Ted Kooser Train

Ted Kooser wrote this over a decade ago but writings about time so easily become timeless. It's in his book Local Wonders. Take a read here at NPR. 

The Train Of Life and welcoming your next year, even after cancer which Ted had. Then being greeted with upturned glasses, you are still alive.

 

Ted still lives, about 30 minutes from my home. I will turn up my glasses if I see him. 

Right As Rain

The more people you see each day, the more you will be asked a version of "How are you Doing"? 

How's it going, how's it hanging, wassup, etc. Of course, it's what we do. I usually like it. Heaven knows, let someone walk by you without some sort of greeting and you'll ask yourself, "What's up with them? They might be having a bad day, or maybe their upset with you. And away your mind goes for 20 minutes thinking, "Now what did I do"? 

No, it's better off to just greet everybody and yes, ask them how they're doing. A few of us might even tell you the truth, skipping conventional responses, if we feel like whale scat, we'll tell you. If we feel like a million bucks, we'll tell you.  

My latest response has been "Mostly Sunny" Both true and descriptive, mildly engaging. I'm looking for a new one. It's been rainy of late. "Right as Rain."

When you ask me next time, How I'm doing? You probably already know the answer. 

Nature Cares Not

"Nature doesn't give a damn about us after we make our babies"  Nautilus March/April 2017

Well, I've got news for you. It didn't give a damn before you made your babies either. You see a spiritless nature after childbirth, you might as well be consistent, Nature in your understanding is Divineless. It has no soul.

The religious group, the Shakers preferred celibacy. There are 2 or 3 Shakers left. They were pretty bad at populating the earth. They seem to have missed the Be Fruitful part in Genesis, or having a full quiver of arrows, a house full of children.

They had their reasons, but their religion didn't give a damn about making babies either. 

I have two offspring. They are amazing; eyes, ears, fingers and all that stuff that comes in the package. where did the care that I have for the come from, why do I care so much about them? Why do I hurt when they hurt, help when they are in need, empower them to succeed, shell out all that cash for them to get a degree?

Unlike nature, I do give a damn. And I'll tell you this, I think nature does too. 

If You're Breathing

Most of us are born, live and die in what feels like one lifetime. When it comes time to hang it up, we surprise our younger selves and lay the spurs in the common pile for one last time. We wore them well, rode tall and now it's time to rest. A long rest. We're tired. I've looked into many eyes, tired but satisfied eyes. Green eyes, moist eyes, sparkled eyes, cloudy eyes. There are abundant memories in those eyes. 

 

Often, one story, a lifeline will lead you back into those memories like following a guide into a dark cave. A time in the military, a life changing event, a relationship that endured, some story that is linear and sustaining will lead you to any number of chambers in the mysterious cave of a human mind. Light may be shed in some rooms for the first time, other rooms passed by for ever. There is something in there worth rediscovering, reclaiming.

 

i often hear family gather together to tell stories of their departed, and some where in the story, someone will go, "Really, I never knew that." Their loved one is gone but still full of surprises, some fascinating, some puzzling, some a bit dodgy. 

 

I often ten think it might be better to tell these memories when we are still alive, still breathing.  

What Do We Remember At Funerals?

I've never thought so much about death until I became a Hospice Chaplain. I'm afraid I never thought so much about life until I became a Hospice Chaplain. If you could do one thing in the next 30 seconds to live more fully, what would it be? Take the next breath and hold it, briefly, taste it, roll it around in your lungs, allow your mind to focus, and let your stomach exhale it for you as you let your inner muscles do their work.

That breath, that life, that moment, is all we have. It is a gift, just as you yourself are a gift.

I came across this as I was preparing a message for the tragic death of a young lady.

In his book The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction, the American novelist Frederick Buechner has this to say to us:

Whatever you do with your life–whatever you end up achieving or not achieving– the great gift you have in you to give to the world is the gift of who you alone are; your way of seeing things, and saying things, and feeling about things, that is like nobody else’s. If so much as a single one of you were missing, there would be an empty place at the great feast of life that nobody else in all creation could fill.

The funeral sermons I write today are more nuanced than ever before. They used to be for church going, religious folks. I had confidence that they lived the kind of life that would guarantee them a place in heaven. That has all changed in the last few years.

So many people die without that confidence when their time has come. I have had to shift my whole way of thinking about what is important to remember at ones funeral. It comes down to this. Now I spend more of my time, 15 or 20 minutes of it, by sharing how God has been working in the life of the one who just died. I used to focus mostly on What God has done in general for all of us. I always put in a good word about the deceased of course, but now I have become more focused on what God has done in and around the one we mourn.

Sometimes its hard to find any evidence that God has had much to do with them, at least by normal religious markers. This has only made me look for God in other places and dimensions. Buechner seems to get this. God is at work in every person, all breath is His, and whatever has breath is to praise Him as the rightful giver of life. I continue to believe that God will have His way and will with those of us whom He has been working in and around. I just don't think we have been remembering the right things all the time and it's time we start asking ourselves, what do I want people to remember at my funeral? Did I do something, or did God do something in I? Take your next breath and think about it.

 

Freedom To Dream

A while back I read Matthew Kelly's book, Dream Manager. After some thought and more reading, I came to realize that this is my favorite thing to do in life, to help people enjoy and experience their dreams. It's the one thing I would do if I knew I could not fail. It is the thing I try to do everyday. To find the diamond in others and see that it is brought to the surface and given a place in the community for others to enjoy.

I'm a little uncomfortable with the title Dream Manager, but Dream Coach sounds closer to what I am thinking about.

When others succeed and you had a contribution in their success, I dare say there is nothing like it in the world. It can be lonely at times, even thankless on occasion. But it is usually the most gratifying thing we can do. At times my own selfishness gets in the way of course, but I'm a work in progress too.

Look back at those who you helped to get up on the horse and into the saddle and take pleasure and pride in your assistance to them. You have made a difference and made a contribution, small or large doesn't matter. It really doesn't. We can't measure the output of our contributions by the input. Much can happen because of one kind sentence or one helping hand or some simple guidance. Dreams are too often easily squashed and if you took the time to help someone move closer to their dream fulfillment then you stand tall.

It is my dream to help others realize their dream. So much so that I think my blog may go in that direction for a while. I've been so busy with day to day work as a Chaplain that I haven't been able to deliver a constant and useful stream of blog posts on my work. Truth be told, I go to bed much earlier than I have since the army days and I get up early and I don't get everything done I want to each day. My blog may find some new life in this idea of Coaching others into their dreams.

I am free to dream of such things, just as you are. I have been face to face with this every week as a hospice chaplain. Step one has been the constant closeness to death. It has heightened my awareness about daily choices. I have not had a perfect day as I see it, but I've had a longing to have days that are more perfect than many in my past. When I figure out what a perfect day is, I'll be sure to let you know.

In the meantime, I'm dedicated to finding the diamond in everyone I meet and helping them to really shine. It's a new calendar year, a new day tomorrow, a brand new week, the future is moments away. I look forward to the discipline of moving forward and helping others to do the same each day. We have time, at least I have been telling myself that for many years. And we do. Just what we do with all that time is another matter.

I just bought Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss. Filled with tools and tech ideas for your mind and body that Tim has tested for himself as he has interviewed hundreds of powerful people. There is a lot of good in that book to help you live your dreams. His podcast is a Diamond mine as well.

Another book I highly recommend, Peter Drucker's Managing Oneself. He shares some wisdom about you that will give you renewed energy for knowing yourself and how you learn and how you interact. Simple but eye-opening. 

So it's a new Year, let's dream about it.

The Wicos Problem

A quick observation from When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi.  

During lucid moments, I was acutely aware that with this many voices, cacophony results. In medicine, this is known as the WICOS problem: Wh Is the Captain Of the Ship?   p189

The WICOS Problem. When the doctors get together to decide what to do for you and decide who is in charge. 

 

Music for life

Martin Luther wrote, "next to theology, I accord music the highest honor." Or words to that effect.  Wiki Luther Music

Music is a language that needs no study, only enjoyment. Study it if you wish, many do. Just remember, you don't need to make music to be musical. Valuing the music and it's effects upon your mood, attitude, and overall health is my promotion for the moment.

In Musicophilia, Sacks wrote,

Music can take you to places you have never been before, wish to go to, wish to avoid, and help you navigate all of them. It is rhythmical geography for the soul. When it comes to the end of a cherished life, it is a memory restorer/curator, sort of like a musical picture album for the mind.

I played music this week for dozens of people. It is almost always affirmed by a smile, a nod of recognition, joining in and singing with the tune, a reminder of other songs, a piece of history that seems long lost. Music resurrects the life or a slice of it long assumed dead. It can bring back joy and courage and resilience, even healing when it is properly used.

A while back, I entered a room of a client and began to play hymns softly on my harmonica. I routinely do this and my charges are not surprised or bothered by it. They just know that pastor Marty has his harmonica in his left hand and he will likely play me a tune or two. As I played This is My Father's World, my client began to sing the words of the light and airy hymn. Her mood improved and her day was brighter. The nurse and others in the room were somewhat surprised because they had not seen this side of the client, the memories of a hymn that came flowing from her mouth so easily. I think it was a bit of a shock actually. It was assumed that there was not much left of her mind, nothing reserved for lucid speech anyhow. It even surprised me a little bit.

It has pushed me to research more and play more music. To be able to see family members smile as their loved one sings along when they thought all that has been lost, is a magical moment. A restorative moment. A healing moment. A hopeful moment. A musical moment.

On occasion, I have played music and within seconds of conclusion, the loved one goes to sleep for the last time. When family is present, this is often the most peaceful memory they could wish for. It stuns me how this happens, but then I remember the power that music has to bring one close to God and thankful for life on earth and prepared for life hereafter.

A lot of communication goes on when music is involved.

Laughter

Death is no laughing matter. To make fun of anything at or near the time of death is risky. My advice is don't do it. I have done it and regretted it and done it and thought it good. It is still risky. You need to have a good reason and good delivery and good timing, or it will be remembered as the foolish attempt to make things better.

So when is humor appropriate? And how do you use it? I recently officiated at a funeral where the deceased left me clear instructions to be funny at his funeral. None of this moping stuff. He was a stoical, hardworking, accomplished man and he had little time for tears. Needless to say, there were plenty of tears at his funeral, but I did my best to be funny. Of course, I told everyone that if they laughed at anything I said, it was his fault because he told me to be funny. We used to trade jokes when I visited him. He had some good ones, some I could use and some I couldn't, and some bad ones, some I could use and some I had to lose. But humor was a part of our journey together before he died.

I really got to know this man and his family. I was a part of them for a while. That is why I hardly every use humor with someone I have just met or right at the start of our relationship. That kind of humor says more about my fears or insecurities at that first meeting than it does about how I might minister to the patient. No, humor is too valuable to waste it like that. 

Green lights for humor. When they are funny first. When they smile easily or laugh at something you say. When they give you permission to tell a joke. When they are sad and you ask them if they would like to hear a joke or a funny story. Get permission first, at least the first few times.

When people ask me what I can do for them, I have a short list, Pray and stay, smile a while, play some music on my harmonica, share Scripture, and I often tell them, I can tell bad jokes. Jokes and music are almost always welcome, even in the most devoted and religious patients.

Some jokes are without strategic purpose, except to lighten the mood and get someone to laugh. There is medicine there, right? But I use funny stories to get a conversation going.  

A woman arrived at the Gates of Heaven. While she was waiting for Saint Peter to greet her, she peeked through the gates.

She saw a beautiful banquet table. Sitting all around were her parents and all the other people she had loved and who had died before her. They saw her and began calling greetings to her "Hello - How are you! We've been waiting for you! Good to see you."

When Saint Peter came by, the woman said to him, "This is such a wonderful place! How do I get in?" "You have to spell a word," Saint Peter told her.

"Which word?" the woman asked.

"Love."

The woman correctly spelled "Love" and Saint Peter welcomed her into Heaven.

About a year later, Saint Peter came to the woman and asked her to watch the Gates of Heaven for him that day.

While the woman was guarding the Gates of Heaven, her husband arrived. "I'm surprised to see you," the woman said. "How have you been?"

"Oh, I've been doing pretty well since you died," her husband told her. "I married the beautiful young nurse who took care of you while you were ill. And then I won the multi-state lottery. I sold the little house you and I lived in and bought a huge mansion. And my wife and I traveled all around the world. We were on vacation in Cancun and I went water skiing today. I fell and hit my head, and here I am. What a bummer! How do I get in?"

"You have to spell a word," the woman told him.

"Which word?" her husband asked.

"Czechoslovakia."

Now that is funny. More importantly, it's useful as a lead into questions about heaven, who's going, how do you get there, who decides whether you get in and more. That story allows me to share the good news of God's plan for a Forever Friendship with God. I like to share Psalm 100 after I tell that story. Here is the Message version.

Psalm 100The Message (MSG)

A Thanksgiving Psalm
100 1-2 On your feet now—applaud God!
    Bring a gift of laughter,
    sing yourselves into his presence.
3 Know this: God is God, and God, God.
    He made us; we didn’t make him.
    We’re his people, his well-tended sheep.
4 Enter with the password: “Thank you!”
    Make yourselves at home, talking praise.
    Thank him. Worship him.
5 For God is sheer beauty,
    all-generous in love,
    loyal always and ever.
Sing yourselves into His presence. So God must love music. I'm glad for that, being a musician. And he must love to laugh, because it says bring a gift of laughter as well. Hallelujah, God likes to laugh. And it almost looks like He requires it to get into heaven. The third requirement in this Psalm is Gratitude. Knowing where your blessings come from and offering thanks and praise to God for them. Gratitude, or as Peterson puts it in the Message, the password to heaven is "Thank You."
So sing and get funny and thank God for all of it. 
Humor: purposefully employed can open up a world of conversations and gently open closed doors to what is often a difficult and painful subject, Death. Presented well, a funny story can help one show up at the gates, all so well prepared for that face to face meeting with an enchanting and accepting God who loves to laugh and sing and fellowship with His children. Master humor and God will teach you how to make a difference with your funnies.
What do you call a Rabbit with Fleas. Bugs Bunny. That's all folks.

Conversational Aids to Talk About Death

Death is, for most people, the last thing in life that they want to talk about. And for many people it will indeed be the last thing they talk about. We’re simply not very good at talking about it and it shows. I waver back and forth on this idea. You are free to stay silent about your death or anyone's death for as long as you please. I meet more than a few folks who do just that. I will support your right to do that. But I don't agree with it.

It's been my experience that talking about death is the best preparation for enjoying the rest of your life, including the last few months. Facing death, talking about it, empowers one to review their life and renew and remember how meaningful life has been. And the last weeks of that life are filled with more joy and gratitude for the blessings they've received.

So how do we talk about death? Here are some ways to talk about it.

I offer a quick outline, each of which will have a separate blog post coming up.

  • Humor
  • Music
  • Stories, Native Cultures, Close To the Earth
  • Questions
  • Scriptures or Sacred writings
  • Poetry
  • Directly
  • Indirectly
  • Intimacy
  • Tears
  • Movies

Peace Be With You.

 

The Conversations

There are two important conversations in our lives. You can ignore or avoid them altogether but you will face them nonetheless.

I never got the Birds and Bees conversation, did you? I would have been spared some serious embarassment if I had. I got what little I could on the subject from the Brady Bunch. As you can imagine, I knew very little about the Birds and the Bees.

The other conversation was about death. I did get that one, from my father. He said that "when he died, to throw him in a Pine box and bury it." Simple and clear. Way to go dad. You could have expounded some, but hey, at least I knew what you thought about dying.

The conversation about End Of Life is important and can clear the way for a death with meaning and dignity for everyone involved. Avoiding the conversation leads to more anxiety and suffering than most of us realize. Most of us see little need to talk about our death and it's manner. This is sad and unfortunate.

I work among the dying and have this conversation everyday. It does get easier. And there are a number of ways to have the conversation. Stay tuned and we'll converse some more.

 

Communicating with the Living

We have been losing our ability to communicate verbally and in writing for many years now. I have a collection of letters/correspondence from Civil War soldiers and officers that is so creative and thoughtful that it makes our modern emails look like they are written by amoebas. And our spoken conversations are almost as embarrassing. 

We find ourselves increasingly at a loss for words in our daily routines and it is hurting our relationships and more. Listening to Headlee will remind us of the basics of what a conversation is all about. You've heard most of this before, some might be new. Good refresher or original ideas, either way, good words for those who converse daily. 

Pass Me Not

I read somewhere that every second, two people in the world die. Now it's up to four and by the time I finish this sentence, it will be 16, if the math works out. Talk about counting what really counts. Who likes counting deaths? Somebody must do it, I just don't imagine that they like it.

I drive by a lot of houses most days. And some nursing homes too. I used to drive by with little or no thought as to the occupants. Now, I seem to know a great deal about many of them. And I know more than I ever imagined about who is near death in town. My mind works geographically, positional writing in other words. I anchor the stories with the place. And there are many stories from all over town that are in my brain box. I will drive by a house and faces come to my mind. And stories; and I'm amazed all over again. Various places in town are so much richer now. Many of those stories are incredibly amazing. And I would not have known them if it were not for my work of going into those homes instead of passing them by.

There is an old hymn, Pass Me Not Oh Gentle Saviour.

  1. Pass me not, O gentle Savior,
    Hear my humble cry;
    While on others Thou art calling,
    Do not pass me by.
    • Refrain:
      Savior, Savior,
      Hear my humble cry,
      While on others Thou art calling,
      Do not pass me by.
  2. Let me at Thy throne of mercy
    Find a sweet relief;
    Kneeling there in deep contrition,
    Help my unbelief.
  3. Trusting only in Thy merit,
    Would I seek Thy face;
    Heal my wounded, broken spirit,
    Save me by Thy grace.
  4. Thou the spring of all my comfort,
    More than life to me,
    Whom have I on earth beside Thee,
    Whom in Heav’n but Thee.

I like Saviour instead of Savior. Just sounds more substantial.

The Lord does not pass us by as Fanny Crosby reminds us in this hymn. He is with us when we are born and through every chapter of our lives and right on through our death and beyond. He is our God and we are His children and He will not pass us by.

You too can join in this Sabbatical work of stopping and resting with someone, not passing them by. So many of us go looking for life in its excited glory by running into the world, leaving behind all the ones who have gone before us. They are old, they are not important anymore, they aren't able to do much. What do we tell ourselves about them, maybe not in words but in vague thoughts?

The truth is, they are fascinating, rich, wise, capable, full of zip and treasures to behold. Do not pass them by. Visit this week, by phone, or internet, or in person. I'll see you out there.

Harbor Master or Wave Wrangler

A ship in harbor is safe but that is not what ships are built for.

John A Shedd 

Sailor and Theologian

Pastors navigate their crew through all waters in every season. They take respite in harbor, and prepare for the next voyage. But they are secretly plagued by Harbor fever, always ready to enlarge their horizons.


Pastor Pastor Who Art Thou?

 

It is difficult to get a man to understand something if his livelihood depends upon his not understanding it.” 

– Upton Sinclair 

The word “pastor” is not in the New Testament very often. The word pastor simply means “shepherd”.  What does the Bible mean when it uses the word pastor? Although the word pastor is in the Bible a few times…

The modern role and function of a pastor is found nowhere in scripture.

If you had lived during the first century and then read the word “pastor” in a letter written to the church, you would have a much different idea come to mind.

So what does a pastor do to be a real pastor and who decides what a real pastor does? Stay tuned.