“I Disappear!”

I was reminded recently of the movie “Billy Eliot.”  The story tells about the unlikely path of a pre-adolescent boy in a northern English coal mining town.  While the majority of his mates take up boxing, a “manly” activity, Billy Eliot feels drawn to ballet.  The boy’s friends look at him askance and the girls in the dance class giggle as Billy imitates their movements.  Even the boy’s father expresses some hostility to his son’s preference for graceful movement to jabs and upper cuts.  Eventually, however, the father sees the beauty of his son’s sense of call and helps his boy go to an audition at London’s prestigious Royal Ballet School.  

Well, the erudite atmosphere of the school’s audition hall intimidates the boy used to the more rough surroundings of a coal mining town, but at the end of what appears to be a failed audition, one of the panelists asks Billy a question.  “Billy, what does it feel like when you’re dancing?”  He was on his way out the door, but Billy turns and says, “I dunno.”  He then thinks for a moment and says, “It feels good . . . when I get going, I sort of disappear. I sort of disappear.”  Billy then returns to the coal mining town thinking he’s failed the audition.  I won’t tell you anymore about the movie.   If you haven’t seen it, it’s totally worth the time, but – SPOILER ALERT – a few days later, an acceptance letter arrives and the final scenes of the film will make even a granite monolith shed tears.

“My doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun!?”  I have to admit that I uttered versions of this cliche more often as a child than I have as an adult.  On the other hand, as an adult I understand its truth much better.  When we’re fully engaged in an activity that we love, that elevates our spirit, that calls on our gifts and abilities, our deepest passions, we lose a sense of time passing.  When you lose a sense of time passing, you actually taste Eternity, where the limitations of the mortal spirit fall away.  You become like Billy Eliot: you disappear.  In other words, we’re happiest when our egos fade, because that’s when the truest beauty emerges.

This explains why the first principal of our Support Team methodology is “Do What you Love.”  When we serve others out of what we love, the deepest thing in us communes with the deepest thing in all those with whom we serve.  When we tap into that depth greater than our ego’s desire for recognition or recompense, we release a vitalizing spirit.  Our presence flows with the freedom of unforced grace and possesses a healing embrace.  Beauty emerges, and beauty possesses a healing power.

This coming Friday, we’ll talk about this first of our Ten Best Practices and the Promise that emerges from it.  I typed “Promise” with a capital letter because after teaching and applying these Ten Best Practices for years now, we’ve come to realize that these practices also release a deepening human completeness, increasing our capacities to care and show compassion.  We’re so sure of this wisdom that we can confidently promise some things.

Look for the link this Thursday.  Those on the email list will get the invitation sooner.  If you want to be on the email list, just send the request to rdrayford@uabmc.edu.

A Way to Weather an Eruption

The Bali volcano, before the latest eruption, as seen from the community of Denpasar.

Some years ago I had some time to take my camera and wander around the community of Denpasar on the island of Bali. As I walked along the shore, I spied the four girls in the photograph I’ve shared as they sat in the sea breeze, chatting and laughing, and evidently enjoying each other’s company immensely. Right across the bay, however, loomed an active volcano. I didn’t really think about it at the time, the contrast between the innocent fellowship of four girls and the sinister potential of volcanic (literally) violence looming on the horizon. But that IS a picture of life, isn’t it? Dark possibilities lurk all around all of us, though few of us carry on in the shadow of an actual active volcano. We go about those activities that bring us life anyway, don’t we? And well we should!

I’ve shown this picture to a number of folks and they always say something to the effect of, “You went to Bali! That must’ve been quite the vacation!” Well, I really was there on business, and I tell you that because I’ve continued to stay in touch with my colleagues whom I visited there. Jonathan and Tina Bailey are Cooperative Baptist Fellowship cross cultural workers who live with and serve the Balinese through the local arts community. Here’s what I learned from them: the Balinese carry on their lives in full awareness of the danger the volcano possesses. They’re ready to adjust their lives if and when the thing should erupt. Which it did a few years back, and the ash cloud covered the perch where I took the photograph.

We’ve had an eruption of sorts. COVID-19 has had a volcanic effect on the way we carry on our lives. We’ve had to adjust in order to continue to find meaningful fellowship and offer service and community to those who’ve been cut off by this pandemic. This Friday at 10:00, we’re going to host a Zoom conference on how our Support Team methodology can facilitate a way of staying meaningfully connected during these tough times. If you’re interested, join us! We’ll be posting the link this Thursday and early Friday morning. See you then!

Bringing Water to the “Desert”

Our chef in Gansu!

Would you like to bring “water” into this current, socially distanced desert we live in?  Well, let me tell you about this picture.

Some years ago I traveled to China with a medical team from Virginia.  We had been invited by the Amity Foundation, the social development arm of the China Christian Council, to tour a number of clinics and small hospitals in Gansu Province, at that time a rather poor and underdeveloped region in western China just south of the Gobi Desert.  The Amity Foundation invited us so that our physicians and therapists could dialogue with the Chinese medical professionals and explore avenues of partnership and mutual learning.

I remember carrying some anxiety with me as we journeyed to China, anxiety fueled by a life-time of hearing stories about the “godless Communists.” I was also amazed that there was a flourishing Christian organization living openly and with the full sanction of a Chinese Communist government which was actually grateful for the social development initiatives led by the Chinese Christians in places like Gansu.  Any anxiety I had, however, quickly dissipated upon our arrival in Shanghai as our hosts greeted us with huge welcome signs, wide smiles, and intricately organized hospitality which saw our every need met.

Shanghai sported multiple amenities to which our hosts treated us.  They warned us, though, that when we flew west to the city of Lanzhou, things would feel a bit more primitive.  Indeed, the accommodations were a bit more spartan, the roads less well maintained, we saw far fewer western-styled restaurants and kiosks, and a dun colored landscape reflected the reality that this is one of the driest geographical regions on the planet.

They showered us, however, with hospitality.  They embraced us with service.  In fact, my primary memory from those two weeks isn’t the treeless landscape, rather the eagerness with which people did simple things for us – like the man in this picture cheerfully cooking our lunch one day.  I thanked him for his efforts and he responded that he knew being in Gansu would feel strange for us Americans and he thought that a real good, hot meal would help us feel better.  It was, indeed, an excellent stew!

The pandemic has served up a rather dry landscape for us right now in which many of us thirst for human contact. This new socially distanced environment feels as strange as a treeless desert.  We can still practice hospitality, though, and can still convey an embracing feeling to otherwise isolated and lonely people when we harness our tools together with others and like that cook in Gansu, we can help people feel a lot better simply by showing an eagerness to do the simple things.

On November 20, at 10:00am, we’ll host a Zoom meeting to talk about how the Support Team method we’ve practiced here at UAB for over twenty years can still facilitate connections and hospitality even in the midsts of this current social desert.  We’ll post the link to the meeting next week.  Join us!

I’ll Manage!

Drexel Rayford, Support Team Network “Manager” or “Advocate, as the case may be.

It came to my attention the other day that my name doesn’t appear anywhere as the “manager” of the Support Team Network.  I’d like to say that’s because I’m an incredibly humble guy and don’t care a thing about getting credit for anything.  Alas, that isn’t the case.  It boils down to simple incompetence: I overlooked it.

So, I decided that I’d change that.  My name now appears in the contact information in the lower left of the website’s side bar so if anyone wants to know what we’re up to here in the Support Team Nation, they can call ME!

A word about my title, “Support Team Network Manager.”  The word “manager” attached to my name probably elicits gales of laughter from people who’ve known me throughout my pastoral career.  I’ve never been a good detail person.  In fact, I’ve earned the reputation of not being able to organize my way out of a wet paper bag and grow tremendously impatient when sitting at a desk surrounded by walls with no windows.  It’s probably par for the course that I’d overlook attaching my name to the Support Team website.

The truth is, I’m the Support Team Advocate.  I advocate for this method here at Support Team Nation because it’s a great way to overcome so much that plagues us in modern American society.  When people assemble themselves into communities of intentional care, which is precisely what a Support Team is, it goes a long, practical way at healing the ill effects of loneliness and isolation.

And, as the Support Team Advocate, I get to travel all over the place letting people know what we’ve come to recognize here at UAB Hospital: though our medical center is great at finding cures for all kinds of diseases, our cures can’t mature, can’t take root, will be less effective if the people who receive our curative efforts don’t have a body of people at home who surround them with acceptance, care, concern, and love.

That’s really all these support teams are – ways of making sure that care and love aren’t random in the community, but that there are people who know how to organize themselves so that these things actually happen!

The truth is, that’s not anything I can “manage.”  I can tell people about our 10 best practices, teach them about what we’ve discovered works and doesn’t work in supporting people when they come home from the hospital, and give them encouragement.  But every one who has gotten involved using our methods has taken them, adapted them, and in many cases, improved upon them in ways I could never have imagined.  If I’d tried to manage any of that, I might have ruined it!

So, when you see my name on the website now, give me a call if you have any questions.  I know people who can answer them!  That’s how I manage.

Come Have Lunch with Us!! Seriously – You’re Invited!

We’re getting your lunch ready!

Here at the UAB Support Team Network, we’ve begun a new lunch series. It’s called “Community is Medicine.” Isn’t that cool?! Now, you’re not only being invited to read these columns but you can come and get something tasty to eat, hobnob with others who feel called to make a difference in their community, and become part of this process of nurturing a healing community.

What’s it all about? Well, as I say on the little piece of propaganda I conjured up to promote it, “Because heath isn’t just the absence of disease, but working, playing, loving, and rejoicing in the community where you live, we gather to build friendships that empower local congregations and UAB Pastoral Care to be partners together in bringing health to our community.”

We’re doing this at the Lister Hill Medical Sciences Library on the campus of UAB Medicine, in a cool place called “The Edge of Chaos Cafe.” We welcome anyone and everyone who might be interested! All you need to do is call and reserve your spot and we’ll take care of your lunch and your parking – and send you detailed, easy-to-follow instructions on how to get there. (It’s easy.)

We’re doing this, also, because it’s important to shine a new light on an old and venerable concept: there’s healing power in a group of people who team up to provide loving support for their friends. We won’t just talk theory, though. We’ll also talk about a practice we’ve developed and tested over time that’ll facilitate putting feet to this notion.

As readers to the Support Team blog already know, I frequently use the phrase, “Community is Medicine.” I first heard it spoken by Mark Hyman, the director of the Functional Medical Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. I repeat that concept so often because its wisdom lies at the heart of what we do in pastoral care. It also lies at the heart of the kind of world our faith communities envision, where we “love our neighbor as ourselves,” and where we “do unto others the way we’d have them do unto us.” As our society suffers increasingly from the Epidemic of Loneliness, we need to unpack, examine, and absorb the powerful healing effects of living in an embracing and loving community.

So, if you live in the Birmingham region, come join us! The next lunch will be May 26 at 12:00 noon. We’ll also gather on June 23 and July 28, same time, same place.

We hope to hear from you!

email for directions: rdrayford@uabmc.org.
telephone: 205-934-2477

Gratitude for a Long Term Friend

Eva Gates

Way back in the summer of 1992, I went to serve as the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Winchester, Virginia.  That’s when I met the family of Butch and Eva Gates.  The first day in my office, Eva called me and asked me to officiate at a marriage vow renewal service that she and Butch wanted to have.  At that point, they’d been married 25 years and thought they’d celebrate by repeating to one another their marriage vows.  “Isn’t that sweet,” I thought, and I imagined showing up at their house and with a few people standing around the living room, I’d lead them in repeating the old wedding lines.

Boy, was I wrong.

No one on planet earth knows how to celebrate better than the Gates family!  Yes, we were at their house, but so were about fifty other people, along with grilled food, chilled food (and drink), music, dancing, and lots and lots of laughter.  Eva embraced me, Butch rammed a cold beer in my hand (yes, this Baptist layman rammed a cold beer into his pastor’s hand – he was no conventional Baptist!) and after about an hour of preliminaries, we gathered on the lawn with all those friends circling us and we repeated vows.  At the end, when I re-pronounced them husband and wife, an ear splitting cheer exploded from the crowd and the music crescendoed again.

Then in 1994, Eva and Butch accompanied me to Mexico City on a mission trip in cooperation with the Virginia Baptist Mission Board and the Baptist Convention of Mexico City.  As she translated, I led between 8 and 10 Bible studies every day for two weeks and preached two sermons.  Butch went everywhere with us, adding spirit, humor, and frequently, prayers.  After we returned to Virginia, I was privileged to celebrate their three children’s weddings, births of grandchildren, and just about any other excuse to throw a party.  As I said, no one celebrated better than the Gates Tribe!

A few years ago I returned to Winchester to participate in the memorial service for Butch who’d died too early.  Indeed, though it was a bit more subdued than other parties, the Gates Tribe still knew how to gather and celebrate the life of one fantastic man.  And through those years and all those life events, I grew to love the Gates family.  Getting to know them was one of the greatest blessings of my life as a pastor.

And now, it’s a huge joy to work with Eva again.  She saw my appeal to my Spanish speaking friends and volunteered to do translations of our material here at the Support Team Network.  Each time she sends a Spanish document to us and each time I correspond with her, I feel joy in my heart.  I thank God for the way life has brought me such fantastic long-term friends, of which Eva is among the best!

Thank you, Eva Gates, for your friendship, your love, your embrace over the years, and for the work you’re doing for us here at UAB.  Our gratitude, and especially mine, goes very deep.

Our Best Practices in Spanish (Mejores procedimientos para un grupo de apoyo en Español)

A couple of weeks ago, Corey Agricola and Jeff Woods, two of our chaplains, traveled to Gadsden, Alabama and with the able assistance of Elder Juan Tinillo, established a Support Team at Ebenezer Seventh Day Adventist Church.  Corey and Jeff needed Elder Tinillo because the entire team speaks Spanish and Juan did a great job translating.  That’s when those of us in Support Team administration had a “duh!” moment.  We have many, many Spanish speaking people who come to our hospital here and somehow, we still hadn’t had any of our material translated into Spanish.

Well, we’re beginning to change that.  Today, at www.supportteams.org, you can see the beginnings of that translation.  We started with our “10 Best Practices,” (Mejores procedimientos para un grupo de apoyo).  Click here to see that page.

So, if you come across anyone who might be able to use some guidance in how to help nurture a community of folks who look after the practical, emotional, and spiritual needs of someone in need, and speaks Spanish, these “mejores procedimientos” might help!

We’ll be sure to advise everyone as we add Spanish material to our resources – and who knows?  Maybe some other languages, too!  Anybody got any suggestions?

Separation is an Illusion

“Separation is an Illusion”  All the Christian spiritual masters say this: in God’s world, we’re all connected.  Interestingly, Buddhists and quantum physicists say it, too, along with Hindu gurus and Muslim Sufis.  Separation is an illusion.

This statement still startles me. The fact is, I like to think that I’m separate. I like to hold the violent places in the world not just at arm’s length, but at hemispheric length. How am I connected, for example, to Aleppo? I didn’t start that war! I’m totally against bombing hospitals and sniping at medical workers. If I had any power, I’d enforce a cease fire, but I don’t have any power or influence. Aleppo? That’s a separate thing.

And all that gun violence in Chicago? I’ve always advocated peaceful resolution to conflict and have practiced that in my ministry. I live in a totally separate world from those shattered neighborhoods where random slugs from drive-by shootings take down children sitting in their grandparents’ laps. I’m saddened by those stories, but they’re all happening somewhere else.

Now, I’m not a diplomat. I’ll never be consulted about any foreign affairs. The dictators and military “protectors” that blow things up aren’t going to solicit my opinion. And I’m not on the city council in Chicago. I’m not a community organizer there. I have no personal control over the flow of guns and our culture’s fantasy that violence solves any problems.

But I CAN be different where I live. There’s a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” What if enough of us lived this way? And what if . . . WHAT IF . . . ?

Downtown Birmingham with some of the UAB Hospital campus in the foreground.

Downtown Birmingham with some of the UAB Hospital campus in the foreground.

What if a few hundred in Birmingham got involved in supporting their neighbors and friends more intentionally? What if they did that and their experiences influenced their neighbors, and THEIR neighbors got involved doing the same thing – and it kept multiplying? Hundreds could become thousands. It would go beyond Birmingham. It would connect with similar projects in other cities and communities. It could turn into millions more people around the country involved in community nurture. What if that happened? I believe such a movement could make a difference even with the way people view violence and its instruments. It could change the heart of our nation, and when a nation’s heart changes, it can have an affect on other nations.

As I’ve worked more in this area of support teams, I’ve encountered dozens of organizations devoted to promoting the same thing – strengthening community. It’s why I celebrate those organizations and continue to encourage and invite people to get involved with our efforts. Yes, getting involved in a support team makes a difference in the life of one specific person – but it sends out ripples, like a small pebble making a rather large lake undulate.  When we do these things, we affect the whole atmosphere.

Change happens when we ARE the change.  Imagine the possibilities!

A Memory of Andy Lester

Andy Lester

Andy Lester

When the phone rang on a February morning in 1989, I thought I had an idea of who’d be calling me. I was the pastor of a small town Kentucky church and church members called me about almost anything at almost anytime. I received this particular call sitting in the pastor’s study while working on the second chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation. I took a deep breath, turned away from my writing and said, “Muldraugh Baptist Church!”

“Drexel,” came the voice on the other end, “This is Andy! How’re you doing?”

Oh. My. Goodness. This wasn’t a church member. It was Dr. Andrew D. Lester, one of the professors who was a member of my Ph.D. committee. A couple of days earlier, I’d given him a copy of the first chapter of my dissertation and sure enough, he was calling about it.

Andy joined me to greet my parents upon graduation with my Ph.D.  He was always extremely personable and warm.  I miss him.

Andy joined me to greet my parents upon graduation with my Ph.D. He was always extremely personable and warm. I miss him.

“Hey, Andy,” I said, “I’m doing fine,” though in truth, I was really scared about what he’d say about my chapter.

He said, “Drexel, I want you to come over to my house tomorrow so we can talk about your first chapter.”

Oh Lord, I thought. The chapter was so bad, they want to dismiss me from the Ph.D. program and he wants me to come over so he can tell me in person.

“Can you be here at 9:00? I know that’s early, but it’ll only take a little while and then you’ll have the rest of your day.” Yup, they were going to throw me out. Why else would he say, “It’ll only take a little while”?

“I’ll be there,” I said, and didn’t get a wink of sleep that night.

When I arrived at his house the next day, he greeted me at the door with a wide smile. “Hey, Drexel! Thanks for coming over!” I couldn’t help but notice that Andy’s greeting was relaxed, sincere, warm, and welcoming. This didn’t FEEL like a dismissal! In fact, he escorted me into his kitchen and pointed to the breakfast bar where there were two stools, cups ready for coffee, and a plate of glazed donuts. Two separate piles of 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper marked where he’d placed my original chapter and his copy. As we took our seats, I noticed that there wasn’t one sentence on the first page of my chapter that was free of an arrow, or an ‘x’, or a circle, or a small note. He invited me to have a donut and asked how I liked my coffee. As I looked at all the corrections on that first page, I told him “black” and reached for a donut.

Then, over the next hour, Andy went through my chapter line for line, phrase by phrase, and patiently gave me a one-on-one tutorial in writing. He’d taken the time to read my thoughts in close detail, mull them over, and come to suggestions about how I could write them more clearly and precisely, with greater creativity and active engagement. He introduced me to principles of writing I’d somehow missed as an undergrad philosophy major and English minor. By the time we reached the end of the hour, I knew he’d made me not only a better writer, but a better person through the personal example of how to be a mentor.  We’d also knocked off a half dozen donuts.

Let me explain why I share this.

First, a couple days ago, one of my colleagues asked me if I’d ever read “Hope in Pastoral Care and Counseling” by Andrew D. Lester. I told him that I’d had privilege to have been in Andy’s graduate seminar on hope and had taken part in some of the discussions which helped him sharpen his concepts in the book before he published it. “He’s a brilliant thinker,” my colleague said.

“True,” I responded, and then added, “But he was an even greater human being and teacher” and I shared the story I relate here.

“Wow,” my colleague marveled. “That makes the book even better.” You bet.

The second reason I share this story is because we lost Andy Lester too soon. Pancreatic cancer took his life on June 10, 2010 and a corner of me still mourns that loss to this day. He was a vigorous, humorous, and – as I’ve related – deeply caring man, a model human being. He still would’ve been making a contribution at what would’ve been a young 77 years of age.

But the third reason is this: Andy noticed and took time with the folks in his community. He invited me to his house. He gave me donuts! He was sharing his life with me, not simply working a professorial job. As a result, his influence, his spirit, his affirmation of the gifts of others lives on. You see, I ask myself the questions he taught me during that hour every single time I sit down to write something. And I emulate his patient listening and gentle humor whenever I teach. He knew how to affirm the deepest thing in me, and in my own ministry, I try my best to affirm the deepest thing in others. It’s one of my life’s mantras.

This is another reason why I encourage folks to get involved with our support team effort. When you become involved in nurturing community, in noticing and blessing the folks with whom you share the world, you have the opportunity to leave an influence that never dies. Wouldn’t you like to have an impact on the world like Andy Lester did in mine, and countless other lives? Let’s buy a dozen donuts and do that together!

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