Friday, May 30, 2008

Summer self-care (and Rhode Island)

One of the greatest challenges for me this summer (of an intense 11 weeks of leading a Clinical Pastoral Education unit solo for the first time) will be taking care of myself, what I like to call self-care. My history -- when I have a challenge I am excited about -- is one of working myself into a frenzy and burning out before it's over.

That may happen, again. But I'm going to try and be conscious about maintaining more of a balance this time. Bicycle riding is an important component of self-care for me. We're only in the fourth day of the unit, but so far I've managed to go out for two after-work bike rides, both of about 15 miles. And I'm going to try and go for a longer one Sunday (instead of doing prep work all day!).

More importantly, I think, is that I started out with a bike ride. That is -- on the very wise advice of my supervisor -- I took a week's vacation before the unit started. My girlfriend and I went on a wonderful short bike tour in Rhode Island, starting in Mystic, CT, and going to Block Island and back. It was great!

Here's a map of our route:

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Trusting in the process, trusting in CPE -- a new summer begins

Trust is an issue very much on my mind these days. In the news, we have a former presidential press spokesman accusing his former colleagues of lying to him (and, in turn, they are accusing him of breaking his bond of trust with them). And, in the world of chaplaincy, we have a new article asking people seeking (as I am) approval as chaplaincy supervisors/educators to "trust the process". And, here at my hospital, I am asking five new students to trust me for the next 11 weeks of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) as their teacher and supervisor.

Trust has not always come easy to me. This time last year I certainly did not -- much to the frustration of my supervisor -- trust the process for becoming a CPE supervisor. It seemed highly random to me, and to involve inflicting a lot of unnecessary pain on people as they went before committee after committee that put their lives -- and their dearest hopes and fears -- under a microscope. But since then I was approved as a candidate by one such committee. The approval process now makes more sense to me and seems less random. I don't want to lose touch with the critique I had of it before, but I am closer to being able to trust the process.

Committee appearances will not again be a part of my process for some time now. The place where I am in my process now is to, for the first time, be the solo supervisor of a CPE summer unit, a unit that began on Tuesday. I say "solo", but I don't really feel alone in this task. It's been part of my life history to try and function alone. But, I've been more able to trust this time. I trusted the orientation of our new students to other students -- our CPE residents (who are with us for one full year). I've sat through many of their orientation presentations this week. Sometimes I felt my trust leaving me in those moments. I wanted to leap out of my chair and steal the lead role away from them -- to take over, thinking that I could do it better.

But I've been successful (mostly!) at continuing to trust and in staying in my chair. I've been able to feel the wisdom in that and to be able to appreciate how, in many ways, these residents are doing a better that I could ever do. They see things I can't seen. They know things about what it means to be a new student that I have forgotten. Also, my showing trust for them, demonstrates to the new students that I have a capacity for trust (and, perhaps, that I can be trusted).

My key task over the coming days will be able to find trust also in my five students (four of them young protestant seminary students and one a Catholic priest from Nigeria). I need to be able to trust them to know what they need to learn, how they need to learn and at what pace they can learn. It will be hard for me to do this, but it is important. For, if I do not show trust for them, they are unlikely to trust me. And, if they do not trust me, they are unlikely to grow in their trust for each other as a group.

That trust as a group is so important for the kind of learning we hope to do in CPE. We want the students to be able to use each other as a resource -- a resource for learning more about how other people experience them as a person. Do people know me as warm? Do people experience me as aggressive (maybe even when I think I'm being warm)? Am I pushing people away (even when I am thinking I am drawing them closer)? If we can get people to trust us enough to tell us the truth about these things we might even have an opportunity to grow to be able to eliminate these inconstancies. But, to do that we will also need to be able to trust those others enough to accept their feedback.

In the coming days, I will be working to foster that environment of trust between me and my students and between each other. There are two important things I will seek to do to help that along:
  • 1) Emphasize the new student's strengths (naming them and helping them identify them for themselves).
  • 2) As much as possible, make my feedback on a group level, as opposed to singling individuals out.

I feel like this post has been rambling a bit, but I am ok with that. The main customer I have always envisioned for this blog is myself. That is not to say that I don't hope other people will read it (and that I would appreciate it when they do!). It's that I write here mostly because it helps me. It helps me organize my thoughts and to discern between what truly is and is not possible. It helps me better focus on the things that are truly important to me.

I have been writing less here than I have in the post. Last year, between April and October I was averaging nearly 15 posts a month; this year it's only been around four a month, and many of those have been short.

There's a lot of reasons for the change. One is that I met a wonderful woman last October and that my 'real world' relationship with her has distracted me from this 'virtual world'. But, I think the answer is more complex than just that. Somehow, whatever it was that this blog was doing for me all those prolific months is no longer as important. Or, it is being done in other ways.

But I do wonder if the intensity of the summer to come with my students will reawaken my blog life. I was driven to contemplate that this morning by reading another chaplain's blog (Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside) where he mentioned my blog along with those of of CPE students who are blogging about their summer experiences.

So, I am looking forward to this summer, and to finding out if blogging comes to meet my needs. And to finding out if I can indeed trust, and be trusted.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A caring community (Zalman’s legacy)

As the summer fast approaches, and I prepare to lead a group of chaplain students through an intense full-time summer of learning, I’ve had opportunity to consider how it is that it might be possible to teach people about how to care for – and about – others. One way I think it happens is through community – by joining and participating in a caring community of fellow caregivers. Caregivers who just don’t care for patients or their congregants, but who make it their business to care for each other as well.

This Monday, looking at all my fellow former rabbinical students who had come from around the country to be with a former classmate of ours who had just lost his teenage son, I felt affirmed in my sense of the importance of community. This is what we had learned in rabbinical school – not just about words of Torah, but about acts of caring. We knew that when Zalman lost his hold on life in this world – six months after his tragic and unexpected heart attack – it was time to get on a plane, something many of us did even before the funeral was scheduled.

But the real community of caring that I witnessed was not the one of us rabbi and rabbinical student colleagues who had gathered from far and wide. Rather, it was the community that Zalman himself had called together – the communities of people, friends and family, who had known, and loved, him during his too brief life. The people who had been inspired by his energy and love for life. And, the people who had cared for him these many months – most of them spent in the front room of his family home in Topanga Canyon. The people whose caring for him, even in the face of his inability to speak since his heart attack, had also brought caring for one another. The people in that community of caring that we saw gathered Monday up high on that hill where Zalman was laid in the ground beside running water and where his friends and family, as is the Jewish way, shoveled the dirt down onto his grave.

May his memory be a blessing.


One thing that one of my friends noted to me after the funeral was that, while many rabbis spoke, hardly any mention of God was made. In their words, none of these rabbis felt any need to explain how God could have allowed this to happen, or to urge people to keep their faith in God despite such a tragedy. To my friend, this struck him as a very Jewish thing.

I was grateful to him for sharing that with me and I found it very affirming. As a Jew who works in a hospital and ministers almost exclusively to Christians, I often struggle with the tension between how reluctant I am to engage in “Godspeak” and how much my patients, and chaplain students, seem to need that very Godspeak. I’ve learned to stretch myself quite a deal in this regard and, for example, to gain a good deal of comfort and skill in offering spontaneous prayers for patients and family members. I am indeed comfortable with that “stretching”, but it was good to be reminded of where I come from and who I am at my core. It was good to be reminded what it means to be a Jew, to belong to his incredible community that endures over the stretches of space and of time.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The wounds of our Sages -- the truths that bind us across faiths

One of the most striking texts I know in rabbinic literature is one where the Rabbis of some two thousand years ago ask an audacious question -- perhaps it would have been better for humans never to have been created in the first place?

When I first read it, this text really disturbed me. How could people of faith -- especially in a faith tradition that reveres life so much -- possibly even ask such a question? Hadn't God declared the life God created to be "good" at the beginning of the book of Genesis? Would it not be blasphemy to reject God's good creation?

In the years since, I have come to see this text differently, and, in fact, it has come to have deep personal and spiritual meaning for me.

Nonetheless, it was with much trepidation that I brought this text on Monday before a group of Christian and Jewish clergy who had come together for an interfaith dialog in New York. The topic of the moment was "Problem Texts", texts from our Holy literatures -- and there are many -- that can seem troublesome because they might appear to advocate hate or intolerance or have other problems. I was anxious about bringing it because, in it, the Rabbis do not just ask the question. They answer it. They say it would have been best for humankind not to have been created.

And so it was with much joy that I heard my colleagues responding with reactions similar to mine when I presented this text at the "Colleagues in Dialogue" meeting of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding. One woman -- a cantor who is the spiritual leader of a Reform congregation in New Jersey -- said this text made the ancient Rabbis seem more human and more accessible to her. Another person saw in it a troubling existential question that bothers many -- why did God not create me perfect?

There are so many deep meanings for me in this text. I don't think the Rabbis were literally saying it would be better if God had never created us. Rather, I think they're acknowledging a painful and universal truth -- life, as beautiful and wondrous as it is, is full of suffering. You can see it in almost every room of the hospital. And so much of it is inexplicable. It's a mystery. Why would God create a world where a 40-year old woman gets cancer and leaves her children without a mother? Why would God create a world where even children can get cancer and suffer unspeakable pain and even die? What sort of loving God would do that?

And, in the face of so much inexplicable suffering -- whether it be our own, or that of others -- sometimes the person who has any kind of compassion or empathy in his or her heart is just going to want to give up. Just throw in the towel. Even -- if just for a fleeting moment -- wish one had never been born.

It's a comfort to me to know that I am not alone in having these kinds of thoughts and feelings -- that even the wisest ones of my Sages experienced them as well. It makes me feel less alone in my darker moments, moments that are unavoidable if I am to open my heart up to others who are in pain and be a chaplain and spiritual caregiver to them.

But the real comfort in this text comes at its end -- for the Rabbis do not just conclude with their decision that it would have been better for humankind never to have been created. Instead, they go one step further -- they say, well, now that we have been created, the thing to do is for us to focus on our deeds, to focus on doing the right thing before God.

This is the great message of Judaism for me -- do not give up, even in the face of the greatest challenges and the greatest wounds and brokenness you can imagine. Hang on to life with every fiber of your soul and try and make it a good life. A good life -- the kind of life that God would find good. The kind of life that follows God's way. The kind of life that is as full of acts of loving kindness as you can make it. There lies the "redemptive turn" for me.

Here is the full text of the source as I presented (and translated) it (I also gave it the provocative title "The Suicide of the Rabbis?"):

The suicide of the Rabbis?

Talmud Bavli, Eiruvin 13b

Our Rabbis taught: For two and a half years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel debated. ת"ר שתי שנים ומחצה נחלקו ב"ש וב"ה
One of them said it would be better for humankind to never have been created. הללו אומרים נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא
And the other said it was better for humankind to have been created. והללו אומרים נוח לו לאדם שנברא יותר משלא נברא
At the end, they voted and decided that it would have been better for humankind to never have been created. נמנו וגמרו נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא
But now that humankind has been created, a person should examine his deeds עכשיו שנברא יפשפש במעשיו
And others say a person should examine his future deeds. ואמרי לה ימשמש במעשיו

After reading the text to the group, I asked them to ponder a couple of questions with a partner for five minutes before we discussed it as a group:
  • What is your initial reaction to this text? Does it bring any image to mind?
  • What does the story mean? What are the rabbis in truth trying to say here?

Redemption comes in many forms. Above, I said that, for me, this text inspires me to make the redemptive move from despair at suffering to focusing on my deeds that have the potential to do something about that suffering and bring healing to others.

The search for some kind of redemption through deeds is very much the stuff of what much of the interfaith conference was about. Some of my Christian colleagues made some striking Problem Texts presentations where they strove to courageously face up to how some of the texts of their traditions have been used in the name of violence and intolerance, and to seek solutions that involve anything but throwing those texts out. Two Catholic priests wrestled with a passage from Mathew (26:14-27:66) that has been used to blame the Jews collectively for the death of Jesus Christ, while a protestant pastor took on a passage from John (14:1-14) that some Christians use as proof that Christianity is the only path to truth.

I was inspired by their efforts, especially because both of their efforts very much involved preserving the sacredness and meaning of these texts to them. This is what I also seek to do with the troubling texts of my own tradition -- search for honest ways of understanding them that allow me to keep them close to my heart and my soul.

May it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that all your troubles and sorrows be transformed into sources of meaning and joy.