Click on the source link above for the full posting on the School for Ministry Student’s Blog Site.
Our time at St. Paul’s Senior Services was over for Pam and myself. We had said our goodbyes, completed our evaluations, met with our supervisor and the field education director. We were doing quite a good job at detachment and moving on but there were one or two residents that we wanted to keep in touch with. One of them was Stan.
Stan is his real name! I know that he would not mind me using his story as an example. I had become friends with Stan over our time at St. Paul’s and we had shared some highs and some lows together. One day Pam and I had popped up to his room to see if he was about. When he didn’t answer his door, Pam wrote him a little note to say that we had come by to visit. Last week I arranged with Pam to visit Stan after work one evening. We went up to his room and there he was very pleased to see us. As we were talking he went to his bedside cabinet and pulled out a stack of papers. He had kept every handout that we had made, every service book produced and there on the top of the stack of papers was Pam’s handwritten note. It was clear that even the smallest thing to us was a significant memory for Stan.
In ministry we often think about the big things. How a program or ministry will achieve its goals and improve on what we did last year. Whilst it is important to keep moving forward, to continually strive to find new ways on how we can make the gospel relevant to today’s and tomorrow’s generations, we should never lose sight of the fact that God’s kingdom is here in the present, in our everyday lives and in the routine and even mundane things that we do each and every day.
Sometimes it is our small gestures, the basic building blocks of our pastoral care that makes a difference. Nothing is too small to be insignificant and each and every one of our actions has the potential to be transformative and renewing.
My interaction with Stan reminds me that staying those extra ten minutes at coffee hour, making that phone call that otherwise would be easy to put off or not forgetting to ask about a sick relative are all just as important as delivering a powerful sermon or launching a new cycle of bible study. For in Christ the last shall be first, the weakest will be the strongest, the smallest of children will be the inheritors of the kingdom of God.
A couple of weeks into our internship, Pam and I were asked by residents at the Manor to start a grief support group. When I realized what was being asked of us I was simultaneously humbled and a little apprehensive. We had of course covered grief and death in our pastoral classes but this would be the first time that we would be leading a group.
Leading is what we ended up not doing. We facilitated the group and walked along side the members of the group as companions as we met each Friday afternoon for six weeks. We had the back up of our supervisor, Fr. Jacobsen, and also a wonderful resource that he had put us onto “Companioning the Bereaved – A Soulful Guide for Caregivers” by Alan D. Wolfelt. The book title is shared here with a very strong recommendation.
Our group of five plus Pam and I met and I would say that we all got different things from the group, everyone was at a different stage of grieving. What was common though was that no-one had really talked about their journey of grief in a deeply meaningful way. The act of sharing, of being accepted and of listening to others proved to be important fuel for the journey.
On another occasion I had the opportunity to talk about death with one of the residents at the Villa. He had certain wishes, things he wanted to say and after we talked he realized that the conversation that we just had was a conversation that he also needed to have with his family.
Our culture does not encourage us to talk about death, before death occurs. Also when we have experienced death of someone else our culture patterns the norm of what grief should look like. But grief has no norm, has no set path. I did an experiment on Saturday evening after I got home from an afternoon at the Villa and tried to talk to my husband about death. He didn’t want to talk about it – clearly I have work still to do.
As a candidate for Holy Orders I find myself in situations where I can talk about death in the context of faith. Faith transforms our view of death, from a final act to the passing into a new season. But anyone of faith has the same Good News. The pain and horror of Christ’s death on the cross is followed by the joy, hope and reality of the resurrection. We must never be scared or ashamed to talk about death in the context of our faith. Doing so, means that we can openly talk about death and the practical earthly realities that we need to talk about with loved ones and caregivers. Then in grief at the death of others, we realize that we are never alone for in faith Jesus holds open a 24/7 grief group – we just have to rest on our faith to enter in.
In seminary we have been taught that in parish life we will sometimes find ourselves unpopular with parishioners, sometimes accused of being in the wrong and often examined under the spotlight. We were also taught that we will not always agree with other peoples views but as Episcopalians we are good at holding together different voices in a conversation. This is of course an important lesson and something that I have discussed with my classmates. I hoped that this preparation would have equipped me for when it would happen.
Recently it happened, twice in one day.
Pam and I were invited by a resident to meet with him and being eager to interact with as many people as possible we were only too willing to oblige. The resident was very pleasant but had no problems pointing out where we were going wrong. We both sat there listening respectfully and remaining present and attentive to the conversation. Inside my heart sank, for both of us.
Earlier in the day we attended an inter denominational worship service at the Villa. The pastor, from another denomination, is a dedicated minister filled with love for the residents. I have often disagreed with his theology but never enough to really feel that I needed to say something. I felt that we could agree to disagree. On that particular day however, I felt extremely uncomfortable about not saying something. The God that he was describing was not a God that I could associate with. After the service I purposely engaged in conversation with a resident to avoid speaking to the pastor.
So twice in one day, I wanted to speak out and correct someone and twice in one day, I sat back, quietly boiled inside and did not confront the situation. I wonder, am I a failure?
As I reflect on the meeting with the resident, I can answer with ease. No, I am not a failure. The resident had some valid points and it is good to learn from his experience. The truth can be a bitter pill to swallow. I also think that he wanted to be heard, and to share his experience with others. He was not causing problems in the residents community. A slightly uncomfortable end to the day, but no harm done.
As for the theology of the other minister, I am torn. I am grappling with holding true that there are other viewpoints to my own and for some people the message would have been very meaningful. But, I believe in a loving and merciful God and not the God that was preached that morning. I do think that saying something in front of the residents would have been inappropriate. But maybe I should have spoken to him afterwards, I will certainly be reflecting on this more. This blog is a reflection on a journey, not a postcard from the terminus!
I always say that I don’t have the answers but the events of today are making me think – who am I? Both as an individual and as a future priest. What are my boundaries? Where do I draw the line?
I guess that is why they call it theological field education – it is a time for us to learn and to practice.
After a few weeks of activities at the Manor, Villa, Memory Care Center and the Health Center Fr. Jacobsen gave us a new list of people to visit. The list contained names of people receiving hospice care, and therefore in the final stages of their earthly life. Judy (not real name) was on the list.
Pam and I went up to visit her room late on a Friday night. We did not know what to expect. The door was open and a very kind hospice nurse was sitting with her. We introduced ourselves and asked if we could come in for a few minutes. The nurse was very glad that we were there. We walked in and Judy was lying in bed. She was in her late nineties and had a very small frame but with a lovely head of beautiful white hair. She was curled up and obviously in a lot of pain. Pam and I sat with her and I struggled to find words to say. In so many ways I felt helpless. She was not able to respond to anything that we asked but we felt that she was aware that we were there.
We asked if we could pray for her, we held her hand and I managed to pray what felt like a clumsy prayer, but one from the heart (note to self: never leave home without a bookmarked BCP). We then said the Lord’s Prayer and at the end I swear I saw her say “Amen”.
This is where we were meant to be, helpless but present, lacking but adequate.
We said goodbye and left the room. We both felt that the time of passing was very close and went home subdued.
The next day we returned and whilst still in pain Judy clearly was in a better condition than the night before. Armed this time with both the BCP and Ministry to the Sick our prayers were more coherent. On the Sunday she was brighter still and we said one of the daily devotions with her and she responded multiple times. Judy’s time of passing is close, and we continue to visit her every time that we are at the Villas. Walking softly, being present, praying that she feels the blanket of Christ’s love as she journey’s home.
I’m back with a series of ten blogs over the next couple of months recording thoughts, musings and reflections as I make my way through my second year of summer theological field placement activities. This year I am spending time with St. Paul’s Senior Homes and Services. I have company on the journey as most of the sessions that I do will also be with Sister Pam (you can read her blog here) who has been a schoolmate for the last two years and God willing and people consenting will be ordained to the Sacred Order of Deacons in November at the diocesan convention.
Last year, you will recall, my field placement was with Episcopal Community Services (ECS) and specifically with this ACCORD DUI program and also their Downtown Safe Haven transitional housing project. That experience was so rewarding, fulfilling, humbling and formative that I worry that anything that I do this year will fail to live up to what I had experienced before.
And there we have it. Lesson number one slaps me in the face even before really starting this year’s placement.
Let go, let be, and be open to what lays ahead.
What is it about our society that drives us for a need to rank, compare and constantly evaluate? There is of course a time and a place for all of these activities but there is also a skill in learning to balance the need for structure and evaluation with trust in the Holy Spirit and willingness to try experience new things and even the willingness to fail.
If we don’t give ourselves permission to fail or at least to readjust then we are not being brave enough in living out the gospel that Christ himself calls us to live.
So as I start this year’s activities I have my Learning-Serving Covenant in place, I have learning goals set, and weekly activities laid out. A schedule of time with residents, leading worship, group reflections and weekly games of bingo. What will each activity bring? What will I learn? What lays ahead that I cannot see?
I have no answer for these questions, but I’m ready to let go, let be and be open to what lays ahead.
It is time to say good bye to ECS …..for now. A new year of seminary classes has already started. Fishing on a Saturday with J and the residents of Downtown Safe Haven have been replaced with courses on the prophets, church history, Anglicanism and ethics. Tuesday nights reflecting with G on what I had just experienced whilst helping with a DUI group have been replaced with reading and Thursday night shared meals and conversation at DTSH have been replaced with writing school papers.
On one hand so many things have changed. But the work of ECS’s ACCORD program continues. The residents of DTSH still continue to try and do the best they can in the world.
One thing for sure is that I have changed. My placement with ECS was much more than just a placement. It was never a case of simply racking up two hundred hours. I am reminded of the words of Proverbs
One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.
I truly am richer, enriched and watered. I am transformed. With so many good experiences it is on one hand hard to let go. But that very same struggle is made easier when I ask myself what should I do with the transformation that I have experienced?
Like a house built on rock and not on sand, I will use that transformation as a foundation from which to further build on. The passion in my heart for service beats stronger now than ever before.
I bow my head to God in prayer, and place my future in His hands. I know I will spend more time with ECS at some stage in the future, but for now, for a brief time, it’s time to let go.
Recently I returned back to ECS’s ACCORD program for two final weeks of sitting in and assisting with some of the DUI group sessions. Because of work and personal commitments there had been a five week gap between my previous visit and these last sessions. I had missed the program in those five weeks but the gap also allowed me to stand back and look at where some of the people in the program were in their journey. Jenny*, the councilor who ran the group is a natural at her job and is able to adapt to any group dynamic and draw out a learning experience from everyone in the class. She helps people at all stages of their journey and I have learnt so much from her.
Tonight was a night to check in people on a journey. Some of the group that I had come to know previously had completed their program and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Others, who were partially through their program, were now nearing the end of their time and of course there was a couple of new people who were just starting the program who I had never seen before. It was clear that some of the folk had been affected by their time at ACCORD. Getting a DUI is a big deal and their time in the program was well spent. For others the time in group sessions, educational classes and individual one-on-one meetings seemed less worthwhile. But that may be an unfair comment, because in reality I was, and am, just an observer or at best a fellow traveler.
Do you ever get a song into your head and can’t get rid of it? That happened to me on my way home that night. I was thinking back, all the way to my infant school, aged just five or six. At school we sang hymns every day in assembly. One of those songs came to mind…..
One more step along the world I go,
one more step along the world I go;
from the old things to the new
keep me traveling along with you:
And it’s from the old I travel to the new;
keep me traveling along with you.
Round the corner of the world I turn,
more and more about the world I learn;
all the new things that I see
you’ll be looking at along with me: Refrain
As I travel through the bad and good,
keep me traveling the way I should;
where I see no way to go
you’ll be telling me the way, I know: Refrain
Give me courage when the world is rough,
keep me loving though the world is tough;
leap and sing in all I do,
keep me traveling along with you: Refrain
You are older than the world can be,
you are younger than the life in me;
ever old and ever new,
keep me traveling along with you: Refrain
Words: Sydney Carter
Music: Southcote by Sydney Carter, arranged by Lionel Dakers
Words © 1971 by Stainer & Bell Ltd. (admin. by Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188).
How true those words are. Faith is a journey (of course there are times when we need to stop moving and be still to feel the presence of God and to let the Lord and Holy Spirit flow into our lives and our worship) that moves us from one place to another. Often we think about the start and the end of the journey but the hymn reminds us of the path along the way. Old, new, bad, good, learning, lost, guided, rough, tough, old, young and in the spirit of the refrain – never travelling alone, always in the company of our Lord.
Steps may be large or small, forwards and sometimes backwards, uphill, downhill. Sometimes we want to run at others we want to crawl.
Sometimes we may be forced on a journey like the participants attending an ECS ACCORD DUI program. At other times we are happy to move along.
Where is your journey today?
What is on the path ahead of you? what is next to you now?
Are you conscious that God is walking with you?
* All names changed
One of the hardest things about writing this blog is that some of the more trans-formative experiences that I have gained during my time with ECS involve very personal encounters with people who I have met. In some cases I have been able to change names but for other encounters that did not seem appropriate. I had one such encounter on Independence Day and so I write this blog post without details but I ask that you read along with me knowing that a very significant encounter occurred.
For a number of reasons I decided that I wanted to spend part of my Independence Day with the residents of ECS’s Downtown Safe Haven (DTSH). It was one of the best decisions that I have made in a long time. Residents took time and pride in organizing a BBQ at the house. One resident used up her last food stamps to buy ingredients to make a cake, an act of generosity that made my day. For some of the residents it was a time to see family, and for some others a time to feel the pain of being away from family.
The occasion also gave me time to talk to some people at the house during the day time – often when I’m at the house on a Saturday day time folk have things to do: work, classes, visiting or just being out of the house. I found myself talking to one resident. The conversation started as light conversation, went deeper, emotions opened up, feelings and fears came flooding out. Of course I didn’t have all of the answers but I could listen and I could be present. Ultimately we could join hands in the presence of the Holy Spirit and be held in prayer.
In the hit TV show ‘The Big Bang Theory” Sheldon is famous for making his presence at his neighbors door known. Standing in-front of Penny’s apartment he knocks loudly and repeats her name three times ‘Penny, Penny, Penny.’ No one is left in any doubt of Sheldon’s presence. How often do we extend the gift of presence? To be there for someone, without judgement of who they are or what they bring to the moment? We do not have to knock loudly like Sheldon does, in fact often it is better that we don’t even announce our presence at all. The Gospels are heaving at the seams with Jesus being present. He enters into relationship with his family, the disciples, he teaches in the temple. But it does not stop there, he enters in relationship with the poor, the gentile, the sinner, the tax collector, the prostitute.
The encounter that I had on July Fourth came out of the blue and I believe that God placed me that day exactly where he needed me to be at. I do believe that if we are to be a truly serving church that we need move beyond our traditional boundaries. Don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting abandoning the faithful but if we are to fully answer the call of Matthew 25:45
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
then we must be present in areas where most people would prefer not to go.
Whilst we are on the journey of getting there I rejoice in the work of organizations such as the Episcopal Community Services and Father Joe’s Village for the ministry of presence that they live each and every day.
Maybe tomorrow I will be present for someone at work or at the coffee shop. I may not even realize the gift of my presence, but that is not important because I’m not being present for me. Maybe it is a conversation, or even a hug but it could just be a smile.
Sheldon may say “Penny, Penny, Penny” I hope that I have the grace to say “Brother, Sister, Everyone”.
On Tuesday evenings I am spending time at ECS’s ACCORD DUI program. The program strives to reduce the incidence and prevalence of driving under the influence and the negative impact of this behavior on families, residents and the wider community. Last week I sat in two different discussion groups. There are so many different things I could write about but in this post I want to reflect on a comment that one of the staff made to me. At the end of the evening I was talking about my experiences that evening with a small group of the staff. I noted how the clients seemed to fall into three broad categories: those who accepted that their actions led to the DUI; those who accepted the seriousness of the DUI but did not accept, in part or fully, their own role in it (relying on excuses to explain away cause); and finally those who seemed to have not accepted the importance of the DUI itself. One of the staff reminded me that everyone in the program works at their own speed. Some will learn from the program faster, some slower, some will get it whilst they are in the program, some will get it after they have left and some will not get it at all. As I drove home I started to think how we come to expect instant results. Society teaches us to measure our success as a function of time. We live in a McDonald’s world where our expectation is immediate service and anything less is unacceptable.
After getting home I settled down to read some more of Blake Barrow’s book “Stories from the Shelter” (see my last post for more about this book). Chapter thirteen “John” is the story of a resident that came into Blake’s homeless mission, entered into their recovery program for alcoholism and settled into a new life and job at the mission. All was going well until Blake tried to push John a little harder and faster. John was not ready to move at Blake’s pace and ultimately broke his sobriety. In Blake’s own words
Just as I had tried to move John along at my pace instead of his, HUD’s one-step, housing first solution for the homelessness doesn’t fit everyone’s needs. For John, the shelter setting was healthier by far than having his own place…….He went home each day to isolation without any human interaction or supervision, and ten years of sobriety was destroyed in thirty days.
“Just as I had tried to move John along at my pace instead of his” again, even with the best intentions, we can feed the desire for the quick result. We can also see this sense of urgency in the Gospels as well
And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew 4:19-21)
It would be easy to conclude that our God is a fully paid up member of the McDonald brigade. The sign of a good Christian/disciple is to instantly follow Jesus. I don’t think that that is the case though. The immediacy of action in Matthew’s calling of the disciples had more to do with demonstrating the awesomeness of Jesus that the disciples immediately felt. Of course it is not only calls to immediate action that we find in Holy Scripture we also find many reminders of patience.
The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
Many of our churches invite the congregation to share in the Holy meal with the words “wherever you are on your journey of faith you are welcome to participate at everything we do at the table”. My own reflections and prayers this week have been that we extend that same invitation to all that we do. God is patient. Whether it is activities in church, working with people attending ECS’s DUI program, walking along side one of our brothers or sisters struggling with homelessness, mental health illness, addiction or their recovery we need to move at God’s pace. And God’s pace will be unique for each and every situation and person. Sometimes we will get that pace right, sometimes we will move to fast and at others too slow.
The lesson of the week for me was to start to learn to read the road signs that God shows us in life so that we know what pace He wants us to go.