Things People Say to Hospice Chaplains

April 4, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Chaplaincy, Hospice, Religion, Work 

So, I’ve been working as a home hospice chaplain for about 6 months.  I visit the homes of hospice patients and provide pastoral care to patients and families.  I find the work very rewarding and a fulfillment of the call from God that I perceive.

When I talk to people (friends, family, acquaintances, people from church, etc) I often get one of a small number of responses.  Here they are in no particular order, with my answer for each.

(A post for another day is “Things Patients and Families Say to Hospice Chaplains”)

It Must be So Hard

It is sometimes.  Let’s face it – I have a near 100% death rate for my patients.  By definition my hospice patients are not expected to get better.  And I’m working with people who are emotional about the death of their loved one (or patient, for caregivers and our staff) whether they express it or not.  It is certainly an emotional charged environment.

On the other hand, one of my important roles is to help the patient and family and staff make meaning from the illness and death of their loved one (or self).  Finding the personal meaning of the event is one key to integrating the event into your continuing life (yes, even for the patient).  I have to do that every time, with every patient.  And I have to do it for myself too.  I have to be able to find the meaning for me, for my place in the system that includes the patient, their family, their caregivers, their own clergy, our staff.  I have to have a sense of why I’m there and what it means for me.

Beyond the individual patient, I have to find a meaning for doing the work in the first place.  Why do I choose to visit a dying patient or four every day?  Why do I walk into a room with strong emotions, varying dramatically from person to person?  Why do I endure anger and grief and individual baggage that causes people to mistrust clergy?  What keeps me going?  Often the answer to this meta-question is the answer to the question for each patient for me.

The answer is that this is what God has called me to and equipped me for.  I’ve been working hard for the past 8-10 years to listen for God’s call on my life.  Over and over and over I have received affirmation that chaplaincy is my call, and that hospice work and end-of-life work is my particular specialty.  And God has given me what I need to do that work – personal emotional make-up, life history, skills and gifts, training and education.

I believe that God has called me to stand in the place of shepherd for the journey to death for some of God’s sheep, and for their fellow flock members.  It’s my place to listen to them, to hear the words they say and the words they do not say and the emotions that they feel, to let them know that what they are going through is real and usually a normal reaction to the final stage of life, to pray and read scripture sometimes to help people feel the presence of God.  It’s my place to care for these people, and for them to feel that care.  Sometimes it’s my place to serve as a stand-in for God or for others so that people can release the thoughts and feelings that have been stuck in their heart and soul.

The meaning that I take from this is that they are being cared for (if not by me by someone, and always by God).  They are being guided through a time that we will all experience – not directed but guided, in the hospice time and the death and the time after death and the grief that comes in each of those times.

In my core I feel a strong need and call to help people.  The primary reward that I get from this work is feeling that they are helped, by me or by someone else.

Don’t You Get Sad?

Yes.  I do.  Not with every patient, and sometimes there’s no obvious explanation for why I get sad with one patient and not with others.

With those patients who do not cause sadness for me, it’s usually because I feel a sense of joy.  Joy that they are grieving as expected.  Joy that they are not experiencing some of the dysfunctions that death can cause, or that they are receiving the help that they need.  Joy that the patient is NOT experiencing a painful, neglectful, or premature/delayed death.  In essence, I am sometimes not sad because the death is going well.

We as chaplains (and this is also true of clergy) are expected to feel some detachment from their flock.  We are expected to suppress our emotions about a situation in order to help others with theirs.  Our own questions about death and why it comes and why God permits certain things to happen to people – we are expected to deal with our stuff on our own time so that the patients, family, etc. can deal with their experience of these same issues.  My therapist once said to me that I have a strong ability to put my emotions on the shelf (we actually talked of Tupperware in a virtual refrigerator) and get through a situation and then deal with my emotions later.  That is true, and helpful.  It works that way for my theodicy too.

Sometimes I am sad.  It comes in two flavors.  One flavor is easy to understand – I come to feel some affection for my patients and their families.  They have a big loss and I have a smaller loss that goes with it.  I will mourn their death and their grief in my own time.  The second flavor is more complicated.  Sometimes a death just comes across as wrong.  Perhaps the patient is too young (someone under 60 is a good rule of thumb, and it increases in intensity as the patient is younger.  In my hospital residency, it happened with violent deaths.  It also happens with deaths where the family is unable to reconcile their conflicts long enough to get through the patient’s death, and to make that death as peaceful and painless as possible.  I remember one hospital patient who was estranged from his children for decades because of his abuse of them as children.  His family ultimately chose not to provide comfort care, leaving him as a “Full Code” with full resuscitation required, and then left the building not to return.  That certainly looked like an intentional infliction of pain.  And the one that shook me soundly after the fact was a hospital Emergency Room death of a two-month old child.  Nobody was to blame; it was a crib death.  But it’s hard to understand why that would happen.  In all of these cases, there was something wrong with the situation, something that could be fixed but wasn’t.

So yes, it does make me sad sometimes.  And please don’t take any lack of sorrow or even signs of being pleased as a lack of care for the patient.  In hospice circles there is a sometimes-spoken concept of a “good death”.  Those I celebrate rather than mourn.

I Don’t Think I Could Do It

You might be right.  There is a very unusual set of skills and attributes necessary to do this and do it well.  (Short version: chaplains are weird, hospice chaplains exceptionally so.)  Or maybe you could do it.  If you want to talk about chaplaincy careers or training let me know.  (And if it’s still early April 2016, and you want to do this in Ocean County NJ, my company has an opening.)

You might also be in that role in your own life.  We often hear stories of people who have capabilities that they did not know about until they were called on to use them.  You may be the person who reconciles people in your family or job, or you might be that middle-kid glue that holds the family together.

Chaplains aren’t hatched.  We aren’t born with special chaplain powers.  We develop them over time.  Our birth and formation do need to include and foster certain traits and attributes.  Chaplains do need some religious connection.  But beyond that we train.  Certification as a clinical chaplain in my organization (CPSP) requires at least two units of CPE and many go for the certification that requires four units.  Some certifications require a Masters degree in something relevant (the MDiv is used as the template).  That CPE training includes experience.  So no – we aren’t born doing this.

There is a real need to be able to keep your feet and your wits and your focus in the face of strong emotions – theirs or yours.  That can be learned too.  But beyond that, maybe you could do it.  Maybe you don’t want to, and that’s fine too.  We don’t need a world full of chaplains.  We just need enough of us.

I’m Glad That Someone Is Doing This

Thank you.

No, really.  This is one of those jobs where compliments come less often.  Where we often are unable to see the effects of our work in people because it only shows after we’re gone.  Where an angry family member or patient is actually expressing emotions rather than suppressing them and that’s a victory, but we’ll never hear a thank you.  Rejection is a constant.  Some people feel funny about their lack of church attendance, or never grew up with religion, or had a bad experience in the church or with clergy – those people tell us to go away, politely or not so politely.

I’m glad that someone is doing this too.  I’m going to need it someday.  Either for myself, or for my parents, or for someone else in my life.  And I will have to resist the temptation to fix my own family and myself.  Just as a lawyer should never represent themself, and a doctor should never self-diagnose, we should not self-chaplain.  We have to be able to feel what we are experiencing when the situation comes home, and we need other chaplains for that.

There are many guides in life.  Teachers, pastors, police officers, therapists, mentors.  Hospice chaplains are a specific kind of guide in a specific situation.  All are needed.

Open Letter regarding PCUSA 2015 One Great Hour of Sharing materials

Dear Linda Valentine,

I am very concerned about the posters for the 2015 One Great Hour of Sharing campaign that were highlighted in the December 3 PNS story:  https://www.pcusa.org/news/2014/12/3/special-offerings-take-new-look/  I find that these posters are quite offensive towards two groups that I minister to – those with addiction issues and people of color.

I am a Candidate for ordination and I am currently serving as the Resident Chaplain for the Capital Health hospital in Trenton, NJ.  Our hospital is an urban trauma center and is also the designated mental health in-patient crisis center for the county.  My particular floors include the trauma ICU and the in-patient mental health unit.

On both floors I work with patients suffering from addiction.  Some are victims of violence as a result of their addiction and are in the ICU.  Others are suffering from mental health issues including and related to their addiction.  Other patients are in the ICU because they have literally drunk or drugged themselves to death.

Those patients who survive and who will be released into the community generally express a desire to avoid the substance that they are addicted to.  They want to stay clean.  Those who come from a Christian background speak of needing God’s help to overcome their addiction.  I often recommend that these people connect with a church – either with the pastor or with the groups (AA, NA, Al-Anon, etc) that use the building.  On learning that I am Presbyterian, these people often express interest in getting help from a Presbyterian church.  In our area, there are many.

34323I would be horrified if any of these children of God that I spoke with walked into one of our churches and saw one of these posters.  Instead of the church providing a place of refuge for them, the church would reinforce the stigma that they already feel.  These ironic “jokes” aimed at addictions might be enough to send those church attenders with mental health issues back into the hospital.

Beyond the issue of addiction, these posters all include people of color, women, or the elderly.  I have also seen the presentation deck used by the ad agency back in September.  Only one of the five people presented was a white male, and he was middle-aged to elderly and his “drug addiction” was for a health issue.  The remaining figures were all people of color or women.  Are we really trying to imply that Asian girls have a drinking problem?  That Latino men get high?  At a glance, that’s exactly what these posters are implying.  If our aging Presbyterian audience suffers from presbyopia, the small print will never be read – those “ironic” messages will be all that people see.

specialofferings2_medium250I urge you to pull these posters from the campaign, and any other materials that use the drug addiction play on words.  I hope that an apology will be forthcoming for people with addictions and people of color.  And I hope that in light of this issue, and the 1001 New Worshiping Communities outside corporation debacle, that you will change procedures in Louisville to implement tighter program review.  It is my understanding that this campaign was presented to groups that highlighted these issues, and that their concerns were ignored.

Sincerely,

Mark Smith
Hamilton, NJ

cc:       Marilyn Gamm, PMA
Sam Locke, Special Offerings
Terri Bate, Funds Development

A Holy Moment

December 21, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Chaplaincy, Religion, Work 

This has been a long week at work.  In the past six work days, I have had four CMO patients.  CMO = Comfort Measures Only.  Other sites call this AND (Allow Natural Death) or DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) or just removal of life support.  The comfort care part is when the doctors order medication that causes the patient to fail to experience their death, and eases their pain and breathing.  I will not give further information on the individual cases because that would violate the law and hospital policies.

In each of these cases, things went rather well.  The family was in agreement on taking this step, owing to the irreversible and deteriorating condition of their patient – or at least the family was able to come to agreement without acrimony.  The staff worked flawlessly to make the process peaceful, smooth, and as painless as possible for patient and family.  The patients who were Catholic received the Anointing of the Sick (aka “Last Rites”) before the process started.  Things went as well as they can.

This is not to say that these events were painless.  The families grieved and showed a number of emotions including sadness and sometimes anger.  These deaths weighed on the medical staff as well, and on me.  As I said above, it was a long week for me.

But at the same time, these moments were holy.  I’ve been at this chaplain thing for a while and I’ve watched people die and families mourn.  Sometimes there are angry moments and fights with each other or the staff or even God.  But still, there’s that moment when the patient passes from alive to not alive.  From a living creature made by God to a person-shaped collection of dying cells.  This week I was able to see the last breaths of most of the patients.  Some were obvious.  Others were notable only in that there was not another breath that followed.  But I feel like the families and I were given a gift.

We talk about the joyous moment when a baby is birthed – the magic of bringing a new life into the world.  A new child of God is born.  In my Reformed tradition, we believe that for those who will someday join the church, that birth is the moment that God recognizes them as God’s own – a baptism is not necessary for that to happen.  And we will later baptize the baby (if Christian) and officially welcome him or her into the church, taking vows ourselves to care for that child’s spiritual life.

Death is the other end of that vow.  Death becomes the moment when we are relieved of the responsibility for the spiritual life of a person and God takes over completely.  We don’t exactly know what happens next, because we haven’t been there and we can’t know.  But we believe and know that God is present in that other holy moment.

Of course, we are still responsible for our baptismal vow to the family who are still here, and they are the focus of a chaplain’s work at the end of life for a non-communicative patient.  Their needs vary widely from simple acts (providing tissues, helping to guide them through the process) to help making meaning of the event for them.  And we give to them what they need, as best we can, being the face of Christ to them.

But what about those who are not Christian?  Aside from common decency, we do these services because everyone is a part of God’s creation.  We are responsible to care for God’s creation regardless of whether or not we agree with the beliefs of the person who is a part of it.  Also, as a Reformed chaplain, I believe that those who are chosen by God are not exclusively in the church or even believers at a given moment.  Calvin teaches us that some outside of the church are chosen, while some inside are not.  We need to assume that all are chosen, and treat them appropriately.

This job is a privilege sometimes (ok, oftentimes really) even though it’s tiring and emotionally stressful.  I believe that nothing is more holy and a greater privilege than to witness to the death of someone, and to support their family through that death.  I’m so glad that I have the chance to do this work for God.

Capital Health Systems Pastoral Care Newsletter, October 2014

September 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Chaplaincy, Religion, Uncategorized, Work 

Here is the October 2014 edition of the Capital Health Systems Pastoral Care Newsletter.  It mentions my arrival, and includes a reflection that I wrote.

Newsletter

 

For Everyone Born – a problematic hymn

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while.  I went to the first new PC(USA) hymnal launch event in Pennsylvania last fall, and I’ve heard this hymn sung MANY times – at Field Ed, at General Assembly, at Princeton Seminary many times in chapel, at the Worship and Music conference.  This hymn is quickly becoming a favorite of churches and seminaries.

It’s catchy.  It’s easy to sing.  It has a central message of unity, though it stumbles with some equality concepts.  The refrain is really pretty and mentions all sorts of good things.

But it has a problem.  Several problems really, but I’m going to concentrate on one.  This problem has been pointed out to me by several friends.

Recently I’ve been noticing a pattern among my friends – primarily my female friends and close relatives.  I’m becoming increasingly alarmed at how many have been abused – usually physically or sexually.  It’s not that far from the truth to say that all adult women that I know well enough to have heard such stories have experienced some form of sexual or physical abuse.  Or controlling behavior.  ALL of them.  Some more than once.  I’m alarmed, and trying to figure out what to do with the anger.

For these friends (and certainly others), verse 4 of For Everyone Born is a problem.  Here’s the verse:

For just and unjust, a place at the table,
abuser, abused, with need to forgive,
in anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy,
for just and unjust, a new way to live,
(Copyright 1998, Hope Publishing)

At a first glance it seems pretty benign – that abuser and abused should be able to participate in the church and Eucharist equally.  We truly believe that.  It’s not really a problem.

But then you read it again.  And you notice that the injunctions are all against the abused.  The abused has a need to forgive.  (What does the abuser have to forgive?)  The abused is called to have a mindset of mercy.

And worst of all – the abused is expected to be at the same table as the abuser.  THIS is psychologically damaging for everybody that has talked to me about this.  The idea of sitting at a table, a Holy Table, with one’s abuser is painful.  It causes panic attacks.  It causes anger.  One friend felt a call to walk out of a service in the middle of the hymn (though she didn’t).  This verse of this hymn turns our sanctuaries from places of safety to places of danger.  Danger in the triggering of abuse victims, and danger in the very real implication of sharing space with their abuser.

This becomes even more insidious when the abuser is a family member or significant other.  People who have suffered abuse have it repeated again through family pressures.  Family members urge or even demand that they reconcile with their abuser (often without knowledge of the abuse) “for the good of the family.”  The abused person becomes the problem in that they split the family, rather than having the responsibility for the split properly lodged with the abuser.  Some people continue years later to have nightmares about the abuser and the abuse, and this demand in this hymn can bring up all of that again.

The refrain calls on us to create justice, compassion and peace:

and God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice and joy!

I question whether any of these are possible when calling for abuser and abused to be in the same place.  The abused will not feel justice.  They will not feel compassion – they will feel the opposite.  They clearly will not feel peace, or joy.

I doubt that the hymn’s author intended to make this statement.  Still, the verse remains imbalanced.  Some call for repentance and reparation might balance it.  But perhaps it would be better just to leave it out.  When this hymn was sung as the Class Hymn at my Princeton Seminary graduation last May I chose not to sing this verse.  I almost sat down for the verse, but I was in a place where that would have been difficult and nobody would have understood what I was doing anyway.

So if you want to use this hymn, please consider skipping verse 4.  Or consider skipping the hymn entirely – there are other hymns that say the same thing without triggering the many (many more than you realize) victims of abuse.  Or at least know that you may have some work to do after it is sung.

General Assembly, Border Patrol, and Me

June 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Current Affairs, Life, Miscellaneous, Religion, Travel 

This week I’m attending the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Detroit.  At this meeting, many big and important things are being worked on and voted on and I’ll probably write about that later.  This is a story of something that happened to me during this week, unrelated to the GA meeting.

Because Detroit is only one river away from Windsor, Ontario, Canada, I brought my passport with me in case I had a chance to go to Canada for the first time.  Yesterday, I had that chance.  So two friends and I got into my car to go to Windsor for dinner.

Leaving the US through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel we were briefly stopped by CBP (Customs and Border Protection) folks, probably because there is a little unrepaired body damage to my car.  They looked at our passports and asked why we were crossing and let us go.  Note that these guys looked like they were in army uniforms, with flak vests.

On the Canadian side we drove up to the booth and spoke to a man in a regular linen uniform shirt.  We explained who we are and why we were there.  And 15 feet later we were there.  We had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, walked around a bit, and headed back.  Total time in Canada – about 2 hours.

Entering the US we pulled up to a booth.  We handed our passports to the man in the booth, and answered the same questions (are you US citizens?  Where do you live?  Why are you in Detroit?  Why did you go to Canada?  How do you know each other?  What kind of conference?).  Our first sign of trouble was when he closed the booth door and picked up the phone.  After a conversation and a lot of looking at his computer screen, he opened the door.  He said something like, “I’m going to have to send you inside this time.  Mr. Smith – you have a mismatch and we’ll fix it so that you don’t have to do this again.  Please pull around the curve and into the parking lot – there will be someone there to direct you.”

This was not unexpected.  On several background checks (seminary, Red Cross) I was initially declined because there is a criminal in another state who shares my first name, middle initial, last name, AND exact date of birth including year.  I’m sure that was the problem here.

We pulled around the corner, and more guys in military-style uniforms and flak vests.  One told me where to park and asked me to turn the engine off and put the keys on the dashboard.  We were told to leave our cell phones in the car, and to take our passports and go into the building.  We entered and another officer looked at our paperwork and signed us in on a clipboard.  We were instructed to have a seat and wait.  After a while, we were called to a counter where we gave another officer our passports and answered all of the same questions again.  We were told to sit again.  During all of the sitting time (on surprisingly comfortable stainless steel benches) we chatted about the General Assembly and church stories.  Finally, the officer asked us to come up and take our passports and we were free to go.  I asked if he’d done what he needed to do, and he said, yes – that’s what I’ve been doing.

We got into my car, noted that nothing had happened to my car (no search or anything – phone was still on the same screen), and drove back to the hotel.

So …. something that only happens to me.  Most recent in a long series of such things.

 

But …. it triggered some thoughts.

1.  I don’t know why our border patrol officers have to be dressed like they are going to war in Iraq.  The bulletproof vest doesn’t need to be on the outside – it can be under the shirt like most police officers.  Their gun, cuffs, radio, etc can go on the same belt as a police officer.  I seriously doubt that a major armed incursion is going to happen at the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.  This seems to be intended to enforce (in our minds, and in the minds of the officers themselves) the idea that the officers are soldiers and not police.  This is intended to instill fear of outsiders, and fear of each other.

2.  The secondary inspection area is intended to demoralize people.  The seating is comfortable, but harsh stainless steel.  There is very little on the walls.  The bathroom is locked and must be buzzed open.  I understand that the bathroom is locked to prevent flushing of evidence, but still.  This doesn’t say “we have to sort things out,” it says instead, “you are a criminal.”

3.  I’m struck by the difference in appearance and demeanor between the Canadian personnel and the USA personnel.  The Canadians were friendly (though still wary) and welcoming.  The USA personnel were forbidding and suspicious.  They were doing the same job.  Both involved in the same wars.  And there’s no reason that our officers couldn’t be normally dressed and more friendly.

4.  This minor episode has clarified for me the plight of immigrants.  The song “Immigration Man” makes sense.  Our process is cold and unfeeling.  At all times the officers were polite and even friendly in one case.  But the process and design make it an unfriendly process.  This set up causes the fear, rather than the other way around.  And therefore fear of the other.  I will be paying more attention and trying to find a place to find action.

Sermon on John 20

Mark Smith and Chris Bailey, Interns
Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church
April 27, 2014 10am

Psalm 16
John 20:19-31
Sermon Audio: Click Here

MARK: It’s been a crazy couple of weeks. Well, a crazy couple of years really, but the last few weeks have been crazier than most.

I’ve been with The Boss from the early days. I was one of the twelve that he started with. And I’ll be honest – I’ve always been pretty fired up for this new thing. This whole idea about the meek inheriting God’s Kingdom, about faith in God, about faith in Jesus. It’s all good.

Just a couple weeks ago, before Passover, we heard that Lazarus had died. Lazarus had been pretty good to us in the past. But still this was a scary thing – the people tried to stone Jesus the last time we were there. We barely made it out with our skins. And now Lazarus was dead. The Boss even told us that Lazarus was dead – he always knew things that we just didn’t know. He could be pretty confusing. But when The Boss said that we were going back to wake him up, I was all for it. I told The Boss that I was ready to go back to Jerusalem and die. And I was. But then, I had him with me. And he was the Messiah, he could protect me, right? So back we went, and he really did it! Four days dead and Lazarus came out all zombie-like with the wrappings still on him! Boy did I believe in The Boss that day!

CHRIS: When dealing with the loss of a loved one, we often try to look back and remember the things we loved most about them, and the time we spent together. After my own father passed away, I found a great deal of comfort in remembering the shared love of the outdoors that he first sparked within me during the time we spent together in Boy Scouts. In the same way, I remembered when I was even younger, and we would watch reruns of Batman featuring Adam West while I sat upon his shoulders. By taking the time to look back at the time my dad and I spent together, I was able to secure into memory the things that made my dad into a person I both loved and respected.

I imagine that Thomas and the other disciples did something similar after the death of Jesus. After all, a person they both loved and respected died dramatically in front of their very eyes. In order to relieve some of the shock they must have felt, it would have only been natural to try and remember the things about Jesus Christ that had caused the disciples to follow him in the first place…

MARK: This last time, before we lost him, he started saying weird things. He started talking about going where we can’t follow, and gave us new commandments. To love God – OK, that’s alright. We were already doing that. To love one another too – this was a little strange. Did he mean just us disciples? The twelve? Or did he mean everybody? That’s kind of hard, loving everybody.

And then he washed our feet. Him, the Messiah, did for us what a common servant would usually do. We should have been doing it for him! And then he told us about a place that he was getting ready for us, but didn’t tell us where. I asked him about it, but he got all mystical again: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” And knowing the Father and stuff like that.

He spoke for a while, telling us what he wanted us to know. And then we went to the garden. They came to arrest him. I thought for sure this was where the Big Battle was going to start – where our Messiah would release us from this bondage to the Romans, to the corrupt Jewish leaders. But he rebuked Peter for using his sword. And then he was led away. And it got worse after that. He was flogged, forced to carry his cross through the streets, and ultimately killed on the Cross. What kind of Messiah would lose? What kind of Messiah would die? We saw him die up there on the cross. And we were scared out of our wits. Were we next?

The Boss, the guy who had raised Lazarus from the dead was gone. Dead himself. He didn’t save himself. He didn’t stop his arrest, or even let us fight. I used to believe, but how can you believe that he’s the Son of God if he could lose like this? How can you have faith when something so bad happens?

CHRIS: For the disciples, it was the compassion that Jesus showed to the poor and marginalized that drew them toward Jesus. As the messiah, Christ had healed the blind and disabled. They had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. In doing so, Jesus turned social structures upside down, and drew those who had been pushed to the margins toward the center of the community. The disciples were drawn the Christ as an individual who pushed boundaries of what it meant, and what it looked like to be faithful toward God. Yet, it was also this overt concern for the poor and the questioning of the status quo of faith that eventually lead to Jesus’ death. Through his life and work, Jesus had pushed this Romanized Hebrew community to examine itself. AnddDisliking what it saw in itself, the community pushed back upon Jesus, and took his life. Jesus offered a drastically new worldview, and it was rejected. The very thing that had initially drawn the disciples toward Jesus ultimately became the thing that took Jesus from them.

MARK: So about a week ago, the other disciples got so excited. They said they saw Jesus again. They told me that they were meeting in the upper room with the door locked, just like we’ve had to do since The Boss was killed. They said that there were holes in his hands and feet, and a big one in his side where the soldier had speared him. They said he breathed on them, and they felt the Holy Spirit.

I wasn’t there. I was off taking care of business for the rest of the group. And I gotta be honest. I’m not really sure what happened. Were they drunk? Were they so tired of being afraid, so tired of being cooped up that they saw what they wanted to see?

The old Jesus, the one who raised Lazarus, the one who healed and knew things and walked on water – THAT Jesus I could see coming back. That’s the Jesus that I knew before, the Jesus that I decided to follow, that I was willing to die for.

But the Jesus who was killed on the cross? The one who decided not to fight. The one who meekly went off to be killed. How could he come back? How could he let us down like that? How could he change the way the world works, make it better, if he couldn’t even save himself?

I’m not even sure what I would need to see in order to believe this. I might have to see the holes myself. To touch them, and to know that there isn’t a trick.

CHRIS: Honestly, I don’t know that we can really blame Thomas for disbelieving the other disciples. The experience of watching Jesus upon the cross must have been traumatic, and the images of which would have been painfully seared into Thomas’ memory. For Thomas, the Jesus that he saw hung upon the cross would have been drastically different than the image of Jesus that he had built from the experiences they had shared together. Placed in the same situation, I am sure that I would have doubted just the same as Thomas. Even having seen Jesus heal Lazarus, the death that Christ suffered was exceptionally brutal. In this story, Thomas is often portrayed as a bit of a fool, but if we were to be truly honest with ourselves, I think we would find ourselves to be more like Thomas than the blessed one who believes without having seen. To a certain extent, I believe doubt is an integral part of faith. Asking questions and doubting, at the very least, suggests that we are willing to engage and examine our own faith. Through his life, Jesus pushed those around him to examine their faith. By caring about the poor and marginalized, Christ pushed the religious community to ask how their current faith allowed them to overlook those who had been pushed to the margins. In this sense, it becomes important to remember that when we approach God with our questions and doubts we are still approaching God, and God remains present with us even in our doubting. We should not feel foolish in reaching out to God with our doubt. When our doubt becomes so strong that we feel unable to approach, we should take comfort in the fact that God is still present and willing to reach out to us.

MARK: Wow! A week has gone by, and everything is different!

He really did come back! He appeared in the middle of a locked house! And though I hadn’t even told the other disciples, he knew that I had trouble believing. He reached out to me, and told me to feel his hands and his side!

He knew that I had lost my faith, and he helped me get it back! He knows, of course he knows, that believing is the only way to the Father, and so he was willing to reach out to me specifically to help my unbelief.

I get it now. I really didn’t before. But now I see. It’s like he had to die and come back, or the whole thing wouldn’t have made any sense. It’s like he knew that from the beginning. And now I know, at least as well as I can. And now the hard part comes – explaining it to people who didn’t see it. Helping them to believe too.

Amen

An Open Letter to the Mayor and Council of Tenafly NJ

December 27, 2013

Dear Mayor Rustin and Council,

I don’t usually write letters like this.  But when I discovered this story from WPIX today, I felt compelled to write.  http://pix11.com/2013/12/26/exclusive-nj-mayor-personally-asks-family-to-take-down-offensive-christmas-decorations/

I am a former resident of Tenafly.  I lived about five blocks away from this Joyce Road home.  I walked by this street every day on the way to or from the Middle and High Schools.  My father was the principal of TMS for a number of years, and I am a 1986 graduate of THS.

The Tenafly shown by Mayor Rustin’s actions is not the Tenafly that I remember.

When I lived there, the town was made up of a mix of Christian and Jewish residents, with some other religions represented.  For the most part we coexisted peacefully.  We went to each others’ Confirmation and Bar/Bat Mitzvah services.  We shared each others’ Hanukkah and Christmas toys.  While I was there, the high school performed both Brigadoon (loosely based on Christianity) and The Diary of Anne Frank.  I remember seeing Christmas decorations and a large menorah at Huyler Park.

I fail to see what is so offensive about candles in paper bags.  They are not overtly religious.  They do not directly pertain to any holiday.  They are simply pretty.  They were clearly not intended to offend, or even to send a religious message.

The “War on Christmas” idea is very much overblown in the media.  There is no war on Christmas in this country, where any religious holiday may be freely celebrated without fear of persecution or imprisonment.  But your actions fuel those who believe that there is such a war.  Your actions increase the divisions between religions in this country.

I urge you to apologize to the Alvator family, and to modify the relevant ordinance to allow for holiday displays.  I hope that you will work together to help create tolerance in a town divided.

Mark Smith

 

Sermon – Why are we here? – Sunday, November 10, 2013

November 10, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons 

This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 10, 2013 at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in North Plainfield, NJ as part of my Pastoral Care internship.

Audio: 

First Reading – Psalm 145
Second Reading – Luke 20:27-38

“Why are we here?”

It’s Sunday morning again.  We just had the time change last week, so it’s still a little light out in the morning, but it’s getting darker and darker as the days go on.  Some of us have tough work schedules, and Sundays are our only “real” day to relax.  Besides, the Giants game starts at 1.  So why are we here?

That’s the title that I chose for this week’s sermon.  Why are we here?  What draws us to come to church on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, or whatever day of the week we attend?  What draws us to our own personal spiritual practices?  What draws us to attend committee meetings or to teach Sunday school or to help out with a charity event?

So WHY are we here?  What is the reason?

As I talked about with the children, Psalm 145 is a psalm of praise.  It even says so.  If you look in the Bible, you’ll see that just above the first verse it says “Praise.  Of David.”  In fact, the Hebrew word for psalms means “Praises”.  Among others, the last 6 psalms in our Book of Psalms are psalms of praise.

As Presbyterians, we are part of the Reformed faith, and as PCUSA Presbyterians, we have a Book of Confessions.  Several of the confessions in that book have a statement like this one, which comes from the Westminster Shorter Catechism (which some of you may have learned in Sunday School or Confirmation):

Question:  What is the chief end of man?

Answer:  Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

(This was written in 1640, so please excuse the masculine language for us and God.)

So, Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

We are called to glorify God.  And not just now, but forever.  We are told that “one generation shall laud your works to another” and that “all flesh will bless his holy name for ever and ever.”  There’s a long list of verbs in the passage:  to extol, to bless, to praise, to laud, to declare, to speak praise, and join with all flesh to bless.  These are what the psalmist would have us do for God.  And as I told the children, these psalms were written to be used in worship, so these are what we sing that we will do.

And we do that in worship.  We sing praises to God, as we did and will do in several of today’s hymns.  We do that in proclamation.  Our reading of scripture and the words of the preacher speak of God to us and others.  And it’s not just those of us up here at the microphones – as we confess, as we pray together in unison, or as we pray silently while one leads we are showing others here and elsewhere what God’s message looks like.

We do that with our hands and our feet and our voices, when we help others, inside and out of the congregation.  And I’m going to talk more about that later.

We do this, because God asked us to.  Told us to.  Commanded us to.  This is what God created us to do.

So that’s WHY we are here.

The next question is … why are WE here?

And to a certain extent, this is something that we have to each answer individually.  Speaking for myself, I could easily say that I’m here because this is my Field Education assignment.  But that’s too simple.  I could say that I’m here because I’m in seminary, or that I want to become a minister, but that doesn’t explain the time before I started seminary.  My story began long before that, and although my own story involves 15 years away from the church there was clearly a time when I was an adult and not forced by my parents to come to church, but I come anyway.

Most of you are in that situation – you don’t have to be here.  Now, don’t get up and leave – this argument is coming around to the point here in a minute.  Most of you are here voluntarily – you decided to be here.  Some of you might be here because your parents are here, or because someone that you love is here.  But you’re here.

Most of you are now or were at some point members of a church, for many you were or are members of this church.  In order to become a member you made a profession of faith in one form or another.  You said in front of the Session, or the church council wherever, or the congregation that you believe in Jesus Christ, and that you accept the teaching of the church.  You agreed to participate in the life of the church.

So that’s probably why you are here, and that’s why I am here.  But why are WE here?

God calls us into community.  The Israelites were a community of faith.  Jesus created that community of faith in Him, a community that was sent into the world to proclaim the gospel starting with Pentecost.  We worship God in community.  We mourn in community.  We pray in community.  We celebrate and we play in community.  We eat in community.  We work in community.  And we go out into our community as a community of faith, working and playing and meeting and supporting our community as a group, and as a part of the greater church.  We teach in community – through our bible study and Sunday school and youth group, and through scripture and preaching.

And we live that community every Sunday.  And all week long.  On special days.  When hurricanes and cookie walks happen.  When Christmas and Easter happen.  When we need, and when others need.

We are part of a community.  We’re part of the Watchung Avenue Presbyterian community.  We’re part of Presbyterians in the Plainfields.  We’re part of Presbyterians everywhere.  We’re part of this neighborhood around Watchung Avenue itself, and all of North Plainfield, and the surrounding area.  And we are identified by our faith in Christ, a faith that is strong enough to get us up on a Sunday morning in whatever weather to come here.

So that’s why WE are here.

Now, why are we HERE?

In 1916, a new independent congregation of the Presbyterian church was chartered here.  In 1907, this building was built.  Before that, in 1893 the mission that was meeting here affiliated with the Crescent Avenue church.  The Crescent Avenue church in turn traces its history back farther, to Scotland, to Geneva, to Rome, to Jerusalem.  And why?  Why are there Christians all over the globe?

Jesus calls us and called us to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  His apostles began that, following the message of scripture to proclaim the gospel and ensure justice, and take care of those in need.  And to do that we need a presence in every place.

And so we are HERE, in North Plainfield.  And we as Presbyterians, and as Christians as a whole are here in the Plainfields.  To proclaim the gospel, work for justice and peace, and to take care of those here and around the world who are in need.

In this building?  Yes.  We do that with the Y, and we do that with Headstart, and we do that with other groups that use our space.  We do that with our special events for the presbytery and the general public.  But also so much more than what we do this building.  We walk for hunger.  We grow food with our Catholic neighbors.  Many of us serve God by helping others in some other way in some other charity, or through our occupations.

The psalm talks about God upholding those who have fallen, giving them food, and watching over those who cry out.  God could do that by pointing a finger – ZAP.  But God also can, and does do that with the help of his creation.  That’s us.  God also hears their cry and “saves them”.  That’s us too – whenever we hear the cry of pain, we take care of people’s needs.  We hear their cry for spiritual food, and we give them scripture and preaching.  We hear their cry to be with others, and we give them community.  And sometimes we are them, and our cries are heard and we are fed and cared for and taught.

When Hurricane Sandy hit last year, we sprung into action.  First we did what we needed to, checked on our homes and our own families, but quickly we turned to checking on each other.  All of the members of the church.  Some folks offered space in homes that still had power and heat.  Some folks came and checked out the church building.  A lot of people made phone calls to each other to make sure that everybody was OK.  And then we turned outward as a church– to see what the community needed.  We put together a meal for those needing food – because of trouble getting food or because of missing paychecks.  And we did not lose our community.  We got lucky – we got our power back about an hour before worship on that first Sunday after the hurricane – but we were ready to worship over in the fellowship center in the cold, if that’s what needed to happen.

That’s why we are HERE.  And this is WHY … WE … are HERE.  To praise God.  With our voices, with the work of our hands and our time and our talents and our treasure and our faith and our love.  To bring God’s message to all who need it.

To bless God’s holy name for ever and ever.

Amen.

Sermon – A Place for You, Sunday, September 29, 2013

October 6, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Princeton Seminary, Religion, Seminary, Sermons 

This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 29, 2013 at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church in North Plainfield, NJ as part of my Pastoral Care internship.  Audio is not currently available and as a result I cannot post my exact words – here is my manuscript.

First Reading:  Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Second Reading:  Luke 16:19-31

It was a crazy thing to do.  Jeremiah, buying a field at Anathoth, in the middle of Jerusalem, a city under siege by Babylon.  Jeremiah surely knew better – he’d spent years and 31 chapters warning the Israelites to shape up and follow God’s covenant, and then when they failed he told them that they would be going into exile.  Today, this would be like buying land in the middle of Detroit, or Damascus, or Camden.  Sure the land would be a bargain, but why would anybody want that land, want to live there, under siege?

In the Presbyterian Church – and by that I mean the PCUSA denomination that we are part of, things look a little disconcerting too.  In May the numbers came out and we lost just over 100,000 members in 2012.[1]  That’s about a 5% loss.  Two-thirds of that loss came from the silent departure of members – those who were removed from the membership rolls for inactivity.  It’s not just us either – all Protestant denominations are shrinking, and the Catholic Church is barely holding its numbers.  And yet, a Pew Research study says that while increasing numbers report that they are “unaffiliated”, 80% of Americans still say “I never doubt the existence of God.”[2]

In her book “The Great Emergence,” the church historian Phyllis Tickle talks about the different big changes that have happened in the Church since Christ left us and Pentecost happened.  She sees a pattern.  About every 500 years, we get to arguing with each other and go through a process where the way that we do church is overhauled.  She calls it a Great Rummage Sale – we sit down and figure out what we do that is important and should be kept, what we do that isn’t as important as we thought and should be jettisoned, and sometimes what we stopped doing and should do again.  The first of these started with the Council of Chalcedon in 451, where the early church worked out exactly what we believe about Christ.  Our definition of Jesus as fully human AND fully divine comes from that meeting.  It sounds a little boring now, but trust me – the fights over whether Jesus was of two natures in one person or two different persons in one body were just as nasty as fights over gay marriage are today.  People were excommunicated.  The second big change was the Great Schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in 1054.  Then, and most importantly for us, came the Reformation in the 1500’s.  Each time the church changed in a radical way – both the winners and the losers – and each time it was difficult for those living in the church.  Phyllis Tickle’s assertion is that we are going through one of those times again now, and that we are looking at what we do with an eye towards cleaning house.

           Old and New Chancels Things change here at this church, too.  Before the Memorial Service for Virginia, her daughter Debbie brought some old picture directories and other booklets of Watchung Avenue over the years.  This space where I am standing underwent a major change, one that I’m sure that some of you remember.  The picture on the front of the bulletin has the old look at the top, and today’s look at the bottom.  The pulpit used to be at the center, the choir used to sit where these curtains are, and this raised area was round.  There were more pews up close.  Also, the events that the church holds each year have changed.  The leadership has changed – when this church opened Shannan could never have been ordained, being a woman, and neither would the five women on the Session today.  I wasn’t here, but it seems likely to me that at each change the church had people in favor and against who felt like winners and losers – it was certainly painful at some point.

            So what do we do?  How do we get ready to ride the wave of change?  Will there be a spot for us on the other side?

In my first career I was trained as a Project Manager.  Some of that came out last year with the revision of the Bylaws.  One of the things that project managers need to understand and be able to work with is Change Management.  You can change the organization that you’re in, but you need to do it right.  You need to make sure that you’re making the right change.  You need to make sure that the change matches the direction that you want to go in.  You need to make sure that the change matches your values, that you aren’t selling yourself out with the change, OR avoiding change that must be made to live your values.  And it’s very important that people understand why the change is needed, and that you plan to help people along the way.  You need to be there for those people who are uncomfortable with the change and help them through it.  You want them to feel there is a place for them on the other side.  That’s especially true in the church.

The Session here is talking about that.  One thing that they’re looking at is the difference between Technical change and Adaptive change.  Technical changes are those that you already know how to make, and are generally clear.  If the boiler breaks, you fix it or replace it.  If people are having trouble reading the bulletin, you print it on bigger paper.  You run the Stewardship campaign each year to make sure that we have enough resources to operate.  You schedule Church School for the children. Things like that.

Adaptive change is change that isn’t quite so clear.  You know that something needs to be changed, but you can’t even tell what the problems are.  You have to learn what the questions are before you can find the answers.  Maybe you need to learn how to do something new to answer the need.  Adaptive changes might be things like moving to a mostly electronic newsletter (while still printing it for those who can’t get it online).  Or working with other Plainfield churches to figure out what the Presbyterian community here will look like.  Or studying discipleship as a church in order that we may make and become good disciples.

She doesn’t say it in quite this way, but I feel certain that Phyllis Tickle would call the change that the church is undergoing Adaptive Change.  The whole church knows that things are changing, but they don’t quite know how.  The whole church is realizing that the way that we are doing things isn’t quite working the way it used to, but we don’t yet know how to change it.  We’re worried about where the young people are.  We’re worried about how to reach the people living around the church.  We’re wondering how to be socially responsible Christians in a difficult world.  And while we’re considering change, some folks are uncomfortable with the idea of change.

Scary?  Yes.  Necessary?  I’d say yes.

Jeremiah was in that sort of “what do I do?” place too.  He’d been held in the court of Zedekiah – a ruler that the enemy King Nebuchadnezzar had put in place over Judah.  He was imprisoned there because he’d been speaking out, saying first to shape up, and later telling people that losing the battle was inevitable, and that they would be at best exiled to Babylon (and at worst, might end up dead).  And then the call from God came to him, telling him to do this crazy thing and buy land in a place that he was telling everybody they’d be forced to leave.  He had to work through intermediaries to buy the land, and the process also ensured that the purchase would come to the ears of many.  And he followed God’s orders and put the deeds in a sealed earthenware jar.  This was the closest thing the Israelites had to humidity and temperature controlled storage – you put the document in a big pot and sealed it up to protect it – the Dead Sea Scrolls were found like that.  He was told to make sure the deed lasted for a long time.  Why?

Because God was telling Jeremiah that there would be a place for him after the exile ended.  After the great upheaval, he would be back to use that land.  God said explicitly, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  The Israelites would again have a home.  The previous three chapters are a letter that God told Jeremiah to send to the exiles already in Babylon, promising them that they will return, and prosperity will return again to Israel after the captivity – after the change is complete.  Jeremiah had the word from God to have faith and he did have faith, that there would be a place after it was over.

And it is the same with us.  Our faith, our belief call us to make a home for all.  While change will bring discomfort for some, we are in a time when change is a must.  And we must be sure to bring everyone with us to the best of our ability.  It will take bending by all.  Those who are uncomfortable with change will need to give it a chance, and keep an open mind.  Those who are pushing for change will need to listen to others, and help them to understand why the change is being made, and to make accommodations where possible.  We need to get through the change together, with new people as they join us.

Jeremiah lived in interesting times.  Times of great change.  Life was difficult, different, and confusing for a while.  But Jeremiah went into the change knowing that it would all turn out well in the end – that he and his people would be returning home.  Prompted by God, he planned for that time when the Israelites would return.

And so it is with us.  We live in interesting times, with great change.  Life is confusing, difficult, and the church of the future may be quite different from what we grew up with.  We go into the change with that same hope.  That God, through Christ and the Spirit, is making a home for us.  That we will have a place in the church on Earth and the church in heaven after the changes.  That we should plan for the 200th anniversary of this church.  And that we should keep moving forward into the future.

Amen.



[1] http://www.pcusa.org/news/2013/5/30/stated-clerk-releases-pcusa-2012-statistics/

[2] http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/

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