Friday, April 10, 2015

chaplaincy series: Living human document

When I first entered seminary, I was astounded by the infinite deepness and richness of biblical texts. The construction of these texts was humbling and infinitely complex. I loved looking in my Greek Bible, because it had notations that indicated thousands of manuscript fragments that compose the greater whole.  It was in this way that I fell in love with scripture.

These days, I am working with a different kind of scripture, the living human document. I am humbled by the richness of the fragments of experience that make up the "texts" of my patients. My patients are infinitely complex.

In spending time walking alongside my patients, I get to have a glimpse into reading the many books and chapters that compose them.  It is also with this view of the living human document that the understanding that our patients have things to teach us emerges.  There is no predictable trajectory of grief or loss or trauma or spiritual angst. There are assessments that I can make, based on what I observe and hear, but there are no diagnoses in chaplaincy. There are certainly themes and commonalities, but every person is a new story.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

chaplaincy series: death midwife

I attended your death as a midwife. Along with a nurse and a social worker as your birth attendants. I attend death like a midwife attends birth.  I cannot do it for you.  I can only be with you as you do the hard work.

I hold your hand, swollen with the IV fluids of failed resuscitation attempts. Edema from the kidney failure that the bedside dialysis failed to reverse. My fingers leave indentations on your skin. Your nurse wipes your forehead with a cool cloth, with the tenderness of a mother and her child.  Your social worker draws the curtain to your room, to give you some privacy as you do the vulnerable and animalistic work of dying.

Your dad had to go back to his home. He sat vigil at your bedside for two weeks. But he couldn't be there any longer.  But today, your death day, he calls and we put the phone beside your ear. We repeat over and over again the messages of encouragement from your father.  "You are loved."  "Your dad loves you."  "Your aunt loves you."  "Your mom is waiting for you."  Because your mom died when you were a child.

We sometimes turn on the music channels on your television. But the muzak doesn't seem to fit you.  I turn on the music in my own phone.  It somehow seems like you would want to hear Mumford and Sons and Avett Brothers.  Because you are, after all, my age. You have tattoos. You have a gauge piercing in your ear.

We are helping you to birth your own death. Your breaths are further and further apart. Your heart slows and stops.  Your nurse places her stethoscope on your chest.  She looks at you and looks at us and her tears fall upon your face. My tears fall upon the floor like rain.

Only at the end of this birth-death, there is only absence, not presence.

I am a chaplain…I am a death midwife.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Chaplaincy series: nurse for spirit and soul

Truthfully, it is impossible to put into words much of what I experience as a chaplain.  This series is an attempt. 

Today, I saw your daughter’s brain.  With her depressed skull fracture.  Where the crushed bones and matted hair opened up into the space that makes her who she is. She came in wearing rhinestone jeans, a grey satin bra, and a sheet soaked through with blood. Blood filling the stretcher. I want you to know that I saw her purple painted toenails. I want you to know that I saw your daughter.  I saw a teenage girl.

I waited at the doors of the emergency room to meet you when you arrived. I saw you and your wife and your son running across the parking lot. I knew it was you. I felt your desperation. I saw it in your eyes. I heard it in your voice. I felt it in your hands when I took them into mine.

I want you to know that I saw your beautiful daughter. I prayed for her in the midst of the trauma room. And though my surgical booties and gown and mask and cap covered me and made me look like any other person in that room, my only job was to hold the hope of her soul. To will her into staying with us.

And as I stripped off my surgical attire, to meet you in the emergency room, I meet you like I would want to meet someone if I was in your position. Calm, kind, exuding gentle strength. A guide to accompany you through this hostile foreign land where you never wanted to be. To hold your hand and bring you cool water and saltines after you throw up in the wastebasket in this tiny and airless room.  And to let you know with my presence that I will go with you wherever you need to go.

I’m a chaplain.  A nurse for the spirit and the soul.

All of me loves all of you...

I am delighted to announce that Katrina and I are getting married!  On friday evening, I picked her up at the airport. She was kind of quiet, so I thought she was crabby.  I was REALLY grumpy because I had had a hellacious shift at work.  We stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few things.  We unloaded our groceries and Katrina's luggage and I went to find a place to park on the street.  Since it was late on a friday night, I had to park a couple blocks away.

When I came back in, she said, "come in here!" from my den.  There was music coming from the room.  It was our song, "All of Me" by John Legend.  When I pulled aside the room divider, there was a lit-up screen that said, "Amy, will you marry me?" I mentioned that I never wanted to be proposed to on a Jumbotron.  So Katrina made her own little "bigtron" out of plywood and Christmas lights.  (This is what happens when you date an engineer!)

Katrina was on one knee holding open a ring box.
I was so surprised that I nearly fell down.  I started laughing and said yes!  Although in the moment, I wasn't sure I remembered to say yes. After nearly laughing and crying at the same time, I said, "I remembered to say yes, right?"

Then I pulled out the special photo book that I made for us.

It had pictures and stories from our relationship.  Our first date. The trips we took to NYC, Montana, Washington, DC.  The move we made across the country so that I could complete my education.  How hard it has been to be long distance.

How I never want to spend another night separated by distance.  Because long-distance relationships suck.

So when you come to visit us in the future, in some as yet to be determined locale, the proposal photo book will be on our coffee table.

Thanks for all the love and support and prayers in this journey.  We are blessed in our love and in finding one another.

Our families are thrilled and our friends are overjoyed.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Towards a new ethic of sexuality in the Church

I have been spending a fair amount of time lately thinking about human sexuality. It’s funny that this would be a topic about which I feel compelled to speak, because I was socialized in a way that it was extremely unacceptable to talk about sex. I am not alone in this situation either. My family did not give any particular guidance about sexuality, nor did my church. I received a really comprehensive sex education in my high school health classes, and for that I am thankful.  They didn’t skimp on the biology or the methodology of birth control. What was missing was any sort of education pertaining to LGBTQ concerns or implications of being in a relationship with another person or how sexual activity can change a relationship. I don’t fault my health class in any way, because most of these things are learned over the course of a lifetime of trial and error.

What I find particularly problematic is the church, in my case, the ELCA, isn’t entirely sure how to handle matters of sex. The most that the church generally offers is something along the lines of “don’t have sex outside of marriage.”  Except that marriage as a cultural institution has shifted so dramatically, and over the last few decades, the age of first marriage has gradually increased.  And sex has become more and more a topic for public discussion and more acceptable.

So you combine changing norms around marriage (more and more people never marrying at all, same gender marriage becoming a legal reality, etc) with a dramatic increase in the age of first marriage (according to US Census information, this is now 29 for men and 27 for women) and the church’s rhetoric of “no sex before you get married” is just not that realistic anymore. What would it take for Christians to reimagine our view of sex?

Premarital sex has been cast in the light of “sin”.  Sex as a part of intimate relationships has been unfortunately commingled with a historical understanding of women as property to be “married off” and heteronormativity.  Virginity before marriage is bound up in notions of women needing to be pure as they are “given away” to their husbands in marriage.  This purity culture implies that sex before marriage makes a woman “used goods.”  The inherent patriarchy in this understanding does not hold men to the same standards. What is most problematic in this discourse is that it is so stuck in the idea of one man + one woman =marriage understanding that it completely ignores other expressions of public commitments of love.

When we make sex before marriage something that is tied to shame, it takes on a life of its own.  It becomes something that we keep hidden.  This creates all sorts of issues.  We don’t offer space for two adults in a committed relationship to consent to sexual relations with one another. There is no magic permission giving that happens before the signing of a marriage certificate and after.  We have created a sexual ethic of shame, which causes real issues and real pain.  

When we limit the definition of marriage to one man + one woman, we implicitly buy into a history of patriarchy and oppression. There is a raging and vitriolic debate going on about what constitutes marriage. The term “Biblical marriage” has been flung around, when in actuality, there is no one definition of what this means.  My next blog post will explore this idea.

What would it take for the church to explore a new ethic of human sexuality?  To recognize that shame need not be the driving force?  That rather, an open and mutually respectful and loving ethic of human sexuality be what drives us?  That God delights in our physical expressions of love for one another because that is what we were created to do? 

What would it take for the church to recognize that marriage is a public commitment of love and fidelity between two adults, whatever their genders? That marriage equality is not a slippery slope of “anything goes” but rather a recognition that love has many faces. What would it look like if the church honored and supported all marriages?