Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Mere Lump of Humanity?

I sat at my desk on a Monday morning and perused the telecare reports from the weekend:

  • The patient needs a refill on meds.
  • I need to talk to a social worker. 
  • When will they remove the equipment? 
  • I colored three pictures today. 

Without looking, I knew that the last call belonged to Jimmy.

Jimmy was the first patient that I met as a hospice chaplain, and as I reflect on those years, he is definitely the most memorable patient that I met as a hospice chaplain. The memory of our first encounter is emblazoned on my mind: the nurse, the social worker, and I ascend the stairway to the second floor of a bleak motel to Jimmy’s room, his permanent residence. Jimmy greets us in a black Homer Simpson t-shirt and shiny red shorts, eyeing me suspiciously. As we cross the threshold we are hit with a fog bank of cigarette smoke. Jimmy says few words, usually in broken sentences and non-sequiturs, while our social worker in her most gentle voice attempts to explain his medication to him and how to call hospice from his cell phone. He nods his assents but looks thoroughly confused. This is not the first time this exchange has taken place, nor will it be the last.

This was one of the few times I ever saw Jimmy, even though he was on our service for several months. He was extremely uncomfortable around men and thus all of the hospice staff who attended to him were women. Jimmy’s story is filled with mystery, sadness, and profound isolation, yet his last months of life revealed glimmers of belonging, hope, and even a childlike contentment.

We were never able to identify a single one of Jimmy’s relatives, and he never spoke of his family or his past. He had no known friends, to the extent that we had to list his motel manager as his primary care giver. The source of his fear of men was unknown, though clearly traumatic. We could only speculate that in his life he had been hurt, physically and emotionally, by men. Some of his nurses spoke of him as a man-child, as his emotional intelligence was at the maturity level of perhaps an 8 year old boy. We conjectured that Jimmy had undergone severe emotional trauma at an early age, and though his body had continued to grow into that of a man, his mental and emotional capacity had frozen at that age. Others wondered if he was autistic, as he rarely made eye contact, spoke in monotone, and had limited facial movement. In the eyes of some outsiders he would have been a mere lump of humanity, misunderstood, anonymous, discarded, dying in an out-of-the-way motel.

But to our team, Jimmy became a son. During the 4 months that he was with us, we spoke of him more frequently than any other patient, often with a kind of fascinated laughter. He brought out the maternal instincts in our nurses and home health aides, who not only cared for his routine medical needs but also bought him a toaster and a small refrigerator and regularly brought him his eclectic lunch of choice, a vanilla milkshake and a fish sandwich. Nothing brought Jimmy as much joy as his toaster, the first he had ever owned. He had a phone conversation with his nurse Donna the day after receiving this gift:

Donna: Hi Jimmy, whatcha doing?
Jimmy: Eating toast.
Donna: How many pieces have you had so far today?
Jimmy: Six.

Our team secretary posted on her cubicle wall one of the many pictures he had filled in, from his Sesame Street coloring book. Jimmy treated the hospice phone number more as a friendship network than an emergency hotline, and he quickly became a hospice celebrity. Most if not all of our telecare nurses and patient care secretaries were well acquainted with him, whose calls ranged from genuine medical concerns to how many pictures he colored in an evening. Our records showed that he called telecare over 300 times.

During the course of our time with Jimmy, he became more friendly and open. He began to learn that it's possible to trust people, and I think he even slowly began to realize that he was loved. Likewise, we were also changed. His childlike simplicity humbled us. His authenticity and his unabashed willingness to express his needs challenged us.

That May we lost Jimmy. I had the opportunity to lead an informal memorial service, which was more of an occasion for storytelling and laughter than it was for a ritualized service. The table in front of the room was adorned with the standard flowers and a candle, but also with a basket of the toys he had been given and a picture that had been taken on his last birthday. The picture even betrayed a slight smile on Jimmy’s face.

At this gathering Jimmy’s parents were not present, but there was the man from his bank, the one man that Jimmy had trusted over the years, and his nurse Sam that had loved him like her own son. She was the one who taught him what a hug was, and though at first he was extremely uncomfortable with this display of affection, by the end he would not let her leave until she hugged him. There were no brothers and sisters, but there was his doctor and social worker and team manager and secretary and chaplain, who all spoke of him fondly. There were no lifelong friends, but there were new friends who would remember him all their lives long.

It is not mere sentimentality to say that our team and others around him became Jimmy’s family during his last days. One of the hospice commitments is that parents and families come first, but this was one occasion in which those two groups beautifully intersected, and when we lost a patient we also lost a beloved family member.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Updated Speaking Page

Listening, Introverts and Church, Christian Spirituality

Are you interested in having me speak at your conference, retreat, school, or church? Because I am a self-acknowledged introvert, some people assume I'm a train-wreck of a speaker, but in reality, I'm more of a fender-bender. There will be some damage, but you'll still be able to drive home afterwards. Actually, some have called me a "dynamic" speaker, but let's keep that under wraps, because introverts aren't supposed to be dynamic. I am passionate about Christian spirituality, contemplative forms of prayer, a leader's inner life, and listening to people in pain. I have a number of talks prepared on introversion and church life and how to become a listening community.

Here are two sample talks:

The Goals and Perils of Community Life
Rejoicing in Suffering

Wine and The Spirit

My newest passion is on the spirituality and history of wine. Do you know that the modern wine industry, whether in the old world or in California, owes its greatness to the monastic and missionary traditions of the past? People immersed in the scriptures and in the grand Christian tradition have placed wine at the center of their rituals and tables for millennia. In addition to being an ordained minister and spiritual director, I am also a sommelier and will be taking the Certified Specialist of Wine exam in the fall, through the Society of Wine Educators. Currently, I lead wine tours for Santa Barbara Coastal Concierge, and if you are interested in visiting Santa Barbara wine country, be sure to request me as your guide. Or I could tailor a wine tour or retreat for your group; I even have access to a gorgeous house up on a hill in wine country.

I have led two "Wine and The Spirit" seminars at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe and have a series of lectures and discussions on:

How To Taste Wine
Pairing Food and Wine
Wine and Christian Spirituality
Wine in the History of the Church    

These subjects, of course augmented with actual wine tasting, would be ideal for church retreats and conferences.

Email me for more information.

Upcoming Events

September 30, 2016 - Someone To Tell It To Banquet, Keynote Speaker, Harrisburg, PA

Adam's Speaking Highlights:

August 2015 and 2016 - Wine and Food and Spirit, seminar at the Glen Workshop, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

January 2014 - World Vision International, Monrovia, California.

April 2013 - Ferment: Winemaking and the Creative Process, Hosted by Image Journal, Napa, California.

February 28, 2012 - Guest Chaplaincy, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington D.C. Aired on CSPAN.

April 2012 - Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California.

July 2011 - Laity Lodge, Leakey, Texas.

April 2011 - Glenkirk Church, Glendora, California.

October 2010 - Irvine Presbyterian Church, Irvine, California.

September 2010 - World Vision International, Monrovia, California. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Blood from a Stone


In 2010, inspired by Peter Mayle’s book A Year in Provence, I spent a week in Provence, in the south of France. I was eager to tour the papal palace in the stone-walled, water-wheeled city of Avignon, home to Pope Clement V after he relocated the papacy from Italy to France in the early 14th century.

But let’s not kid ourselves. I didn’t go to Provence for the history. I went for the wine.

A day after the palace tour, things got serious as I stood in the vineyards of Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape, the “new house of the pope” in honor of the French papal era. There, surrounded by rows of vineyards bearing thousands of clusters of the Grenache grape, are the ruins of the Avignon popes’ vacation home. With the half-collapsed structure in the backdrop, our wine guide explained the unique feature of the soil in the appellation. A layer of large stones sits atop the clay soil, absorbing heat and helping maintain moisture, and the appearance is that the vines sprout miraculously out of rocks. He then said this: “You can now understand the local expression that making wine is like squeezing blood from a stone.”

Blood from a stone.

Never has a phrase so captured my attention. I lost track of what our guide said for the next 10 minutes, as the long tendrils of the phrase curled around my mind.

Blood from a stone….A heart of flesh out of a heart of stone….Blood dripping down on Golgotha…Water out of a rock….A letter written not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts….A stone rolled away to allow Life to burst forth.

This is dramatic, but for me it was nothing short of a conversion. This was my Damascus road, my Augustinian “take and read” experience, my holy shit moment.

Blood from a stone is not just the story of wine. It is the story of humanity. It is the story of God, pressing stony hearts to produce lifeblood, raising a cold, hard corpse to blood-pumping resurrection life.

Blood from a stone is my story.

After that trip, wine was no longer my hobby. It was an irresistible call. Vineyards would be my sanctuary, wine pilgrims my congregation, and the fruit of the vine my everyday sacrament. I knew that my days working as a hospice chaplain were numbered. But perhaps wine is not the abolishment of ministry. Perhaps wine is the fulfillment of ministry.

Life and ministry for me up to that point had been strangely disembodied. I was a floating head. Sure, I had a body, but I dragged it along as the necessary housing for my brain and that was about it. And my brain pulled off some great things. It got me lots of scholarships and degrees, it wrote a couple of good books, and it won me some awards. But my body had no voice. You’ve heard of extra-sensory perception? I had under-sensory perception.

The normal sequence is that youth is lived bodily, a time for physical exuberance, and that growing older slowly moves us into our minds as our bodies become less reliable. Well, I’m 40 and my brain just isn’t doing it for me that much anymore. It seems intent on protecting me from pain and on mind-blocking me from intimacy. It is time that I meet my body and experience myself as wholly embodied. If I’m going to love God with all of myself, then I best become acquainted with all of myself.

Wine is largely considered a heady thing, reserved for elitists, pretentious snoots, and those who aspire to elitism and pretentious snootiness. For me, wine has become a way that I am getting in touch with my sensuality. The nature and complexity of a great wine is so transcendent that we must experience it with our most basic, earthiest senses.

The discipline of evaluating a wine is really about getting all your senses involved. I behold the color and transparency of a wine with my eyes. I swirl the glass not only to unlock the aromas but to hear the movement of the liquid. I stick my nose as far into the glass as I can to root out the layers of aromas – the blackberries, the violets, the damp earth, the toasty oak. I allow the wine to linger on my tongue and I pay attention to how it hits every part of my palate. What does it taste like? What does it feel like? – the “touch” of a wine. I notice the warmth at the back of my palate and the lightness it brings to my body.

My quest to explore the flesh and blood of wine grapes is also my quest to explore my own flesh and blood. Wine is introducing me to my body. I am learning to pay attention to its desires and to listen to its voice. It is surprisingly talkative these days. It turns out that the things I have often given it are not what it needs and the things I have neglected are what it craves. I am exercising and lifting weights. I am sleeping more. Long walks are no longer merely a setting for deep thoughts; they are exercises in paying attention. I stop to pet the horses and donkeys on my way to work. I am spending less time with people who make me feel heavy and more time with people who make my body feel lighter. I am learning how much touch I need in order to feel loved.

When it comes to my body, blood is slowly being squeezed from a stone.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Writer as Madman and Mystic

I spend a lot of time reading what other writers say about writing. It's an excellent way to procrastinate from actually writing. In reading the words of seasoned authors, who themselves are usually writing about writing in order to avoid other projects, I have discovered two recurring themes. The process of writing may very well make you crazy. And it may also make you a mystic.

Sometimes the crazy is the charming kind of crazy, like the retired journalist in my hometown who walked the streets for hours a day, waving at everything that passed by: cars, people, planes, squirrels. Philip Yancey says that the first phase of his writing process "is all psychosis. I don't even subject my wife to it. I go to a cabin in the mountains. I don't shave. I'll go a week without speaking to a single person, except maybe a store clerk. I work really long hours just pounding out junk."

But sometimes the crazy is the life-choking, relationship-poisoning kind of crazy. It doesn't take much experience with the madness of the writing life to understand Hemingway's routine on Key West while writing A Farewell to Arms. Yet the alarm bells start to sound when spending the mornings writing with six-fingered cats, the afternoons getting bombed on cheap scotch, and the evenings shooting at sharks with a Tommy gun begins to sound like a viable lifestyle. Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, pondering that her greatest writing success is likely behind her, confesses "It's enough to make you start drinking gin at 9 in the morning." She laments that the pressures of the creative process have been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.

The writing process is an emotional rollercoaster that threatens to run you right off the rails. Writing is about so much more than sitting down and typing. It's more like a war, as you, your ideas, and your words all battle each other for supremacy. In writing, your hopes, dreams, fears and inadequacies are exposed. You learn what it is you most want in life and how incompetent you are to actually achieve it. It's easy to see how the first casualty of this war is your sanity.

But the process of writing may also make you a mystic. A life of writing can transform the most committed atheist into someone who talks of gods and spirits and muses. Countless authors attest that, in some mysterious way, the discipline of writing can connect us with outside forces, as our words become channels for other voices speaking in the universe. C.S. Lewis said, "I never exactly made a book. It's rather like taking dictation. I was given things to say." Others take a more earthy approach when they claim they don't invent a story, rather they excavate it. They imagine themselves as literary archeologists, discovering a story or an idea that has been buried deep within them yet cries out to be found.

Some writers seek to renew our belief in muses, those ancient spirits that inspire the creativity behind great works of art and music and literature. Elizabeth Gilbert says that in ancient cultures people themselves were not considered geniuses, but they had a genius who sparked their creative impulses. In a different spirit, Stephen King envisions his muse as a fat guy living in his basement, smoking cigars and admiring his bowling trophies and pretending to ignore you. But, says King, "the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There's stuff in there that can change your life."

Some people may consider the writer's tendency towards madness and mysticism as one and the same. But from what I can see, the first leads to restlessness and despair while the second moves toward peace and freedom. Gilbert hopes that resurrecting the muse will give writers a necessary distance from their work, releasing them from the destructive side effects of the creative process.

As much as I appreciate Gilbert's views, as a Christian I am not ultimately satisfied with her solution. I agree that there is another power that overlaps with our creative efforts, but for me it is the Holy Spirit. I won't reduce the Holy Spirit to a muse, but I do believe that the same influence that inspired the apostles to preach and write is also, in whatever lesser form, present in my work, even in the very messiness of the writing process. I consider writing a spiritual discipline. It is one of those ancient practices that unfolds our souls and opens our hearts and minds to the God who speaks to us, with us, and through us.

The ancient muses, it was thought, helped create works of art and literature. But the God in whom I believe is about creating certain kinds of people, shaping them into men and women who believe, hope, and love. While I do think God cares about the works we create, I believe that God is more interested in the process and its effect upon us. God is in the dying - the struggle and the wounds and the agony, just as much as he is in the rising - the gleaming product at the end. Out of the chaos of the writing life, God is forming us to be people who are humbled, disciplined, persevering, surprised, grateful. And if, through the writing process, we allow ourselves to be shaped into new kinds of people, then perhaps writers will come to be known for more than just being crazy.