Monday, April 30, 2012

That Person is Hurting: But I Have NO Clue What to Say!

I don’t know what to say…I hear this all of the time in reference to communicating with people that are hurting.  People frequently tell me that they are hesitant to go see someone that is seriously ill, or an individual that is grieving a loss. I have been reminded this past week that only one question is needed.  No other communication is necessary.

All that you need to say is: How are you? That is all. There is no need for extended commentary regarding the person’s illness or theological reflection on the promise of eternal life. It is really not necessary to tell someone that heaven gained another angel.  Only one question is called for in such a setting. But I must add an essential dimension to this phrase.

When we ask someone how they are, we need to mean it. In other words, we need to ask it with sincerity and wait for an answer. We have to feel pretty comfortable with the ensuing silence that may very well occur. I think looking someone in the eye coupled with appropriate touch makes all of the difference when posing such a question.

In the past couple of weeks, I have experienced loss and the stress associated with watching three of my friends face life threatening illnesses.  It has been stressful to be sure.  The support of kind friends has been beyond description. But here is what stands out to me: I have been asked on more than one occasion: how are you?  Each time it was posed I knew that the person doing the asking awaited an answer patiently and compassionately. 

There is something very affirming about that simple process of communication. That question posed by a person of unquestioned sincerity brings comfort and peace when life is stormy and unpredictable.  I am grateful for good friends today.  And I am inspired to be quick to ask good questions. I am feeling prompted to be even faster to shut my mouth, as I patiently await a reply.  How are you?  It is a pretty good phrase. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

I Said Goodbye to a Friend Today

I said goodbye to a friend today.  She passed from this life last Sunday after a valiant battle with cancer. I am not allowed to share her age. She made that forbidden territory.  But I will say that she was four years younger than my mother, who was born in 1927.   I use my mother’s age as a frame of reference primarily because Sara treated me like she was my mother.

Every Sunday after church in the foyer we went through the same routine. She would say: “Listen….what about ______”?  In her Tennessee Southern drawl, she would proceed to ask me about some church matter that I probably had no business discussing in some cases. At other times, she simply wanted to prod me about an issue in which she had an opinion to offer.  It was really great fun. I could respond in a light manner at times and she took that well too.  But I always answered her. I do mean that I always answered her. What 49 year old man ignores a voice that sounds like his mother’s?

Sara told me I was obviously taking my Vitamin B when she thought my sermons were good.  (That was not a weekly compliment by any stretch.) I always knew her intent was to encourage me.  She wanted me to grow and improve. Her motherly instincts just naturally kicked in.

In 2009, Sara’s husband, Glenn became very ill. I spent a good deal of time with them at the hospital.  And I later officiated at Glenn’s funeral in July of that year. I think my relationship with Sara changed from that day forward.  In her mind, my dosage of Vitamin B had been upped.  My sermons seemed even better to her.
She continued to encourage me and even told me that my Sunday morning presentations were “maavelous” in her charming Southern drawl.

Not long before her death she summoned me to her home one Monday afternoon. Now I am pretty protective of my Monday’s off.  But when Sara beckoned, I naturally jumped. After all what 49 year old man ignores a voice that sounds like his mother’s? I was given very specific instructions regarding her funeral that afternoon. I was not to vary to the left or to the right.  I promised that I would follow through with her desires in the same way that I promised my own mother nearly 21 years ago prior to her death.    

Today I fulfilled my promise to Sara.  I officiated at her service. We sang the songs she requested.  I shared things in my eulogy that would have made her laugh. And most importantly I stressed to her grandchildren that she and their Grandfather were both fine Christian people of the strongest moral fiber imaginable. 

As I approach a significant birthday soon, I realize that the voices that sound like my mother’s are going to continue to fade.  It makes me sad if the truth be known. But I do know to take my Vitamin B everyday. And I know now that I have a responsibility to reach out to someone younger than me, and urge them to “listen” as I share my own words of wisdom.

 But for some reason I think I may not be taken as seriously as Sara.  I just don’t have the Tennessee accent…And I don’t have a motherly voice.  There is nothing quite like a motherly presence.  God bless Sara. She was my friend and I miss her. I said goodbye to a friend today. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It Took 40 Years to Fulfill our Vow of Love

In 1972, we were sitting in the lunch room at Wind Point Elementary School exchanging cans of snack pack pudding and discussing the Green Bay Packers. You notice I said “cans” of pudding. Plastic containers were still in the research and development stage at that point in our lives.

In 1972, were carefree.  We were mischievous. We were not interested in academics, but we appreciated the social aspects of school. We kept things hidden in our lockers that would have caused the more sensitive faculty members at our school to blush. We were known to sneak off to smoke in the “woods” after school.  We were invincible.  At least we thought that was the case…

In 1972, I don’t think we gave any thought to the future.  Perhaps that is not entirely true.  I was going to be a wealthy entrepreneur with servants taking care of me at the sprawling manor where I planned to live. Some of my friends had plans to play for the Green Bay Packers professionally. You get the picture. We chose not to live in reality in those days.

In 2012, I sat in the lunch room with one of those same characters that I traded cans of  pudding with years ago.  But the lunch room today was not at Wind Point Elementary School.  We ate together in a lunch room at a nursing home in our hometown a few miles from that school.  I looked on my friend’s tray to see if there was any pudding in a can, but I suppose that was not on today’s menu. There was no trading today.

In 2012, my childhood friend is suffering from brain cancer. He can no longer eat without assistance.  His motor skills are not what they were 40 years ago. The illness has ravaged his body. We reminisced about antics that took place decades ago.  I took note of the fact that none of the nursing home employees going about their business were even born during the time frame we were discussing. That is probably a good thing. And statute of limitations is a good thing too…

In 2012, my friend told me he loved me before I left the nursing home after we had lunch.  I chuckled to myself, because our 5th grade teacher forced us to say those words to each other after we had gotten in a fist fight on the playground.  We adamantly refused, but she insisted.  Ultimately she prevailed and we said the words, but there was vengeance flashing in our eyes!   And I suppose I should include this little fact.  That took place in 1972…. It took 40 years to fulfill that vow of love we expressed to each other in the 5th grade.  I love you Steve.  And I promise Mrs. Shepherd is not looking over my shoulder. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Looks Can be Deceiving

Looks can be deceiving.  Yesterday I played golf with an older gentleman that I was introduced to by a mutual friend.  Physically speaking he can no longer hit the golf ball with a lot of force. He is a little slower in playing the game in general.  There were probably players behind us wishing that the old man would speed it up a little.  But looks can be deceiving.

The older gentleman’s nephew also joined our group yesterday. He mentioned that his uncle and the senior member of our crew yesterday experienced 5 “hole in one’s” during his adult life.  That is really impressive. One “ace” in the game of golf in a lifetime is extraordinary!  Five is almost unheard of for an amateur.  I was duly impressed. 

I was reminded not to let mere appearances cause me to draw premature conclusions.  It is tempting just to see an elderly man striving to keep up when he can no longer drill the ball 200 yards down the fairway.  If I take the time to listen, I will discover there is far more to his life than what meets the eye. As the conversation continued, I learned more about his life.

I asked him if he was still actively serving a church as a minister. He told me: “I served the same congregation for 31 years.  They decided I was too old and my services were no longer needed.”  I realize there are multiple facets to that story. I have been around churches for a long time in a professional capacity.  But regardless of the extenuating circumstances I still feel empathy for a man who perceives that he has been put out to pasture.  As age 50 rapidly approaches for me, I am especially sensitive to his situation!  Every church wants a 35 year old with two cute kids and 20 years of experience.

As our time on the golf course continued, my new found friend asked me about a couple in Lubbock he thought I might know.  As it turns out I knew them well. I had to tell him that both of them are deceased now. And I happened to mention that they died within two weeks of each other.  His response….He told me: “I understand that totally. I Iost my wife six months ago.” 

In my eyes he was not longer an older man that can no longer hit the cover off the golf ball. He is a man that has experienced a lot of pain in life of late. At that point I no longer noticed that he moved a little slower. But I did notice that he can still control the golf ball very well!  And I found myself envisioning his life more holistically.  Most importantly I walked away from that round of golf much less likely to get frustrated at some old man on the golf course playing in front of me. After all looks can be deceiving. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Life is a Vapor: A Tribute to Ray Christenson

The facebook message seemingly came out of nowhere on January 19th of this year.  It was short and to the point.  It simply said:  John, did you live on 4 mile as a kid?  (4 mile is the name of a road by the way.)  I replied in the affirmative, so the next message was even simpler.  It read: Remember me? How could anyone forget Ray Christenson?

Ray lived almost directly across the road from the house I grew up in from the end of my first grade year until the 7th grade. We are exactly the same age. Nobody would argue with me if I said that we were the two most mischievous boys of that age group that resided on 4 mile road.  In fact, people might just say we were the two most mischievous people period that resided on that county road in the Village of Wind Point in Southeastern Wisconsin.

Our facebook messaging continued on through the course of that evening in January. I soon discovered that my childhood friend had something very important in common with me. He too is in ministry!  Who says that God does not have a wonderful sense of humor?  When our teachers at Wind Point Elementary School predicted what kinds of professions their students might undertake, I don’t think ministry was at top of their list for Ray or for me.

He told me about running into a fellow classmate from the Horlick High School class of 1980 during a reunion weekend several years ago. She asked him what he was doing with his life. He told her: I am a pastor.  When she stopped laughing, she finally said: what are you really doing?  He finally convinced her that he was indeed leading a church in his hometown of Racine.  I was quick to point out to him that I had very similar experiences in my second hometown of Lubbock, where I finished junior high and went on to graduate from high school.

And then our messaging took a more serious turn.  I told him that my parents had been deceased for decades. He recalled my mother fixing lunch for us on the days we were busy playing together.   And he told me he lost his mother 5 years ago. His comment in regard to those losses was taken from Scripture: He wrote: Life is a vapor…

 I then shared with him that our classmate and running buddy, Steve Azarian, was dealing with brain cancer.  And that is when Ray told me that he too was battling cancer….He did not want to tell me about it via facebook, so he called me that very night.  We chatted for quite some time. I told him I would be in Racine the last weekend in January on my way to a retreat in the Chicago area.  We made plans to get together.

On a snowy winter day in January I made my way to the church where Ray serves as senior pastor. He had a convicting message that morning. But as I listened, I nearly cried.  I saw both of us as being in the 4th or 5th grade again… After church we made our way to a local restaurant for lunch. A lunch that would last some three hours… We compared professional notes.  We discussed the challenges of ministry in a rapidly changing culture.  Before I departed for my retreat in Chicago we made a vow to each other sitting in my rental car in the snow packed parking lot. We agreed to support each other as men striving to minister to the needs of others.

I had no idea on that snowy day in January that Ray’s cancer would soon return. I just assumed we had years ahead of us to support and encourage each other in our respective ministries.  Yesterday I was told that Ray has been admitted to a Hospice facility.  

 It all just seems very surreal right now. I am just in a daze. But today when I looked back over the thread of messages on facebook from Ray, I saw the phrase he shared with me on January 19thlife is a vapor.  He of course is right. I will never take that passage for granted again.  People are important. Relationships are precious. If we have something to say to a friend or loved one, we need to say right now. We may not have months or years to celebrate the journey together.

As it turns out, I do the have the privilege of supporting and encouraging Ray.  I am getting to fulfill the vow I made to him in the parking lot in January. It is just not in the manner I had planned.  And little does he know…he is doing the same for me too.  I love you Ray. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

There was Nobody for Her...I Do Mean Nobody...

The telling of The Parable of the Good Samaritan is prompted by the question: Who is my neighbor?  That is a good question.  Who is my neighbor?  Serving as a law enforcement chaplain for the past 22 years has taught me that in some cases the answer to that question is…nobody.   I do mean nobody. 

I have gone with police officers to deliver death notifications on more than one occasion when the person receiving that unexpected and awful news has no one to support and comfort them.  I do mean nobody. 

Can I call a family member for you?  There is no family… Can I contact your minister for you?  There is no church home.  Can I go next door or walk across the street and seek assistance from your neighbors?  The grieving person does not know their neighbors.  And so eventually I run out of ideas, and I realize that this individual has no support system.  I do mean nobody.

Last week I delivered a death notification with a sheriff’s deputy that had a much different outcome.  After delivering the news, we were able to reach a neighbor immediately.  This kind individual showed up very quickly.   I don’t think she ever took a class on pastoral skills, but she did what we call ministry of presence.  She was not overbearing.  She just served effectively and compassionately.  She made necessary phone calls as she remained sufficiently calm to serve her longtime neighbor.   The deputy and I soon slipped out.  We knew that we had entrusted a grieving person into the hands of a loyal friend. That is a good feeling.  She had somebody…  She had a neighbor.

As we drove back into town, I could not help but be reflective.  I contrasted the scene I just left with previous crisis events of the same kind.  First the scene I just left flashed through my mind.  I had an image of a wonderful neighbor embracing her friend in a spirit of unquestioned love.  And then my mind flashed back to a lady with two young children.  Several years ago I accompanied a federal agent to inform her of the death of her husband.  When we finally left her house, she was all alone.  We never found anyone to assist. There was no one. I do mean nobody…

A few days later it occurred to me that I had reached the wrong conclusion.  The individuals I just described are not left without a support system.  Family members may not exist.  The person next door may very well be a stranger. But if I have read the Parable of the Good Samaritan correctly, I just realized that I have become that person’s neighbor.  We may not live in the same area. We may have been strangers to each other five minutes ago.  But I am called to be their neighbor in such circumstances.  I won’t leave those people to grieve alone, because they need somebody.  Who is my neighbor?  That person in crisis is my neighbor. 

Today I will repeat the question that prompted the telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  Who is your neighbor?  Who is it among your sphere of influence that has no basis of support?  Who has been left on the side of the road of life to suffer emotionally?  There is someone out there you can touch.  Somebody that has no one.  I mean nobody...