September 28, 2015

A Curious Tale of Improv and Chaplaincy

I walk into the room knowing little more than a name and age.  Standing in front of the door, I check the information one more time, to make sure I do not say the wrong name.  I look at the room number, then at the scribbles in my notebook.  Yes, it is the right room.  The patient has been in the hospital for a few days and was referred to me by a nurse.   No reason given; just a suggestion that this patient might appreciate a visit.  Entering the room, my eyes immediately assess what is in front of me: an African American patient in his late thirties lying in a bed, IVs and other wires attached to him.  The blinds are closed over the windows, leaving the room dark and stuffy.  A TV blares from the wall.  As I step into the room, I take a moment to wash my hands in the antibacterial gel provided in each room, my heart pounding slightly.  I walk forward toward the patient, trying to empty my mind of the worries that accompany me on many of my visits

I find myself in this situation each time I go to work, preparing to encounter a patient and controlling the nerves that are my companion.  A little more than a year ago, the idea of walking into a stranger’s room to talk to them would have terrified me.  In fact, it did terrify me when I began working as a chaplain.  I would pace up and down the hall before gathering the courage to walk into the room and introduce myself.  Slowly, with practice and experience, my confidence grew. But entering a room and assessing the situation remained a struggle. 

Not long into my career as a chaplain, I attended a seminar with the hospital’s clowns.  The clowns are employed by the hospital to provide care and bring joy to the children.  In the seminar, the clowns spoke passionately about the similarities between clowning and chaplaincy.  Both require immediate response to the situation presented when we walked into a room.  Both provide care to the patient with the intent of helping them through a difficult time.  In clowning and chaplaincy, they told us, we must respond immediately, and from our hearts.  If we got caught up in our heads too much, we weren’t able to provide the immediate care that was required. 

That idea held with me as I drove home following the seminar.  I remembered how difficult it was for me to walk into many patients’ rooms.  I remembered how, sometimes, I had to pace up and down the hall before stepping into the room for a “cold call” visit.  I realized that in those moments, my brain was working overtime.  Instead of responding to the situations with my heart, I got caught up in my head.  I imagined my mind whirring like a great bunch of cogs, but making little progress for all the work it was doing. 

This was the problem I was having, I realized.  It was the problem I had with visits, and the thing that was holding me back during my ordination interviews.  I decided to take an improv class.

I am not a person who enjoys standing in front of people and talking.  My first experience preaching was terrifying.  I am not a performer by nature.  So, the idea of taking improv went against the very core of who I saw myself as.  Yet, I thought it was important to try it out and see what I could learn.  After all, it was only a seven week class, and if I was terrible at it, I didn’t have to invite anyone to the final showcase. 

The first few classes were both nerve-wracking and exhilarating.  I learned how to not be nervous when walking out in front of an audience.  I found that when I did not prepare for a scene by coming up with a starting line, but instead walked out with nothing in my head, I was more confident and present in the scene.  This was demonstrated to me one day in class when we did a particularly challenging activity.  One by one, we stood in front of the class and make up a character on the spot, speaking as that character.  For several minutes, we would monologue, until our instructor called out “Next!”   Then, we would switch, creating another character entirely. There was no time to plan out characters, no time to think through what we would say next.  By my second character, my brain was working overtime, whirring and churning with no results.  But by the final character, my mind was empty and as I spoke, the character sprang fully formed from my mind.  When you are able to stand in front of a group of friends and create characters on the spot with no prior planning, walking into a room to visit patients seems easy. 

Improv taught my mind to be quiet, something I had never learned before.  It was the opposite of what I learned in literature classes where we processed and analyzed and thought things through.  It was even the opposite of what I had learned in pastoral care classes, where we were taught theories and systems and family structures that put reason behind people’s actions.  I spent nearly four years in school learning to process and analyze so that when it came time to do the work, it would be second nature.    Improv quieted my mind and opened my heart, allowing it to speak, untethered for the first time in a long time.  And what I discovered was that my heart knew what to say.  My heart knew how to respond, without needing my brain to process and analyze. 

Improv is an incredible gift to my ministry.  It gives me the confidence that I lacked and the knowledge that I can do this.  After all, there is little you can’t do after you’ve stood in front of strangers and played make-believe.

Please consider contributing to my GoFundMe page, where I am raising money to take level three improv.  Thank you!

August 19, 2015

The One Sheep

"So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance." Luke 15

I had a conversation with a young girl in the hospital yesterday. While hearing the Godly Play story of the Great Family, she was very drawn to the idea of God being everywhere and in every thing. She said to me, "I wonder what God looks like?" and I wondered with her, "What does God look like to you?" I asked. She thought for a moment, then said to me, "A protector."

It was a short conversation, a few sentences exchanged as we sat on a piano bench together. It was short, but powerful. The idea that this girl imagines God as her protector, even though she was hurt, even though she was in the hospital, continues to be powerful to me. God was with her then, is with her now, will be with her in the future, always. 
More often, I feel like my job as a chaplain is to witness. It isn't that I say just the right thing that will change a life. The life that is changed most often is mine. I see. I hear. I witness. I am there for moments, short or long, that are pivotal in that person's life. A moment where a family gathers around a beloved child before surgery. A moment where two girls play Just Dance together in a room. A moment where a grandpa just needs someone to talk to while waiting for his granddaughter to get out of surgery. I am not present at these moments to change them. I am present to witness them.
I was reminded yesterday of the parable Jesus tells to his disciples about the lost sheep. It is a parable I frequently tell my kids. When one of his sheep goes missing, the shepherd leaves the other sheep to find the one that has gone missing. He takes the time to step away from the ninety-nine sheep to be with the one. It is a powerful message not only about Jesus the shepherd, but also about the importance of ministering to the one, not only the ninety-nine.

It is easy to get caught up and lost in chaplaincy, in ministry in general. There are so many things happening constantly, and it is easy to look at a list of twenty patients you failed to see, and feel downhearted because of the missed opportunities. But I believe it is important to recognize the one patient you did see. It is vital to recognize the importance of that one visit, of that one moment you witnessed. 
On days when the hospital is busy and I only see two or three patients, I try to stop the negative thoughts and think about those two patients. What did we talk about? What did we say? Did we smile? Laugh? Cry? Did they share? Did I listen? What happened in the moments we were together? It is a successful day if I am able to be present for that one sheep who is in need of someone to sit by her side and be a witness to that one moment. 
The next time I tell a child the parable of the Good Shepherd, I will remember that girl and our conversation when I talk about the one sheep the shepherd went in search of. I will remember that girl and recall the honor of being witness to that moment in her life. 

July 31, 2015

I Believe in Miracles

"Everything's going to be okay."

"Don't worry, it'll all work out."

"It'll get better, just be patient."

"Just trust in God and it'll all be okay."

I hear these phrases all the time.  They are what you say when something terrible has happened.  They're what automatically comes out of your mouth when you don't know what to say.  They are meant to comfort, to support.  Maybe you believe them; maybe you don't.  Until I worked at as a hospital chaplain, these were the phrases that fell from my mouth when things went wrong for friends.  "It'll be okay," I said.  "It'll all work out."  And I think I believed those words.  After all, there were very few times that I'd seen things not work out for my friends.  Why wouldn't I trust that things would work out this time? 

After a few weeks as a chaplain, my thoughts on this changed.  Suddenly, I stopped saying "It'll be okay," to the patients and their families.  I stopped promising that "Everything will work out."  Because I didn't know.  I couldn't make a promise like that.  Telling these things to families was not comforting them or supporting them.  It was lying.  It was ignoring the problem.  It was ignoring the reality of the world we live in, which is that things do not always work out.  People get hurt and do not recover.  Children get sick and do not get better.  Families break apart.  Pregnancies end in loss.  Sometimes, things do not get better.

I didn't really believe in miracles before I became a chaplain.  I subscribed to the "every tree/puppy/baby is a miracle" belief.  I read about "miracles" in the news and thought "Well, that's pretty amazing...but is it a miracle?"  It didn't seem like the miracles of the Bible. 

My thoughts on miracles have changed, too.  I've met parents of a child born at 24 weeks who was happy and healthy.  I've met babies who weren't supposed to last a week, but who have gotten stronger and stronger as the months have passed.  I've met parents who haven't lost hope after months of living in the hospital with their child.  I've met children who, despite scoliosis, spina bifida, amputated limbs, etc. are smiling and happy.  They are the ones who make me happy when I go into their room.  These are miracles. 

Families ask me to pray for miracles.  Some are simply asking - and why not?  There is no harm in asking God for a miracle.  Others sit, refusing to believe that their child will not recover because God will provide a miracle.  I admire the faith of these people, but I mourn for them. 

A year into life as a chaplain, my beliefs and my words have changed.  When I see a family struggling through their child's illness or traumatic injury, I reach out and pray with them.  I pray for strength, for guidance, for healing.  I thank God for the care given to the child by the hospital staff.  I thank God for the child, for the joy he or she brings to their family.  But I do not promise the family that everything will be okay, because it is a promise I cannot keep.  It is a promise that only God can make, for only God can keep it. 

I believe in miracles. I do not expect them. If we expected them, they would not be miracles. 

April 21, 2015

I wonder...

I've been doing a lot of wondering lately.

I blame Godly Play.  I was introduced to this amazing storytelling technique earlier this year as part of my chaplaincy program at Children's.  In it, children (and adults) are invited to "wonder" about the story, allowing them to step into the world of the story and find ways to connect it with their own lives.  (You can learn more about Godly Play here if you're interested.)

When telling parables, we wonder with the kids about what things really are.  We wonder how things connect.  We wonder where we are in the story.  In telling these stories, I have heard some amazing responses from children that make me wonder why I had never seen it that way before.

In my own life, I have been wondering.  I do I connect the pieces of my calling?  It seems they have all been falling in front of me lately, but I am still struggling with how to fit them together.  It's as if I have a hundred puzzle pieces in front of me, but no picture on a box to show me what it should look like.  Is this green a tree, or grass?  Is this a bird, a fish, a flower?  I wonder what the puzzle will look like when it is finished.  I wonder if I will ever finish it.

Like with the parables, it is helpful to look at each piece of the puzzle and wonder what they mean.  What are the pieces of my calling?  I know that I am called to work with children and their families.  I know I am called to be an advocate for those children.  I know that I am called to share God's Word with them.  I know that I am called to teach.  I know that I am called to help those in need.  I know that I am called to share my story and to help others share theirs.  I know that I am called to help children find the Holy Spirit in their lives through the art of creation.

Right now, it seems like I am constantly trying to put the pieces together, only to realize that they don't fit.  Am I missing pieces?  Do I have two puzzles mixed up together?

There is no immediate answer for these questions, for these wonderings.  I don't have a simple solution.  I just don't know yet.  But I suppose that is why we wonder.  When we wonder with children in Godly Play, we aren't seeking a RIGHT answer.  We are simply wondering, playing with ideas to see how they fit.  But as an adult, it is so hard to wonder!  I pray for the ability of a child to wonder without seeking an answer, to wonder simply in search of understanding.  That's all I can do.

February 12, 2015

Choosing Happiness

Whenever I am depressed/angry/frustrated/overly emotional, my instinct is to sit on the couch, cover myself in a blanket, and watch episode after episode of Gilmore Girls, The Tudors, West Wing, or some other comfort show.  I'm not one of those people who grabs the nearest comfort food and eats; when I am feeling down, I usually forget to eat.  I don't want to leave the couch.  I just want to snuggle with my blanket and my dogs.

Two weeks ago, I was in the midst of one of those moments.  That day, I had met with the ordination committee for a second ordination interview, only to be told for a second time that I wasn't ready, that they would not ordain me.  I was frustrated, angry, and depressed all at the same time.  That afternoon, I'd played Monopoly with Colin and a friend in an attempt to get my mind off of things.  But now I was all alone in the apartment.  Vegging seemed like a fantastic idea.

Vegging was the option I frequently took.  It's easy.  It's comforting.  It allows you to feel better in the moment, to forget whatever it is that's bothering you.  There's nothing wrong with vegging with things are bad.  

But then I looked over to my sewing machine and my most recent project.  It was a peplum blouse that I had eagerly been working on the day before my interview.  I was particularly excited about this blouse, because I'd made it twice before, and was in love with the pattern.  Not only that, but the blouse's fabric was a cute cotton print with bicycles on it.  All that was left was the finishing, my least favorite part.  Buttons, buttonholes, and hems.  Blerg.  

I decided to sew.

It may seem like a small thing, deciding to finish my blouse instead of laying on the couch.   But when you struggle from depression, like I do, and you find yourself feeling down, you have occasionally have a choice.  You can take the comforting route, the easy route, and feel momentarily better.  But I've found that later, I don't feel better at all.  I lecture myself for being lazy.  I think of all the things I could have accomplished.  And all the good feeling I got from snuggling with my dogs and watching Gilmore Girls vanishes.  

Choosing to sew, wasn't simply choosing to do something instead of sitting on the couch.  It was choosing to not let my depression overwhelm me.  It was choosing to push through the bad feelings and not only be productive, but feel productive.  It was choosing happiness.  

Now don't get me wrong - feeling down and being depressed are two different things.  But for someone like me, noticing that moment when you are feeling down and catching it before it becomes something worse can make all the difference.  When you are deep in depression, that decision is not even there.  Sometimes, the depression has already overwhelmed you, and you can't even imagine happiness, even when it is close by.  Choosing to be productive is not an option, because you are drowning in emotions that you cannot control.  But sometimes, occasionally, you are given a gift.  You are given that choice.

And that night, I chose to be happy.  

January 25, 2015

A Letter to Baby

Dear Baby,

We haven't met yet, but I'm Mommy. Or I will be when you get here. Sometimes I wish you would hurry up already, but I know that you'll be here someday. I'm ready to love you, to hold you and smother you in kisses. Will you have your daddy's blue eyes, or my ever-changing ones? Will you get my nose, with its funny bump in the middle? Or will you have a new face of your own to bring to our family? No matter how you look, I know I will love you.

It's hard waiting, Baby. Sometimes it hurts. I think that you are on your way, but then I find out I have to wait longer. You'll find this out eventually - I'm not a very patient person. I should probably work on being patient before you get here. In the meantime, I keep wondering who you will be. What will you be like when you get here?

Will you scream like I did? Will you suck your two middle fingers, too? Will you be a snuggly baby, or will I treasure those few and far between moments when you are quiet in my arms? Will you love to run and play outside? Will you tell corny jokes like your daddy, that I can't help but laugh at? Will you sit as I read to you at bedtime, telling you stories from the books I loved best when I was little? Will you love to travel, and imagine visiting every continent? Will you dream of traveling to the stars, or will you be happy here on earth, just like your mommy?

You'll change the world, Baby. I don't know who you'll be or what you'll do, but I do know that. I know you'll change my world, and Daddy's, too. I know you'll make a difference in the lives of everyone you meet.

I'm ready to meet you, Baby. Whenever you're ready to come, I'll be waiting with open arms.


January 17, 2015

The Language of Miscarriage

A week ago Thursday, Colin and I sat in the sonogram room of my OBGYN's office, watching as a small, black void surrounding a minuscule white dot appeared on a screen.  The pregnancy sac and fetal pole, our doctor told us.

By my calculations, I was supposed to be eight weeks pregnant, but the baby was only measuring at 6.  Not definitely a bad thing, the doctor told us, but not good.  I was bleeding, too, and terrified.

This Thursday, we sat in that same room and watched as the doctor again performed a sonogram.  There was the cervix, and the uterus.  But that black void and white dot were gone.  By that point, we'd known for a week that our baby had left us.  But it was still so strange to look at that place where it had been visible only a week ago, and to see nothing.

I've thought a lot lately about the language of miscarriage.  "I had a miscarriage," or "I miscarried," women say.  Or sometimes "We had a miscarriage," or "We lost the baby."  That had been my language, too, for our previous two losses.  Though I did not believe that I had done something to cause the miscarriage, the language I used made me the subject.  I lost the baby.  I had a miscarriage.

But this time is different.  This, my third pregnancy and third loss, my experience was different.  The baby was in me for longer.  8 weeks, this time, rather than 5 or 6.  I had a month of knowing I was pregnant, a month of experiencing the symptoms, the pains, the emotions.  A whole month where we thought everything was fine.  And then, last Thursday night, the baby left my body.

I won't be too graphic, but I will say this: I knew that the baby had left me.  I knew it physically.  And in that moment, my understanding of our language of miscarriage changed.  I didn't lose the baby.  The baby left me.  The baby left us.

The medical community has yet another term for this: "spontaneous abortion."  Though our society is very single-minded when the word abortion is used, it does work to explain what happened.  The word "abort" is defined as "to fail, cease, or stop at an early stage."  "Spontaneous," too, is an appropriate descriptor: "without effort or premeditation." It happened out of nowhere.  Unplanned, the baby simply ceased to grow, and left.

That understanding of the miscarriage helps explain my own feeling that I've been abandoned.  I was abandoned, in a sense.  For whatever reason, the baby left my body.  We probably will never know the answer, and knowing the answer won't stop my feeling of abandonment, anyway.

It hurts to be abandoned by someone I'd promised to love and protect.  It hurts to be left.  But it hurts a lot less than thinking I am the reason why the baby left.  It hurts less to say that the baby left, rather than saying that I lost it.

I didn't lose the baby.  The baby left my body.   But it will never, ever, leave my heart.