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Thursday, October 6, 2016


Time is a funny thing.  Something you are going to do tomorrow, becomes next week and then next year.  It's now next year.

I haven't posted in this blog for over a year.  My job changed and I moved (though not so far).  And, instead of being a "Hospice Chaplain" I am now a "Chaplain Manager." 

So, here's a new post.  But who will read it? 

Isn't that one reason many things in our lives fall by the wayside?  We wait for a while and then enough time goes by that we wonder, "Does it even matter anymore?"  I meant to send that thank-you note, but now it is so much later -- so won't it seem strange?

There are a couple of lessons for me to learn.

First, if something is valuable, do it now.  I like to write.  If for no other reason, that should get me to blog.  If you (assuming there is a "you" out there) happen to read it, so much the better.

Second, let's try to avoid "decision by neglect."  I had a stack of papers on my desk which I thought I should do something about, but decided to do that something another day.  Recently I threw almost all of them away.  Any that might have been interesting were past. 

I probably sound like I'm talking about blogs or paperwork or mail.  Try applying this to our relationships.  If something is valuable, do it now.  It's not hard to think about the words we should have said to another person.  Or how about decision by neglect.  I meant to do something.  But eventually the friendship just goes away or our marriage gets weaker not because of anything we've actually decided but because the decision was made by our neglect.  Ouch.

Anyway, if anyone is reading, thanks.  Expect to hear more from me in the coming days.  You may not need it, but I do.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Fun as Part of Life

            So, are you ready? You know, for National Have Fun at Work Day which is Wednesday, January 28.  This is not to be confused with the International Have Fun at Work Day which is April 1.  We know what kind of one-sided fun that would be.
            Perhaps you are wondering if “Have Fun at Work” is a real day.  Well, the government didn’t establish it and, obviously, you won’t get off work to celebrate but you will find it listed on the various web sites which list “National Days of.” 
            It seems to me we should ask fewer questions and get around to planning the fun we wish to have.  If you look at the various web sites or articles about Fun at Work day most of the suggestions are for what bosses or others in charge should do to make the day one of, well, of fun.  But that’s wrong.  Fun, it seems to me, doesn’t come from the top down, but from all of us. 
            So, what shall we do for fun?
            I know that some would feel that a fun day at work would mean doing nothing.  Well, I’m sorry to spoil the fun, but National Do Nothing Day is past, having come and gone on January 16 (a real non-event, if you ask me).
            Others might suggest parties or food or games.  Well, there’s a time for all of that (April 3, according to the web), but I’m not sure parties always mean fun.  Truth is, when I go to a party at work there’s always a little someone in the back of my mind saying, “Hey, when are you going to get your work done?”
            Should we tell more jokes or stories (yes, there is a National Joke Day – August 16).  Hey, I like stories and please feel free to send me something funny or enjoyable.  But a whole day of that?  Pass.
            National Fun at Work day faces the same problem as Mother’s Day.  There’s something wrong if we honor moms only one day a year, right?  And if we have fun only once at work that might not be enough to keep us working. 
            So, here’s my plan.  I will see what fun can be had on January 28.  But I am not waiting until then to enjoy life at work.  Nor will I stop afterward.  I need joy, some fun and folks to share it with.  This, of course, comes from a man who works with Altru’s Hospice where sickness and death are daily.  Some might wonder how there can be any fun at work.
            I was visiting an elderly gentleman.  He told me, “I want to die.”  He didn’t want to continue to live in his now old and sick body.  I nodded and didn’t try to talk him out of his view.  A minute or so later he talked about doctors.  “All these different kinds of doctors,” he said, “I just call them all doctors.  Even the windshield doctor.”  As he said this I saw the twinkle in his eye and a little start of a smile as he looked at me to make sure I got it.  I did. 
            No, this man didn’t want to live like this much longer.  But he still lived with a bit of fun even at that.  And, when he leaves this world for the next I will remember he has what he wanted.  But I will also remember his view of doctors. And a little smile will come back to my face.  Life always has a little fun.  Let’s live it that way. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Miss G

    I work with Altru’s Hospice.  A person may come under hospice care only when a doctor confirms a terminal diagnosis of six months or less.  So I am well-acquainted with dying, so much so that some people ask me how I handle it.  I have moments when what I do “gets to me,” but generally I find the privilege and what I receive is greater than what I give.
                But let me tell you about a death that is nagging at me.  I remember her as Miss G (though she later married), who taught speech and drama at my high school.  I talked to her a couple of times after graduating, but not for many years.  I heard, just weeks ago, that she had died.  She was in her sixties, which is too young but not quite tragic.  She wasn’t family, or someone I regularly (or even occasionally) saw.  So why does it bug me?
                I know that one reason is the pleasant memories and feelings brought to my memory.  There were speech tournaments and one act plays.  She cast me as the principal in Up the Down Staircase and asked me to be the MC at the coronation of football royalty.  Truth is I probably had one of those teen-age crushes on her.
                From where I stand now I realize how important a part Miss G played in my life.  She talked me into doing speech and drama and helped me to practice some of the gifts given to me by God.  Gifts I use regularly, if differently, now.  She helped crack the shell I lived within to give me confidence as a speaker, a student and as a person. 
                And I never got to tell her. 
                There.  That’s it.  I would like to say Thank-you, but I’ve missed the chance.  If I had sent her a note or given her a call to say some of this, I think the memory would be almost wholly positive. 
                So, why am I writing this?  Obviously I want everyone who reads these words to feel guilty about the people you haven’t thanked and your failures to appreciate others!  Actually, that’s not why.  No matter how many thank-you notes we send there will always be another Miss G which we might miss.  Guilt is no good.  I don’t want to emphasize the negative.  Let’s go the other way.
                Every time we seek out a Miss G and show a little appreciation we change our lives and the world.  In a very real sense this showing of thanks is almost more for us than for those we thank.  Doesn’t showing appreciation make you feel good?  Doesn’t unexpectedly showing someone thanks make it feel almost like Christmas?  I have a file of little thank-you notes I’ve received.  I might forget what gifts I received at Christmas, but those little words on paper refresh my soul. 
                Today is a day of opportunity for me and for you.  There are people close to us and some who now live far away who deserve a little thank-you.  We will never get to all of them.  But what fun, and what positive energy, comes when we show appreciation to just one.
                Oh, I just checked and another favorite teacher and coach, Mr. T, is still living and I have his address.  Now, where are those thank-you notes … ?

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