Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thank You and Goodnight - My Farewell to Hospice

Tonight I worked my very last shift as a hospice chaplain. It is midnight, my shift ended 11 minutes ago, and I am writing a blog post while my thoughts are fresh. I'm planning on going deep into the night, just as I have so many times when I've been on-call. And then on Friday I'm going to resume my previous life as a morning person.

I'm wearing my badge around my neck, for the very last time, as I write this. As another nod to sentiment, I just returned from a late night Del Taco run, which I have done probably 50 times between the hours of midnight and 6am in the last 2 years. Many times I circled the drive-thru just because it comforted me to know that other people were working at that time of night. While most of you have been oh-so-selfishly sleeping in your warm beds during these shadowless hours, some of us had to keep the world running. Big Fat Chicken tacos don't make themselves, you know.

I also just left my last voice mail for the team I worked for tonight. I ended it with "Peace out suckers!!" No one will laugh when they hear it. Hospice workers just aren't funny.

It's all but impossible to capture the experiences, the feelings, and the interactions that have formed these last 25 months. There is no way that I can fully describe what it feels like to go to bed with a beeper (yes, a beeper) next to your ear, and have it scream you out of sleep at 3am, like a rooster who's been doping. And that's only the preface to the terrors of what comes next: "Adam, there is a family who lost someone tonight and they're not coping well. The nurse needs your help for spiritual and psychological support. Oh, and their house is 50 minutes away from you, in east L.A. Tell us when you're finished, because we may have another visit after that for you."

When I told people I was a hospice chaplain, they would give me one of two responses. Either they would be absolutely mortified and look at me as though I were an alien from outer space, or else they would be incredibly moved and give me a hug. One time an old couple bought me a bottle of Syrah and a 20oz Rib eye after they found out what I did. One time a woman scowled and walked away after she found out what I did. One time a child yelled "I hate you!!", stomped on my foot, and ran away. I might have made that last one up.

But the extreme responses I received from others only echoed the contradictions that I experienced within myself. Hospice has been the best thing that ever happened to me. Hospice has been the worst thing that ever happened to me. Sometimes I feel like I have seen too much. Sometimes I feel like I have seen exactly what I needed to see. I feel like my heart grew 3 sizes. I feel like I left pieces of my heart all over Pasadena, and Monterey Park, and Pomona. I had days where I felt like taking off my shoes because I stood on holy ground. I had days where I felt like putting on layer after layer because I felt naked.

I have holy memories, and I have haunted memories, and they mingle in my mind, like a wedding attended by two families who hate each other.

I remember the man who threatened to commit suicide at 2am, and how I kept him on the phone for over an hour until he promised not to do it that night.

I remember the woman whose heart stopped beating the moment I said "Amen."

I remember the brothers who got into a fist fight after their dad died.

I remember Livia, who I sat with for hours and talked about her childhood in Italy.

I remember the family who complained bitterly about my service, even though I gave everything I had to that visit.

I remember Katherine, who told me what it was like to grow up in London during the Blitz.

I remember the woman who told my supervisor, "Either he needs to learn some goddam respect or else get another mother*%$ing job!"

I remember the people who said "You have been with us in the most important time. You are part of our family now."

I remember the time I was called 4 times in an 8 hour shift, and how I spent the next 3 days on the couch, depressed.

I remember the old woman at a nursing home, who answered my "Good morning" with a brazen flip of her middle finger.

I remember the time when I sat in a nursing home with a grieving woman with early onset dementia who had just lost her mom. She asked me the same exact question every 4 minutes for 2 hours.

I remember the late night drives to the City of Industry, where very little industry happens aside from strip clubs and prostitution. I remember the late night drives to the City of Commerce, where very little commerce happens aside from strip clubs and prostitution. Don't go to the City of Industry or Commerce late at night.

I remember the first time I was the first person to inform someone that a relative had died. It was my very first death visit.

I remember Eulogia ("blessing" in biblical Greek), the 99 year old woman who had lived in her house for 80 years. Shortly before her 100th birthday her family moved her into a nursing home. When I visited her the next day, she saw me and immediately burst into tears and said "I didn't think you would know where to find me!"

I remember the time that I prayed for a man who had been unresponsive for three days. When I took his hand to pray, his fingers closed around mine. It was the last time he moved anything voluntarily.

I remember the two sisters - young, smart, attractive, and blonde, with dream lives in their crosshairs - and how they watched their mother succumb to breast cancer.

I remember the girlfriend of the dying man who sat by his bedside all Christmas eve and all Christmas day, when his family wouldn't come. They had been dating for 3 months.  He was perfectly healthy when they started dating. They met at church.

I remember the men of older generations who didn't feel comfortable expressing emotions. They slowly died on the inside while their wives died on the outside.

I remember the time that I threw my beeper across the street and had to hunt for it in the dark for 10 minutes. I remember the time that I managed to turn off my beeper while asleep. I remember the last time I ever turned off my beeper. It was an hour ago.

-----

The apostle Paul tells us to "give thanks in all circumstances," and as I penetrate through all the memories, all the late night drives, all the pop music I used to keep me awake, all the agony and the joy, all the holy and the profane, all the cursing and the praise, all the solitary walks around Pasadena City Hall, all the graveyard Del Taco runs and daybreak Starbucks runs, I uncover gratitude. I am grateful to be done, yes, but I am grateful for all of it.

Thank you for teaching me about pain. Thank you for teaching me not to run from it, but to sit with it.

Thank you for the sacred moments, when I was able to hold a patient's hand as he took his last breath.

Thank you for teaching me about death, that it is always awful and sometimes beautiful.

Thank you for opening my heart to family, who may war with another but almost always show up in the same room when they need to.

Thank you for showing me that my dreams and desires will not always pulsate within me.

Thank you for teaching me about depression, that it often shows up at times of transition.

Thank you for clarifying my priorities, for showing me what is significant in life. 

Thank you for teaching me that my most profound thoughts fall completely flat in moments of life and death.

Thank you for making me a better person than I was 2 years ago.

Thank you for showing me that neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

-----

When you spend as much time around death as I have over these last 2 years, when every day on the calendar is Ash Wednesday, you learn that ultimately life offers no happy endings. Every life ends in sadness and grief and pain and silence. And all we can do is struggle and work, believe and doubt, hope and fall, run and wrinkle. Every person has both a victor and a victim inside of her. You have more fight and strength in you than you ever imagined, but you also have more weakness and vulnerability than you ever thought. Your bodies will decay and ultimately lose the fight, but you will battle valiantly and courageously. I have seen it time and time again from people you wouldn't think would be so strong.

When you work in hospice, you spend a lot of time with people who are waiting, suspended in that interim period between light and darkness. But whether in life or in death, we are people who wait. We anticipate a Day when the deathbed will be transformed into the cradle of resurrection, when the last gasps of death will be modulated into the cries of new life.

Until that glorious daybreak, we pray with the Church every night:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love's sake. Amen. 

Goodnight. Thank you.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Leaving Ministry

At the end of February I will be leaving my position as a hospice chaplain. I have been threatening to do this for many months, but now is the time. I have six shifts left, three of which will happen from midnight-8am. If I'm gonna go out, I'm gonna go out big.

I have been in a time of significant personal and professional transition for the past year. I have been reluctant to admit that I feel a call out of professional ministry, but now I am coming clean. While I will continue to write spiritual things, and listen as a spiritual director, I believe that my time as "minister," "pastor," or "chaplain" is coming to a close.

For the last 15 years I have been "Adam the pastor." Two months after college I found myself in summer Greek at Princeton Seminary, and I have been preparing for ministry, thinking about ministry, and doing ministry ever since. I have worked in churches, I have worked as a campus pastor, I have worked as a hospital chaplain and as a hospice chaplain. I have preached hundreds of times. I have taught, I have listened, I have prayed. I have preached sermons that made people weep, I have preached sermons that made people squirm, I have preached sermons that made people roll their eyes. I have attended conferences on evangelism, pastoring, church administration (woo), and preaching. Every time I went out to eat with people they asked me to say a blessing on the food.

It is hard to describe how difficult it is to let go of a label like "pastor." It's one of those labels that comes so close to your identity. It's who I feel like I have been for the past 15 years. It's how other people introduce me. It has been a joy, yes, but it has also been a burden, because of the assumptions that go along with being a pastor. Strangers, upon finding out I was a pastor, would go silent and feel strangely guilty in my presence. People would take mistakes that I made really hard. Expectations were impossibly high. You start playing to the expectations rather than being yourself, and you get so good at it that you confuse the two in your own mind. As delusional as it sounds, you can start viewing yourself as this superhuman figure.  

I believe that I was called by God to be a pastor, but I have also come to learn things about myself that might have also steered me in that direction. In person, I like to project that I am a really strong, capable person, with all his ducks in a row, who is so full that I can give and keep giving. Somewhere along the way, I became convinced that giving to people was the way I could be in relationship with them. I am still afraid that if they see my weakness, or if I wait for them to come to me, then I will be alone.

At the same time, my superhuman projection and my inclination to give more than I should actually makes me keep people at a distance. And I think that was part of the allure of pastoring for me. I could have the illusion of intimacy with others while actually holding them at arms' length. I could be with people in the most vulnerable moments of life - deathbeds, weddings, personal crisis - and yet not truly be there. Everyone would come away thinking how strong and full of love I was in those moments, yet I knew in my heart of hearts that they were getting a small part of the real me.

Truth be told, it was dishonest. Dishonesty always distances people. Dishonesty is a fig leaf we use to hide from each other.

I have come to realize that I must let go of the identity of "Adam the pastor" if I want to grow more and more into my true self. Other pastors who wrestle with this will find that they can do this soul work within the context of professional ministry, but I can't. It is time for a new Adam, one that is closer to the authentic Adam. One who doesn't hold people at a distance anymore.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Introverts, Extroverts, and Listening

Some of the best listeners I know are extroverts.

One of the reasons I am not discussing introversion and extroversion in my listening book is that I am dedicated to the idea that it is NOT a personality issue. God did not divide people into listeners and non-listeners based on where you sit on the energy continuum. You are not born with an innate skill of listening. No matter how quiet or loud you are, listening is always a skill to be honed, a discipline to be developed.

I have gone on record as saying that introverts may have a head start in listening, perhaps a fingertip lead from the starting block. As the conversation about introversion has swept our culture in the last year, it has been common to say that introverts are great listeners. The more I've thought about listening, the less sure I am about that. I suspect that introverts often have the appearance of listening but not always the substance. And I say that based on my own experiences of listening.

Allow me a moment of honesty. With all my training and experience of listening to people, I can put on a good show. I can make all the right facial expressions, nod and say all the right active listening noises at exactly the right time, even accurately paraphrase what I hear, and yet have my mind and heart be somewhere else. My hospice patients may come away feeling like they have been truly heard, and yet I know sometimes they haven't been. I do not enjoy admitting this. When I display the flash of listening but not the heart of it, I am usually protecting myself. The pain that I encounter, day after day after day, can be overwhelming, even with good boundaries, and so sometimes I will check my heart at the door as I walk in.

My point is this: only the listener truly knows whether genuine listening is taking place. A listening posture is always invisible. That is because true, deep, change-your-freaking life listening involves a full offering of oneself to another for a period of time - all the outward parts and all the inward parts. Only you, the listener, can know if the inward parts are coming along for the ride.

Introverts are often considered good listeners because they don't talk as much. And that's a good start. But listening is about so much more than not talking!! You can stare at a still pond all you want but you have no idea what kinds of ravenous creatures are lurking beneath the surface. A hoarder's house looks good from the outside, but if you get inside you're gonna trip over everything.

One of the gifts that an extrovert brings to a listening conversation is an outward-oriented attention. The inner voice may not be quite as loud, which may enable her to concentrate her focus on the speaker. While an introvert may need to devote energy to silencing the roiling inner monologue, her listening work will likely require more work in not processing out loud as much as she would like. But that outward orientation, if focused and refocused lovingly on the other person, is an incredible asset in the work of listening.

So let's not break down listening by personality type. The temperamental world is not divided into listeners and speakers. Listening is a discipline to be cultivated, a work of love for all God's people by all God's people.

Friday, February 8, 2013

More Talking about Listening

I have a problem. I over-research. I admit it.

This is not a new thing. In 3rd grade, I wrote my very first paper, which we called "reports" back then. Mr. Dye asked us to write a paper on our favorite zoo animal. I picked tigers. They have stripes and whiskers and they look like big house cats, what's not to love. He asked us to write a 5 page paper. I wrote 17.

 It's a little charming, but it's a lot neurotic. Some people procrastinate from writing by eating, or whiling away on the internet, or cleaning the house, or making up chores that need to be done. I procrastinate by researching. This is why it takes me a minimum of 2 years to write a book. I have 1700 pages of notes for a book that will be 200 pages. People who are writing doctoral dissertations faint when I tell them this.

But it's my problem, and I'll deal with it. If someone wants to open an account for my therapy bills I'm listening. On a practical level, I have hundreds of pages of notes that will never see the light of day. Unless that is, I post some thoughts here. Last week I posted some of my tweets about listening, and I suspect I will be doing this many times. Twitter is NOT a good place for conversation (and I really wish some people would grasp that), but perhaps here we could have a good discussion on some of the thoughts I have about listening. I would very much like your feedback and responses.

So here goes. Tweets about listening from the last week:

I think the best listening happens when you listen for what the other person finds interesting, not for what you find interesting.

Deep listening requires that you don't rush people to the end.You sit in the unresolved, the ambiguous, the painful without trying to fix it.

The first thing hurting people need is not answers. The first thing they need is to know they are not alone.

I am coining a new term. "Boomerang question" - a question that someone asks you, with the intention of answering it themselves.

Developing a posture of listening requires that we are receptive to being influenced by others, open to having our minds changed.

To be a skilled listener you must be more interested in discovering another person's experience than in self-expression.

A good listener assumes that the other person is the expert on her own life, not you.

When someone shares with you something painful, do not begin your next sentence with "At least..."

Who knew that tweets about listening would get so many RTs? Maybe it IS possible to make listening sexy.

I suspect that a little bit of listening would go a long way in blowing away the straw man.

I'm still not sure why there is a third piece of bread on a club sandwich.

So, what do you think? Do any of those lines particularly strike you? Do you agree? Disagree? How do you feel about the third piece of bread on a club sandwich?

I want to hear from you.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Running From Pain

I was making a jail break. I had been using a spoon to tunnel through the wall in my cell and it was almost finished. I had a plan. I was one uncomfortable crawl through the sewers to freedom.

I had been working in hospice for two years, not far removed from a previous two year stint at the same job. I was done with pain. I was done with grieving. I was done with midnight drives to strange homes. I had learned what I had to learn and I had given what I had to give.

My plan was to escape all the emotional turmoil - both mine and others - and to move to wine country. Some people fantasized about things like this, but I was actually doing it. I was going to get into the wine industry and leave all this pain behind. I was going to spend the rest of my days walking through vineyards, talking about tannins and structure in a deliciously pretentious way, strolling through the best farmer's market you've ever seen, drinking the fruit of the vine with dear friends, giving lectures at universities about wine and spirituality, traveling to France and Italy and Spain often, maybe even buying a couple of horses. I imagined myself presiding at the Communion table saying "This morning Jesus' blood will be represented by a spicy little Syrah with notes of blackberry and coffee." It was gonna be a good life.

But we couldn't afford it.

The move would have to be put on hold.

Nooooooooooooooooo.

As I am coming to terms with this, and the tears still come in the dark hours of the night, I am realizing this: you can't run from pain. Pain will find you, chase you down, overtake you. It is a lot faster and craftier than you are. It knows all the shortcuts. You might elude it for a season, but in the next season it's gonna find you. If the harvest is glorious one year, odds are the next year you're gonna face frost. If I had moved to wine country this month like we planned, pain would be one of the boxes on the moving truck.

But here's another thing I'm realizing. It is no accident that I have found myself in a field that majors on pain. It may actually be that, I say with fear and trembling, I am called to this. Not hospice per se, because I still know my time there is waning, but coming alongside of hurting people. Because even when I envision a life in wine country, I don't actually imagine myself living a life of leisure, bottled off from the coarseness of real life. I imagine myself listening to people, asking about their dreams, hopes, and fears, pushing past the superficial to what people really love. I imagine myself as a spiritual director, maybe even a retreat center director, caring for people who are burnt out and wrestling with doubt and exhaustion. 

Since ancient times, people have said that wine creates something transcendent, that its smell and taste and texture and warmth can even be a spiritual experience. But grapes must be crushed in order to make wine. The good life is not a pain-free life. We do not seek out pain, but pain will inevitably seek out us. Let's be prepared for it, and let's not suffer it alone.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

How do people change?

A question that never strays too far from my mind is this: How do people change?

I have been reflecting on this question recently in light of the bombardment of messages that we receive on a daily basis, from all spheres of life. Out of self-protection, I think, we have to close our ears to most of them, which means that we are not open to having our minds changed by the vast majority of things we hear and people who say them. That's important to recognize. You are not available to most of the messages that you hear. You may ignore them, you may disagree with them, you may get defensive to them, or you may become angry about them, and those responses indicate that you are closed to what you are hearing. Sometimes I wonder if it would be more helpful to say "I'm not open to that message or that person" rather than debating endlessly over the topics that are raised.

It's a good thing to be closed. In order to be open to being changed by a few things, you must be closed to a lot more things, especially those things that seem harmful or wrong to you. But what makes a message actually stick, to get inside of us and change us? What causes us to start thinking, feeling, and acting differently?

I am convinced that real change happens in relationship. More specifically, in relationships that are built on trust and mutual listening. If I fundamentally don't trust a person, then I'm going to be extremely suspicious of anything that they say. If a pastor preaches the best sermon ever uttered in the history of Christendom, but I don't trust him, then I'm not going to believe it. A few years ago, I encountered a survey that reported that congregations are convinced they are hearing the Word of God preached based on their level of relationship and trust with the preacher. The more they knew and trusted the pastor, they more they believed her sermons were the spoken words of God.

Since the Sandy Hook tragedy, a renewed debate about gun control has stormed in this country, and I think very rightfully so. In political spheres, in social media, and in public venues people are debating the issue with passion and vitriol. My good friend Mike, new father to a little girl, couldn't sleep the night after the devastating news. He was shaken by the event, but also disillusioned with the way people debate hot button political issues. He came up with a plan. He would think of a person in his life who owned a gun and he would call that person, tell him his feelings about Newtown from the perspective of a new father, and ask him if he would consider getting rid of his gun. He called this man and had a constructive and honest conversation with him. And then through social media he encouraged others to do the same thing.

Even with the effectiveness and reach of media these days, the vast amount of information available for any issue you want to consider, and the power of the court of public opinion, I believe that the context of interpersonal relationships is still where most people change. When I float my thoughts into internet space, I rarely see how it affects anyone else. But when I see how my actions and words affect another person whom I love, and I see how their face and voice change in relationship to what I do and say, then I am far more likely to be different.

I would go so far as to say that people are more likely to change when they know they will still be loved if they don't. You can't compel or threaten people into change. That might lead to temporarily modified behavior but not true inner and outer life change. Love is what changes people. We need to know that the relationship, and the love that binds it together, is bigger than a particular issue, whether personal or political. We need to have people who will let us process and work through our challenges, doubts, and struggles without scorning or judging us if we don't agree with them. We need people who will respect our otherness and not try to achieve some forced, superficial conformity. We need people who will listen to us and let us be where we currently rather are, rather than impatiently trying to rush us to where they would like us to be.

True change occurs only when we know we are loved.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Talking about Listening


 There is a certain irony to saying things about listening, and there is a sharp irony to writing a 200 page book about listening. I've sometimes thought I should just publish a blank book with a pretty cover, maybe with an impressionistic painting of an ear on it, send out a few thousand copies for other people to write in, and then read what people wrote while making active listening sounds. That would be a better expression of listening, right?

The way I justify a 200 page book on the subject is by saying that my thoughts are the results of years and years of listening, and that even as I write I am listening to the voices inside me and the Voice outside me (and in me through the Spirit). Believe it or not, I have 1700 pages of notes that I've been collecting for the last 4 years, which is just borderline pathological let's be honest, but those notes have been sourced by hundreds of listening conversations I have had and books I have read. At a certain point, if you want to teach people about listening, you have to start talking about it. But I also know that I will keep listening, even as I am sharing what I have learned.

Here are a few tweets I have shared on the subject this week:

Sometimes it seems like people represent listening as passive or weak. I think listening requires more strength than sharing our opinions.

I'm trying to write a chapter on listening to others that is not a "how to" list. I'm taking the "list" out of listening.

I think that good listening, like good writing, is able to penetrate to the heart of the matter.

I said "Good morning" to a 90 year old nursing home patient, and she gave me the finger. That definitely just happened.

Okay, that last one had nothing to do with listening, but come on. A 90 year old woman gave me the finger!!