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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Learning to Discuss

Maybe you have heard this story …

Two men were having a rather heated discussion while a third watched from a distance. After a bit the two shook hands and went their separate ways. One of the men was a friend of the third and walked up to him. The watcher commented, “You two were having quite a discussion, but you seemed to end it well. What happened?”

“Oh, we were arguing about which candidate is best,” said the fellow, “but we agreed in the end that we would only cancel each other’s vote and decided not to vote at all.” The man looked a little sheepish.

“What’s wrong?” said the third, “you look a bit guilty.”

“Well,” admitted the man, “I’ve made that same deal with four other people already.”

There are certain things that everyone hates. Fingernails on a chalkboard or squeaking on a balloon. Rain on a picnic day.Mosquitoes. But most of all, political commercials.

I have never heard someone say, “I really like the political commercials because they help me decide how to vote.” And, yet, they must work to some degree because some very smart people spend lots of money on them.

These issues and these candidates are important and it is wise to know something about the issues. But I’m not writing this to comment on any specific issue or on politics at all. Instead I’m thinking about how we go about discussing issues of any kind.

Think about the following comments (which I’ve heard in various versions from people or in commercials):
“All Republicans/Democrats/Conservative/Liberals are idiots.”
“A person would have to be crazy to vote yes/no on that issue.”
“Everything so-n-so says is just a lie.”

I could go on. Do any of those things encourage a discussion? I don’t think so. They are what were called “Killer Phrases” at Altru Health System's Healthcare Horizons event. They stop everything and folks scatter or rush to change the subject.

Now, move from politics to work or family life, to community events or church. Doesn’t this happen all the time? We start to discuss an issue of any kind, but someone (maybe us!) says something which ends the discussion.

We know Killer Phrases when we hear them. Usually they are emotional and bring out emotional responses. Often they are attacks upon a person or group of persons. Sometimes they are meant to stop discussion.

A spouse says to her husband, “You keep our bedroom and your clothes like you are a 10-year-old.” Now, that’s probably true. But isn’t the goal to improve things and not just start an emotional argument?

At work someone says, “The management isn’t very bright and they don’t understand us.” Notice how broad a brush is used. Again there is a personal attack and this one is topped off by including everyone in whether they agree or not “they don’t understand us.’” There may be real issues to discuss, but this doesn’t call for discussion but renders a final verdict.

We could keep going to talk about issues at home or at the gym or with extended family. But step one in stopping Killer Phrases is clear: Try to avoid saying any. Let’s ask ourselves if what we want to say will help discussion or end it. Will our words heighten emotions or focus on issues? Can we disagree in an agreeable sort of way?  Who knows, maybe we will find out something we didn’t know before? Maybe we’ll even understand an issue better or change our mind. Miracles do happen, you know.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Joy and Sorrow Hand in Hand

I attend a lot of funerals.  I suspect I attend more funerals, prayer services and visitations than almost anyone.  Many funeral bulletin or folders have little verses inside of them.  I will have to confess that I'm not impressed by too many of them. 

Some of these short poems are a little shallow or speak as if grief isn't the powerful force that I know it to be.  Some even offend me a bit such as those which speak of God needing an angel and that's why this person died.  I'd rather not blame God. 

But, I don't think I should be able to criticize without trying to do something myself.  So, here's my attempt at a funeral verse. 

Joy and Sorrow Hand in Hand


Life is my Savior’s gift from the Father above,

Where I find joy in family, job and human love.

But with the joy came sad events I hadn’t planned

So I discovered that sorrow and joy walk hand in hand. 


As a child I saw life as an adventure to explore,

I had sandbox fun, loved friends and so much more.

Yet early on came illness, pain and troubles to the sand,

In my youth I learned sorrows and joys walk hand in hand.


I found one to marry, and we had kids to boot.

What happiness there was as our family took root!

But death came too, and problems to our family band,

Which mixed together sorrow and joy, walking hand in hand.


And now I’m gone, I’ve died, don’t be afraid of the word.

For I still have life, eternal life and the joy of which you’ve heard.

You will mourn, you must, but laugh as well for living demands,

That we all realize joy and sorrow always walk hand in hand. 


So treasure our shared memories and enjoy every single one

Forget not the sorrows of life for they show how much we’ve done.

This is not the end, we will once again together stand,

But for you, for a moment, sorrow and joy continue hand in hand. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Winter Blues


1.  Take a moment to pause and reflect … about the blues.  Perhaps you have heard of “Blue Monday” which happened back on January 6.  According to a British sort-of study that’s the most depressing day of the year.  Christmas is over, regular workdays are starting again and there’s nothing to look forward to.  Another media outlet, by the way, says the big day for the blues is the Monday after Martin Luther King day, which was January 27 this year.  That’s about the time the credit card bills for holidays shopping come in the mail. 
            Personally, I don’t know why we pick on Mondays or on January.  We can feel blue anytime.  Yes, the snow and the cold are hard on us and can contribute.  But there is also the depression of finding that spring and summer still contain the same problems we faced in winter.
This week, let’s talk about the blues during these devotionals.  I’ve almost used my whole one minute for today, so let me give you one quick thought which might help.  Feeling blue is normal.  Everyone has the blues sometime.  So don’t make it worse by beating up on yourself because you think it only happened to you.  As the Bible says, “The rain (or the snow) falls on the just and the unjust alike.”  Everyone.
Let’s pray:  “Gracious God, thank-you for being with us when we are blue and when we are bursting with excitement.  Whatever the day may bring, Lord, lead, guide and strengthen us.  In your name.  Amen.”
2.  Take a moment to pause and reflect … on winter blues. 
            Let’s see, someone is feeling blue, down and depressed.  It seems that you get up and have coffee just like always, but the feeling remains.  You watch the same programs on TV and sit in the same chair as before but the blueness doesn’t go away.
            Hmmm.  One suggestion.  Try something different.  I’m not suggesting change for change sake, but try moving around instead of sitting.  Some folks call that exercise and doctors have been known to suggest it makes a difference for winter, or any other kind of blues.  
            Instead of watching the same programs as before, try something different.  I don’t mean just change the channel.  Go out to a movie, and not alone.  Call a friend and ask how they are doing.  Read a book.  But something new and engaging.
            You heard about the farmer who said he could never visit his neighbors, “because the ruts in the road only lead me back home.”  Yes, I’m thinking of the old cliché, “Get out of the rut.”  There’s nothing magical about this, but something different and positive can’t hurt.  And, by calling a friend for example, even if you don’t help yourself you might help someone else. 
            Jesus says in the Bible that a person should never put new wine in old wineskins.  They will be stiff and break.  Put new wine in new wineskins.  In terms of the blues, put your hope for a new attitude, perspective and life in a new wineskin – a new and flexible way of doing things.
            Let us pray.  “Thank-you God for walking with me during difficult things.  Help us to find ways to return joy to our hearts.  Amen.”
3.  Take a moment to pause and reflect … about the blues.  We all feel blue sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with that.  But what can we do about it?  The psalmist has an idea. 
In Psalm 42 we read these words:  “Why are you so downcast, O my soul?  Why so disturbed within me?”  The writer is talking to himself.  But even more curious, he is asking himself questions.
Actually that’s a good place to start as we deal with the blues.  What is really making us blue?  Perhaps we’d say it is because we are grieving a loved one.  Yes, but what about the loved one is on your mind?  Maybe we’d say, “I just miss having coffee with him/her each morning.”  If we know what triggers the blue feeling we can understand it and make some plans.  Maybe at coffee time in the morning, we have a picture album to do some remembering.  Maybe that’s a good time to call a good friend or write a note to a grandson. 
I don’t have a prescription, but the Psalmist knew and I know that we can better deal with problems, stresses or the blues if we know what they are.
So, talk to yourself – “Soul, why are you down today?  What’s really on the mind?”
And, then, as the Psalmist did, take it to prayer.  The Psalmist said, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him.”  Let us pray.
Gracious God, you do know us better than we know ourselves.  Help us to see what’s going on in our spirit.  And, once we know, help us to give it to you.  Amen.
4.  Take a moment to pause and reflect … about the blues.  On Monday we learned the blues are normal.  On Tuesday, we thought about doing something different.  Wednesday, we learned to talk to our spirit to see what is actually going on in our life.  Today, I’d like to suggest that the blues are a good thing. 
            Wait, you might protest, I don’t want to be depressed.  Don’t get me wrong.  Chronic, long-term depression is one thing and it should be treated.  Occasional or even fairly frequent feelings of blues can be positive.
            I thought of this during Christmas when I shared at more-than-one “Blue Christmas” service.  When we were gathered remembering and grieving loved ones, supporting and caring about one another and asking God for help, what was the rest of the world doing?  Madly running about trying to fill their wishes for a Merry Christmas by spending much and hurrying here and there.  Which one is better?  Which one will give you more satisfaction?
            You see, when we are blue, we slow down, focus (or CAN focus) on important things and have an opportunity to think through our priorities.  And any blue “tears” we shed might be followed by a genuine smile at the good things in our life which we can think about during our blues.
            Psalm 46 starts by talking about “trouble” in the first verse but ends with the familiar “Be Still and know I am God.”  When I’m blue, I’m more likely to be still and more likely to find lasting joy in the God I serve.
            “Gracious God, use the times I slow down and feel blue to help me grow and find real peace in you.  Amen.   
5.  Take a moment to pause and reflect … about the blues.   I heard, one time, about an experiment done with a Northern Pike.  A Northern is a very aggressive fish and it loves to eat.  The experiment put a Northern on one side of a large aquarium and a smaller fish, perhaps a perch on the other.  A clear glass window was in between.  The Northern, of course, attacked but slammed into the glass instead of getting its jaws on the perch.  This happened several times until the Northern got the message – the perch is unavailable.  And the Northern stopped trying. 
            After a bit the experimenters withdrew the separating glass.  The perch was very available and the two eventually swam right next to each other.  But the message was still with the Northern – it’s not available.
            I wonder if that doesn’t happen to us.  For whatever reason we are blue and it lasts long enough that we begin to wonder if we can ever again be happy … or laugh … or be joyful. 
            Back to our friend, the Northern.  I wonder – could he ever eat again?  Did he just give us and starve? 
            Hey, let’s not give up.  There is joy to be had and a smile can again be felt.  Don’t give into the idea, “Hey I can never be happy again.”  That’s what we call a self-fulfilling prophecy. 
            King David writes in Psalm 30, “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”  Yes, it’s possible.
            “Gracious God, we get dis-encouraged so easily.  Help us to see all the good things which are still possible for us, we ask in your name, Amen.”

Friday, December 20, 2013

Christmas and Feeling Blue

A Christmas Greeting from Altru’s Hospice  Chaplain                            Christmas 2013
            I am Altru’s Hospice Chaplain so I work with terminally ill patients.  But please don’t stop reading.  I promise I won’t just depress you.
            In my work and outside of work I hear folks talking about one person or another with a serious disease who might soon leave this earth.  And caring folks will often say, “I hope Fred doesn’t die during Christmas.  It will be so hard on the family. It will ruin Christmas for them.”  I never know what exactly to say to that.  What’s hard is not the season but the fact we are losing someone precious.
            So this might surprise you.  If I could choose when I leave this earth, I think I would pick Advent and the Christmas season.  Why?  I want to hear (and want my family to hear) about “Joy to the world” because the Lord has come.  I would like to have someone sing “Silent Night” at my bedside (if there is time) because my leaving this earth is a “Holy Night” for my soul.
            My family knows how I think about these things and, I believe, they would find time to remember how dad/grandpa enjoyed Christmas.  And they would hear my voice in their minds saying, “Have fun with each other.  Go ahead and be sad that we are apart, but have joy you are together!”
            Do you feel sadness or grief during this year?  Could you agree with what Elvis sang, “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you”?   I’ve come to think that our blue feelings are normal, nothing to be ashamed of and perhaps a better way to keep Christmas.
            I was at several “Blue Christmas” events this year.  Each time I thought what I could be doing instead – rushing here and there, buying stuff and worrying about whether my Christmas Cards were done.  Instead I was gathered with a small group of people remembering and honoring our precious loved ones who have left this life for the next.  We were worshipping the Christ of Christmas and asking for His help.  We were reflecting on what is important to us: people, values and faith.  Those are good things to do!  We should take some satisfaction that we honored Christmas by doing them. 
            I know many people have had grief and losses well beyond measure and certainly beyond what I have experienced.  Even the Christmas story tells us about that kind of pain.  Can you imagine what it was like for Mary to be an unmarried pregnant teenager who knew she’d done nothing wrong?  Or, think about the burden of everyone going to their own town to be counted so the king could better tax them. 
            And, after the wise men came to see the Christ and left without reporting back to Herod, do you remember what he did?  Hoping to kill the Christ, he ordered every boy under two in Bethlehem to be slaughtered.  The words of Matthew 2:18 echo for me, “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning.  Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more.”  Horrible.  But even for these parents there can be some help, some comfort when they finally accept it.   
            This Christmas let’s not pretend we have no troubles or grief. If you feel “blue” don’t feel guilty about it or try to pretend you have the “Christmas spirit.”  Be honest about the pain. But also remember the joy, the presence of people who love us and the Lord who came to earth for us and faced pain, hurt and hardship just for you and me.  At Christmas, most of all times, joy and sorrow walk hand in hand. 
            Have a blessed season.
                                                                        Mark Ellingson
                                                                        Altru’s Hospice Chaplain

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


Word for the Day
Today’s Word:  Better
Two men are walking in the woods when they come face-to-face with a bear. The bear growls and charges and the two men turn and run.
The first man says to the second, “You know you can’t outrun a bear, don’t you?”
The second man replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.”
We might snicker at this story. Yet there is truth we might see all over in real life, whether or not we meet a bear. When there is trouble, struggles in the economy or stresses at work, people might think just that way. “If I can just stay ahead of that person, or that department, the trouble will stay away from me (‘I’ll outrun the bear’).”
The world has many places of economic pressure. We hear about such places on the television, but those are far away. Even the United States is encountering troubles, but mostly somewhere else. But there comes a time when our company or our family has to deal with difficulties. Here at Altru Health System where I work and in Health Care in general we live in times when many things, maybe all things, are changing. Reimbursements are in flux, the old way of doing business is questioned and there is pressure on all Health Care Institutions. The bear is no longer chasing someone else.
We all worry. So it is pretty easy to think the best thing is to outrun the next guy to escape the bear. For example, many hospitals don’t have Altru’s commitment to spiritual care and willingly cut chaplain services. After all chaplains don’t bandage wounds or prescribe medications!  Let’s all be slow to point fingers at someone/something which we think might be appetizing to the bear. 
The greatest problem with trying to outrun others is that we don’t think or work on real solutions. Bears are pretty impressive animals. But we humans, when we work together, can make good plans and perhaps even tame the bear altogether. Perhaps these three simple questions will help.
How can you/I be better?  OI know that question sounds like code for “Work harder! Work longer!”  Well, that’s not what I’m thinking. Often we can get better not by doing more, but by doing less in a better way. In fact, if we push our hours and fail to take care of ourselves with time off, eating well and getting sleep – well, our work will suffer. I’ve been thinking I need to set aside a small amount of time to do important tasks (like writing) which can get lost in my hurry. Funny thing, for me, writing helps me do other things better.  What makes you better? 
How can you/I help others be better? What do you think about the two men I started with? Are they still friends, assuming they both got away from the bear? Not likely. It’s a very simple fact of life. When we work with only our own self in mind we don’t make others better, actually don’t do our job well and rarely get our own needs met. But when we work together for the common good, our own good also is improved!
Think of those you work with. How could you help them? How could you improve your workspace? I suppose there’s a multitude of ways, but they mostly start with our attitude. Our outlook on life is contagious, whether it is good and positive, or fearful and negative.
How can you/I help the Organization be better? I am part of several organizations (and you probably are as well). When I was a local pastor I used to repeat the words of another preacher who said, “When you leave the church today, you are a walking advertisement for the church. It’s as if you are walking down the street with a sign which says, ‘Look at me.  This is what the church is like.’” The same might be said of our work. I am always aware that anyone I see might soon be a patient, or the family member of a patient. I try to act accordingly.
What can you do to strengthen any of the groups to which you belong? What do your words say? What attitude do you carry from work? Do you speak about “they” and “them” or use the words “we” and “us”?  And, remember, our thought-through input can make a difference!
            I think in life we have a choice.  We can fearfully try to outrun bears and other people, or we can work together to come up with the next good (maybe even great idea).  I like the second way better. 
Word for the Day: Prepare. I work primarily with Hospice Patients, people who can see the end of their life coming more clearly than the rest of us. So, I have heard the following phrase many times: "We had always planned on … " The phrase gets ended in many different ways. Some folks planned on taking a trip, or going on another honeymoon, or building on to their home, or something as simple as sorting through all the family snapshots. But you can tell by how the phrase begins that this hadn’t happened and maybe there’s just a bit of regret. Plans are funny things. Have you ever looked at the “plans” for a building? The details, at least in some cases, are revealing. You can see the plan for every door, window and outlet. I suspect most so-called “plans” for our lives aren’t anywhere near that detailed. In fact, if we are honest, our plans mostly consist of talking about something(s) we’d like to do, mixed with a generous amount of wishful thinking. That’s why I think the word “preparation” is so important. When we prepare we actually take some action step. If it is a trip, maybe we need a passport or a savings account set aside for travel. If we want to put our pictures in some order maybe we ought to buy some scrapbooks or just call the family together for a surprise “picture party.” The same thing happens at work, doesn’t it? We all want to have the best workplace ever and perhaps even talk about “plans” to make it that way. But those ideas fall to the wayside in the busy-ness of what we do. How about picking one personal action step to make your workplace better? Let me ask you a question. What are your actions leading toward? Is everything you do just looking to retirement and what we anticipate there? That’s a good place for planning. But what about all the days between now and then? Some folks waste a lot of life looking forward only to some time years in the future. So what is the focus of our preparation? Prepare to make the world a better place. Wow, isn’t that abstract? But there’s truth there. What actions can we take to make the world more positive? What words would we say (or refrain from saying)? What would we do around work to make the environment more satisfying for more people? Prepare to grow great relationships. When you make a list of “most important things” in your life your relationships with family, friends, God and others will likely be high on the list. What actions can we take to grow those relationships? We all have discovered that just being in the same place at the same time doesn’t always do the trick. Do we need time set aside for just talking at family gatherings? Do we need to find ways to connect at work? Prepare to be replaced. There is an old truth: “Everyone can be replaced.” But there’s more to it. Everyone will be replaced … someday. There aren’t many better goals than to make the job easier, clearer and more positive for whoever will follow. What can you do about that? I don’t know your plans or “wishful thinkings.” I do know that, in your life (your family, your work, everywhere) it is wise to make preparations for things good and bad. Make out your will and your advance directive. And whatever you would like to do ask this: what’s the first step? And then take it. Have no regrets. Make preparations instead of just plans.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Word for the Day
Today’s Word:  Dwell

            Just last week I found something on Ebay which I very much wanted to buy.  It was a used Badge a Minit button maker which sells for $400 new.  Since the company will service these machines for free a used one is as good as a new one.  The bid sat at $70 and I would have paid $200 without hesitation.  I knew I could sell it again as this one was poorly advertised (the owner didn’t know what he had). 
            I made a mental note of when the bidding would be done (about 5:00 pm the next day) and waited to put in my overall bid.  I figured that if I put it in too early I would pay more than if I did just a few minutes before the bidding ended.
            You know the problem, don’t you?  It’s that “mental note” I made.  I didn’t use permanent ink.  Just a few minutes after the bidding finished I thought about it.  The machine sold for $90.  I was frustrated, enough so that I had trouble concentrating on other things that night.  I “dwelled” on the mistake. 
            Yes, I know what you might be thinking:  “It’s just a machine.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  Forget about it.”  Yes, I know.  But let’s be fair.  Can you think of a time you did or didn’t do something?  Perhaps it was words you meant to say or ones you regret.  Perhaps you missed a great concert or game or forgot some other thing.  Can you remember the frustration?  What would you think if my first words were to you, “Just forget about it”?
            Of course we should forget about these things.  But many of us relive them.  If only I’d put in the bid earlier.  If only I’d put an alarm on my phone.  We go over these events in our mind as if we can change them or somehow make them different.  Even over a button machine, we get distracted. 
            Should it be any surprise to us that people have great trouble overcoming the regrets of life in bigger matters?  Of course, we can really help them by pointing out, “You can’t do anything about it. She died.  You got sick.  He left.   Just forget it.”  No, that doesn’t help. 
            We humans are really rather smart.  I’m even slightly smart.  I knew my frustration wasn’t worth it.  I knew I couldn’t change my bid.  I knew what was past was past and could not be altered.  So it wouldn’t be very helpful for someone to point that out.  What did I need?  And what do those with bigger troubles need?
            Patience.  I suppose my spouse is the one who must endure this the most.  She has learned that usually I will get through it.  And most people will work through struggles when they have people around who will cut them some slack. 
            A safe place to vent.  Sometimes voicing the frustration in a safe place (safe for me and for others) really does help.  One of the early ways I fell in love with my wife was the way she listened to me after my dad died suddenly.  She didn’t try to fix me or give me advice.  She listened. 
            Wisdom to draw the line.  Yes, there does come a time to go back to life and not allow our small or big regrets to dominate.  I know that.  But sometimes a friend needs to remind me, doing so kindly as a person who is similarly faulted at times. 
            Something to do.  I am a championship “dweller.”  That is, I can think and think about one thing.  One solution is to do something.  Perhaps it is something we can do about the regret (I’m watching Ebay for the next opportunity).  Perhaps it is something we enjoy (nothing fixes my life like playing tennis or watching “Castle” with my wife).  But doing clears out some faulty thinking. 
            Well, I feel better.  My missed bid gave me something to write about and now it is (mostly) off my mind.  I better go check Ebay.