Sunday, September 21, 2014

To Care or Not To Care....

That is the question.

It is a question that has come up relatively constantly in various forms over the past few months. When that happens, it’s like Jesus saying “Martha, Martha…” When the Lord gives you the same quandary over and over, you’d better sit up straight and pay attention!

Everything came to a head a few weeks ago when I was serving at the Community Care Center (CCC). Walking down a corridor, I encountered Michaela, a new employee, looking somber.  Since she is usually an extraordinarily cheerful and even effervescent person, I asked her what was wrong.  

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m thinking I might not be a good fit for this job.”

I love working with Michaela, and she’s one of the best staff members I’ve seen in her position.  As an added bonus, she’s a Christian and a dear sister in the Lord. So, with rising alarm, I asked her why she felt that way.

“My supervisor told me that the only way I’m going to be able to do my job effectively and not get burned out is to not allow myself to get involved with the residents. She said the only way to cope with the losses around here was not to let myself care personally about anybody.”

She was called away then, and we didn’t have time to talk, but her words kept coming back to me. I’m in a similar position, as are all nursing home chaplains.  Ours is a life of nearly constant loss. We get to loving them and then they go away – either lost to dementia or gone home with family or into eternity.  But what her supervisor said rubbed me the wrong way – especially when I saw the effect the advice had on her.  So I sat down and wrote her a note.  I think this is a question we all have to deal with at some level as we face difficult relationships, so I’m posting what I told her, and I’d welcome any comments you might want to send.

Dear Mickie,

I was surprised to hear that your supervisor told you not to allow yourself to care about the residents in order to prevent burnout.  I don’t often advise people not to listen to their boss, but I’m afraid this time that’s just what I’m going to say.

As you look around the CCC, there is nothing but need all around you. Often, this place and the people who work here are all the residents have left. But one thing they do NOT need is another person just doing their job.  They have plenty of people who do that already.  Having their basic needs met in an efficient and detached manner is not enough.  Not nearly enough.

And as Christians we are called to a higher standard, you and I.  The Lord never once says, “Protect yourself from loss.”  He says “Love.”  “Give.”  “Care” “Forgive” “Bear one another’s burdens.” “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”

No, I’m afraid in our case it’s imperative to care, but at the same time to realize and remind yourself that you’ll eventually lose them.  The secret, I’ve found, is to love them like crazy, but hold them with an open hand: the Lord gives and the Lord takes away.

Yes, it will hurt when they go, and yes, you will grieve for some of them.  But how inestimably better it is that someone grieved their passing, rather than for them to slip un-lamented and virtually unnoticed into eternity, while everyone continues doing their job efficiently and guarding themselves from grief!

I’ve told you before that I so appreciate your warmhearted exuberance.  Caring just oozes out of you, and that caring is not what will bring you down in the end. Forcing yourself not to care will take all the joy out of your service, and that’s what will burn you out, my friend.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Saving for a Rainy Day

Do you have a change jar at your house?  Maybe a Mason jar on the counter where you put all your spare change, instead of letting it fall into the sofa or collect in the car's cupholders. If you don't have a jar, you know how frustrating it is to try to collect enough change when you need it, but taking a second or two to intentionally place it in the jar keeps it ready to hand.  Hold onto that thought.

Like most missionaries, I tend to write about the high points: the  amazingly blessed days when God works through and around me in a mighty and visible way.  Those are inspiring and often humorous stories, and my prayer is that they help show nursing home ministry in a different light.

But they can also be misleading. Because ministry - any ministry - is not a series of God-anointed steps from mountain-top to mountain-top.  There are days when I can echo my friend Shannen, serving in with Empower a Child in Uganda, who says, "Dirty feet and chipped toenail polish...there are many times I feel as if the work I am doing here is small and insignificant." 
[read about Shannen's ministry here:]

Those days happen. There are days when I leave the Community Care Center (CCC) feeling like I have done no Kingdom Work all day. Other days I feel guilty that I have had so much fun with the residents and have had not a single spiritual conversation, except maybe grace over lunch. 

And until recently, those days would haunt me.  I would feel let-down; and worse-I would feel like I was letting God down; and I'd mope about for simply DAYS wondering whether God was done using me.  I knew that it was wrong to let a couple slow weeks wipe out the rejoicing over a month of fantastic ones.  But willing myself to just forget it and go on wasn't working (I sometimes don't listen to myself).  Prayer didn't take away that feeling, either. And I kept trying to remember the uplifting occurrences, but I had trouble calling them up when I needed them (like the change that fell behind the sofa cushions in my introduction).

But then I noticed something:

Did you catch the common word in Shannen's post and my ramblings?  Feeling.  Feelings, my friends, are never to be trusted.  They are what they are, but what they are is shifting sands.  Fine to put your blanket on and sit for a while to build sand castles and watch the ocean; bad to build anything on if you want it to be standing tomorrow.  I knew that, but how could I change those feelings?
After one breathtakingly blessed day following a discouraging couple of weeks, I said to myself, "See?  You've been having a dry run, but today was wonderful! And last time you had a slow streak, the blessed times came.  And the time before that it was the same. You're saving up memories of the low times and stretching them out to cover the good times. Maybe you should do the opposite."

So that's what I started doing.  I've started setting up a mental change jar; a place to intentionally store positive memories, to save them for a rainy day.  Any time I have a God-led moment, or see someone I've been greeting for months finally come to church, or even just have an especially positive interaction, I intentionally save that memory, keeping it in reserve to focus on during the down times; like dropping coins into the jar on the counter.

For example, I recently took the little boys to visit our special resident friend Josef (you've met Josef in previous posts), and while they were talking to him he reached out and took my hand.  He rarely reaches out to anyone, and he just sat there holding my hand while my two youngest shared some little-boyish adventures with him.  On my way out of the room, I said to myself "Now, keep this to remember next time your interactions with Josef get discouraging." 

And this past week, I needed it.
On Sunday, Josef motioned me to come in, made a place for me to sit on his bed....and then continued watching TV as if I wasn't there.  My few attempts to engage him in conversation fell flat, so I just sat.  Men don't need as many words as women, and sometimes they just enjoy having company to sit with them and do...whatever they're doing.  But I looked up at one point to find he'd fallen asleep in his wheelchair!  This was a bummer, and a couple months ago this would have put a damper on my whole day.  

But not this time.

When I realized he'd fallen asleep, I laid a hand gently on his shoulder and prayed a blessing over him, then tiptoed out of his room.  And when I was tempted to feel let-down, I trotted out the memory I'd put in my change jar, and walked off cheerfully to visit Susan.

This idea is useful no matter what ministry you're involved in.  Set up a mental change jar to deposit examples of God's blessings and faithfulness, to remind yourself that, even if you don't always see the way God is working...He is working, nonetheless.  

"Trust in the Lord, and do good; Dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness." Psalm 37:3

Monday, September 1, 2014

Cowboy Church!

A great rollicking good time was had at the Community Care Center (CCC) today!  Particularly by the team… We started with Cowboy Church at 10: Bruce, Patrick and David played guitar/drums for some good old fashioned Gospel singin’. Laura and Renee led the singing.  Elizabeth and Titus dressed up in their western garb and helped sing, Patricia helped sing and serve communion, Patti smiled a lot, the boys and girls sang, and Glenn bounced around making everyone laugh.
And we needed to laugh - the whole thing started out as a comedy of errors.  The resident/pastor who was engaged to preach forgot (even though he showed me his message and I reminded him on Wednesday and Thursday) and went out with his wife.  I found this out at 9:30.  The guys got set up and we found there were no microphones in the gear we borrowed from the church, so Bruce drove back to church to get some.  He returned with ten minutes to set up, but after 20 minutes the PA system still would not work, so we went acoustic. 

But guess what? The Lord was working, and it was perfect. 

Due to the late start, we didn’t have time for a real message anyway, so a communion meditation  sufficed all ‘round.  The service went long – until nearly 10:50, but nobody wanted to leave.
This was the most-attended event this year: 38 residents!  One Jehovah’s Witness, one confirmed anti-church person, three lone rangers (who don't come because they can do religion quite well on their own, thank you very much, and two new residents, among others.  The gospel was presented clearly, and those who were able and willing took Communion. Afterward, David stayed and showed Josef how the box drum worked.

One new lady came and I was surprised to see her. On my way to bring Bob up from downstairs, I had seen her at the outside doorway, screaming obscenities at a nurse.  She appeared in the middle of the first song and sat down as calmly as you please, singing along with great gusto.  She left before communion was served.  I saw her later and asked her name and let her know she was welcome to join us for church any time.  She hung her head.

“The devil was at work in my life this morning,” she said.  “And I was not going to come to church at all. But the Lord wanted me in there and when I heard the music I just came right on in – I couldn’t help myself. I needed to be there – while you were talking I realized I had to go and find that nurse and apologize and make it right. I’m very sorry for the way I behaved. I shamed myself and the Lord and I’m going to do better for Him, after all He’s done for me.”

I heard about Cowboy church all afternoon. Every time I turned around someone was thanking me for the music and the service and for having Communion. One of the men (who sometimes has trouble finding the right words) was having a family visit in the afternoon, and he called me over and said, "I've been telling my daughter all about the wonderful hobo music we had in church today!"
"Hobo music?!?!" I exclaimed, "What do you mean HOBO music?  That was my HUSBAND up there!  I'm going to tell him you said that.  Hobo music indeed...."  And we all laughed about it until our stomachs hurt.

And then I went to visit Kellie.  She was the first person I ever visited.
On that long ago day I walked in to see this stranger, worried about what I was going to say and how I would know whether she was open to talking about spiritual things.   I found her alone in a dark room staring at a blank wall (she’s nearly blind).  She looked up at me and barked, “Is it hot out?”
“Um, no, I said.  It’s October, so it’s rather chilly, actually.”
“Oh,” she said, and then “Well, the rapture's coming.”
She’s a firm believer and enthusiastic second-coming discusser.  But since her last hospitalization in March, she has grown increasingly silent, though she often she calls out “Help me, oh help me!” or “Oh God!”  into the empty air. So often that one of the men in her hallway (who’s a bit confused and doesn’t do names well) once missed her and asked me ‘When is Oh God coming back?”) 

Today I was speaking with another resident in the hall and heard Kellie crying out in her room so I stopped in to see her.  To my surprise, she made some responses to my questions.  Then she started moaning again, “Help me!” “Oh, God!”  “Please help me!”
“What do you need, Kellie?”
“I don’t need anything.”
“You keep saying 'Help me.' What do you need help with?”
These are questions I have asked her before, many times, and which she has never answered.  And she didn’t answer this time.  But as I looked down at her, understanding finally blasted into my brain.
“Wait – you’re not talking to me, are you?”
“It’s a prayer, isn’t it?”
And she said, relived, “Yes, it is.”
“What do you want Him to help you with, Kellie?”
With tears in her eyes, she answered, “I want Him to come for me. I’m ready. Why is He waiting so long?  And I’m scared. Scared witless.”
“Why?  What frightens you?”
“I….I just don’t know. But it’s terrible. Oh, God!  Please help me!”
“I’ll pray that with you right now. Let’s talk to Him together, alright?’
“I started with ‘Oh God, please help Kellie!’ and the Holy Spirit led us in prayer.  A long prayer.  And she participated, which I think was a first.
And that was only one of the ways God was working at The CCC yesterday; it was a truly blessed day!