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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. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Word for the Day

Today’s Word:  Self Esteem.  (Or is that two words?)

            The brain is extraordinary.  Who can understand all the ways our brains work?  However, research is revealing many of the brain’s secrets, as I learned at a workshop sponsored by the Institute for Brain Potential.  Much of the workshop focused on people with high-conflict personalities and strategies to work with them and help them.
            Dr. Dennis Marikis, our presenter, told us up front that the most important interventions are “early interventions.”  As he shared he got to talking about so-called self-esteem.  “When a person receives nothing but praise this actually diminishes self.  Only when a person recognizes their weaknesses can they feel good about themselves.”  Then our speaker put it another way, “Self-esteem is seeing that you ‘suck at’ some things and still feel valued.”
            I got to thinking about the people I have worked with over my life.  It is true.  Some of the folks who were most unreasonable had never had to face their own failings and faults.  In the seminar we learned strategies for working with people like that.  But I’m not going to talk about “other people” here. Something else occurred to me. 
            I wonder if we don’t first need to work with ourselves.
            In my first “unit” of Clinical Pastoral Education I was confronted with my personal shyness and difficulty in saying “no.”  In my second unit I discovered just how much my relationship with my father affected me.  But it wasn’t until my fourth unit that I was shown once again just how much I craved affirmation.  That is totally human and we all need some affirmation.  But seeking for “pats on the back” can get in the way of true self-confidence and even hinder doing good work!  We all need to learn that it’s OK to not be good at everything and normal to mess up once in a while. 
            So think about yourself. 
+Like me, you have some things you just don’t do well.  My spouse doesn’t ever ask me to cook something unless she puts out specific and detailed instructions.  On the other hand I wash a mean load of clothes!
            +Also, you probably have things you know you could do better and should do better.  I listen to folks “on the job” pretty well.  I’m not sure my family always thinks I listen to them as well.  I can improve my listening skills. 
            +And even with some things we do well, we sometimes fail.  I believe I offer good and appropriate spiritual support.  But there have been occasions I failed.  That’s not something I like to admit.  But even after failures I am valued.  Even (some) folks who helped point out my “areas needing improvement” still think I’m a quality person.  Now, that’s true self-esteem.
            We need … we all need … people who can say, “Hey, you messed up, didn’t you?  I’m still glad you are on my team.” 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Death and Laughter

Word for the Day

Today’s Word:  Death.

WARNING:  If you are easily offended, stop reading now.  Really.

            I don’t remember very much from the very first funeral at which I officiated.  The lady was elderly and I was only a pulpit fill preacher.  I hadn’t been to any schooling or training.  Truth is, I really didn’t know what to do.  So … I was nervous.
            The lady was in her 80s and her main relative was an 87 year old brother.  Before the service was to begin at the funeral home I gathered with the small family in a side room for prayer.  When it was about time to start I said to the brother, “Are you ready to go?”  Just like he had been waiting for the chance, he smiled and said, “What, are you already looking for your next funeral?”  He told everyone, “The pastor wants to know if I’m ready to go too!”
            I don’t remember much more, though I know it threw me off for a while.  Death is serious business and as a young guy I thought we should approach it that way.  I wasn’t wrong.  I just wasn’t fully right.
            The best and most healing funerals give us a chance to smile and remember, very often an opportunity to laugh about funny things.  These days I look for the chance to bring a chuckle, appropriately – not with a silly joke, but with the foibles of life shown in a person we love, but have lost.
I recently attended a Broadway musical titled, “The Addams Family” based on the TV show.  If you remember the show, you know it had plenty of humor about death, dying, killing and torture.  In the musical, Morticia, the mother of the family had a fight with her husband and is distraught.  But she remembers the one thing which can help and sings a song “Just Around the Corner.”  What’s around the corner?  Death, and that makes her happy.  She even quips to the audience, “No, you don’t get it – just around the coroner.”  It was funny.  I laughed.
One basic way we handle difficult things in life is to laugh.  One way to cut the big troubles of life down to size is to make fun of them.  I can imagine there are those who would be offended when we laugh at death or make fun of it.  And we certainly have to have some wisdom about when and how. 
Did you hear about the little boy who crawled up on his grandpa’s lap and asked, “Grandpa, when’s the game?”
“What game?” asked grandpa.
“The football game, the one you are playing in,” explained the boy.
“What makes you think I play football?” queried the grandfather.
“Well,” said the boy, “I heard mom and dad talking.  They said when you kick off we’ll be on easy street.”
Funny?  Maybe.  Dumb.  For sure. 
We need to laugh.  We need to make fun of our mortality, even while we face it.  And death, well, there is a time to make light and a time to be serious.  We need both.
One of my earliest experiences was the horrible and tragic death of two-year-old Ryan in a tractor accident.  Nothing funny.  But a few days later when all the farmers came over to put in the family’s crop, there was laughter in the house at something, who knows what?  And mom said, “We haven’t heard laughter here for a while.  It’s good.”
Laughing is good.  Cutting death down to a size we can handle with faith or the funnies or both – well, that’s good too. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Waiting as a Gift

Word for the Day

Today’s Word:  Wait

            I live a long half hour from my work at Altru’s Hospice and I know how much time to allow.  Usually.  But today I pull up to the town of Thompson just as a train arrived and the arms came down across highway 15.
            So I wait.
            No one likes to wait.  No one.  At no time.
            I have put items back on a shelf when the check-out lines would make me wait.  On a phone call we rarely enjoy the music because it means we are waiting!   We wait impatiently in traffic, at the doctor’s office and for the kitchen timer to announce “dinner time” with a ding. 
            People look at waiting as a necessary evil, at best, and something to avoided whenever possible.  That attitude stretches to other parts of life too.  Youth don’t want to wait for intimacy.  As consumers folks buy now instead of waiting and saving.  Commercials ask us, “Why wait when you can have it now?”
            Remember – I’m waiting for the train at Thompson.  I didn’t have a computer to put these thoughts to words.  But the waiting gave me time to think that we are looking at this all wrong.  Waiting isn’t a problem.  Waiting is a gift. 
            Please don’t misunderstand me.  We shouldn’t think making someone wait for us is a gift.  But when are forced to wait, we are often forced to think and perhaps to think new thoughts. 
            We were buying a new television a few years back.  I saw the and was ready to buy.  But my spouse wanted to wait and look.  I didn’t want to wait, didn’t wait and brought the set home.  We ended up not liking it, and I had to wait in line at the store so I could explain why I was bringing it back.  I only wonder at how many times I would have saved myself problems by simply waiting. 
            Here’s some ideas to make your wait a gift!
            Contain the emotions. 
            Often we don’t gain from waiting because we are upset we have to wait.  Any value of giving thought to a problem or using the time to relax and re-think gets lost in our emotions.  Recognize the feelings, accept your situation and open your mind.
            Ask a Question.
            Questions are your greatest tool for learning.  “What is important to me today?”  or “Who can I help today?” or “How can I learn from this?” or even "Why is waiting bothering me so much?"
            Enjoy the slow-down.
            Frankly most of us are hurrying here and there.  Slowing down for a moment or two during the day should be a good thing.  So enjoy it.  Relax.  Think, pray or meditate.
            … Oh, the train is about through.  I have to get back to focusing on my driving.  But it is amazing what can go through your mind during a short wait. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Word for the Day

Today's Word: Marathon

            The horrible events in Boston have brought the word “marathon” to everyone’s mind.  For just a moment, let’s think about a marathon, a race of over 26 miles. 

            Perhaps you are a runner and have even run a marathon, or half-marathon or 10k race.  But have you watched a marathon live?  I have.

            My two oldest boys and only daughter-in-law, Emily, run marathons.  Emily hopes to run a marathon in every state in the union and she has a good start.  I went to watch them when they ran the Fargo Marathon last year.

            Of course, you don’t watch a marathon, not live anyway.  My wife, Betty, and I drove to about the mid-point of the marathon course and found some parking near a hospital.  After walking our own little mini-marathon to a good viewing spot, we gave couple of waves and cheers to our marathoners and then walked back to our car.  An hour later we cheered again when our family crossed the finish line. 

            In a race that is 26.2 miles long, we saw the runners for a few hundred feet.  In an event that takes something like three hours, we watched for a minute or two.  It was a single snapshot from a movie, a short glimpse of a longer event.

            Kind of like life, I thought. 

            On our walls are pictures of events.  But, like the marathon, those events are part of a larger picture.  The birth of my grandson is just one stop on a journey which stretched back to when his parents married, and even to when they met.  And the journey heads forward into an adventure yet unknown. 

            This is so important to remember during the less-positive events of life.  In the midst of disaster, or when we face death, or during illness we must remember the marathon.  These things are the focus of life right now, but life is more than just those.  A disaster comes and does damage, but the marathon of life has been proceeding for long before and will go long after. 

            The “pictures” we experience of life, though dramatic, are not the whole story.  Neither the wonderful event or the terrible one can erase what has happened before or prevent meaningful life in the days to come.   That moment is only a glimpse, a peek, a piece of the whole. 

            When we “watched” the marathon, I walked a ways along the course against the flow.  A couple of blocks down I came upon my son and daughter-in-law – walking.  My son said, “We really were running just a minute ago.”  I’m sure they were, and would be again.

            Don’t let the moment in time be the only thing you see.  If it is a good moment, treasure it, remember it and build upon it.  If it is a tough moment, remember all that came before and what will come afterward.  The moment may hurt, and the hurt may last, but there’s more to a marathon than one picture. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Trivializing of Death

Word for the Day

Today's Word: Death

Elizabeth Kubler Ross was perhaps the first to point out the American dysfunctional view of death. Westerners simply didn't talk about death. In a certain sense our world today has changed, but not necessarily for the better. Today death is frequently mentioned. Consider all the television shows which routinely have someone, or several someones, die. Death is something even children frequently see.

But there remains a problem. We have gone from ignoring death to trivializing it. Television shows take us from tragedy to happiness all inside an hour. It's as if death were no big thing and grief just a momentary bump on the road.

This made me think of one of the Old Testament "trivializer," Jonah. We might remember Jonah and the great fish which swallowed him. But what got him there? God asked the prophet to go preach to the evil Ninevites. Jonah instead ran away -- right into the belly of the fish.

Why did Jonah run? Simple. He knew God might be merciful and Jonah wanted the Ninevites dead both in this world and perhaps the next.

Once apprehended by the great fish, Jonah did go and preach, "Yet three days and Nineveh will be destroyed." But Nineveh repented, God relented and Jonah watched from outside of town. Jonah not only took the potential death of the Ninevites lightly, he was very upset when the vine which gave him shade was struck by a worm and died. Jonah complained, "I wish I could die."

Consider Jonah's way of thinking. He trivialized the death of the Ninevites, wanting their destruction because he simply didn't like them. He didn't see that he put the human lives of the Ninevite people on a lower place than the "death" of his shade tree. And he further trivialized dying when, simply because he was hot and didn't get his way, he said, "I want to die." Anyone trivialized death this way?

Our world similarly trivializes dying. We see in the news (or on a movie) many people die. Perhaps we think some deserve it, and maybe they do, but we much too quickly accept the deaths of many. Those deaths were human souls with families in pain. When we think the TV dramas are right and the grief is short-lived, we make their death trivial. It is not.

We have two companion truths.

First, death is real, hurts deeply and stays with us. We do not recover when we trivialize or underestimate death's power. When someone we love dies, the hurt comes with the separation. The hurt lasts and might revisit us with powerful and unexpected bouts of grief. Unlike a TV show the pain won't be gone in an hour.

But, second, we can handle death and once again experience joy. Christians see by the Bible that death is a defeated enemy. Though death truly hurts, it is just one part of our life. Perhaps our faith guides us, or we celebrate the life we shared. But we are built with resilience. We can make it.

If you must play "Trivial Pursuit" don't take death as a category. You won't ever come out on top.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Signs of Spring -- Tournaments.

Chaplains at Altru Health System do weekday one-minute devotionals which can be accessed by calling 701-780-3300.  I’m doing mine on “Signs of Spring” during the week of February 25 to March 1.  The third one is below. 


Take a moment to pauses and reflect …

            About Spring.  The signs of spring, like the grey snow which will eventually give way to green grass.  Seed catalogs.  And, today, the sign of spring is basketball tournaments.  Yes, basketball.

            Maybe you are a big “March Madness” fan, the college basketball tournament.  But, I am referring to where real basketball is played – in high school, where no one has big contracts and players play because they love the game or their community.  And where fans cheer even if their team is constantly losing. 

            The basketball tournaments point to the end of the indoor season and of winter.  Once the tournaments track and baseball are played in and around the mud of spring.  Many players, or even fans, regret the end of the tournament.  That escitement is hard to beat.  But that joy ending just leaves room for another to start.  Golf, anyone?

            The sports seasons, just like the seasons of the year, remind us of the constant change of life.  One activity is completed, but another begins.  Our children leave home and then we greet grandchildren.  Seasons, all unique, come to each of us.  Though we might have a favorite, each season is special and brings something new to enjoy along with a challenge or two.  Embrace the change; embrace the seasons with joy.

            Let us pray, “God thank-you for spring, but also for summer and winter and fall.  Thank-you for youth and middle age and childhood and retirement.  Help us to discover the joy of each season of life.  In your name.  Amen.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

SIgns of Spring -- Seed Catalogs

                 The Chaplains at Altru Health System record a one minute devotional each weekday which can be accessed at 701-780-3300.  Below is the second of my week’s worth of “Signs of Spring” for the week of February 25-March 1.
Take a moment to pause and reflect …

                About  Spring.  About the signs of spring.  What makes us think about spring. 

               That grey snow reminds us winter is ending and the green grass will poke through.  And that reminds me of another sign of spring.  Seed catalogs.  As the snow melts gardener’s minds turn to putting seeds into the ground.  My mom always looked through those catalogs and bought tomato, and other  seeds to plant in her greenhouse long before the snow actually melted or the ground was warm enough to plant. 

                I think that is called expectation.

                So the seed catalogs tell a promise of spring and hope for a harvest.

                No concept is more basic to life than sowing and reaping.  Plant something, and it grows.  To harvest, you must first plant.  And you cannot harvest tomatoes by only planting turnups. 

                As you look forward to spring, or to the next season in your life, what are you picking out to plant?  Azaleas for the flower bed, carrots and tomatoes for the garden, and maybe some gratitude and forgiveness in your personal life?  What you plant, you will harvest.  Pick out something good from the seed catalog.  It is winter, but spring is coming!

                Let us pray: “God, as we look to plant our gardens, we ask you to plant good things in our lives.  Help us to choose good things to plant.  In your name.  Amen.”

Monday, February 25, 2013

Signs of Spring

            Chaplains at Altru Health System do weekday one-minute devotionals which can be accessed by calling 701-780-3300.  I’m doing mine on “Signs of Spring” during the week of February 25 to March 1.  The first one is below. 
           Take a moment to pauses and reflect …

            About Spring.  It’s not spring yet, but we can see it coming from here.  And isn’t that part of the joy of spring – the anticipation?  So let me give you some signs of spring.

            Let’s start with this sign of Spring:  dirty snow.  The beauty of a snowflake is created around a speck of dust.  (Who knew what a speck of dust could create?)  When the snow begins to melt, even a little, the dust begins to show, drawing more heat and we get dirty, grey snow.

            Already the power of the sun is increasing and the snow melts even on below-freezing days.  I know we easily, and probably, will again get some nice white stuff.  But the new snow will also begin to turn grey, telling us the season will soon move from winter to spring. 

            So often in life, we see grey before we find green.  We have to wade through some trouble before the better arrives.  When things around are grey, anticipate some green to come.  It’s still winter, but spring is coming.

            Let us pray, “O God, you who created the earth and the seasons, thank-you for the promise of good things to come – whether spring or heaven or joys on this earth.  We need your promise as we see all the grey around us.  In your name.  Amen.”

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Word for the Day

Today's Word: self-consciousness

The patient was dying. When the team of nurses and social workers (and me, their student chaplain) talked during morning rounds this was clear. The patient was not responding and several family members were gathered around. The chaplain should stop by, I reasoned, so I headed to the room. This was my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).

I stopped by to visit and met a wonderful family and heard stories of an active and unique woman. I became quite interested in the family and stopped by several times that day. Overnight the patient died. The family didn't ask for a chaplain. Later I was told (quite kindly I should say) that I stopped too often and was actually intrusive. That was hard to hear, yet I consider that experience very important and (aside from the discomfort I brought to this family) I am glad it happened.

What made me an intrusion that day?

I know part of the problem was my experience in coming into the lives of people I didn't know. I have learned better questions to ask and how to bring a calm presence. I also know part of the problem is the ability to listen. I expect I should easily discerned the family was coping well and a simple, "I'm available if you need something" would have bee a good way to end my initial visit.

I now know my intrusive visits were about self-consciousness. I mean that literally. When I entered that hospital room I was quite conscious of my own fears and indecisiveness, of my feelings and hopes. I became enamored with this woman's story, but even that was about me and not her or her family. Put another way, when I visited the experience was all about me. If I had tried to be as conscious of the patient and family as of myself, everything would have turned out differently.

I learned a lesson in that unit of CPE which goes like this. When with a patient it's about him/her. Afterward is a time to reflect and then it is all about me. During the visit the focus is on the patient and personal self-consciousness gets in the way of making the visit helpful in meeting their needs. Only after the visit comes a time to reflect on the person, but also on myself. Why did I act like I did? What caused the feelings I had? What do I learn about myself for next time? Self-consciousness can also get in the way of personal reflection, hindering me from hearing criticism or facing the truth about myself.

A couple of thoughts about overcoming self-consciousness..

1. Know your agenda. We all have personal agendas and there is nothing evil about them. But, when hidden, agendas can be a problem. Know your what's on yours.

2. Reflect often. Before going to see someone think about yourself. What is going on that might divert from focusing on the other person (as true for my spouse as for my patients)? Reflect afterward about what happened and why.

3. Have someone you can talk to and to whom you will listen. I am grateful for my manager who gently explained my error and walked with me through it. We all need several someones with whom we can be honest and to whom we give permission to be honest with us.

4. Determine to focus on the other. The three ideas above will help, but it still remains a choice, occasionally a hard choice.

Philosopher Rene Descarte said "Cogito, ergo sum" or "I think, therefore I am." We humans need to be conscious of our life and existence. But once we know, the next and harder step is to be aware of others.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Giving the Gift of Openness

Word for the Day
Today’s Word:  Open.

            A few days back we experienced a storm.  What the winter weather really amounted to was a lot of wind, some ice and a flake or two of snow.  None-the-less it was a good evening to stay at home for my wife and I, along with a college son.  As with most of the “storms” over the years we planned to watch some kind of movie, stay warm and enjoy one another. However the storm affected out power, so that the power would go off for a moment and then back on, repeating every few minutes. 
            In our day of modern technology we have “satellite TV” so the movie was one we would “rent” from … well, from wherever satellite TV comes from.  But when the power would flicker, our satellite would reset.  I can still see the words on the screen, “Just a few more minutes,” as the satellite was reconnected and our television was synchronized with the satellite. 
            This process took a few minutes, just like the message said.  About the time it was done and our movie was back on the power flickered off, again.  This happened several times so that we never really saw our movie at all.  It was annoying.  And, when I talked to others the next day about the “storm” I shared how annoyed I felt. 
            One of the people I saw next day was one of our hospice patients.  We “small talked” about the weather and the storm.  His power had flickered as well.  I shared my annoyance.  After all, my movie was ruined!
            “Yes,” he said, “I know.  Every time the power would go out my oxygen would go out too.”  He pointed to concentrator which pumped the oxygen through clear plastic tubing to help his compromised lungs breathe. 
            Suddenly I wasn’t as annoyed about missing my movie.
            This has happened to me many times over the years.  I’m annoyed about some little thing in my life which didn’t work out.  And I miss, or almost miss, the genuine challenge in someone else’s experience.
            I think the first many times this happened I committed myself to change.  I would notice others more.  I would see their troubles and feel their hurts.  And maybe that helped, for a bit.  But it still seemed I missed things.  Lots of things.  I couldn’t be this super-chaplain I wanted to be. 
            We humans are created in a special way.  We have skin and muscle on the outside though which no one can see.  So no one can know what we are thinking or feeling, not entirely anyway, unless we tell them.  There is no “super-human” power of perception.  Someone might say, “God can show us.”  Certainly true.  But that’s God, not us.  We still miss it.  We still miss what God says.
            So I’ve come to a new conclusion.  Two, actually.
            First, don’t deny annoyances.  Just keep them in perspective.  It was annoying to miss the movie.  But I shouldn’t make it bigger than it was.  And I make it bigger when I have to tell everyone.  It happened.  It annoyed me.  It’s over.
            Second, be open.  Until now, it wouldn’t have occurred to me what frustration power outages would be for folks with oxygen concentrators.  But somehow I need to come to every person realizing I cannot see through them to know what they are thinking or the frustrations or hurts which have come their way.  All I can do is look them in the eye, ask some pertinent questions (“How did the power outage affect you?” would be a good start in this case), and listen with an open and "unannoyed" mind.
            As I walk with people in hospice or hospital care – or just in life, I’ve come to realize that no one wants a super-chaplain or any super-human to visit.  They don’t want me to be able to see through them and know their thoughts.  I believe they would be annoyed if I could.  They just want someone who will listen to their story, who will care and will travel along with them.  Now, that’s something I can do. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Word for the Day

Today’s Word:  Hearing.

            My Christmas was not much different from that of many people.  Lots of things to eat and a bunch of gifts to open and everyone wants to see how the littlest enjoy their presents.  We enjoyed games like “Awkward Family Photos” and talked about Christmases from times past.
            No, my Christmas is like many, except in one way.
            I narrate the Holmes Live Nativity.  Come with me, in your imagination, to a big steel building with a dirt floor originally made as a horse arena.  On one side is a wooden “stable” with a lighted star above.  On either side of the stable are pens, one for some sheep and another for some calves.  With anywhere from 100 to 400 people watching and listening I read the story from the biblical books of Luke and Matthew. 
            Joseph and Mary come to the stable where she sits on a bale of hay and holds the “newborn king” (just a doll with the cold temperatures).  As I read the shepherds, wise men and the angels all move about the scene until they are all gathered up front, surrounding Joseph and Mary and the babe in the manger.  Songs are sung, climaxing in “Silent Night” at the very end.
            I enjoy doing the narration and qualify for the position because I am the loudest in my church.  I have bragged that children or distracting noises cannot overcome my vocal power.  However, I had never met this calf.
            His owner called the four-month-old calf a “runt” but you wouldn’t know that by the sound of the moo.  And, on our first showing on Sunday, he mooed.  At first I tried to talk over him.  But no one could hear my voice because the “runt” drowned me out.  I moved over and looked the calf in the eye and he stopped, for a moment.  Finally I had to just talk in between the moos.
            I thought about how to shut the calf’s mouth or to intimidate the animal somehow so it would know to keep quiet.  But I forgot in the busy moments between showings and started the next one without noticing … the quiet.  The calf was silent.
            His owner had given him some hay.   I don’t know what I had thought – that something was wrong with the calf, or it missed the herd, or what.  But it hadn’t occurred to me that the calf was simply hungry. 
            Wow, I wonder how many other needs I have missed over the years (and I don’t mean runt calves)?  What might look like anger is really depression.  What seems to be pride is really poor self esteem.  The “moo” might not mean what I think. 
            This brings a couple of things to mind.
            First, I ought to measure my response carefully.  If I might be wrong about the source of the “moo,” I need to be careful and thoughtful about how I respond. 
            Second, I wonder what kind of “mooing” people might hear from me.  I think I’m clear, but what kind of sounds do others hear?  What do they think I’m saying?  Does my "moo" drown out their voice?
            Third, “hearing” is more than the vibration of my ear drum.  Hearing involves thinking, asking questions and looking to others to help find answers.  Let's not settle for the easy first answer.  
            In this new year, listen closely.  What might sound like just another moo might be a hidden need, a new story or just something needing your attention.