A heart to heart talk

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I asked my patient,
“How are you, my friend?”
As his tired hand rested in mine.
We have a history of many visits,
Many hours,
Many thoughtful words…

“I’m dying, you know,” he said softly,
His voice rough with the years
Of hard work and prayer.
“But it’s Ok. It’s Ok.”

We sat in a quiet and friendly silence
As we listened to the birds outside,
The hum of the electric fan oscillating back and forth
In a buzzy counterpoint.

I hummed a quiet hymn or two,
Letting my voice wrap him in the sounds of his faith.
He dozed in the soft, fading light,
Then stirred and asked,
“Can you read to me from the Good Book?
Where we left off?”
And so I did, holding his hand,
Reading in Matthew 5
“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

“My daughter,” he said,
Her spirits is pretty poor.
She’s closer to Heaven than I am.”

I looked at him, emaciated, wheezing slightly,
Leaning back in his easy chair,
Content and at peace.

“Aren’t we all needing Heaven the most
When our hearts are hurting and our spirits are low?”

He nodded sagely, smiled at me, and closed his eyes.
Then he drifted off, both of us contented and comforted
From our heart to heart talk.

 

 

Photo credit: Photo Credit: “I Do!”, © 2010 Yogendra Joshi, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Pruning

5 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! 8 When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.”
John 15, TNIV

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It’s an old, stately crabapple tree. Every year I wait with anticipation for the first blossoms to unfurl. Every year, it is covered, almost overnight, in these deep pink blooms, and the sound of the bees reveling in the branches is like a dull roar. Every year, the petals drop off and cover the front walk with a pink confetti. It’s the first of many trumpets of spring at our house. And it seemed pretty healthy for an older tree…

Yes, there was some sign of disease. There was some dead wood further out from the trunk, but most of that branch had lots of green leaves, and the crabapples had set on after blooming this spring. To our surprise, in a wind gust Sunday, the branch cracked and fell to the ground, blocking the entire driveway! Yes, it was not the healthiest branch on the tree. But it looked OK. At least, it appeared to be.

As my husband sawed it it apart and cleared the driveway, we saw that part of the main support for this branch was hollow all the way through. It appeared alive on the outside. And it was dead, completely dead on the inside. There was no way to sustain life. No way to support new growth. And much of the rest of the branch was well on its way to self-destruction.

BAM. Critical mass reached. Tipping point engaged. Good-bye, branch!

In my studies in church growth, church planting, and chaplaincy, I have learned about the phenomena of a “sick system.” This is when a constellation of relationships appear to be a healthy system, but are actually a very “sick” system. Under stress, or continued neglect, that which appears to be working for the moment is disastrous in the long-haul.

The bottom line: when the pressure comes for new growth and new direction, faking it doesn’t make it any more.

I’ve been reflecting on this as I read the latest round of op-ed pieces on church health, church growth and church sustainability. Millennials will engage if we do x, y and z. Boomers and Busters need a program which includes a, b, and c. I read lots of church gurus’ suggestions and mandates. I hear about innovative approaches. I meet passionate, praying, and caring pastors who are following the latest trends and hoping this will be the “multi-vitamin of Jesus” that their anemic church needs. And… I note that the very cancer which has been dogging their footsteps has never been treated.

What might this “cancer” be? Self-centeredness. Anger. Self-righteousness. Prejudice. Misogyny. Homophobia. Transphobia. Entitlement. Exhaustion. Fear of change.

Church… we gotta get over ourselves. That’s the plain facts. The issues we “church people” argue about are not only unimportant, they don’t contribute to the overall health of the church! People OUTSIDE the church really and truly don’t care about our sacred cows and holy hobby horses. They DO NOT CARE.

Really… NO ONE CARES if you had Sunday School at 9 and worship at 10:30 since Solomon built the Temple.

NO ONE CARES if you wear robes/collars/vestments/T-shirts/open-toed shoes.

NO ONE CARES if you use a rock band/pipe organ/bagpipes for worship. (OK, maybe I do care about the bagpipes.)

NO ONE CARES what version of the Bible you use.

NO ONE CARES if you do all sorts of things for God, but never just sit and BE with God.

NO ONE CARES who uses which bathroom.

No one, that is, EXCEPT the people who perpetuate the system. (cough cough: look in the mirror :cough cough)

It’s simply comes down to this… if we (and I am the first in this line of “we”) do not grapple with the things which make us ineffective and dilute the power of the Holy Spirit in our churches, our lives and our world, we will never change. And, more importantly, we will not succeed in bringing about change and hope to those who are desperately seeking it. And if we (and again, I include myself!) do not consider where we have made the Church into a hobby and not into a passion, we doom our energies from the start.

I don’t think we (ahem — I) need a another new start or a new program. The journey to healthy growth begins in the heart. It is the pushing, the challenging, the reshaping, the pruning by God. It is the consistent, guiding hand of God. And then. when I’ve mastered some baby steps in change, it points to other places where I need to prune some more. A lot more, actually. It’s shaping the pastor who prays and leads and prays some more.

The result? Pain. Loss. And amazing new growth. In myself. In the work that God calls me to. In the people around me that God cares about more than I possibly can. That’s what I’m going for. Change that means God gives… and takes away.

Blessed be the Name of the Lord…
You give and take away,
My heart will choose to say,
“Blessed be the Name of the Lord”

Blessed be.

The floodwaters will not overwhelm you

But now, this is what the Lord says — he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…
Isaiah 43:1-3a The Voice

 

Lake Needwood. Photo credit: Rev. Deb Vaughn
Lake Needwood. Photo credit: Rev. Deb Vaughn
  
Lake Needwood, flooded. Photo credit: Rev. Deb Vaughn
Lake Needwood Photo credit: Rev. Deb Vaughn
 
I make it a habit when I’m on my rounds to stop for a few minutes, here and there, take a break, and do some charting in a beautiful setting. The last time I was here at Lake Needwood, the water levels were much lower!

I was surprised today when I saw how high the floodwaters were. It occurred to me that many times, we don’t realize how circumstances have overwhelmed or challenged us. Certainly with my hospice patients and their families, the overwhelming grief and worry piles up higher and higher, and many times we might not  realize how difficult things have been.

So, I took a little self assessment, just to remind myself where I needed some relief, and where perhaps, the floodwaters or stressors are taxing me more than I realize. 

Flood zone. Lake Needwood. Photo credit: Rev. Deb Vaughn
Flood zone. Lake Needwood. Photo credit: Rev. Deb Vaughn

Maybe you’re in a “flood zone” of sorts right now. Take a moment. Breathe deeply. Say a prayer. Find some refreshment for your heart and courage for your soul. 

You are a beloved creation of God. You’re worth it. 

Frozen in place

 

Frozen
 
It was magical last night. Yesterday’s snowfall was encrusted with a layer of freezing rain, and every surface was perfectly glazed. It was beautiful. And dangerous. I was grateful I did not have to drive anywhere. 

I peeked out our front door to enjoy the crystal outlines of each tiny twig. In the wind, the branches creaked and crackled. We were frozen in place. 

I thought of this image and a recent visit to one of my patients. We were waiting for the end-of-life to come, being uncertain when it would be, and watching, longing for release. We were in this liminal space between life and death. A fragile place. A quiet place. A frozen place. 

I reflected with my patient on how much of life is in this place of waiting. Of not knowing what’s next, not seeing around the next bend, not knowing when the ice will melt and we will be free of slush and cold winds. (I mean, the groundhog said we would have an early spring… But do I believe him?)

I have noted a pattern with some of my patients. There is a difference of attitude that comes from waiting with confidence, waiting with the sort of self acceptance and patience that comes from years of trials and prayer. From years of… Waiting!

Indeed my patient had lived through many years of waiting. Waiting after a spouse died. Waiting after children had grown and gone. Waiting after relocating from a home of many years and memories to a retirement home. Waiting to see if chemotherapy would work. And finally now, waiting for one’s own death.

But in the middle of all of this, in the middle of the swirl of wondering and waiting, there is peace, there is hope, and there is an abundant awareness of the love and faithfulness of God. This is one of the themes of Lent… Journeying towards the cross and the empty tomb. Waiting for that “Great Gettin’ Up Mornin’.  

For this moment we may be frozen in place. But the time will come…

Even so, Lord Jesus. Maranatha!

NaBloPoMo: Remember Me

NaBloPoMo Day 18: What do you hope people remember about you after you’re gone?

 

This is especially poignant for me since I presided at a funeral today and was privileged to listen to how a wonderful family remembered their patriarch…

When you remember me, remember…
That I loved
That I laughed
That I was REAL
That I always had an “internal song” playing
That our relationship was genuine and important to me
That somehow, somewhere, God was always in the mix
That I was blessed beyond words to have the Calling I do…

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Standing on the Promises

It’s an old, old hymn that doesn’t get sung a lot these days. For some reason, I can’t get it out of my mind!
Especially, the last two verses…

Standing on the promises of Christ the Lord,
Bound to Him eternally by love’s strong cord,
Overcoming daily with the Spirit’s sword,
Standing on the promises of God.

Standing on the promises I cannot fall,
List’ning every moment to the Spirit’s call,
Resting in my Savior as my all in all,
Standing on the promises of God.

There’s days where serving God just isn’t a lot of fun. It’s painful. It’s sad. It’s frustrating. It’s “long-haul” faithfulness when you pray and pray and nothing happens. And then there are days where you SEE the faithfulness of God unfold, and you wonder why you doubt.

redstoleYesterday I had the opportunity to watch another servant of God receive her ordination recognition. (I phrase it that way because GOD ordained her a long, long time ago. It just took humans a while to get with the program.) I wore my robe and red (Pentecost) stole to celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit. I was on the periphery watching God be center stage.

There was a moment when one of the presiders made a comment, perhaps in passing, that touched my heart… “May this also be a time for those of us who are ordained to fully walk in our Calling.”

My first semester in seminary, almost 10 years ago, a wise mentor said almost those exact words to me. She reminded me that God had made the way, that God was directing, that God had the path prepared for me. I just had to walk fully in my Calling.

As a chaplain, I practice active listening, meaning I try to talk less and listen more. (Yes, extroverts can do this!) As a pastor, I strive to do the same thing with God.

Standing on the promises I cannot fall,
List’ning every moment to the Spirit’s call…

I know that as I lead a Communion service, or plan a funeral with a grieving family, or sit with a dying patient, or walk the halls with someone with dementia, or try to study and comprehend the latest research of my craft, that I must keep listening to God. Over and over, I hear the wrong voices judging and “correcting” me.

I stumble a lot as I try to ‘stand’ on God’s promises. Fortunately, I am given Grace to get up and try and try and try again. And to help my brother or sister up to their feet as we stumble along… together.

Thanks be to God!