Friday, November 28, 2008

A deep sadness as Shabbat approaches

The latest news reports about the Mumbai attacks say that five hostages have been killed inside the Chabad House there.

I pray the reports have been exaggerated.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

What to be thankful for

On this Thanksgiving, there are any number of unfortunate things happening in the world to remind us of what we have to be thankful for, the tragedy in India first among them.

You can find some of my thoughts on this Thanksgiving here.

And Minna's here.

May it be a peaceful one for you.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Can we talk?

Pope Benedict may have gotten himself in trouble, again. Or at least that's what would seem to be implied by an article -- headlined "Pope Questions Interfaith Dialogue" -- from the New York Times' new Rome correspondent, who quotes the following from a letter the Pope wrote to an Italian politician:

“an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible.” In theological terms, added the pope, “a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parentheses.

My guess is that -- while I doubt that the Pope is being misquoted here -- he is, as it was in the controversy about his 2006 Regensburg lecture, being a bit misunderstood. This Pope has not yet learned (and maybe he never will) that for someone in his station it is impossible to try and make subtle statements about something as sensitive as whether Catholicism sees other religions as legitimate or not. My guess is he was trying to make a statement about exactly what is possible in inter-religious dialogue, not whether inter-religious dialogue is a good thing or not (which, based on his meeting with Muslim leaders earlier this month, for example, he seems to be in favor of).

As a Jewish clergyperson whose primary occupation at moment is training Christian ministers in pastoral and spiritual care these kinds of issues are anything but theoretical. I work with students who may believe that true healing can only come through Jesus, a belief I certainly don't share. Can I come to care about the learning and growth of a student who believes this way, and even help them to apply it? The answer has to be, yes, or else I would have to quit my job. But that doesn't mean it is easy for me. I am helped by the thought that I care about the well-being of all members of humankind, Jew and non-Jews, and want them all to know what it is like to be treated as if they are made בצלם אלוהים/btzelem elohim -- in the image of God -- especially when they are sick or helpless. But, as I said above, it is not always easy.

There is no doubt that the fate and health of the Jewish people -- the people who brought the concept of בצלם/btzelem to all the world -- has a special and dear place in my heart. I became a rabbi most of all to be in service to that people and to be a force working for their health and survival and for the health and survival of their Holy tradition -- of Torah.

As I stated above, my current professional life is primarily among non-Jews. I know that I still believe I am serving the Jewish people in that work, if indirectly. But I also know that I feel a hunger for a more direct involvement and that I will be searching for ways to bring that into my life in the coming years and months. That is in large part why it was such a gift to me this year to be able to spend two months in Israel. I am deeply grateful for that.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bringing the holy to the hurting

One of the most interesting things we can do for our learning and spiritual growth is akin to making a deposit in a time capsule -- we can write something about who we are in our spiritual journey. Then, later, we can look back at it and ask ourselves what's still true about it -- what it says about the core of who we are -- and what's changed -- that is, what it says about how we've grown.

That's what I tell my students when I give them an assignment at the beginning of a chaplaincy unit to write a "Statement of Ministry", a statement that expresses what they think pastoral (or spiritual) care is about and what they think they're doing when the minister to a suffering person. Because CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) is so much about learning in a group process, I ask the students to read the statements they write out loud to each other, which allows them to start the process of discussing what is in common about their pastoral theologies and what differs (I learned a lot the other night about how my students have very different ideas about whether caring for others is draining or nourishing for the soul -- an important question I hope we have plenty of opportunity to explore in the weeks ahead!).

This time, during the reading out loud, I decided to also share with the students my own statement of ministry -- the one that I wrote in my first unit of CPE back in the summer of 2003. It was interesting to me to see how much my view then has in common with my view today -- it's still the same core view of what it we are doing when we try to offer comfort and healing to others. Here it is:
Alan Abrams June 16, 2003

Statement of Ministry/Spiritual Care

Parshat Va-Yeirah (Gen. 18:1) begins with the appearance of God to Avraham at the oaks of Mamre. The Medieval commentator Ramban, following his predecessor Rashi, understands this theophany as God coming to comfort a physically suffering Avraham. Significantly, neither commentator explains how God comforts the suffering Avraham; it is as if they are saying nothing could be more comforting than the simple presence of God. But the Ramban goes one step further than Rashi: he says this appearance of God's presence is specifically to reward Avraham for carrying out God's wishes.

So, too, when a spiritual caregiver comes before a suffering person, the primary thing the caregiver brings is his or her presence. But when that caregiver is a clergyperson (or clergy-in-training), he or she may bring something additional in the eyes of the suffering person -- a piece of the presence of the Divine, itself. And, if that suffering person does indeed perceive a piece of the Divine presence appearing along with the clergyperson, then the clergyperson is also bringing what the Ramban said God's presence brought Avraham -- a sense of being rewarded for following God's will. Or, perhaps a better way of saying it is that the Divine presence communicates God's approval to the suffering for how he or she has conducted his or her life.

Thus, my job as a spiritual caregiver is a) to be present to the suffering person, and b) to communicate the nonjudgmental presence of the Divine, if that should be something the person will welcome and benefit from. The first of these two sounds very simple, but, in fact, it is the greatest challenge for the spiritual caregiver. Learning to truly be present is a lifelong task. It involves careful listening with all the senses. It involves being able to put aside one's own prejudices, assumptions and fears to the greatest extent possible. It involves the courage not to run away in the face of death and unspeakable suffering. The presence of a fearless, but compassionate, face even in the places that inspire the greatest fear can send the comforting message that, on some level, everything will be all right.

The Torah (Gen. 1:27) says that God created humankind in "the image of God (btzelem elohim)". I am constantly amazed and awed by the thought that God would have graced each one of us with a piece of God's own unimaginable holiness. I seek always to be better able to see and accept that Godliness in each person before me. Part of this holiness means that each human is unique and distinct. While my training and experience gives me important tools that allow me to more quickly recognize problems and characteristics that many humans hold in common, I must always strive to use those tools with great care. May my training not blind me to the uniqueness and holiness of each human before me. May I always strive to see the tzelem elohim in each person before me. This is a huge part of what it means to be truly present.

I do not believe that I carry any greater piece of the Divine than any other human. But, I know that is not how many people will perceive me; they may see me as a representative of the Divine. As a spiritual caregiver, I must undertake a spiritual assessment of the suffering person that includes an assessment of how that person views me. I must do my best to present a compassionate and loving image of the Divine. I must accept anger at the Divine projected at me with that same loving face.

Part of projecting that image of Divine presence, as well as other means of comforting the suffering, will be developing a spiritual toolkit of prayers, psalms, etc. It will also sometimes be my job to refer the suffering to other caregivers, spiritual and otherwise, when the needs of the suffering person are beyond my means to address.

I expect spiritual care giving in a hospital setting to be deeply spiritually rewarding. I believe that God lives at the gates between life and death, gates that live especially strong inside the walls of the hospital and within the people who are found in hospitals. I look forward to the feeling of closeness with the Divine I know I will find. But I also expect spiritual care giving to be deeply exhausting spiritually, emotionally and physically. I expect the battle against burnout to be a continuous and difficult one. Part of being a spiritual caregiver will be finding others who can care for me; I must be willing to accept that care.


As I said above, this statement still expresses much of the core of what my pastoral theology is about. But there are differences. In the statement, I gave a great deal of emphasis to the possibility that the patient might see the patient as a representative of God. While I still think this is true, I don't give it the same kind of emphasis I gave it in the statement. Specifically, I don't think I would today write what is in the statement about the presence of the caregiver communicating God's approval to the suffering person for how he or she conducted his or her life. I just think it's more complex than that.

I can't believe how long it's been since I've posted here -- over a month (and even longer since I've posted anything specific to chaplaincy and chaplaincy education).

There are a lot of reasons for that. One is that I am at a stage in my own education and certification process that is more about taking in (and introspection) than it is about being outwardly expressive -- I am working on researching and writing papers that express my particular approach to pastoral care and education about it. (I am seeking certification as a CPE supervisor, which is a person who trains others in spirituality and pastoral care.)

I am starting to get very excited about that work: I am starting to see a congruence between how I see chaplaincy education and how I've always seen the (Holy) process of Talmud study -- that it's fundamentally not about learning content (laws, techniques, etc.). Rather, it's about the learning process itself, a process that has the potential to stimulate the development of the individual into the kind of person -- self-authoring and self-differentiated -- that one needs to be to be an effective rabbi or pastoral caregiver. The work of Robert Kegan is really helping me here.