Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Do Doctors Really Care about their Patients?

In various modalities of training over the years, I have been instructed not to get too involved with people and their problems.  The admonition is: don’t become enmeshed with the issues of others. There are a host of reasons for such words of caution.   I am fully aware that individuals in people helping professionals will suffer from burn out if they fail to erect meaningful boundaries.  But there is a flipside to this issue that is not referenced as often at training events.

Maintaining professional distance can evolve into a callous and even uncaring approach to people.  A counselor listens to a client’s problems, but it is obvious to the person in need that the therapist they have sought out is not engaged on an emotional level at all!   Probation officers have heard every excuse known to man.  They in turn miss an opportunity to help a sincere probationer, because they have become so emotionally disengaged.  Medical doctors deal with life and death situations every single day. They can’t get wrapped up in the lives of their patients.  Emotional distance is the order of the day, or is it?

This week I am serving as a guest lecturer for my longtime friend and mentor Dr. Charles Siburt.   In August of 2009, Dr. Siburt was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Multiple Myeloma.  He was referred to a local oncologist for immediate consultation, but as it turns out that particular physician was on vacation during that time period.  He was then referred to another oncologist by the name of Jose Vega.  After three years of exceptional treatment, Charles and his family now refer to this young gentleman as: “Our beloved Dr. Vega.” 

I have heard numerous stories about the beloved Dr. Vega over the last three years. Needless to say I was thrilled when I got to meet this hero in the medical field Monday morning.  Dr. Vega showed up for the class focusing on pastoral skills for ministry leaders bright and early Monday morning. He told Charles: “I have wanted to see you in action.”  He sat in class with a group of theology students for most of the morning.  He engaged in the discussion. He asked good questions.  But most importantly his significant commitment of time touched Dr. Siburt and members of his family in ways that I can’t find the words for.

When he was in medical school, Dr. Vega must have been absent from class on the day they discussed being professionally distant.  As an oncologist, he has invested of himself as he has cared for Charles.  I fully realize that healthy boundaries are a necessity for anyone in a people helping profession.  But on the other hand, it is tempting to become to become aloof and even uncaring.  When I find it difficult to invest of myself in people, I think I will allow my thoughts to drift back to a Monday morning class when an oncologist spent a few hours with some theology students…. After all he is not just Dr. Vega.  He is the beloved Dr. Vega…

Sunday, May 27, 2012

That is a Friend Who Cares...

Note: This is a true story, but I have changed the names to protect the privacy of those described.

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing... not healing, not curing... that is a friend who cares.”  -Henri Nouwen

It is never a good idea to allow our first impression of someone to be the final one.  My mother always told me not to judge a book by its cover in reference to people!  But we still do.  We observe people in social settings and form conclusions about their character that are simply erroneous.

Rachel and Mary’s children attended the same private school.  It is a fairly small college preparatory school, so they often bumped into each other. Pleasantries were always exchanged. They would briefly chat about their children, and then go on with their day.  Rachel somehow concluded that Mary was a little uppity.
She never considered the possibility of them becoming good friends.  Little did she know that she would soon recant her assessment of Mary’s character?

I suppose it was Mary who initiated their first time to get together for lunch or a coffee. They became fast friends. I have an amusing image in my mind of Rachel driving home after her first opportunity to spend time in meaningful conversation with Mary. Her tail must have been tucked in shame.  She had just learned that her new friend did not have an uppity bone in her body.

Their friendship flourished. They enjoyed lengthy conversations over lunch and time together at school functions.  Both of them soon grew to value the joy of new found friendship.  Rachel’s initial take on Mary’s character became a joke between them.  And then life changed suddenly and drastically for both of them.

Rachel was diagnosed with cancer. How could a young woman with children still in school be diagnosed with a life threatening illness?  I don’t know, but it happened.  What I do know is that from that point on true friendship also “happened.” Mary served Rachel and her family in everyway possible.

As the disease took its toll on Rachel’s young body, the level of Mary’s care intensified. She took care of her every need. She did the tasks that are reasonably pleasant, and she fulfilled acts of service that are not so pleasant.  She never left Rachel’s side.

The two women formed an indescribable bond.  In fact these same two women who were only exchanging pleasantries with each other a few months earlier found themselves in a place of profound closeness with each other. Rachel discovered that her new friend possessed a capacity to care like no other friend she had ever known.  To borrow the language of the late Henri Nouwen: she discovered a  friend who could be silent with her in a moment of despair or confusion, who could stay with her in an hour of grief and bereavement, who could tolerate not knowing... not healing, not curing... she discovered a friend who cared.

Rachel passed away May 27, 2011.  One year ago today…I live over 900 miles from Mary, but I am grieving with her today.  And I can’t help but think that today would be a good day to allow my mother’s words ring true in my head about judging the cover of books.  I too want to be a friend that cares…who can be silent in a moment of despair, or confusion, who can stay with my friends in an hour of grief or bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not healing, and not curing… 

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Celebrating 25 Years of Ministry

It is Memorial Day Weekend.  It is a time to barbeque outside and make homemade ice cream. Most importantly it is a time to show respect for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in military service. I hope we have not lost sight of that purpose.  This particular Memorial Day is unique for me.

I interviewed for my first ministry role with a church 25 years ago this weekend.  The Tenth and Broad Church of Christ in Wichita Falls, Texas invited me to interview with them for a university ministry role during Memorial Day Weekend in 1987.  The job included directing a religious student center on campus and teaching religion courses as an adjunct instructor at Midwestern State University.
It was a great job opportunity for a 25 year old that just finished his graduate level degree!

I did not know prior to the interview about an agreement the search committee had made among themselves. They were determined not to hire someone right out of graduate school for that position. I am not sure to this day why I was even granted an interview.  Things clicked from the very beginning.

The church felt like home immediately.  I recall a man telling a search committee member in front of us that I was “the best candidate yet” as we walked down the hallway after church services.  I wondered what kind of nut this guy was at the time?  He was a pretty good nut. We have been friends for 25 years now.

During Memorial Day weekend of 1987 I had no clue that the people interviewing me would celebrate the births of two of my boys a few years later. They took care of us when I spent a week in the hospital following an accident.  I didn’t know that they would mourn with us following a miscarriage. And I had no inkling how supportive a church could be until they walked with me during the final months of my mother’s life in 1991.

I ended up spending just over 8 years with this wonderful group of people. I learned so much. They were incredibly patient as I made mistakes.  They loved on me in ways that I will never to be put in words.  The way I was treated there shaped my entire career.  After 25 years, I still draw on what I learned from the wonderful people in Wichita Falls.

I am not barbequing today. I may not have time to prepare homemade ice cream. Those events can wait until another weekend.  I am officiating at a funeral this afternoon. I know how to prepare for funerals, and how to serve families during times of grief.  I learned those skills from some fine people that are still a part of the ministry team and membership at the Tenth and Broad Church of Christ in Wichita Falls, Texas 25 years later.  Today I am grateful that a search committee chose to reverse their initial decision and take a chance on a young kid right out of graduate school.  Their kind choice is still impacting me 25 years later to the day!  

Sunday, May 13, 2012

In the Shadow of Mother's Day

Mother's Day has become one of my favorite holidays, because of a tradition we have established at church in recent years.   During the Sunday morning service we have a baby blessing.  We honor all of the infants that been born during the course of the previous year.  Seeing parents with their babies in front of the entire church is great.  During this time of blessing we commit to pray for these children and their parents.  It is a great day.  

But on such a joy filled occasion, I can’t help but think about people I care very deeply about that are living in the shadow of Mother’s Day.  Even today that was the case.  As I looked out over the audience during the Baby Blessing, I observed a couple who lost their young son in 2004.  Officiating at that child’s funeral is an event I will never forget.  They are living in the shadow of Mother’s Day. 

And then at the second service I took note of another couple, whom I have grown to love, that lost twin babies at birth.  I suspect a vast majority of the folks they come to church with every week are not even aware of that life changing event in their lives. But they too are on my mind today, because they are living in the shadow of Mother’s Day.

As I listed off the names of our newborns and their parents another couple sat within a few feet of me that had to have been impacted by today’s events. They experienced the loss of miscarriage just a few weeks ago. I am such an emotional old man these days that I found I lacked the courage to approach them and acknowledge the obvious pain of the day.  But I know for a fact they are living in the shadow of Mother’s Day.

And then there is my friend Bill.  He is an old man like me. We graduated from high school together.  Bill lost his mother very recently.  Today marks the first Mother’s Day without his mom.  He will enjoy the day with his family, but I know he is thinking about his mother. He can’t help it, because for the first time he is living the shadow of Mother’s Day.

I can speak with some degree of authority on the kind of shadow that envelope my friends on such a sentimental holiday.  I experienced Mother’s Day without my mom for the first time 20 years ago.  I am fully aware that such shadows are shaded with the darkness of grief.  In 1995, we too celebrated Mother’s Day in the aftermath of miscarriage. Once again we felt as if were living in shadow of Mother’s Day.

Am I throwing a wet blanket on a day that is to be celebrated with corsages, lunch buffets, and short sermons by the cool preachers among us? That is not the case at all. I am simply calling us to stop being oblivious to the most basic needs of those around us. I am additionally  thinking about another dear friend, who lost her Gramma recently.  And I am thinking of still another classmate, whose wife is facing  Mother's Day without him for the first time. He passed away on April 25th. .

A kind word goes a long way.  My thanks go out to another high school classmate (who is NOT old by the way).  I need to say thank you Kerri for speaking a timely word to Bill.  Here is what she said: Bill, I know this day must be a difficult one for you. Just know my thoughts, prayers and loveare headed your way. Your mom raised a remarkable man and I know she is filled with joy looking down on you from above... He is living in the shadow of Mother’s Day, but thanks to Kerri the darkness of that shadow has been lessened today. 

Who can you bless in a similar manner today?  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Mother's Day Tribute

I’d like to pose a question. Do you know anyone in this world who has ever disliked or said anything bad about Jan Knox? Go ahead, mull it over. Take as much time as you like. I am 100% sure that you can’t think of a single name. I’m just as confident that will remain true forever. In fact I’d like for this blog post to be the official start of my campaign to have my mother considered for sainthood. Now, I know I probably don’t have the kind of sway with the Pope to get that done, so I’ll just have to rely on his ability to recognize the facts.

The process for sainthood is long and complex, but there are six major requirements that are universally accepted as the model for saints. These six requirements, according to John A. Coleman, are for this person to be: an exemplary model, an extraordinary teacher, a wonder worker or source of benevolent power, an intercessor, having a life often refusing material attachments or comforts, and possession of a special and revelatory relation to the holy.

1. An Exemplary Model- It’s a widely said maxim that every boy wants to marry a girl like his mother. To be honest, I don’t think I could do it. I would spend every day of my life scratching my head as to why this perfect woman has chosen to spend her life with a bullheaded, walking mistake-maker like myself. But I do know this. Every girl who I have ever been close with has looked up to my mom as a role model, and I am quite confident that any woman foolish enough to marry me will likely do so in no small part because she would want to have Jan Knox as a mentor and mother-in-law.

2. An Extraordinary Teacher- My mother has been teaching for her entire adult life. Whether she has been leading bible studies, teaching adult and children’s Sunday School classes, filling in as a substitute in raucous middle school classrooms, or writing for various instructive publications, Jan Knox has touched the lives of hundreds of individuals through her unique ability to combine humility, wisdom, and humor in her instruction.

3. A Wonder Worker- This is often the hardest requirement to fulfill, because it is widely recognized that every saint must have a “miracle” happen as during the course of their work. For my mom, this is the easiest one. The fact that she has raised and put up with three rowdy sons, and an equally ornery husband is a miracle beyond my comprehension. The amount of times that a normal, reasonable human being would have been justified in losing their cool because of our shenanigans is innumerable. And yet, she has managed to keep us all in line with logic, patience, compassionate sternness, and a type of love that I have yet to completely understand. How is that not a divine miracle?

4. An Intercessor- The doctrine of intercession holds that the dead can pray, or intercede, on behalf of the living. Now, theological debates about the validity of this doctrine aside, being an intercessor doesn’t require you to be dead. In fact, we are urged to give prayers on behalf of other people as living beings. Now, I obviously am not privy to the personal prayers of my mother, but the number of times she has reminded me to pray for a specific person because of their struggles tells me that she is spending time every day interceding for those of us who desperately need the prayers of others.

5. A Life Rejecting Material Comforts- Let’s be honest. We have a really nice couch in our living room. I don’t think anyone would make the argument that anyone in my family is living a life of intentional poverty (although the amount of ramen noodles I’ve had to eat as of late could make a strong case for it). However, I have never once heard my mom complain about her material status in life. That’s a job for me and my brothers. In fact, if we want to talk about rejecting comfort, let’s talk about Jan Knox going back to work. When I left for ACU, I had received a very generous Presidential Scholarship. However, there were thousands of dollars in other expenses that would have to be paid throughout my four years. Would my parents have been justified in telling me that I would need to work two jobs and take out student loans to cover these expenses myself? Of course. It’s my education. Instead, my mom decided to go back to work and help my brothers and I pay for those expenses.

6. A Special Relationship to the Holy- I know that we all theologically have a direct line to God through Christ, but I’d like to think that Jan Knox’s direct line is a smart phone. The amount of time she spends every day sitting in her study chair, reading the Bible, books on faith, and writing her thoughts and lessons is mind-boggling. She works full time, manages our family’s finances, keeps our family fed, clothed, and clean, and still finds time to spend hours meditating on the Word. That is a pure definition of a “special relationship to the Holy” if I ever heard one.

I’ve often heard people jokingly refer to my mom as Saint Jan. After writing this, I’m quite sure that there is more truth to that joke than anyone realizes. Mother’s Day is a great way for us to put everything aside and honor the strong, incredible women who have changed our lives. But, to be honest, not a day goes by where I don’t feel a little bit incredulous about how amazing my mother is. Pope Benedict, I don’t know if you’re an avid reader of my dad’s blog or not, but if you’re reading this, get the ball rolling on Jan Knox’s sainthood. It’ll be the easiest decision you’ll ever have to make.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My Own Band of Brothers

Two of my boys will be home for the summer.  I would of course prefer to have all of them home, but I will take what I can get!  We are celebrating male bonding by playing fantasy baseball together and by watching all ten episodes of Band of Brothers.  This is the first time that I have watched each installment in this mini-series that is based on the real experiences of World War II veterans.

The show has really affected me emotionally.  I mentioned to the boys that most of the veterans interviewed before each episode are probably deceased now. Their personal accounts of the D-Day invasion and other war time experiences are truly moving. As I was watching the show last night, it occurred to me that in a church of over 650 members we only have a handful of World War II veterans still among us.

Last night as the three of us sprawled all over the furniture in the living room I was also reminded that there were parents in May of 1944 who had boys the age of mine serving overseas doing military service. I can’t imagine what that must have been like.  Of course the whole idea of siblings serving their country during World War II formed the basis of the plot for Saving Private Ryan.

I was also reminded that my parents experienced this period of history firsthand. When I was about 16 years old, my mother told me that one of her favorite cousins came home on leave from the military in the spring of 1944.  She was 17 at the time…He was killed during the D-Day invasion a few months later. My father was in pilot training preparing for a planned invasion of Japan when the war ended in August of 1945.

I am glad I am watching Band of Brothers. It has been good for me.  It has reminded me to cherish my relationships with the World War II veterans that are still among us. And I am thankful that my own little band of brothers is home for the summer, or at least not too far away.  I fully realize that a generation of parents that went just before me was not as fortunate.   Perhaps the tenacity of the Greatest Generation members will be rub off on me as I take in this excellent portrayal of a difficult time in history. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Give Up Now: We Have You Surrounded!

Yesterday I was honored to be asked to be a participant in The National Day of Prayer Breakfast held at The Granbury Resort Conference Center. My assignment was to pray for our military and our law enforcement officers.  I think they knew pretty quickly they assigned the right guy to that task. They know what I am passionate about! But I could not help but be a little amused as well as humbled during the event itself.

There must have been close to 500 people there.  Senator Brian Birdwell was the distinguished speaker for the event.  I seriously doubt a prayer breakfast is a forum where you would expect a random act of violence.  But you never know. I heard a police chief at an annual memorial service this week point out that all line of duty deaths occur on shifts that begins very routinely.   I am quite certain that very few people noticed that the prayer breakfast was secured by police officers in casual uniforms watching over the event.  It was humbling to observe the officers I serve everyday standing around the perimeter of the conference center banquet room quietly observing every single person’s actions.  They were not in full uniform, so it was all done very discreetly.  

It was really tempting for me preface my prayer by drawing attention to their service. I wanted to say: Hey!  We have capable law enforcement personnel watching over us while we enjoy a very special event.  They are on the look out for people attending a prayer breakfast that are unstable, armed, or potentially disruptive. Stranger things have happened!   And I also wanted to say: All of us go to bed every night while the night shift patrols right in front of our homes.  They are watching over us while we sleep.  They literally have us surrounded.

Earlier this week I spoke with a friend that was involved in a major accident near Ft. Worth. I asked her: how were you treated by first responders?  She said they seemed to arrive out of nowhere in a matter of minutes.  One minute she was sitting in the parking lot of a shopping center, and the next minute officers from that Ft. Worth superb were watching over her. They surrounded her with comfort and security during a very scary event.

As I prayed for our military and law enforcement personnel early Thursday morning, I used one phrase.  I used the phrase: We are surrounded. You hear that in the old cops and robbers movies.  Give up: We have you surrounded!
As I prayed I wondered if anyone noticed that we were surrounded during breakfast.  I doubt it. But that is really not a problem.  They are servants that are called to watch over us.  They surround us in a spirit of unselfish service every single day of the year 24/7.  They asked the right guy to lead that prayer for certain, because I am proud to serve those that watch over us.  I am fully aware that we are quite literally surrounded.

 Let’s give up today.  Let’s give up our indifference and thank a cop for watching over us.  You might as well, because you are surrounded.