Beginnings and Endings

Earlier this week, I dropped my daughter off at camp and asked for a hug. “I won’t see you again until tomorrow morning,” I reminded her. She asked if I was going to be at the hospital and I said yes, I had a late night shadowing a chaplain on-call – learning the ropes.

“Oooo! Can you take pictures of dead people!”

Well, no. For her, my summer of CPE involves a completely unknown world, but she’s still her silly 7-year-old self about it.

Today, the morning after a quiet on-call, I experienced both ends of life, but in reverse order. First thing this morning, an unexpected death. Then, later in the day, a tour through the NICU (neonatal intensive care) where the babies are not only newborns, but tiny, fragile premature babies.

I can’t really write about who I saw or what we talked about – not only because it is against policy to do it, but also because these are some of the most intimate events in the life of individuals and families – and I need to honor that. And yet I want to process what I have experienced, talk about it, write about it. And it seems kind of strange to use the occasion of another family’s crisis to reflect only on myself…

What I can say is that being present for these families is a huge privilege and a gift. Others have been with my family at such times when I could not, and I love the thought that I am, in a small way, paying forward their kindness. And in some ways, I felt a little connection to those to whom I was ministering. Maybe their family names were the same as those on my regular prayer list. Or their sense of vulnerability echoed my own experiences. I’ve had family in ICU and I’ve worried about a longed-for child. I’ve had dear ones caught in these moments that feel out of time and place.

Life can turn so quickly from familiar to strange, from comfortable to difficult. None of us were meant to walk through those changes alone, we were created to go through them together. This summer, for a very short time, I’ll get to be one of the people who can tag along for the journey when people feel like they’ve been left alone or set adrift. I hope at some point they know what a blessing they are to me.

Journaling CPE

Usually, I use this blog to post short reflections on ideas about which I have overthought. Maybe a photo or two, a couple of pithy sentences. But this summer, because I am submerged into a completely new situation, I am feeling the need to make it a kind of journal as well. Still overthought, so you don’t have to.

I am one and a half weeks into my CPE internship and today saw my first patients. Because of the way these things work, I can’t really write about any particular encounters, but it is impossible to go thru the days and not feel like putting a lot of the experiences into words.

What I can say is that, although the hospital seems awfully quiet tonight, there are some people here surrounded by family and friends, some who are loved and supported from afar, and still others who are all alone. There are people who have all the anxiety you’d expect on the night before surgery, and others who are infectiously optimistic in the face of difficulty.

In exactly one week, I’ll be roaming these halls at night for my first solo on-call. I will probably be as anxious as a pre-op patient. I hope I have some of that infectious optimism, as well. I hope if you are reading this you’ll be sending some love and support from afar!


My friend Irit just returned from her annual trip to visit family in Israel. The first indication for her that this visit would be different (other than hourly updates of missile strikes and counter-strikes) was having three seats to herself on the flight over. The day after she arrived, US airlines stopped flying to Tel Aviv altogether.

It was a three-week visit that was terrifying, disheartening, stressful, frustrating, and also illuminating in the way that going home can be when you have been away for a long time. Hearing her talk about the experience has been both mystifying for me (never been near war or real danger of any kind) and enthralling (how do people adjust to that life? or do they?) I’ve come away with some (probably naive) insights that she’s been gracious enough to let me share. (Note: All these thoughts are mine, and so are all the errors contained herein.)

Irit was born and grew up in Israel. She served in the army, as all Israelis do, and lived through the conflicts in 1956, 1967, 1969, 1973…up to the first Gulf War in 1991. About 12 years ago, she moved to the US for good. Even though she was apprehensive about going to Israel this summer, her daughter assured her, “Mom, don’t worry. We are going about our everyday life. It’ll be fine.” But, it turns out if you have not been living in a war zone for over a decade, you start to notice things that used to be taken for granted. Things like, every residence is required by law to have a safe room. Like shrill warning sirens. Like having to make safety plans as you walk your granddaughter to the playground or run errands. Like having your Shabbat dinner interrupted by a bomb threat and then watching your family go right back to eating as if nothing unusual had happened.

My friend has plenty of insights about the violence. In addition to talking about the stresses for her family and those on the Israeli side, she has great compassion for Palestinians crowded into the 141 square miles of Gaza with virtually no safe rooms and even less hope. How can you make peace, she observed, with people who have no hope? And there was plenty of disdain for political leaders on all sides (because there are more than two).

But what made the biggest impression on me, the outsider, was this: my friend who grew up in war has now become accustomed to peace. Yes, she is frustrated that we in the US don’t feel the impact of the wars to which we contribute. (Seriously, how long can we keep sending dollars and weapons and expect to keep shopping away as if nothing is wrong in the world?) But it really struck me how shocking it was for her to return to a way of life that used to be normal for her. From my easy chair, I see too many stories on the news about people who can never leave war – the battles themselves won’t stop or the governments that follow are corrupt or a different enemy appears. But…

It is possible to get used to peace.

Shortly after Irit returned I was working on a sermon and saw that Psalm 133 was in the lectionary for that week. It is the Psalm for my alma mater – Yea Sewanee! – and I’ve said and sung it many times. The words struck me in a new way, especially when Irit noted that the conflict in the Middle East is between cousins. The cultures, languages, and people of that region are related.

 Oh how good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.

Living together in unity is good. Not winning. Not power. Living together. In unity. Is good.

There are so many aspects of Irit’s experience that deserve reflection; it is a very complex situation. But just for now, I am focusing on this: it is possible to get used to peace. And the second related idea: getting used to peace is good. There are people trying hard to do this every day. What would make it possible for more to do it in their homes, neighborhoods, cities, and nations?

What do you think?

Being a Woman in America

Last Thursday, I was inspired by some righteous women. One was homeless, two were formerly trafficked for sex, one survived child abuse. In their own ways, they were on a path to wholeness, recovering from injustices the world laid upon them. Mostly what caused their suffering and the thing from which they were recovering was being treated like a woman.

Does that sound harsh? It should. Because the day after I was inspired by these women, a California misogynist murdered seven people because women didn’t treat him the way he wanted. For some, this heinous act was deviant, but for lots of us it seemed more like a predictable outcome. Latent hatred of women simmers below the surface of our lives all day long every day- the lives of all women and girls are marinated in it. Sometimes the hatred bubbles up and everyone notices – some for the first time. (YesAllWomen has been a great response, allowing women to describe how omnipresent and oppressive misogyny is in our culture.)

So, Thursday I am inspired by women who are rising above this hatred for women. Friday the news airs a horrific story of misogyny taken to the extreme. And then Sunday…

On Sunday, a 10-year-old girl I know found out what it means to be a woman in America. A man approached and spoke to her inappropriately, as if it were totally normal. In his mind, he didn’t need permission to talk to her, photograph her, or say provocative things to her. He did all this in front of his girlfriend, who didn’t even notice – that’s how ordinary his behavior and assumptions are.

I was there after it happened and consoled her, remembering the same thing happening to me so many, many times. But I couldn’t tell her it would not happen again. Because it will. It isn’t the kind of initiation into womanhood you imagine for someone you love. But it isn’t surprising either. On Sunday, this girl was crying, wondering how and why such a horrible thing could happen. And all I could wonder was how long it’d be before she just learned to accept that it is part of the way things are.

I hope she never does.

Four righteous women taught me that telling the truth is a powerful tool to overcome injustice. It takes an awful lot of fearless truth telling to overcome the lies about women that are embedded in our culture – that we are weak, that we don’t know what we want, that we rely on men to define us. In fact, it takes generations of truth telling to make a dent in the wall of lies telling us who we should be. Sometimes it feels easier to just ignore the misogyny and pretend it is normal.

A 10 year-old girl taught me something, too. She taught me that being treated as less than human is worth a good cry; that type of behavior should be shocking. It isn’t something to get used to. I’m grateful to be reminded and hope she and I can stir up some righteousness together.

P.S. If you want to help some righteous women, Thistle Farms is a great place to start. Started by my friend Becca Stevens, all sales benefit Magdalene House, a sanctuary that helps women heal from sex trafficking, addiction, and prostitution.


Once a week, I volunteer at a center that serves women and men who are homeless or extremely poor. I’ve been involved in one way or another with the place for more than a decade, but I still get surprises every time I go…or maybe not so much surprises as reminders.

The first reminder is that there is no typical homeless person. I saw a man who looked like the stereotype–long hair held back with bandana, unshaved face, raggedy jeans–and another who looked for all the world like a physician, with bifocal glasses, a tweed jacket, and a gentle demeanor.

The second reminder was how generous people who are poor can be. They will pray for you, ask how you are doing, and help their friends in just about any way imaginable. They will tithe out of the paltry sums they get from minimum wage jobs or Social Security checks. Today, as I collected meal tickets, one of the regulars–a woman who carries her tiny dog around in her jacket–gave me a beaded bracelet. I knew better than to turn it down–accepting the generosity of others is a lesson learned early in this business.

a gift to pay forward

The bracelet sat on the desk next to me as I did my work. Just about everyone commented on and admired it. Before I left, I passed it along to another woman at the center that day. She needed a pick-me-up.

The third reminder is that the rules are different for people who live on the streets. They can’t be fully themselves. The woman who reminded me of this spent a good deal of the morning on the phone with a lawyer; she was getting help to keep custody of her kids. She got teary telling me about her situation–and who wouldn’t–but then she said, “No tears. Tears are a sign of weakness. Gangsters don’t cry.” I looked at her; she was not a gangster. “You can’t show weakness on the street,” she said. And, of course, she is right.

The last reminder for today was that shelter is more than a roof over your head. I live in a home that is safe and with people who will care for me if I am sick or in trouble. That is a gift. But it is also a gift to be with people who have very little. It is a cliche that they remind us of how lucky we are. Sure, sure. Being with people in extreme poverty also reminds me of how completely human it is to fear your own vulnerability even as you protect those around you who are vulnerable. The poor folks I have met remind me not only of what I have that sets me apart, but what we all have that brings us together. Sometimes, the people who make up your community are a kind of shelter, too. They give you a place to feel safe and they care for you when you are sick or in trouble. They won’t take advantage if you shed a tear. Sometimes, they will even give you a little bling for no reason at all.

A lesson in hope and gratitude

On a pretty regular basis, I help out at a center that serves men and women in our community who are homeless. It is a worship service and meal. Simple and incredibly moving. The reasons people come are diverse. Some are chronically homeless, others recently lost jobs or had a major illness. For women, domestic and sexual violence are a pretty common reason for ending up on the streets. There are people there who volunteer and they have their own diverse reasons for being there. I am no longer surprised, but always brightened that folks at that service pray for me as we work together setting up, singing, and cleaning.

This week there was a different vibe and I am not sure why, probably just the coincidental convergence of the people there that day. That, and all the various struggles they had. In any case, when it came time to ask for prayers, nearly all of them were about mental illness.

“God, I hope my family will talk to me more often and I hope for bi-polar to be gone from the earth.”
“I pray for the man I saw yelling at no one and everyone on the street today.”
“Thank you for a church that is honest. I will not be as sick as my secrets.”

There has been a lot of public discussion lately about mental illness and how we can better “handle it” as a society. Mostly those who have mental illness are seen as the perpetrators of violent and scary behavior, so “handling” them is supposed to make us all feel safer and correct a lot of social ills. But in my experience–in my family, through the center where I volunteer, through friends–I know that people who struggle with mental illness are more often the victims of violence than the perpetrators. So I am pretty sure that what most people mean by “handling” mental illness won’t fix the problems they expect.

Despite their struggles, the men and women I see in this small worshiping community do some pretty healthy things from a spiritual perspective. They seek out the company of friends and helpers, they look for ways to help others, they are grateful for all that they have. One man approached me after the meal to ask if I knew of a shelter for him that night. He had been kicked out of one the previous day, but was suffering from flu and needed to be inside during what was expected to be a very cold night. “I broke one of the rules,” he said, “Mea culpa, it was all my fault.” I wondered how many of my friends would face such immediate and harsh accountability for our behavior? I surely would not.

While not everyone who is homeless is mentally ill, their challenges often hold up a mirror to struggles we all face–a magnifying mirror. Health and illness, inclusion and exclusion, love and indifference. I face all of those, but the impact on my life is usually not as harsh as it is for my neighbors who live on the streets. The judgements and barriers they face every day magnify the violence and injustice woven through our whole society.

And still they pray. And sing. And hope.

The woman who prayed for bi-polar to be gone from the earth later closed our intersessions that day. “Lord,” she asked, “I wish for a car so that I could drive old people to get to the doctor.” I’m going to hold her up as my role model for hope and gratitude this week.