Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Authority from exposing our wounds

With the fast approach of the summer -- a summer where for the first time I will be "flying solo" in leading a group of seminarians and others through the intense full-time experience of learning and ministering to others (as a hospital chaplain) that we call a summer unit of CPE -- I am thinking a lot about where my "power and authority" come from. What is it that gives me the right to stand before these folks and present myself as someone who can aid in their learning?

As someone who might have something to give them? Paul Steinke -- one of the great fonts of wisdom that I have come across in my journey of becoming a chaplaincy and spiritual care educator/supervisor -- today gave me a new and challenging way of thinking about this. In a presentation at a chaplaincy conference at a wonderful retreat center, he said authority comes from telling our own stories to our students. But not just any stories. Stories about our wounds. Stories about out mistakes.

This is some difficult wisdom for me to hear. One of the first things we try to teach many of our beginning students is to not share their own stories with the patients they are ministering to in the hospital. We teach them that sharing their own stories takes the focus of the encounter off the patient, and that they should instead learn to elicit -- and listen to -- the stories of the patients. And we teach them that there is something profoundly healing for the suffering person in having the opportunity to have their story -- especially the story of their suffering (which friends and family often are just not up to hearing) -- heard.

But Steinke challenged me in my own work to grow to the point where I have the confidence to know when I am telling my story to distract from the other person's tale and when I am telling it to help them. He said that chaplaincy supervisors should model this kind of story telling for their students. And it is from that -- not from any title given to us by the hospital or anybody else -- that our most important source of authority, especially the authority to teach, emerges. Another important thing Steinke reminded me of about this is that these kind of stories need to be filled with concrete details and not be told in terms of generalities. It is in the details that something truly important unique comes to be, he said.

While I learned quite a bit from Steinke, today -- much more than I've had time to write about here! -- this is not the first time I've thought about or written about these issues. In December, I wrote about this from the perspective of submission. There, I was more focused on what the student needs to do for learning to happen in CPE (that the student needs to accept at least the authority/possibility of the CPE process teaching them something). . . . . Now, I'm thinking about what I, as the supervisor and teacher, have to do. I have to coax the authority from my students. And telling more of my own stories and struggles is one way to do that. So, one of my goals for this summer will be to start doing more of that with my students.

In that regard, I'd like to express my thanks to one of my students I worked with for the last six months or so. He constantly demanded that I share more of myself and compared me to former teachers who had done that with him. I resisted that as a challenge to my authority and position. But I now see that his challenging of me made me more open to hearing Steinke's message, today.


Here are some of the stories from Steinke used in his presentation on Power and Authority

A place for rabbis to receive the Torah -- this summer at Oraita

As I write this, I am sitting at a beautiful retreat center in upstate New York where I have come for a chaplaincy conference. The beautiful setting -- along with the great fellowship and tremendous learning I have found here amid fellow clergy -- remind me of the great learning, setting and fellowship I found at Oraita last October. It was such an incredible time to reconnect with Torah and with colleagues. Great learning!

The folks from Hebew College are doing it again this summer. This time they're bringing in some of the most inspiring names in the Jewish world, including Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, along with the rabbinical school's rector, Art Green. And they've picked a particularly poignant time for pulpit rabbis to take an opportunity to renew their relationship with Torah among colleagues: the week after Shavuot.

Shavuot is the traditional time we celebrate the giving of the Torah itself. Rabbis who have just celebrated this great event with their congregants in the hall of the synagogue with prayer will have the opportunity to reinforce it again with great, in-depth learning among fellow learned peers.

Here is a letter from Art and Zalman about the retreat. I hope you can go!

PS This time, rabbinical students are invited, too! And scholarship money is available.

Are we really all free? (a post-Passover reflection)

This year I had the most wonderful privilege of having the first-night Seder and meal at the home of my talented former classmate Claudia Kreiman and her husband Ebn Leader, one of the key forces behind the exciting new rabbinical school at Hebrew College (which is getting ready to ordain its first class). I really felt free at their table and among their friends. But one thing has really stuck in my craw from that wonderful night. Someone said, "I think everybody at this table is free" and went on to contrast us "free" people with the many suffering people throughout the world.

Well, I wish this person had just asked me. How did this person know how free I was? How did this person know that I hadn't just suffered some terrible shock like -- as I'm sure happened to many people -- being told just before Passover that I had a fatal disease? Or how did this person know that one of us sitting at the table was not battling drug addiction or enduring the enslavement of being abused by a boss or a family member who it was not so easy -- or risk-free -- to break away from?

This all came into my mind this morning when I read the latest electronic journal entry from the wife of my old rabbinical classmate and dear friend Benny Katz. Some six months ago one of their beloved children suddenly collapsed in cardiac arrest. He survived but . . . well, I won't say, anymore. I'll just share the powerful words of Marlene's latest post about their experience of facing Passover for the first time after their son Zalman's collapse. I hope it will remind you of what it is that is so beautiful about this holiday, especially about how it can remind us about who might not be so free right next door to us. . . . how the unfree might be not just people far away suffering on another continent. They might be people who look and sound just like us. They might even be us. Here are Marlene's words"

We had no idea how difficult it was going to be to get ready for Passover this year until Thursday night when it was already too late to ask for help. I spent some time resentful that no one was offering to help us, recovered from that, panicked, again recovered, and finally with some effort adjusted my expectations and moved forward with a new idea of what was necessary and possible, and I began to look forward to it. As crazy as this may sound, it was difficult to give up cooking for days, and spending weeks cleaning and throwing things out. It was difficult to give up our tradition of moving all of our furniture out of the living room and having a huge Seder. I missed planning the meals and cooking with Zalman so I chose a complicated short rib dish that he would have been wild for, and invited him to join me in spirit in every part of the preparation. Kieffer also joined us in spirit. He was wandering with friends in the desert around Moab, Utah and didn’t come home for Passover. He told us tonight that he had a once in a lifetime Passover experience in Utah. There was a Jewish group camping next to him so on Saturday night he went with his box of matzah under his arm and asked if he could join them for the Seder but not their meal. They told him it would cost him $150.OO and turned him away!!! Our seder was intimate and lovely and lively. All of Malka’s Jewish education and singing lessons paid off. She sang constantly and beautifully. Malka and Ben ended the evening with a duet of Echad Mi Yodea (Who knows One?). It was one of the best seders that Ben has ever led. Now we are in the time when our ancestors were in the wilderness and it feels like we too are in the wilderness. We are quickly approaching the 6 month anniversary of Zalman’s heart attack. The medical world has told us that we can not really expect much improvement in Zalman’s brain function after that point. I can feel myself holding my breath. The medical world and the world of alternative practitioners continue to tell us different things. Zalman keeps looking better and better but all the improvements are very small. We are not sure what we are doing or where we are going. We brought Zalman home believing in the possibility of miracles, and in the possibility of his once again being the one in a million we have always known him to be. We still believe in miracles. We have been living one for the past 6 months as witnesses and participants in Zalman’s struggle for life. At times it is as if we can feel him weighing his options – what would life be like in this body with these limitations? We can feel him feeling and responding to our love and care. In the past week he has seemed less angry and less uncomfortable, but he has also seemed very sad at times. I am still struggling with separating his feelings and reactions from my own feelings and reactions. Last week I felt hopeless for a few days. It could have been me feeling hopeless or I could have been picking up on Zalman’s feelings. I can’t sort it out because at times it makes sense for either or both of us to feel that way. I thought this week about the trust and faith that it took for the Israelites to follow Moses out of Egypt, into the Red Sea and through the desert. We have been on a journey with Zalman for almost 6 months now. Our faith and trust is helping to guide us. Each one of us in our family has our own path that we are following and our own lessons to learn from everything that we are going through. I have to keep being reminded that Zalman is walking his own path in all of this and that though we may be able to care for him and support him it is not within our power to determine, control, or change his path. I have been listening to Zalman’s mix tapes all morning. As I finished writing, the music changed to “Screamo”. I was getting up to skip that track when I looked over at Zalman who seemed genuinely happy to be listening to loud angry musical screaming. That track has finished and now we are listening to 40’s jazz. Yep, definitely on his own path. marlene

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"Twice taught" -- me and groups in CPE

One of the challenging things on the path to becoming a certified trainer/supervisor of chaplains and other spiritual caregivers is that you need to do a lot of "book learning", but few training programs have classes on the things you need to learn. That means you have to do a lot of studying on your own.

For me, the best way to do this learning is to be what one of my old students called "twice taught". That is, in order to learn it for myself what I really need to do is teach it to others. Today, I did that with the theory of groups in our field of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).

I used Google Docs to put together my presentation (below). It was mostly a discussion and part of it was very specific to the residency group I was teaching, but it might nonetheless be useful to some. I'm happy to share it!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Caring in Memphis – lessons from the African-American community

Not long ago in our hospital, a young African-American man died unexpectedly. A community pastor found herself in front of a group of his intensely grieving friends. She talked to them about their grief, but she didn't stop there. She took the opportunity to give these young men what one of my old rabbinical professors used to refer to as a “charge”. She charged them not to let their young friend's life be lost in vain. She told them to use this tragedy as an opportunity for themselves to “get right with God”.

I was deeply moved at the love she expressed by reaching out to these young men with the voice of a prophet -- at the hope she placed in them, in telling them she believed that they were indeed capable of choosing the right way and putting their lives on the right path.

I thought of her compassion today in Memphis when I was listening to a dynamic pastor and psychology professor from Virginia Commonwealth University speaking at a chaplaincy conference on racial and ethnic diversity. Our society tells men that they have three roles – that of provider, protector and procreator – said professor Micah L. McCreary. When some of these opportunities to “be a man” are closed to a person by that very same society the person can adopt other roles as compensation, including that of the “bad man” or predator, he said.

What really struck me about McCreary's talk was that it – like the words of the pastor in our hospital – had this fundamental hopefulness behind it. The prophet does not speak his or her words of warning to condemn, in my view. The prophet speaks in the hope that his or her words will effect real change and move people to turn to the right path.

Another thing that struck me about McCreary's use of prophetic speech is that his words were not directed at an individual, but rather to groups as a whole. That is, they were calling not just for individual change, but also social change.

Social change is something that has been, it seems, lost from much of our religious language these days. We live in an age where even our religious and spiritual lives focus on things like personal piety and personal transformation. One of the other speakers at the conference – the annual meaning of the Racial Ethnic Multicultural Network (REM) of the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education – reminded us that Martin Luther King was deeply critical of this emphasis on personal piety. Being a person of the church, in King's view, meant taking on a radical and costly discipline, said Lewis Baldwin, professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University.

King understood the church as a prophetic witness and movement, said Baldwin. He wanted unity in the church, but the unity King wanted was not of liturgy or even doctrine belief, but rather “unity in prophetic social witness”. It was this lack of focus on doctrine that allowed King's message to be heard not only by a Christians of all stripes, but also by people of other faiths, including Jews, said Baldwin

I was so grateful to have some time with these inspiring people and all the people who attended the REM conference. It was a privilege to be reminded of the true power and possibility of faith, and to be witness to the profound call to service to God that others feel.