reached up and and put his hand on my shoulder for comfort, without saying anything--the same exact gesture I had done for countless people. 

I looked at him and really, it was amazing how much he looked like me in the face, with crinkly smile lines around sad eyes that had seen too much.  I could see the same dimples that people say I have behind the beard. He was almost the same size as me (which is substantial), and he had an easy manner which is how I appear to most people. 

It felt like I was looking in a mirror only the image of me was five or ten years older than I am now.  

And I got to wondering if he actually was me, sent from the near future to bless me enough to keep me from cracking up.  

Big Tipper

I go to this cafe occasionally. It’s about the only place in town I can go for breakfast if I want something other than a mac-biscuit.  

Anyway, I left a huge tip the other day. It had nothing to do with the wink she gave me, or the cleavage she flashed me, although those things didn’t hurt my feelings (I think she’s like this with most men). No, it was the pat on the shoulder she gave me as she walked away.*

I like to be touched.

I’ve mentioned that I touch people a lot. Shake the hand, pat the shoulder, or even hug if I have permission. I do it because people need it, but I don't force it, of course.  

It’s me giving something of myself to them. They need it, I give it. It’s all part of the service, folks.  

But a waitress who touches me, and then brings me food….

That’s worth a big tip.  

Saturday, November 30, 2013

There's No End

Not long ago, I was with a new widow in the emergency room of a hospital. Together we looked at the body of her husband who had taken his own life. In fact, we sat for hours waiting for the medical examiner to sign the forms, and we watched over the body of the man whose head was wrapped in a bloody towel.  Later that week, I performed his funeral. And then later,  when the woman could muster the courage to ask, I assured her that the man she loved all these years did not go to hell. 

I do this a lot. 

In the first church where I served as the pastor, I remember there was a terrible accident where a man was buried by over a ton of fertilizer. I remember how people, including the two grown sons of the man, dug frantically to find him, but mercifully, he died on impact, rather than from suffocation. The sons were huge, laconic young men, but they let me hug them as I told them how sorry I was. All that day, people involved at the accident, stopped me and told me how hard they had tried to help and how they felt then and now.  And I listened to each of them.

I remember at the time, as I watched men dig, how I had to swallow down the tears and project a strength I didn’t really have, so people could be cared for. 

I was twenty-three at the time.  

For over three decades I’ve sat next to those who were slowly dying, and held the hands of their loved ones. I’ve stood with family as they watched their precious member take their last breaths after it was decided to remove the ventilators.  I’ve held mothers and fathers as they sobbed at the deaths of their children. 

The minister doesn’t cry.  Well, maybe I'll show a tear or two to prove I'm human. But it’s not the minister’s turn to cry; it’s his or her turn to serve. And it’s an honor.

Other people work more intensely and more often in these settings: nurses, doctors, policemen, emergency medical workers. I think they’re all amazing, and I’m glad I don’t do that kind of work all day every day.  But as hard as their work is, they at least work as a team. Nurses, doctors, police, firemen, emergency care workers—they have each other. 

But ministers are generally alone. Their churches don’t want to think about the minister suffering, not in any real way. 

A few days after a death, I preach the funeral. The most draining moment of the service is as people walk by the casket and I see them tear up, or cry, or whisper something under their breath, or wail as family members hold each other up. As they go past me, I touch them if they’ll let me, shaking their hands, or hugging them, sharing and sometimes absorbing some of their pain. 

I see a lot in those moments: Sadness, courage, despair, relief, anger, shock, isolation, love, bitterness, hope, affection, coldness….

I don’t cry with them. Sometimes I want to cry for them but I don’t do that either. The feelings are there and they’re not so much locked away as they are kept in check, so I can do my job.

I’m always exhausted afterward. I go to the office to catch up on regular work and then call it an early day if I don’t have evening meetings. I’d like to go to sleep but usually, I sit quietly for a time.  My wife just lets me be at those times.

It’s an honor, really. I have the ability to do this. I have been called to do this.  I’ve done it often, lately, at least once a month and often once a week.  And one time twice in a day. 

There’s a price to pay. All these deaths, all this grief, all this sadness has a cumulative effect that get’s heavier each time. After three decades it’s very heavy.

And that’s just the deaths. There are the divorces, the conflicts at church and in families, the ugly politics that break my heart because I don’t just work with these people—I’m supposed to love them.  And there are my own personal failures and inadequacies.  

I’m supposed to be the life of the party when I go to the picnics and potlucks. I preach uplifting sermons where I’m funny and positive.  I mediate between conflicts that can be utterly ridiculous. Sometimes it’s all that I can do to keep from rolling my eyes when I hear the angst about misplaced kitchen utensils, spots on the carpet, and do I use enough hand cleaner when I serve the Lord’s supper.  I sit at church meetings and we hammer out the business issues that I don’t care about, although they have to be taken care of.

People sometimes look at me sympathetically and say, “Where do you go for support, Pastor?” I just shrug.  I think they answer their own question by telling themselves that my being so close to God probably gives me near superhuman strength. It doesn’t. I have to find human ways to deal with my human frailty.

There have been times when I go sit with the children at church. Once, when I was in desperate shape, I blew bubbles with the preschool kids. Another time, at a church gathering, I sat on the ground with a child and ate homemade ice cream with him. Joyful kids are restorative.

I like to watch movies. Often I’ll cry, sometimes at the oddest moments in the film. 
There ought to be other ways to process. I’ve been to counselors but in truth most of them have not helped much, though they tried. I go to preachers meetings. They understand, but in truth, most of them are in worse shape than I am and I end up listening to them.  I can’t inflict this on my family. I am the professional minister--they are not. Life in a minister’s family is not always easy for them, anyway—I hide as much of the crap as I can from them.   

I’m paying a price. I have anxiety attacks that I hide from the family, but when I’m alone I shake uncontrollably, and sometimes, this stupid twitch where my body tenses briefly like I've been startled. I’ve developed health issues—diabetes, high blood pressure and with any luck, it will cut my life short.

I started going to a massage therapist at the recommendation of a friend.  The moment she touched me, the muscles unleashed all kinds of pain. The first several sessions, I had those anxiety attacks. Often, just as the muscles began to relax, they would then lock up, and then I might twitch all over, and not be able to stop. Other times I burst into tears, and on two occasions sobbed loudly. 

The therapist was so sweet. She spoke quietly and reassured me it was all okay.  I would thank her while she worked, and she would say “you’re welcome,” very quietly. She always ended by massaging my face and it always made me cry if I wasn’t crying already. I usually captured her hand while it was on my face, and patted it once or twice.

I went every week. To be touched, to have some of the pain released. I never missed. And I started feeling better in general. 

But somehow it has gotten out that I actually go to a massage therapist, and somehow there’s something wrong with that, although many people from my church also go to her. And it has also gotten out how emotional I get--that “the preacher is cracking up.”

Maybe I am, but the massages were putting that off a bit. 

I also have a friend. One friend, who is a leader in my church and a counselor in the community. I haven’t actually had friends in a long time. I can’t trust anyone in my churches, and besides I move around too much. But she decided to be my friend. She spent hours listening to me, understanding what I said, saying wise and supportive things.

To be honest, I found myself attracted to her and I struggled with those feelings. We were careful not to touch each other, even to shake hands. I eventually came to a different place in my feelings about her.    

I did nothing wrong and neither did she, but someone has spread the rumor that she and I were having an affair, and so we’ve stopped talking except in public settings in front of others. I’m not going to respond to any of it—that would make it worse. I hope the gossip will just die down, and it probably will. 
Tomorrow, I will go to the church and preach to a crowd filled with desperation. Some are lonely, some are grieving, some are afraid, some are angry, and one or two of them are seething, thinking of reasons why they hate me.  I’ll do my best to be wise, gentle, funny, and kind, even to the hateful ones. 

Then I will go home and not tell my family how I feel. I won’t get to talk to my friend. I won’t be looking forward to a massage the next week.  I’ll eat lunch and go to work some more. 

I don’t have a conclusion here. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to wish for. That's the problem. There’s no end. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

None of my Business

Most churches refer to themselves as "family."

Come to us and we'll accept  you and love you--you belong with us. 

It's rarely true. Oh, there's usually a tight knit group at the core of the church that started together and have known each other a long time. And like a family, they may be close, yet dysfunctional, with each other.  Others can come to services and told they're welcome, but they can't be part of that group, even and especially the preacher.

To survive, the preacher has to know how to respect and work with the core group, but he'll never be one of them.

I have spent most of my life entrusting myself and my real family to a people who say, "We love you. We're glad you're here. We are grateful for your care and we will take care of you." And then one day, usually sooner rather than later, they won't love me anymore and they'll want me to go away and they won't care if my family starves. It won't be simply a lack of love... they'll grow to hate me. But they won't admit it.

Oh, it has not yet happened at this church. And I'll be able to stave it off for awhile, maybe a good long time. But that has been the pattern, as it was for my father who has also been a minister, and as it is for almost all ministers.

"We hated the last guy, but we love you. One day we'll hate you too, and want someone else. And for good measure, we'll break the hearts of your wife and children, and force all of you to start again with new relationships, which will also be taken away.  All the while, we'll still claim to love you, and wonder why you're so bitter.

"What did you expect? We may call it family, but we all know it's really business."  

Okay, it's nothing personal. So I can choose my own friends, right? 

Well, no. We have to approve your friends.

If it's just a business, I can do what I like on my personal time without anyone having the right to evaluate me? I can go to the movies I want, yell at the ball games, buy condoms and beer and say curse words, as long as it's on my own time, right?

Not really. You have to be a good example and we don't want you embarrassing us.

If I had problems with my family, can I come to you for support, love and help? 

We don't even give that to each other.

If I make mistakes, you'd follow the direction of Christ, and be compassionate?

Well, no. Remember, this is a business.  

Yes, and it's apparently none of mine.

That's right. but remember, we want our pastors to love and care for us.