Monday, July 21, 2008

Torah as self-care

I was reading Pamela Cooper-White's Shared Wisdom: the use of the self in pastoral care and counseling, today, and was reminded of some thoughts I've been having lately about self-care. White (pg. 130) articulates a vision where self-care is not just about the caregiver preserving his or herself from burnout or overwork. For White, self-care is central to the practice of spiritual caregiving itself. And, for her, the most important element of self-care is not the things people usually list -- exercise or working shorter hours, or alike. Rather, she emphasizes paying attention to one's spiritual life and one's relationship to God:
Daily renewing of one's relationship to the Holy One puts one back in touch with the sacred foundation of all healing, all care. This, in turn, prepares us, again and again, for a use of the self in pastoral care that can be a channel of grace for both participants in the caring relationship.
White's approach, of course, has a more Christian focus than mine. She emphasizes the role of grace and the role of personal prayer in the God relationship. For me -- as for many Jews -- Torah, and the study of it, plays the more central role in maintaining that relationship. The lesson is that Torah study -- especially study for its own sake (Torah Lishma ) and the curiosity it cultivates -- is the ultimate Jewish approach to the kind of self-care we are interested in for spiritual caregivers. Its aimlessness renews us. It invigorates us and prepares us for the rigors of facing the pain and loss of others with an open, curious and caring heart.

Other non-Jewish thinkers whose works I have been reading, especially bell hooks and Parker Palmer, also emphasize the importance of self-care for the truly effective teacher or spiritual caregiver -- the kind of teacher/caregiver who can help people engage in the kind of learning that involves personal transformation and growth.

I also found this recently in reviewing Henri Nouwen's The Wounded Healer with my summer chaplain students. Nouwen (pg. 76) talks about a "promise", one that was first given to Abraham and later to Moses. This promise -- not any "self-confidence derived from . . personality, nor on specific expectations for the future," is the true foundation on which the spiritual leader must find his or her strength, Nouwen says. "Without this hope, we will never be able to see value and meaning in the encounter with a decaying human being and become personally concerned. This hope stretches far beyond the limitations of one's own psychological strength, for it is anchored not just in the soul of the individual but in God's self-disclosure in history."

Nouwen goes on to say that the spiritual leader who hopes to find satisfaction in seeing "concrete results" from his or her work is "building a house on sand instead on on solid rock."

If all I could do this summer is leave my students with an understanding of the wisdom of those last words I have quoted from Nouwen then I will have more than done my job. The work of a person in ministry -- whether he or she be a rabbi, like myself, or of some other faith tradition -- only rarely is manifest in concrete results that we will see with our own eyes in our own lifetime. We do not know how -- or when -- we truly touch the hearts and souls of others. Thus, we must have faith. Our faith has to be in our understanding of our task, of what we do, and in the authority of what we do. And we must renew the source of that faith regularly. Torah is our way.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Finding the holy in the human -- this winter at Oraita

This summer of educating a group of young, student chaplains encountering the often inspiring struggles of patients against their illnesses and losses has left me with a deeper sense of the miracle that is the human spirit, a spirit that I understand as being a product of the fact that we humans were formed in the image of the divine.

So, I was so exited to hear that the focus of Oraita's next continuing education retreat for rabbis will be on this very subject -- the Divine Image (or btzelem elohim, in Hebrew). The retreat will be on January 12-15. There is generous funding available for the rabbis who attend. I had the priviledge of attending Oraita's first retreat last October and it was truly a life-changing experience.

If you'd like to know more, contact Rabbi Natan Margalit ( or by phone: 617-559-8617). Or check out the Web page at

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A rabbi starts packing

God willing, on August 25th I will be getting on a plane to Israel for a two month visit. What does a rabbi bring with him/her on a trip? Books!

To the right is my first cut of books I had in the office that I think I'd like to take with me. I have at least as many books at home that I've picked out. And I haven't even begun to think about the bibles and other holy books I'd like with me.

Now, in my defense, I've made a commitment to my supervisor to spend these two months doing the reading and writing I need to do for the next step in my certification process as a chaplaincy supervisor. Most of the books to the right are ones that might help me with writing the papers that are a part of that.

But, it will be quite an effort to winnow the books down. I'm limiting myself to 50 lbs. of books, which means maybe 40 or so volumes. . . . I just counted. There's 39 books just in the two stacks in the picture! . . Clearly I have a lot of work to do. :)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Judaism meets the chaplain – the “House of Inquiry” at the middle

At the rabbinical school I went to, we had a place we called the Beit Midrash/בית מדרש. To the untrained eye, it might have looked something like a library. It had books on bookshelves. It had tables and chairs. But it was anything but a place of silence. In fact, when it was full the sound of study became nothing short of a roar. People had books in front of them, but they were not reading them alone. They read them to each other out loud. People were thinking and analyzing and debating and creating, but the product was not a typed paper, or anything written at all. Instead, people were speaking their thoughts to one another. This was a kind of live-learning that only happened if we were all together. If there was any end product of this collective endeavor, it was within the minds and souls of the participants, not something on paper with the name of a single author on it.

In that Beit Midrash – and in the ones at the other Jewish institutions that nurtured me on my way to becoming a rabbi – I learned to love a particularly Jewish approach to learning. An approach that valued learning being done in groups or pairs, instead of the individual-focused and paper-writing-obsessed model of academia. An approach that might have seemed aimless to the person unfamiliar with it. An approach that upheld, in particular, the seemingly aimless value of Torah Lishma/תורה לשמה, Torah study for its own sake (as opposed to studying to achieve any particular goal). But, it would not quite be accurate to say Torah Lishma has no aim. Its aim is about cultivating something in the individual – transforming him or her to be a better person, one closer to God. One who knows better how to follow God's will. One who knows better how to care for his or her fellows -- something like the aim of learning through personal transformation that we have in chaplaincy education.

This summer – my first leading a chaplaincy education program on my own – I've had a chance to figure out how I can bring the educational and spiritual forms I have learned on my Jewish path to the multi-faith sphere that is Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).

Last week we hit the middle of our program, a time when many programs do a mid-term review where the students take stock of what learning they have done, where they have been surprised and what they would like to do with the remainder of their time in the program. Many times this is done by each student writing a paper on their own. When I was a summer student, our supervisor asked us to express ourselves artistically by making collages that we shared with the rest of the group.

But I wanted to bring the model of the Beit Midrash – literally the House of Inquiry – into CPE. I decided that our learning should be done out loud and together. I did ask the students to reflect a bit on their own first and gave them some questions to think about. But most of the work was done out loud. We devoted about 25 minutes to each of our five students (mostly young, Protestant seminary students) over the course of one long morning and then spent 30 minutes reflecting on how we had been functioning and developing as a group. The students were very active in asking each other questions and most of the time I was able to do what I like to do most as a group facilitator – just sit back and enjoy how well the group is functioning on its own with only the slightest of interventions from me.

To be honest, it was only upon reflection that I realized how well what I had chosen to do fit the model of the Beit Midrash that I want to bring into CPE. I also realized that another aspect of how I had organized my summer program well reflected the live-learning and collective/group-learning values of the Beit Midrash – I have a minimum of ndividual writing requirements in my program. Most programs set an individual requirement for how many verbatims (detailed written reports on a patient visit) a student needs to write during the unit. Most of those get presented to the full group, but if there's not enough time in the group not all of them get presented. I, however, turned this kind of requirement on its head. I started with a group requirement for the number of verbatim presentations we would do (three a week, more than some other programs), and asked the students to set up a schedule on their own of who would present when. No verbatims would be written and not presented.


Above I mentioned that when I was a summer student, we had done an artistic mid-term evaluation. As a person who personally prefers the written word as a means of expression (I can't even draw a straight line!) I hated this! So, I was surprised to see art playing such a central and effective role in our mid-term evaluation last week. Early in the week, an art therapist at our hospital had come in and done an exercise with our students. He gave them a simple exercise to carry out in clay – create a representation of a wall, of yourself and of the relationship between the two. I was stunned to see how the sculptures the students created reflected so well what I had assessed their learning issues to be. We were able to use the images from these sculptures during our discussions as a springboard for analysis and as metaphors for what the students were experiencing. It was very rich and helped make the mid-term evaluation the great success I believe it was.

I am so proud of my students. They are working so hard to engage the very challenging learning issues that the work of caring for people in an intense hospital environment brings up every day. I hope they find blessing – and much learning – in the weeks remaining!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

It's about the grief, stupid

Congregational life can be fraught with problems. Factions form and feud. Some people like the clergy person and other people sharply criticize him or her. People become wounded and angry. Sometimes they leave the congregation.

All this can drive the clergy person nuts. He or she ends up running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, desperately trying to put out fires here and there by trying to appease this person or that person. He or she starts to suspect that maybe some of the congregants are a bit crazy. Clergy "burn out" soon follows.

But there's another way. It comes from recognizing that the fights and complaints aren't always really about what they seem on the surface. It comes from looking at things with a pastoral eye -- with the eye of a spiritual caregiver -- and seeing that many times people are expressing grief. Grief does not just come from death. We grieve about many things, about losses of all kinds. Congregations experience many losses, especially if they find themselves shrinking, as many older congregations do. Programs close. Beloved staff leave. Individuals suffer losses in their own lives that they feel were not addressed by the clergy person. Unresolved grief accumulates. Anger lies not far behind.

I was reminded of all this yesterday when one of the alums of our chaplaincy education program here came to speak to our summer chaplaincy students about how she uses her clinical pastoral education (CPE) experience in the congregational setting. She said that being able to recognize grief as the real problem is extremely helpful for her. Once she recognize it, she can address it in the ways she learned to address the grief of patients and families in the hospital. She can work with folks to help them name their grief. She can help them to feel heard and listened to -- to feel cared for. And, almost like magic, the conflicts and anger often just melt away.

She also reminded me of how relevant the education we do here is to the work clergy will be doing in their congregations. Sometimes our students complain about how transitory their contacts are with the folks they minister to. At our hospital, we send a chaplain to every death to offer support to the family. Often this is the very first (and last) time the chaplain will meet these people. The chaplain will often come back to his or her colleagues an complain -- "if only this was the congregational setting! Then I would have a relationship with the people first."

But our speaker reminded us that the reality for the congregational clergy person is often that they will have had little or no contact with a family before a death. There will be one meeting with the family before the funeral and then the funeral itself. Our speaker said having had the experience with those kind of "blind dates" with people in mourning in our hospital prepared her well for this kind of experience around funerals.

Other basic pastoral skills that we work on in CPE were also helpful to her in her congregational work -- developing a listening presence and developing an understanding of how people function in groups (group dynamics).

The other big thing she emphasized was the importance of getting honest feedback from peers, another big thing we work on in CPE. This is especially true when you are having difficulty with congregants or board members. Sometimes when we complain to our peers about this what we get back is something to the effect of, "poor, dear, your congregants really do seem a bit difficult. That must be hard for you."

Well, that might help you feel better in the moment, but it's not really helpful in the long run. What's helpful is honest feedback that helps you understand things like the group dynamics and even where your actions have contributed to the problem. With that in hand, you can actually go on to heal the wounds . . . . . . from grief and otherwise.


By the way, the title of this blog post is a reference to "It's the economy, stupid" from Bill Clinton's successful 1992 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Old man mountain sipping

One thing I always find difficult on long, summer rides is finding time to drink water. Once those two 22 oz. water bottles mounted on the bike are gone, drinking water means stopping and getting off the bike to get water out of my panniers. And I hate stopping while on a ride.

So, I've always admired those Camelbak's that let people sip water through a tube while riding without having to even use your hands. But, the problem is the the water has to be stored somewhere, and a Camelbak means carrying the water on your back. And I hate having things on my back while riding even more than I hate getting off the bike!

The obvious solution is to store the water somewhere on the bike and run a tube from there. I first experimented with this at the beginning of the summer on my Rhode Island bike tour. I mounted a low rider front rack on my bike and ran a tube from a water bladder in the left front pannier. From a drinking perspective, that worked really well. From a riding perspective, it didn't. I really didn't like having something heavy like water on one side of the front wheel. If I'm going to have water on the front of the bike, I want it centered over the front wheel.

The solution is a front rack with where you can put things on top of the rack, not just on the sides (as with a typical low rider rack). While reading Vik's Big Dummy, I saw he had a rack that looked like exactly what I wanted. It's made by a company called Old Man Mountain. I bought one and it came just the other day. It's exactly what I wanted. In the pic above, I have a 2.5 liter Platypus water bag mounted on top of the rack with a tube leading from it. I tried it out the other day and it worked great. . . . Now if I can only find the time to actually ride. :)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Google Docs offline is here!!!

I'm so excited. Now the very best way to edit and organize your documents no longer requires you to be connected to the Internet in order to use it.

The greatest advantage of Google Docs -- Google's free on-line word processor, spread sheet and presentation program -- is, indeed, its interaction with the Internet. You can just edit your documents from any computer (connected to the Internet) at any time. No more fumbling with discs or flash drives or time wasted wondering what directory or on what computer I stored a file (or, worse, wondering if you have the latest version or not).

But, unfortunately, there are still times when I'm not connected to the Internet (like when I'm traveling). It will be so great to know that, at those times, I will still have instant access on my laptop to every file I would need.

[I first wrote about the possibility of this feature in May of last year.]

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Torah Lishma and the Living Human Document

Studying Torah for no other purpose than the study itself -- תורה לשמה/torah lishma in Hebrew -- is one of Judaism's most central spiritual practices, approaching a level that prayer has for many Christians. This practice is not one I expect Christians to be familiar with, or to be easily able to understand.

So I found it highly suprising -- and also deeply rewarding -- when our (Lutheran) senior supervisor turned to me during a lecture he was giving to our summer chaplain students and said that what he was telling them was really the same as the concept of Torah Lishma that was at the core of how Alan (=me) is organizing their program of education.

He then went on to beautifully and succinctly describe how I apply the concept of Torah Lishma to the task of educating people about pastoral care: Torah Lishma, he said, is developing a lifelong love of learning (or curiosity) about the human predicament/experience for the sake of nothing but the relationship itself (whether that be a relationship through the study of the "living human document" that is a hospital patient in spritual distress or whether it be a relationship with God through the study of the Holy words/text God has given us).

Actually, what he said was a lot more succinct and articulate than that, but that's the basic idea.

What he was lecturing about at the moment he said that, by the way, was about a pastoral attitude that creates the possibility of forming relationship with the person you are ministering to. There are four attributes that contribute to that pastoral attitude (and they are the same four that formed the basis for the lecture I wrote about here is more detail in a post about meeting certification committees):
  • Authority and assurance in your role (offering authority with an open attitude and hand)
  • Understanding (of the human predicament)
  • Being non-judgmental
  • Empathy (conveying it accurately)

I, by the way, used the term Torah Lishma a little differently in the syllabus I gave my students -- instead of describing it as an overarching theory about pastoral care and education, I made it the name for a single seminar where the students would teach one another. Here's how I described it