How I Changed My Mind

I’ll admit it.

Once upon a time when it came to homosexuality I was in the “Hate the sin, love the sinner” camp. I mean, it was so clearly against God’s law. It said so right there in one or two verses in my Bible. Besides, I didn’t know any gay people.

Well, actually I did. One of my first escorts to a winter dance was a gay guy in our youth group. Except no one openly said he was gay. There were just some oblique remarks about the fact that he was different, maybe he was “that way.” I didn’t care. He was a great dancer and I had a great time.

As I got older I was scared of looking at the issue directly. It was so different from my experience and that foreignness felt like threat. Still, I eventually decided that I owed it to myself to consider the issue more in depth.

Two things happened.

The first is that I read a book. Entitled, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor, it provided for me a context for the biblical verses regarding homosexuality. I realized that the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality but a terrible abuse of the Middle Eastern hospitality mandate. For the first time I considered what sort of practices Paul was really railing against, and the fact that he had no model of a committed, monogamous gay relationship.

Ironically, I’d been on the wrong side of selective scripture myself. I came along as a woman called to ministry in the eighties in the Southern Baptist Convention, a time when that issue was part of the dividing line between folks on one side and different folks on the other. I’d had people tell me straight out and to my face that I must be wrong because after all, Paul said that women should keep silence.

Of all people, I understood the dangers of proof texting. In reading this book and others I finally understood that we’d been doing the same thing to gays and lesbians.

A second thing happened that was just as important and even more powerful. Openly gay people started coming to my church. When they found welcome they told of other experiences, like being met at the doors of churches and told not to come in because “we don’t want your kind here.”

(Parenthetically, let me just say I cannot imagine Jesus ever saying such a thing.) 

They told me of the anguish and sometimes near suicidal despair of trying to reconcile being who God made them to be and who God’s people demanded that they be. I saw a brilliant, kind, funny and deeply faithful man face his own death with fear that the fundamentalist preachers were right. This man who’d followed Jesus his whole life at the end of that life feared going to hell.

I’ve seen them care for partners whom they could not marry, in sickness and in health. I’ve seen them care for their friends and give sanctuary to abandoned and abused four legged friends. I’ve laughed with them and been inspired as they’ve shared their gifts in worship. I’ve seen them care for Christ’s body, the church, doing what needs to be done for the church as a whole and for individuals within it. I’ve seen some of them be deeply involved and others just show up on the occasional Sunday – kind of like the rest of us.

I’ve seen my friends love God and love people.

If this be the gay agenda, then by God, may they be successful in overtaking our culture.

When I was called on staff of that church I was the first ordained woman to serve. One of the older members later admitted that she couldn’t understand why we were calling a woman when “there were so many fine male ministers around.” After confessing this to me, she said, “but then I met you and saw that you were going to be my friend.”

I met these folks, and saw that they were going to be my friends, and in that I was blessed indeed.

Reading the book opened my mind. Embracing my friends opened my heart.

I have to disagree with something President Obama said after the Supreme Court handed down its decision. He lauded the “small acts of courage” that led to this day, like people coming out. With all due respect, Mr President, that’s no small act of courage. That’s a great big, knees knocking, heart pounding, doing it even though your life may change forever act of courage.

Through these roller coaster weeks it has become increasingly evident to me that we cannot afford not to know each other. Law enforcement and citizens, black and white, gay and straight, popular and outcast. We need to know each others’ stories and to catch a glimpse of each others’ worlds. Only then can we truly hear with our hearts what the other is trying to say.

Why Do We Need Churches?

Why Do We Need Churches?

This morning I saw the story of a 91 year old man who came home from his cancer treatment at the hospital to an empty kitchen. He had no food and no way of getting food. Out of desperation he called 911. The operator and her supervisor agreed to let her take him some groceries, then help get him signed up with support services.

You see, this is why we need church. We need communities to support us when we are frail or sick or disabled. We need communities to step in and do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Of course, there are other nonprofits. Out of necessity, however, their mission has to be focused and limited. Used to be you could count on your neighbors or extended family to step in. These days most families are smaller and many are spread out across the country and around the world. Some people have neighbors they can call on. Many others wouldn’t know a neighbor’s name to make a call.

There is no shortage of things the church gets wrong these days. There is no shortage of sins for which we need to make heartfelt confession. There is no shortage of challenges of which we’re still trying to figure out the answers.

But for once, can we talk about what church – what local churches – get right?

I’ve not been a member of a ton of churches. I tend to go and stay put in a place. But here’s what I’ve seen. Older folks get their lawns mowed, even when they’re crotchety about the mowing. Kids have adult friends who are not related to them but who care about them and care for them. Tired new parents have two dozen other arms to hold (and love on) their baby for an hour or two a week. Someone who never had a family before experiences what it feels like to be connected.

My present church is in a partnership with a local school, a partnership that continues to grow. Through it kids are tutored and have new buddies. Through a partnership with Bookmarks, every child was given a book of his or her own. Every child who needed a warm winter coat received one. Think about it. Not one child at that school went cold last winter for the want of a winter coat.

When I was in a wheelchair for two months my church, located thirty miles away, brought me meals every week. When my parents were dying, my church held me up with love and care and just checking in not just on them, but on me. When I was a kid and faced with circumstances that told me that I was worthless the people of my church told me that I was priceless and treated me as if it was true.

By its nature, a lot of the caring that goes on in a church has to be kept confidential. Some needs don’t need to be trumpeted. And by our nature a lot of us don’t like calling attention to such things because it runs counter to the whole spirit of why we do it and Who we’re serving by doing it.

Civic clubs adopt schools as well. And the tennis team can rally around a fallen member. But the church not only does these things but also reaches out to those who would otherwise fall through the cracks, like a 91 year old cancer patient coming home.

Maybe we don’t talk about it much because we really do it out of a kind of self interest. We do it because Jesus said that’s where we’d find him.

Listening to a Life: Death

If you came to my house (and please do not consider this an invitation), among my many books you’d find an entire shelf or more of biographies and memoirs. I love reading about other people’s lives. As  I read about how they faced their challenges and followed their dreams I learn lessons for my own life.

So I want to focus a couple of blog posts on learning from one particular life.

Joe Haymes

My father, Joe Haymes, died earlier this month at age 87. He was, by all accounts (and not just mine) an extraordinary man. I learned a lot from him over the years, but I think he still has things to teach us.

So I start with the ending.

My father had Pulmonary Fibrosis, a progressive lung disease in which supple lungs gradually grow hard and unable to take in oxygen, probably the result of nearly 30 years of smoking, a habit he began in the war. At the end, he also suffered from dementia. The dementia really began after my mother’s death and  I am convinced that after a lifetime together, his mind could not accept being in a world where she was not.

In January he began going downhill sharply. He also started to tell us he was dying.

Lesson # 1 – Listen to what dying people tell you. When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (EKR) began her work, part of what was ground-breaking (and scandalous at the time) was that she listened to people talk about dying. Before that dying patients were shuffled off into far corners of the hospital where they could be safely ignored.

When my father began saying, “I’m dying,” some of his caregivers became upset and told him not to talk like that. Because of my work and my training, I knew that it was important to pay attention and to begin preparing for the final stages. He was telling us what was coming.

Lesson #2 – Listen for symbolic language. After my father had been moved into the nursing care unit, he asked me one night, “Do I need to pack for my journey?” It took me a few seconds to realize what he was asking, and  I reassured him that no, he had everything he needed. He smiled and relaxed.

EKR used to tell stories of families who tried to correct patients who told them that they were going home the next day. The families didn’t want the patients to be disappointed when they were unable to leave the hospital. But, of course, in a deeper sense going home is exactly what they did.

Lesson #3 – Sometimes dying is a lot like birthing. Over the last weeks as I sat by my father’s bedside, I realized I felt a lot like a midwife. Now I’ve never actually been there when someone was giving birth (well, there was that one New Year’s eve party that wound up moving into the maternity waiting room, but I digress.) Even so,  it seemed so similar to me.

We were waiting for it to be time, a time no one could predict or control. I couldn’t make it happen or not happen. All I could was sit and tend to those elementary needs – a sip of water, rubbing his back, sharing a chocolate chip cookie, reassuring him. I felt like a midwife.

Dying seemed a lot like birthing, and as a Christian, that is exactly true. We believe that death is not an ending but a transition. There are times when our faith demands of us a dying as a gateway to a birthing – and in the end our bodies get in on the action as well.

Lesson #4 – Sometimes death is a friend. After being moved to nursing care, my father developed pneumonia. “I’ll call the doctor about prescribing antibiotics,” the nurse said. “No,” I stopped her. “If you cure this, he is still dying of lung disease.” Actually, pneumonia was known as the old person’s friend because when they were ill and frail with no hope of better, it came in and ended their suffering.

There is a temptation to do a medical intervention just because we can. We feel as if we are being mean or heartless or abandoning them if we do not do everything that can possibly be done (which these days is a lot.)

But we were not made to live forever. At least for now, all of us will come face to face with that point at which our bodies have gone as far as they can go. Even so, with modern medicine, we can be kept here beyond that point. Beyond the point of life having any meaning or value, the point at which there is only pain and discomfort. There comes a time when the most loving thing we can do is to let someone die as their body needs to die.

Lesson #4 – Hospice is wonderful. While Hospice had been involved in my dad’s care for several months, for the last week of his life he had the gift of being at the Kate B. Reynolds Hospice home in Winston-Salem. When he first arrived, the doctor announced that they were taking him off all medicine except what was needed to keep him comfortable. (I mean, really – did we care if he had high cholesterol at that point?)

They took it as their mission to make him comfortable and did not rest until they had the right combination of medication that allowed him to be peaceful. They also took it as their mission to care for me and other family members who were present.

I’ve occasionally heard older folks say they didn’t want to go to hospice because “my friend was there and they wouldn’t even give her food and water and that’s just cruel.” They took my dad off food and water for the last couple of days as well but not because they were cruel. It was because they understood that one of the ways that the body prepares for the end of life is to start disengaging from life. The patient no longer wants food or water. They are moving beyond those things. The patient isn’t suffering hunger. They no longer need those appetites.

As  I see it, the purpose of hospice is to create a place where a person may be  gently held as they make this last and maybe most sacred journey, a place where the body is allowed the grace of doing what it needs to do with the only intervention being for comfort. It is also a place where loved ones are held, sometimes literally as well as metaphorically. Families are given all of the support they need so that they can focus on the holy task of supporting their loved one.

For me, it was a place where I could relax and just be present with my father. And that is a priceless gift.

 

Next time we’ll have a little lighter look as we learn from a childhood in which adventures were had.

Nothing more than feelings

Through the graces of Twitter,  I recently read this fine article for caregivers by Wendy Lustbader in the Huffington Post. I particularly liked this quote:

You can’t take away someone’s loneliness. No matter how many times caregivers phone, visit, or take their loved one on outings, there will always be the time in-between contacts for the person to feel the sadness of separation from lifelong friends and the loss of once cherished activities. These are consequences of frailty or illness that caregivers cannot rectify. It helps to recognize the unavoidable fact that the hours of companionship they provide for their relative go quickly and the empty hours still pass slowly.

It’s a challenge for caregivers but not just caregivers. Many people struggle with wanting to take away another person’s pain, grief or struggle. After all, we love them. We don’t want them to feel badly. We want them to have lives of joy, no matter what their age and physical condition.

One of the things that I learned in working with the former staff of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is that we cannot take another person’s grief from them. We cannot protect someone from their feelings. Trying to do so may not be only fruitless but also disrespectful. We all have a right to our own feelings. The grief that comes with the many losses of aging and declining health is hard won. It recognizes the value of the gifts the person enjoyed, whether it was a loving life partner, a treasured home, the ability to do a favorite hobby or even to talk a walk on a nice day. To allow the grief that comes is a way of acknowledging those losses.

Our task isn’t to keep someone from grieving; it is to provide a safe space in which they can grieve. It is to support them. It is to help them with any concrete tasks of life with which we can help. And, if necessary, it’s to help them find ways and tools for expressing that grief.

Years ago pastor Charles Poole wrote a book entitled, “Hard Things Are Hard.” Indeed they are.

When a friend or loved one is going through a hard time, we do them no service to try to pretend as if we could make it be easy.  They don’t need us to take away their feelings. They need us to be able to speak truthfully about those hard things. And then to be present with them in the best way we know how.

If you are looking for a safe place in which to grieve whatever losses you’ve had, I invite you to the Life,Loss and Healing workshop in Durham, NC (March 23-25, 2012.) The workshop gives people a chance to acknowledge many different kinds of losses, to express their own feelings and to find tools for healing. If you’re interested, contact Nancy Mullins at lifelosshealing@nethere.com.

Shaving, mindfulness and contentment

Occasionally, when I visit my father he needs a shave. That’s usually because he has waved off the offer of help from the nurses at his retirement home, telling them he’ll get to it later. Sometimes I remind him to let them help him. On a few occasions I’ve shaved him myself.

Back when his hair was dark, my father didn’t have a five o’clock shadow – it was more like a two o’clock shadow. Even now, after only a couple of days he has a heavy growth of beard. I’ve learned that in giving him a shave there’s no substitute for patience. Sometimes it takes three or four passes to get his skin smooth – along with lots of hot wash cloths in-between. The other day he dozed off as I worked, his lips fluttering as he breathed deeply in and out. I was honored with the trust implicit in his dozing, but it got a little dicey when he did the old “sleeping head jerk” as I had a razor up against his throat. (I’m glad to report there was no blood loss.)

It’s a simple task that he’s done thousands of times in his life. but as I do it I am reminded of the profound mindfulness required for me to do it. My attention can’t be anywhere else. I have to be present, completely focused on this moment of time, completely attentive to this action. One night as  I worked he listened to Andrea Bocelli sing opera on the TV, and it seemed to me to be one of the most pure and exquisite moments of my life.

If you pay attention to magazines for therapists or look at the line-up of continuing ed conferences, you’ll see a lot about mindfulness. It’s one of the hot topics in therapy, and rightfully so. Distraction isn’t a modern invention but we’ve certainly taken it to a new level. Smart phones and IPads help us ensure that no moment of our days has to be free from distraction.

But if we are not present – to our lives and our selves – we suffer. Our mental health suffers. God knows our spiritual health suffers. And I’m no doctor but I’m sure it is not good for our bodies either. When my clients are able to be more mindful (even in difficult

mindfulness

times), they report deeper levels of contentment and well being.What I am discovering is that my occasional times of giving my father a shave are not only a gift for him but a gift for myself as well. Afterwards I feel more centered, more balanced. I have received the gift of mindfulness.

As you begin anticipating this coming year, consider the place of mindfulness in your own life. Where do you experience it? How do you need to make room for it? Sometimes it can be as simple as making sure you have a few moments to breathe – just breathing in and out and feeling present in the action.