Tag: community

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.

A Message Carved in Rock

One of hundreds of petroglyphs just west of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

One of hundreds of petroglyphs just west of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I saw petroglyphs in New Mexico last week. “Petroglyph” means “rock writing” and refers to art carved in volcanic stones lying about the desert hills just west of Albuquerque. According to the scientists who’ve studied the petroglyphs, Native Americans from the Pueblo nation produced those markings during a few centuries before and after 800, c.e. Three of us hiked around the canyon where those ancient Pueblos left their art and we repeatedly asked what they symbols endeavored to say. “What do they MEAN,” we kept asking. We saw representations of snakes, birds, foot prints, lizards, horses, masked people, and a bunch of spirals, as well as dozens of other forms we couldn’t decipher.

The symbol on this rock resembles the theme on the New Mexico state flag, probably symbolizing the four ordinal directions.

The symbol on this rock resembles the theme on the New Mexico state flag, probably symbolizing the four ordinal directions.

As we read the signs along the trail, we learned that some of the art represented religious ideas while others purely secular themes. Some of the markings simply identified a path. Then we came across a trail sign that read, “. . . according to modern Pueblo people, it is culturally insensitive to reveal the meanings of some petroglyphs.”

“So, you had to be part of the club,” one of my colleagues said with a snort.

“I don’t think so,” said another. “I think it means that you honor your community. Unless you’re part of the community, to talk about what these things mean might actually make someone look bad, or hurt them, or lead to misunderstanding things that make sense if you’ve been living together for a while.”

We agreed with each other that the latter explanation made more sense.

All of that brought to mind an essay that I’d read just before going on the excursion. William Deresiewicz, an excellent writer and thinker, had reviewed a book written by a literary hero of mine, Annie Dillard. In reflecting on Dillard’s body of work, Deresiewicz (can anyone tell me how to pronounce that?) made the observation that “we are born with souls but die in bodies.” I think that’s why the modern Pueblos don’t tell us what some of those petroglyphs mean. Even though the symbols stir something in me when I look at them – they touch my soul – the fact that my body never breathed the same air, smelled the same smells, shared the same struggles, and celebrated the same successes as those Pueblo people makes it difficult, if not impossible, to relate to their art.

Many cultures include the spiral in their religious symbolism.

Many cultures include the spiral in their religious symbolism.

This doesn’t mean that I cannot imagine in some ways what the Pueblos faced and what their humanity desired and needed. Certainly, common concerns connect the whole human community now and across time. However, the real healing comes when we enter into each other’s lives, touch one another, listen to one another, and respond to one another in real time, in the places we occupy.

You see, true community grows when we’ve become mutually vulnerable, where we connect meaningfully with others who cherish and honor our vulnerability and offer theirs in trust, when we breathe the same air, smell the same smells, share the same struggles, and celebrate the same successes. That’s the only way loneliness can be assuaged and wholeness nurtured.

An academic knowledge of what this or that petroglyph means doesn’t have the power to heal me. However, when I see a spiral carved in the rock, I can imagine that some Pueblos had decided to draw a symbol for the power of coming to a center, of honing in on the most important thing, and that the most important thing is the power of blessing one another in a community of trust and love. Humans across cultures, across eons, across religions have come to this conclusion. So, this tells me that I need to spiral into a community center, too!

Beautiful scenery against the backdrop of the Sandia Mountains.

Beautiful scenery against the backdrop of the Sandia Mountains.

Yes, that’s another reason why we do support teams here at UAB Pastoral Care. When you enter intentionally into a relationship of caring and trust, you discover a depth of spiritual power you’d never experience by looking at it from the outside. You want to know if support teams “work?” I can show you statistics, or you can enter and experience the love. Which sounds more attractive?

Maybe that’s what the Pueblos are telling us about the petroglyphs. Embed yourself in your own community of caring and support and love, then draw your own symbols.

How to Be an Adult: The “Five A’s” of Healthy Community (with apologies to David Richo)

Actually, Vic Dippenaar knows quite a bit about how to be an adult.

Actually, Vic Dippenaar knows quite a bit about how to be an adult.

While waiting in Atlanta for his flight to San Francisco, a colleague of mine, Vic Dippenaar, sat down in the waiting lounge to nurture patience in the pages of a book. He raised in front of his eyes David Richo’s book, How to Be an Adult, and began reviewing the chapters. Vic, the director of our Clinical Pastoral Education program here at UAB Hospital, uses the book in teaching young adults how to be chaplains. After a few minutes of perusing the chapters, he sensed someone looking at him. He raised his eyes and looked across the top of the book.

Opposite sat a very large, muscular man with a shaved head. The man made eye contact with Vic, looked directly at the book’s title, then with raised eyebrows looked back at Vic and tilted his head to one side. It was an unspoken question: “Really? You need instruction on that?” Or perhaps his silent query was, “So, is this the how-to manual I’ve been looking for?”

Well, I don’t know about you, but I can think of many interactions with folks in my personal and professional life which left me wishing they’d read a “how-to” manual on maturity.

David Richo wrote How to Be an Adult in 1991 and followed up with another one entitled, How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving in 2002. They’re both excellent books and if people were to embrace what Richo describes, I’m certain they’d improve the quality of their individual lives. For my money, though, the “Five Keys” Richo talks about in both books also describe what it means to be a healing community.

Frequently in this blog I’ve spoken the phrase I first heard from Mark Hyman, the director of the Functional Medical Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. In an interview he said, “Community is medicine.” I’ve repeated that phrase frequently because its wisdom lies at the heart of what we do in pastoral care. 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.

The "Inklings"

The “Inklings”

Not just any conglomeration of human beings can weave healing community, however. Despite what we’ve seen on television and in movies, healthy community isn’t likely to happen in a tavern at 3 a.m. Oh, yes, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their colleagues often met at a (now) famous tavern in Oxford, and from those conversations produced some amazing literature. Those guys, however, met regularly elsewhere, too, shared professional lives, and in some cases worshipped together at an altar other than the Guinness tap.  Their healing community – as any healing community – included some essential dynamics which Richo describes as “The Five A’s.” Here they are with my commentary regarding how they characterize a healthy community:

  1. Attention. In a healthy community, people pay attention to each other. They observe, listen, and notice things. They see more than their own interest and can forget what they saw in the mirror that morning.
  2. Acceptance. In a healthy community, people accept each other, having suspended judgment and refused to exert evaluations on the other(s).
  3. Appreciation.  A healthy community recognizes and celebrates each individual’s gifts, passions, longings, and limitations.
  4. Affection. In a healthy community people express their love and appreciation for each other through words and appropriate touch.
  5. Allow. A healthy community provides avenues of expression where each individual’s gifts, passions, longings, and limitations can be embraced, mobilized, met, and, expanded, as Richo says, “with all their ecstasy and ache, without trying to take control.”

Here’s another reason why we counsel the organization of support teams for our friends who’ve been patients at our hospital. When folks have taken the initiative to remove the randomness from their efforts of compassion, they pay attention to whether or not they’re practicing the wisdom of the Five A’s, whatever they’d call them. In fact, it occurs to me that the whole process of weaving healing community begins with paying attention, with recognizing the world’s incredible pain.  Many of us have the impulse to look away when we run across bleeding wounds . . .

. . . others, however, those who make a difference, refuse to divert their attention. They notice, then they bury their denial. They embrace the humans in front of them as worthy of good effort and then give them the freedom to grow in the Grace of the One who calls us all to healing and wholeness.

That’s the essence of a Support Team.

By the way, if you’re interested to learn more about David Richo, click here for a link to his website.

“Independence” Doesn’t Happen in Nature

We could see the Milky Way almost this clearly on that night without whippoorwills.

We could see the Milky Way almost this clearly on that night without whippoorwills.

Some years ago, I stood with a cousin of mine on a balmy June evening at the edge of a field on our late grandfather’s farm. It was about 10:00 p.m. and the field stretched away for nearly a mile to a distant tree line, visible as a dark jagged ribbon against a luminous night sky. We’d gone to that field because of its distance from any night lights and our desire for a clear view of the Milky Way. We stretched out on our backs in the thick turf and with our heads in our interlocked hands looked up. There it glowed above us, what the Bushmen of the Kalahari in South Africa call “The Backbone of Night.” It began in the constellation Cassiopeia directly overhead and stretched into the southwest. I felt the usual awe as I stared up into infinity and contemplated the immensity of the universe. “It’s just so awesome,” my cousin said.

“Sure makes me feel small,” I said. He pointed out the steady movement of a satellite, we laughed at the blinking lights of a high altitude airplane, and began to notice the various shades of color in the stars.

Then, I started to notice some things closer to earth. I could hear the night creaks of the insects and the calls of frogs from a small pond in the field to our backs. It felt familiar because my cousin and I had been to that very field many times over the years, long before we were married, had kids, got educated and moved to cities where ground glare made it impossible to see the Milky Way and where the night sounds included far more sirens than frogs.

I waxed a bit nostalgic. I said, “You know, it’s so quiet out here, but I haven’t heard a whippoorwill the whole time we’ve been here.”

My cousin sighed. (He’d returned to the farm much more frequently than I.) He said, “I miss them, too.” He went on, “They used to fill the air with their calls this time of year, but they’ve grown less frequent over the last few years.”

“Why is that,” I asked.

“There’re all kinds of theories, but I can tell you what happened here. First, they bulldozed all the hedgerows, which was where they hung out.”

“Why’d they bulldoze the hedgerows?”

“They wanted a bigger farm and they wanted to plant a lot of corn and the hedgerows made it inconvenient for the big machinery. Of course, without the hedgerows, the whippoorwills weren’t around to eat the moths that got in the corn, so they upped their usage of pesticides. After that, my grand-dad and dad wouldn’t let livestock in the fields to eat the stubble because they were afraid the pesticides would poison them, so the natural fertilizer wasn’t there anymore, which led to using artificial fertilizers. The heavy machinery compacted the soil, so they have to use even more fertilizers and pesticides. And now, the run-off from all those chemicals has killed off most of the bass in the tributaries to the Pee Dee. And if by chance you DO catch a bass in those creeks, I wouldn’t advise eating it.”

My cousin waved his hand at the Cosmos above us. “We might not notice it right away, but all of this is connected. I think we’ll hear that missing whippoorwill song again when we take all these connections seriously.”

The more we saw these guys, the better our snapdragons and rosemary grew.

The more we saw these guys, the better our snapdragons and rosemary grew.

I thought of that night when I was reading some research the other day. The author made the statement that the notion of “independence” is an abstract political term, but independence doesn’t happen in nature. Rather, interdependence characterizes the way the creation works. If bees don’t pollinate crops in California, grocery shoppers in Alabama pay higher prices – IF they can get the product.

That’s why we do Support Teams, in fact, because we human beings depend upon one another far more than many of us want to admit. As I’ve come to see, health isn’t just the absence of disease. To be healthy means a person is living and loving within a network of relationships, embodied in a community, and making a contribution to the community while enjoying other people’s contributions. Too often in our work as chaplains, we come across people who believe the “rugged cowboy” myth of our society, that if you’re what you ought to be, you can handle whatever comes your way all by yourself. We do Support Teams because we weren’t born alone, we weren’t raised alone, we weren’t educated alone, we don’t make all our clothes or raise all our food, or mine the minerals that someone else used to make our iPhones, TVs, and automobiles. We aren’t even entertained alone.

And we will not get well and stay healthy alone, either.

So we regularly offer our counsel and companionship so that folks can better use the unique medicine that is their community. For so many folks, that organized community is the missing piece in their worlds. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, needing each other to be healthy. And so often, when we take our actual interconnectedness seriously and organize and nurture it, a missing song returns.

The Compartment Conundrum

I’ve been thinking lately about community and human connectivity. It’s becoming more and more dear to my heart as I see the divisive nature of our public discourse and the dismissive attitude so many have toward those whose lives differ from their own. Indeed, I realize I’m as guilty in these tendencies as any of the folks I’d target for my ire. At the same time, I remind myself that in my work here at UAB, with Support Teams, with The Wholeness Project, and with the emerging Loneliness Project, the unifying force in all of them is the need for meaningful human connectivity. What if our population became skillful at nurturing meaningful connections between people?

First, The Compartment Conundrum —

The pedestrian bridge spanning the space over 18th Street S. between the North Pavilion of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital and the Women and Infants Center.

The pedestrian bridge spanning the space over 18th Street S. between the North Pavilion of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital and the Women and Infants Center.

There was a small traffic jam on the crosswalk from the North Pavilion to the Women and Infants Center (WIC) yesterday. A pedestrian traffic jam. Normally, twelve people walking shoulder to shoulder could stride comfortably along that crosswalk, which spans the space over a very busy street. Yesterday, though, a group of visiting physicians had stopped on one side of the corridor for their tour guide to explain the various campus buildings which are visible from that vista. Simultaneously, a woman in a wheel chair had stopped on the other side of the corridor directly across from the visiting physicians. Her daughter had been pushing her IV pole while her husband pushed the wheel chair. Other folks going in both directions funneled into the space between the wheel chair entourage and the huddled physicians. The daughter had grabbed the IV pole and tubes so as to shield them from accidental collision. I had to stop right behind the wheel chair family.

The daughter saw that I’d stopped and realized I was waiting. Three nurses stopped and stood beside me. She and her dad looked at us sheepishly. The daughter looked anguished. “Oh! We’re so sorry! We’re just blocking up everything.” She indicated to her father that they should squeeze over to the side.

I said, “Oh! Take your time! No problem!”

The nurses with me expressed the same sentiment. “We can wait! Take your time!”

After all, each of us – I, the chaplain, the three nurses on their way to the WIC – could see the scarf around the woman’s head, the billiard ball smoothness of her skull beneath the scarf’s hem, the absence of eyebrows and lashes. It was obvious to me, as I’m sure it was to the RNs, that here was a family taking their beloved mom/wife for a little excursion away from the confines of her room. For a few steps, we walked along slowly behind them. I said, “Out for some fresh air?”

The woman in the wheel chair turned her face toward the light streaming in through the crosswalk windows. “Yes! It feels so good to get out of that room and feel the sun on my face.”

“Where’re you from,” inquired one of the nurses.

The 18th Street Crosswalk at a much less busy time.

The 18th Street Crosswalk at a much less busy time.

“Oxford, Mississippi,” said the daughter.

“I’m from Oxford,” cried one of the other nurses.

“Y’all pull for Ol’ Miss?” The question came from a physician who’d slowed to walk behind us.

“Oh yeah,” answered the father, speaking for the first time. He pumped his fist.

Then the group of visiting physicians across the hall moved on. The corridor opened up. People spaced themselves evenly again. The nurses, the physician behind us, and I walked around the trio and each of us wished them well as we passed. We were rewarded with a bright smile from the woman in the chair who said, “Thank you. Bless you!”

We walked a few more steps before one of the nurses said, “Isn’t it interesting how patient we can be when we’re walking? If you’d come across someone going that slow on the interstate, there’d have been a long line of tailgaters. People would’ve been blasting around them, probably flipping them off,” and she made motions with her arms.

That made me smile. I said, “It’s difficult to be rude when there isn’t anything separating you from the other person and you can see what they’re up against.”

I thought of that again as I made my way home yesterday afternoon. Our cars are compartments that shield us from wind as they whisk us along to our destination, but they also make it impossible to know the human beings riding along beside us. In our moving compartments, zipping from the cubicles where many of us work, to the houses where many of us collapse after a hard day’s labor, we’re largely separated from the stories that animate the lives of those around us. We don’t know them. And when a vehicle slows in front of us, many of us feel irritation at the object that has interrupted our pace. It’s certainly not easy for ME to remember that a human being sits in that car, a human being with a story which could be as compelling as the trio on the crosswalk. (Sure, they also might be distracted by their cell phone, but that isn’t true of everyone.)

Our compartments lull us into a sort of dazed forgetfulness. Of course, this isn’t just true for car commuters. I’ve commuted in cities with public transport, sitting on the Metro in Washington, D.C., for example, with hundreds of other people. Many tuck themselves behind books, or their Kindles, or studiously avoid eye contact listening to their ear buds which emit a sound like a small belt sander is in their head. Though automobiles serve as very concrete compartments, we can also construct compartments in our hearts. It takes a certain discipline to remember that we’re surrounded by hundreds of stories.

I know some people who possess this virtue which I have not yet nurtured to maturity in my own character. They don’t feel irritation when they have to slow in traffic, or wait for a car to merge, or get all twisted out of shape because someone up ahead didn’t respond quickly enough to the light changing from red to green. I’ve ridden with people who seem to see past the barrier of their mobile compartment, who remember that a human with a history rides in that other compartment, and they may be dealing heroically with challenges that would crush me.

That’s why I was so glad for the pedestrian traffic jam. It reminded me that I need to get past my compartments, whether the literal compartment of my automobile, or the more psychological/spiritual compartment of my preoccupation with my own issues. When I do that, and lean into the relationships across which I stumble everyday, I’ll see the particularity of people and experience the warming of the heart I experienced with the trio from Oxford.

This is one of the major advantages that occur when we organize support teams for folks we know and care about. Putting together and participating in a support team obliterates our compartments and gives us the privilege of playing a small but crucial role in a friend’s heroic story.

That’s what happens when we “lean into relationships.”

In the next post, more on “leaning into relationships.”

Mortals Telling Stories on the Threshold of Mystery (with apologies to Ray Barfield)

I wonder what the story is.

I wonder what the story is.

You never meet an individual. Oh, sure, you can run into someone standing by herself in the line at the coffee kiosk, exchange greetings, and have a two-way conversation analyzing the coffee, but the fact is: she’s responding with a style, using vocabulary that she learned, and referring to cues she picked up from a vast community of family, friends, colleagues, and culture in which she’s been soaked for years.  When you take the time to learn that history, a “typical business woman” in a suit grabbing a Pike Place at Starbuck’s – almost a cardboard cut-out – becomes Elaine from Savannah who needs a shot of caffeine to escape the lethargy induced by the long drive from Georgia the night before after visiting her ailing mother over the weekend.  Listen a little to the story and watch texture and depth emerge.

Be careful before you entertain all the assumptions that go with regarding this as a "typical country church."

Be careful before you entertain all the assumptions that go with regarding this as a “typical country church.”

I’ve found this to be the case with the congregations with whom I’ve worked over the years, both as a parish pastor, and now as a chaplain. There really is no typical congregation. When you take the time to enter into the particular history of a particular congregation, you discover unique nuances, stories, and traditions which give character to that group of people, regardless of the denominational label they carry.

I began grappling with this reality at the outset of my pastoral career in the early ’80’s. I had been a psychiatric chaplain at the University of Louisville Hospital and had made the shift to local parish ministry at a little Baptist church by the name of Muldraugh, in Muldraugh, Kentucky. I’d arrived at that church, a Ph.D. student in the psychology of religion, and thinking I was God’s gift to these people, that I had the insight for which they’d thirsted and for which they’d be eternally grateful when I imparted it to them. After a few months getting to know the leadership’s names and holding forth in the pulpit, I led a deacon’s meeting in which I revealed the analysis I’d made of the church based on a very good book on congregational dynamics I’d been reading. After I showed them my little chart of where I saw the church heading in the future unless they adopted my particular program, the group fell into silence. Then the chair of the deacons exploded in fury. There isn’t enough room in a short blog entry to reveal all his insights into my pastoral incompetence, or his very colorful language which included questions concerning my genetic origins.  I don’t remember how the meeting ended, but someone offered a weak prayer of dismissal, and I staggered out into the night.

Muldraugh Baptist Church, Muldraugh, Kentucky, on a cold winter's Sunday.

Muldraugh Baptist Church, Muldraugh, Kentucky, on a cold winter’s Sunday.

Later that week, one of my personal, lifetime heroes emerged from the blur. Ernest Ennis had been at that deacon’s meeting and he invited me to his house to drink tea, eat pecan pie (gooey pecan pie), and “just talk.”  After he congratulated me on a “fine sermon this past Sunday,” and reflected on what he’d learned from it, he began telling me stories.  I learned his story. I learned how Mr. Ennis, an engineer and a brick mason, had partnered with three other church members to lay the masonry which composed the walls of the church building.  I learned how the congregation grew from the engineering personnel drawn to Fort Knox at the beginning of World War II and about how that church provided a place of comfort during the early years of a war that seemed fraught with dread.  It dawned on me that I’d been regarding Muldraugh Baptist Church as a cardboard cut-out.

I began going to Mr. Ennis’s house every Thursday afternoon and that investment of time in what Charles Gerkin has called a “living human document” was a major part of what taught me that my books were good beginning points. The substance of my ministry, though, would occur as I immersed myself in the narrative of this particular group of people. When I learned their stories, which in turn composed their Story, I learned that Muldraugh Baptist Church wasn’t at all “typical.”  This congregation possessed depth, character, and texture.

It was about this time that I encountered James Hopewell’s insights in his book, Congregation: Stories and Structures, published after his death. Hopewell illuminated how each congregation possesses stories which the congregants know, or at least sense, and these stories define what sorts of programs and ministries will be successful. It behooves pastoral leadership to know the stories before they try to introduce innovative initiatives. Otherwise, you’re dead in the water before your ship is even launched.  You could very well learn this truth at a painful deacon’s meeting.

RAY BARFIELD is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Christian Philosophy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He received his MD and his PhD (in philosophy) from Emory University. He is a pediatric oncologist with an interest in the intersection of medicine, philosophy, theology and literature.

RAY BARFIELD is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Christian Philosophy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He received his MD and his PhD (in philosophy) from Emory University. He is a pediatric oncologist with an interest in the intersection of medicine, philosophy, theology and literature.

This lesson, first learned more than 25 years ago, comes to me again as I work with Support Teams in our community.  It reminds me that compassionate listening stands as perhaps the greatest skill I can develop and nurture. Indeed, in reading the reflections of a physician by the name of Ray Barfield, active engagement in the narratives of the people we serve is essential for all versions of health care providers. As Barfield says, “If we want a better medicine, we have to become better . . . storytellers.” In a beautiful phrase, Barfield describes the people we serve as “mortals telling stories on the threshold of mystery.” When the people we serve understand that we’re empathetic participants in the ongoing narratives of their lives – where they’ve confronted tragedy, handled adversity, and found some measure of humor and resolution – we go a long way toward weaving a community of health and wholeness.

I’ve come to see our Support Team effort as one means of entering into and nurturing the collective narrative of the communities in which we live. As such, there isn’t really a template for making Support Teams happen beyond being present, listening, and blessing. Indeed, we’re all mortals telling stories on the threshold of mystery.

Lesson #6: Why Do Pastors Resist Something Soooo Good? (Part 1)

Behind every beautiful church facade are multiple congregational challenges. This is Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Behind every beautiful church facade are multiple congregational challenges. This is Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Lesson #6 has to do with the resistance to Support Teams that I’ve encountered among pastors and, indeed, it comes in two parts. Here’s Part One and it’s a heart-felt sympathetic description of why one encounters resistance. There’s a good reason for it. Part Two will come next Wednesday (March 9, 2016), and it’ll be a little more prescriptive.

Ever since I arrived in Birmingham and began working here at UAB, I’ve had this developing dream. Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a network of churches around the region, in metropolitan Birmingham as well as in the surrounding counties, where we had a cadre of coaches in partnership with our Department of Pastoral Care trained to launch support teams for discharged patients coming into their communities? After all, I’ve reasoned, it’s in the DNA of congregations to visit the sick, embrace the disenfranchised, and nurture community. A network of coaches in partner churches actively supporting discharged patients could make a huge contribution to the kind of environment necessary for healing and wholeness. Such a network could even prevent a number of persons from being readmitted to the hospital.

Naturally, this has led me to talk with dozens of pastors. As a former senior pastor, myself, with 26 years of congregational experience, I anticipated some resistance, and indeed I’ve encountered it, and even more than understanding it, I identify with it completely.

You see, if you’re a pastor you’re compelled to live out some basic duties which define the profession and to which you know you must devote quality time. The result? Simply preparing Bible studies, planning worship, doing the research and reflection necessary to craft a sermon every week, writing the sermon, visiting folks hospitalized and homebound parishoners, doing pastoral counseling, and lubricating the institutional infrastructure constitute more than a full time job.

Even a relatively small church presents its pastor with a rich texture of challenges.

Even a relatively small church presents its pastor with a rich texture of challenges.

And then, as if that weren’t enough to deal with, before you’ve pastored a given church for more than a week, you start getting calls, emails, or brochures from well meaning individuals or organizations announcing that they have a ministry, program, or offering that will solve all your pastoral and congregational problems. I got them every day of my 26 year ministry as a senior pastor. Here’s an organization that does marriage enrichment in order to solve your church’s divorce problem. There’s an organization that offers clever financial planning that’ll heal all your budgetary problems. And yonder is a fine, committed and “godly” cadre of experienced pastors who’ll teach you how to overcome your church’s lack-of-growth problem. Believe me – these are a tiny fraction of stuff I’d get every week, almost every day. You know what? The vast bulk of that material immediately got deleted or thrown in the trash without me even bothering to read them. One pastor with whom I met just this week (March 1, 2016) told me that he simply does not take sales calls.

And then – and THEN – there were those activists who had problems they wanted ME to solve, by means of my church. These would be on behalf of human trafficking, or race relations, or abortion, or voting for God’s candidate, or world hunger day, or homeless intervention. That list was even longer than the solve-your-church-problems list, and many of the issues were worthy. At first, I felt terrible about throwing away brochures with pictures of hungry children, for example, but honestly, we felt like we were already doing everything we were able to do on a number of fronts. I knew there were only so many causes I could promote without completely diluting the congregational focus. If we heeded every appeal that came across my desk, we’d be like Bilbo Baggins in “The Fellowship of the Ring” when he told Gandalf that he felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped across too much bread.”

I’m acutely aware of this when I speak to pastors about our Support Team Network. I know that ideally, when fully deployed in the congregation, a well developed Support Team strategy will help lift pastoral burdens, because it spreads the care around, activates the talents of a wide variety of church members, and can prevent folks from “falling through the cracks.” But when I shove a Support Team brochure in the face of an already overwhelmed, busy pastor, they feel like swatting it away. I understand this.

So, what to do? Well, here it is again: nothing works for long without the growth of a trusting relationship, and reducing the kind of resistance I’ve described above is no exception. Next week, I’ll offer a few insights that have emerged for me regarding successful partnering.

“Community is Medicine”

Clint Eastwood as "The Outlaw Josey Wales"

Clint Eastwood as “The Outlaw Josey Wales”

I love the Geico commercial that has fun with the “loner cowboy.”  Have you seen it?  The cowboy sits on his horse while his girl comes running out weeping hysterically and yelling, “Don’t go, Jessie!”  He says, “I’m sorry, Daisy, but I’m a loner.  And a loner has to be alone.”  He then kicks his horse and goes riding off (only to slam his head against the letter “E” when “The End” appears across the screen – if you’ve seen it, it makes humorous sense).  I love the commercial, not because of the insurance, but because of the way it recognizes, and has a little fun with, that iconic staple of the American Western: the Rugged Individual.

Of course, that Rugged Individual motif shows up in far more serious narratives, like the movie “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” starring an icon in his own right, Clint Eastwood.  In that movie, Eastwood portrays a former Confederate soldier, Josey Wales, whose wife and son are murdered by shadowy Union sympathizers.  Wells then sets out on the proverbial path of revenge, riding by himself from town to town hunting down the perpetrators of the crime.  He intends to ride alone, nursing his grief and rage.  As he rides, however, he reluctantly assembles a motley crew of other victims of Western movie peril until he has a veritable entourage going from place to place with him.  Finally, they find a ranch outside a town, which they all defend in an expected gunfight, and then Wales rides into town to confront – and dispatch – the ring leader of the aforementioned shadowy Union sympathizers.

Josey-Wales-filmHowever, when Wales returns to the tavern after the demise of the last villain, a US Marshall sits in the corner, a hat pulled down over his face, with his searing eyes glinting through the shadow of the brim.  Wales and the Marshall lock eyes.  Standing around the tavern, though, are the members of Wales’ motley assemblage.  One of them looks at Wales and says, “Hello, Mr. Jones!  This marshall here is looking for an outlaw by the name of Josey Wales.  You know anything about him?”  And everyone else in the bar participates in the ruse.  The marshall obviously knows that everyone’s lying, but he’s also impressed with the fact that Wales is so loved.  So, as he and Wales continue to look at one another, the Marshall says, “Mr. Jones, you’re a very fortunate man to have so many good friends.” And he rides away.

The point?  Even rugged individuals can’t do it alone.

Recently, Krista Tippet, who hosts the NPR program, “On Being,” interviewed three medical professionals in a program entitled, “The Evolution of Medicine.”  One of the three professionals was Mark Hyman, a physician and the director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine.  I was struck by how Dr. Hyman spoke of the power of community for healing sickness.  In fact, he said that “the power of community is central to health care,” and then later made it even stronger when he said, “. . . community IS medicine.”  Dr. Hyman and the other participants made it clear that as 21st century medical practice evolves, more and more attention needs to be paid to the power of community to support and heal the individual.  In fact, the three panelists emphasized that more than ever, we need to realize that most of our problems – and the solutions to them – are systemic in nature.

Even that rugged individualist, The Outlaw Josey Wales, discovered that his community became the support system that solved his problem.  Likewise, as we learn more about what makes for a life filled with health and well being, we increasingly see how important it is to pay attention to the systems of which each of us is a part.  Indeed, as we organize Support Teams for folks we know, in Mark Hyman’s words, we’re actually doing a very important form of medicine.  Community heals.  I’ve often described what we do with Support Teams as nurturing community and the more I do this, read, and interact with members of this amazing hospital community at UAB, I know that medicine isn’t just what the physicians and nurses do around the hospital bed or in the rehab clinic.  When we prepare meals for one another, assist with chores, listen to each other’s stories, or simply sit with each other in silence, we’re participating in a healing process – because community IS medicine!

The last thing we need to do is ride off and try to do this thing alone.

The Twin Towers (in Kuala Lumpur)

The Petronas Towers - the "Twin Towers" of Kuala Lumpur.

The Petronas Towers – the “Twin Towers” of Kuala Lumpur.

When I went to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia a few years ago, I had no idea they had twin towers, too. Of course, from my American standpoint, there had been only one set of twin towers, the towers made famous by the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Little did I know that when in Kuala Lumpur, if I used the term “twin towers,” they would immediately think not of the World Trade Center in New York City, but the Petronas Towers (the “Menara Berkembar Petronas” in the Malaysian language). From 1998 until 2004, they were the tallest buildings in the world.

As I moved about the plaza below the Petronas Towers, taking the photographs from which I excerpted the ones here, one of my Malaysian friends asked me if I’d see the movie “Entrapment,” which had starred Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones. I confessed that I hadn’t seen the movie. He said that he and all of his friends had seen it. “After all,” he said proudly, “It featured the Petronas Towers.”

The PR poster for the 1999 movie, "Entrapment."

The PR poster for the 1999 movie, “Entrapment.”

Well, I still haven’t seen the movie, and from the reviews I’ve read, despite the stellar co-stars, it isn’t really that remarkable as far as plots go. But in Kuala Lumpur, they were proud to be featured. I hadn’t noticed it in the United States. They’d noticed it big time in Kuala Lumpur. I haven’t found many people I know who HAVE seen the movie in the United States. Just about every Malaysian I talked to in Kuala Lumpur HAD seen the movie.

It depends upon what you’re connected to, really. For so many people on this continent, “Entrapment” was just another thriller, featuring exotic places, action, seduction, and people falling from great heights. Like so many other movies. Big deal.

But in Kuala Lumpur, where people see those towers every day, they were proud to be featured, proud of the impressive, dominating backdrop the towers provided, proud of the image it cast of a modern, technologically advanced culture. They didn’t care that the plot wasn’t that creative. And now that I’ve been there, I’m inclined to watch the movie – just to see the actors move through the space I’d occupied myself, albeit for a very brief time (the brevity due to my profound fear of heights).

The Petronas Towers at night.

The Petronas Towers at night.

Connection makes a difference. When you’re connected, you notice things disconnected people don’t notice. When you’re connected, what was unimportant to you previously can become very important to you. When you’re connected, judgments other people make don’t even occur to you. Critics of “Entrapment” might say, “That was beneath Sean Connery!” Residents of Kuala Lumpur would say, “Did you see how fantastic those towers looked!”

And that’s why nurturing connection in our world is so important. We can only maintain our harsh judgments, our starkly drawn boundaries, and our lack of empathy when we maintain distance from other people. However, when we enter into their worlds, connect with them, and listen to them, our own world becomes deeper, richer, broader, and more full of life.

Notice it: when you nurture a connection with a member of a group of folks you’d previously judged harshly (in my case, it’s members of the NRA), you discover characteristics that don’t exactly square with your prejudices. You discover that you’re called upon to soften your rhetoric, and see more honestly the humanity you share with them.

Take the step to nurture a connection with a person you’ve previously dismissed. You’ll discover scenes you never imagined.

Everything is Incredible!

In the village of Siguatepeque, Honduras, lives a man named Augustin. Before the government gave free vaccinations to the children of the country, polio struck Augustin. For most of his 70 plus years, Augustin has lived in a wheelchair. He managed to learn a trade, however, and became a shoemaker. Augustin might have gone unnoticed by the villagers in Siguatepeque, another among the number of handicapped persons often overlooked by the more able bodied residents of the town as they went about their business – but for one thing:

In his spare time, Augustin built a helicopter.

This film is about ten minutes long.  You can watch it, or skip to the narrative I’ve written below – or both!  I find the implications of this story deeply compelling.

If you visited Augustin’s residence, you’d know it wasn’t a real helicopter – but you can see that it’s a least a rough model of one, made from parts Augustin collected from the dump, or along the road. You’d be amazed that many of those parts move! A chain drive turns shafts which make the blades rotate. It has the bubble cockpit of an early chopper like they used for M.A.S.H units during the Korean War, and it has a tail fin that angles back and forth. You’d recognize what it approximates, though you’d know immediately that it wasn’t airworthy.

Now, if you’re like the local priest, an Anglo missionary from the United States, you’d smirk, shrug your shoulders and say dismissively, “[Whenever we try to help him] he characteristically says, ‘I just want you to give me money so I can work on my helicopter. Which it’s not even a helicopter. God knows what it is.”

You might be surprised, though, to learn that none of the villagers who live in Augustin’s community seem to share the contempt of the priest. Rather, the people who’ve lived with him, who speak his native language, who’ve known him their whole lives, are much more accepting of him and his “helicopter.” One villager recounted how once he had no shoes and Augustin gave him a pair that were well made. That villager said that, no, Augustin isn’t crazy. On the contrary, he has a fine mind and lots of patience. Another says that her mother used to be crazy about Augustin. Yet another says that he thinks the helicopter WILL fly some day.  Perhaps the villagers see a reality the outsider cannot, see a redemption the outsider only sees as futility, sense of genius the outsider only understands as foolishness.

As for Augustin himself, he recounts how his own brother became an alcoholic and that before he died “for no reason,” he’d walk around in the streets shouting, “I’m not the crazy one! I’m a drunk. My brother – he’s the crazy one!” But Augustin goes on unfazed. He points at the contraption sitting in the living room and says, “You can see that it’s a caricature of a real helicopter, but the problem is that everything is incredible – and people don’t accept it.”

“Everything is incredible.” Could it be that we all have projects that appear senseless to people who don’t know us? Could it be that we all have our “helicopters” that won’t “fly?” Could it be that we all need to have folks who’ve known us, who know something of our histories, and accept us just the same?

If I can trust the gist of this film, it doesn’t seem to me that this “crazy guy” suffers from social isolation. I can imagine that he’s experienced loneliness, but to judge from the way so many people in his village can recount his history and even sympathize with and admire his project, it seems he’s even been supported in his efforts. He’s been able to persevere with his project because his community has supported him. They’ve shared his “craziness,” some even evincing a trace of pride that they know this man.

This story serves as an object lesson as to why our support team project is so important. I don’t think our support team vision is like the helicopter caricature, but when we fashion ourselves into intentionally supportive communities for people, we make it possible for them to pursue their life-giving projects. We participate in weaving the kind of fabric of life that will allow all of us to build our crazy dreams. That makes it possible for all of us to see that “everything is incredible.”

In that sense, Augustin’s “helicopter” has already flown.

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