Reality Not Satan

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’~Mark 8:31-38 NRSV

Many times in Christian tradition we hear Jesus referred to as the “Great Physician”. In this week’s lectionary I think we see Jesus the Great Physician, in rare and honest form. Jesus is giving his disciples a very clear prognosis. Peter, like so many of us, responds with denial –the first stage of grieving. Peter is so like us.

I remember sometime in late 2002, I sat in a orthopedist’s office. He spoke to me about the MRI of my spine. He used words I did not, yet, know.  What I most remember is “by age 40 you’ll be using a wheelchair or in need of spinal surgery.” NOOOOO! My brain, like Peter’s could not process it. I could not conceive of what he said. My mind shot out firecrackers of um so I worked my way through years of painful, confidence shattering physical and speech therapy to cope with Cerebral palsy, and now you are telling me that I am going to need to use a wheelchair anyways? Then what has been the point of all the work everyone told me was necessary and good? What then has been the point of my life if not to exceed expectations? If I can no longer do that who am I?  His words could not possibly fit into what I knew of life.

Peter rebuked Jesus not out of stupidity, although the writer of Mark sometimes portrays the disciples that way. Peter’s reaction to the news that Jesus would die was not really inspired by Satan, but by the very human experience of not being able to connect new information to what was expected based on a very real and human understanding of the world. Peter could no more conceive of the Messiah dying on a cross, then some people can conceive of a woman who used to have a speech impediment preaching. Peter is not very different from the families I meet who can not believe that their loved one on hospice is actually dying.

We live in a society that teaches us that physical change and decline is unacceptable, that it needs to stay hidden or be “put away” somewhere. But that is not how real life is. We are born, we age, we decline, and we die. Jesus is stating a very matter-of-fact truth about human life. Still like Peter we resist it. We resist change. We don’t want to believe that the real plan might be different from our plan. The influence of the Greek cynics is strong, we hear it from the men who die along side Jesus “Physician, heal thy self” / “Save yourself if you can”. That is what Peter expects–triumph against the world and the expectations of history.

Jesus, however, invites us forward into the very history we resist. Jesus calls us to the new. When my chronic pain started in 2002, I hated it. I wanted to go back the time when life itself was not a struggle. I took me a while to learn that was not going to be an option. Life became the unexpected. Somewhere somehow I realized that the pain might change my life but would not end it. I lost the competitive swimming, lost some ability to do the physically taxing book art that I loved, and lost some of the activeness I was known for. It seemed like I lost me. In time I realized that was all wrong. My acquired disabilities invited me out of the shadows. I could not hide my chronic pain as I had learned to compensate for and hide my cerebral palsy. A nun who had spent most of her career working with people with developmental disabilities, and was my supervisor, thought it was great fun to fold her arms over her chest and point out to me my very CP personality traits. Then there were the old ladies who sat behind me at church, who saw how much it hurt for me to stand or hold the hymnal in worship. They forced me to try a cane. I did not like any of it, but recognizing my real needs helped. It was when I could accept my acquired disabilities that I stopped denying my native disabilities. I learned to accept myself. It has made all the difference. To come out as who I am as a disabled woman has also allowed me to become an advocate, to make the world a more welcoming, accepting, inclusive world. That is not the work of Satan, it’s the work of accepting reality and following Jesus wherever he has us go.

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Collared

It is the first week of Lent and I may have already failed one of the major challenges of the Lenten journey. I am not one to give things up for Lent, and I have been notoriously bad at picking up a new spiritual practice to carry for the Lenten season. I think a lot of people are like me in this regard, or perhaps I am like most people. Or perhaps since Valentines Day fell on the second day of Lent this year, I could not create reality out of the notion of giving something I liked up and chocolate being present at the same time. See, this Lenten stuff all gets very complicated.

I did actually take something up for Lent this year, more specifically for Ash Wednesday. As a chaplain I have found that Ash Wednesday is probably the one holiday that I am called upon to function as clergy in ways that many parish pastors do. In fact, it is the only Christian holiday that calls for me to prepare and led a worship service in the context of my ministry setting (memorial services are different.) So this year I decided to go for it! Inspired by Womenspirit’s sale, I ordered a clergy collar shirt! I was not at all sure it would arrive in time for Ash Wednesday but it did,  so I took it as a sign that I should wear it to work.

The shirt is a lovely royal blue. The collar was tight and uncomfortable but we became friends by the end of the day. I have to be honest. The context in which I minister is one where my authority as a woman clergy person is regularly challenged and occasionally outright denied. This is not specific to my context, its specific to mainstream American Christianity, I know this. Several of my colleagues had encouraged me to wear a collar to work, Ash Wednesday and the need to lead a service, seemed the perfect day, so I did it.

This is what I learned from a day in the collar. The collar has power. There is no doubt about it. It  defines one’s role–as I found I did not have to introduce myself as the chaplain because people assumed. A collar defines one role and authority externally but internally as well. I felt more confident in my role, and there was I felt flow of respect towards me that I don’t always experience. It was as if the sight of me in my collar demanded a recognition not often granted.

It felt great! And that is where I failed, or so I thought. Yes it did feel great to experience authority and respect in ways I do not experience it when I am not wearing a clergy collar. But this was not exactly the rush of new found authority and sovereignty, as in the temptation Jesus faces in the wilderness. It was not that because it was not lasting. It was not that because it was not ego-infused. The clerical collar will come off and former patterns of relationship will no longer be interrupted by its presence. I thought I had failed a Lenten insight because I had experienced for the first time the authority people grant to those in the collar, and I thought it was good. I did not fail, because I realize that experiencing the power of  this authority was not about me. The only authority I have is the authority entrusted to me by God to care for God’s people. It is the authority of the yoke, the predecessor to the collar. The authority granted to those who answer the needs of others, even when that collared individual may desire to choose another way, like sleep. The collar is powerful, but it is not the power of authority, only the power of authoritative servitude and reluctant prophethood that flows from answering God’s demand to love others.

She Who Calls

Michelle Obama was speaking at the Convention about how adults within the community influence the young people and look after them, even when the adults in question are not their parents. The point was the important role that all members play in shaping the lives of the growing generation…. And then my phone rang.

I did not hear the end of the speech.  But I heard the voice of our church secretary passing on the news to me that one of the members of our church, I’ll call her Antonia, had died about an hour previously.  It is not news that most people want  to hear. It was not unexpected. Our pastor had told me the Sunday before that the time looked more like numerous hours than days. Antonia had beaten cancer before. I remember when she gracefully stood before our congregation to tell us all how much she sincerely loved each and every one of us, and how she now had stage four cancer and was not expected to live more than two years. It tugged on me. I knew that she had loved the life she had lived, and was continuing to do so. I hated the news. I loved seeing her children move closer to be with her and the joy on her face as her grandchildren became involved in activities at church. But as a hospice chaplain, I knew it was unrealistic to expect a single soul to face cancer and win twice. I think she knew I saw the same writing on the wall that she did. But we never talked about it. Instead we carried on our relationship as it always had been only with more hugs and words and glances of affection.

I was not her pastor or her chaplain. I, however, was also not just another member of the congregation either. I grew up in this particular congregation. I had known Antonia probably since I was six months old–my entire life as far as I am concerned. Antonia, you see, had been one of those adults who makes a profound affect on the growing generation. She had been a teacher, I am sure she affected the lives of many youth. But this about she and I. She defended my mother’s right to be a single mother, in the days when that was not quite the trend it is now. She was one of my first Sunday school teachers. She was one of the “proper and successful” adults to remark on my maturity and confidence as I grew through adolescence. She and her husband danced at my wedding.  As a young adult trying to establish a life she made it known to me, very intentionally, that I was never alone, that she was there. And somewhere in between there was that day she called me….it went something like this:

Me: Hello?

She: Hi Kelli. I was meeting with the Trustees. We are trying to fill the church leadership positions for the next year. And well, we decided that since you are already teaching the Sunday School that you could take on the role of Christian Education Director.

Me: What does that mean, what do I have to do?

She: Don’t worry you’ll be great. Thanks! (end of conversation).

I should probably also say that Antonia’s skill as a successful member of the nominating committee pretty much went down in the history books after this stunt. She was just not a woman I would say no to, about anything–and she never exploited that, so I always simply trusted her.

Little did I know, when I hung up the phone that day that Antonia had set my life on a path that would change me and my path forever. I ended up being the Director of Christian Education for two or three years, and only left it  for a required internship with another congregation (whom I also loved). But, it was during my time as Christian Education Director that I came to realize that six of the ten children in my Sunday School class had siblings or parents with disabilities and that this affected all of them–and that somehow I was called to address this. It was during my time running the Sunday School I came to learn that I loved teaching and wanted to teach in the church in some capacity for the rest of my life. It was in the time after Antonia called to tell me  that I was not only needed but was GOING TO do THIS work, that I finally embraced the call to seminary and ministry. Yes, there have been several literal phone calls that have vaulted me into new forms of ministry, but this was one of the firmest and the one to which there was only one answer.

I am not the pastor of the church that Antonia and I shared for thirty-five years, but I am a chaplain in part ordained by this congregation to the work I do. And I must admit its been hard to know my place, in this situation, at all times these last several months. Wanting to run to her, as the youth I have always been in relation to her and to tell her how much she has influenced me. Wanting to embrace her with all the love I could, and the skill surrounding end of life care I have acquired, and simply not knowing what role to play. In the end I was simply a member of her church congregation, and perhaps that is as it should be. But knowing how Antonia had embraced me with her genuine love and simple concern throughout my life, it was nearly heart-rending to know it was not my place to get into the car and drive to her home and sit with her family the night she died. Dinner had already been provided by the congregation and the pastor was there; and as a chaplain I know that more people often create more chaos in the hours just after death, I did not feel it was my place to impose that night.

I had already planned to be out-of-town the day that was scheduled for Antonia’s memorial service, so I did not get to share the impact she had on my life with her family at that time. I was in a grove of grand Sequoia trees at the time of her memorial. Minutes after I expected her service was over I felt the undeniable feeling of her hug surrounding me and I knew I had made the right choice in not changing my plans–that I needed to be surrounded by trees that were growing when Jesus walked the earth to continue my path of ministry. She knew this and knew right where I’d be.

The greatest saints who call and nominate the members of the church to ministry never really leave us. I think in even in death part of them remains with the church and the clergy they have called, whether as cheer leaders, challengers, or  simply out of pity and remorse I can not yet say. I have decided that I may still have to thank Antonia for that call so long ago. That I may still need to express the many effects it had. But  for now, I think I’ll continue to wait. I think I’ll just have to thank her when I know how it all works out …just to be sure …she didn’t have the wrong number after all.

Happy Eid ul Fitr!

Happy Eid ul Fitr everyone! Yes, this is the day that Muslims around the world celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan is a month of fasting from sun up to sun down and making alms to the poor. The Interfaith Calendar says Eid ul Fitr is “a festival of thanksgiving to Allah for enjoying the month of Ramadan. It involves wearing finest clothing, saying prayers, and fostering understanding with other religions.” (accessed August 31, 2011).

Fostering understanding between the world’s religions is something we at WWSIC can really support.

And, yes, as a chaplain Eid ul Fitr is one of those holidays a chaplain serving people of all faiths and no faiths needs to know about… So…

Blessings this Holy Day and may the God of Many Names Bless your feast this day and all days!

The Three Women

I am not a writer, but there are those times when I feel it necessary to write, if only so I don’t forget the significance of events. Today I experienced something that was so refreshing and meaningful I needed to write about it, as it confirmed in a new way something I have known for some time. I am not a ‘spring person,’ but for some reason this spring I have been enjoying all the pastels and flowers in spite of myself. I also feel I experienced Easter differently than in years past. I am still not sure as to all the reasons as to why, but I am willing to think about them for as long as I need to. I think one thing I have paid more attention to this year is the idea of resurrection and the promise of new life that it offers. For me, as many of you know over the past few years I have wavered between mixed emotions regarding my call into ministry. Anger, excitement, disappointment, discontent, and exhilaration are just a few of the vast numbers of emotions I have experienced. It is interesting to note these emotions are and were usually entwined with a church community; not necessarily my idea of God. I continue to work through them and have found my work as a chaplain to be a major part to my healing and integration. For me this year my resurrection was to consider a new way of serving and ministering as a female minister. I have needed for sometime to step out of the old bondage which was negative comments and negative gender roles that were not only oppressive, but unhealthy and damaging.

Today was just another example of how this work ‘heals’ me. I was making an initial visit with a patient who just came onto service. The patient was in his room and I stayed in the living room with the spouse. For almost two hours she talked about their marriage, their children, and their faith. She brought out pictures of them at their wedding and walked me through in pictures almost forty years of marriage and their life together. As the visit was coming to a close I went into the bedroom and found the patient no longer breathing, he had passed during our conversation.

I waited for the mortuary to arrive and to my surprise two women drove up in a van. The two women in the van and myself attended to the body, cleaning and getting ready for transfer. I couldn’t help but think about holy week and resurrection morning when the women came to the tomb. The women brought their spices and perfumes for proper burial. I can’t explain what I experienced in that room, but I know it was healing. I just finished a class in seminary on worship where worship was defined as “any encounter with God.” For me this experience was worship, a sobering realization of life, death, connection with God and humanity. To experience this with women who came there to work and to help create and bring dignity to the deceased and the family was amazing. At one point we all three looked at each other and just smiled one of us saying, “this was really nice, all us girls.” As we were leaving, the spouse of the patient kissed my cheek and said, “How lovely to have such wonderful girls looking after my husband, I know he is in caring hands.”