Sunday, May 31, 2009

And in his house of worship, too

I just can't believe that some people actually think God approves of them violently taking life like this. I am so deeply saddened by this news. . . . . May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that peace should come to us. Soon. Speedily. In our days.

Doctor Who Performed Abortions Is Shot to Death - "WICHITA, Kan. — George Tiller, a Wichita doctor who was one of the few doctors in the nation to perform late-term abortions, was shot to death on Sunday as he attended church, city officials in Wichita said.

I passed!!

Less than a year-and-a-half after making candidate as a Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor, my theory position papers -- one of the biggest hurdles in the process for full certification as an educator of chaplains and other spiritual caregivers -- have been approved by a committee of three APCE supervisors!

I am truly overjoyed to have reached this milestone: much of my time and energy over the last year went into writing these now-approved papers, and it is an especially joyful thing to have learned this weekend that they have been approved -- on Monday I begin supervising my second summer unit (I have six wonderful chaplain students coming to spend 11 intensive full-time weeks with us!). Knowing the papers are behind me means I will be able to focus my energies fully on my new students and their learning.

I am especially proud that my papers were approved on the first submission, and that the committee did not think they needed any revisions.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Shared hopes, shared learning – a workshop in Israel on spontaneous prayer

Growing up, I think I thought of prayer itself – certainly offering a spontaneous prayer out loud off the top of your head! -- as something inherently Christian (and not Jewish). I never even imagined I could become comfortable doing it myself. So, it was really exciting for me Wednesday when one of the participants in a workshop I was leading at an Israeli Spiritual Care conference said she had come to the workshop in the hope that I could help her to get over her own discomfort with offering spontaneous prayers!

Offering a custom-made prayer – tailored specifically to the situation and the hopes of the suffering person you are with – can be a powerful source of healing. The greatest pain for an ill person is often not directly from their physical sufferings – it is the loneliness people experience amid their illness. The sense that they are now somehow different than everybody around them and that nobody can (or is willing to) understand what they are going through. The sense, maybe, that they have been forsaken by God.

A unique and beautifully tailored prayer from a visitor of faith coming into their hospital room can help break that loneliness. It can help the person to feel seen, to feel that someone had indeed heard their situation. And that that person is genuinely joining in their hopes and wants their suffering to end. And, finally, by bringing God into the experience, the offering of a spontaneous prayer can help heal a spiritual rift and help the person to feel a renewed relation with (a loving) God, even amid the confusion their sufferings bring.

And, yet, so many Jews – like the participant in my workshop – are reluctant to offer spontaneous prayer, largely because it doesn't “feel” Jewish. That's why it was so important to me to put a Jewish “stamp” on my approach to spontaneous prayer, and to come up with my own framework for composing my prayers. This framework is based on the structure of the Amidah , a central prayer of the traditional Jewish prayer service. My approach – and the Amidah – are divided up into three basic parts:

1) שבח/shevah/Praise (the “approach”) – This is where you address the One to whom you are approaching, and what specific aspect of that Ultimate Reality you want to hear your prayer. By choosing whom you are addressing and what aspect of that “whom” to address, you say something about what your theology is – what you think God (or an Ultimate Reality or Force) is. So, when you're offering a prayer for someone else, you can say something about what his or her spirituality is about in framing this first part of the prayer. If the person has a “Vertical” or “Transcendent” understanding of how God relates to humans – an understanding where God is far above us and directs what's below, you could start by saying something like, “Father above. You are the one who has always directed us and given us strength ...” Or, if the person has a more “Horizontal” or “Immanent” God view, you could start with something like, “Oh, Source of all life. You have nourished the plants and trees around us and we find you everywhere we look . . . “

At the end of this section, I also introduce the person, by name, to God, and say something about what is happening for him or her. Something like, "Dear God, we stand here before you with Sarah. She is frightened about the surgery coming tomorrow."

2) בקשות/bakashot/Requests (the “ask) – This is the heart of the prayer, the expression of what we would like God to grant us. If you're offering a prayer for another person, there are two ways you can approach this. The easiest and most straightforward one is to simply mirror back the hopes the person has expressed to you. A great way to help this process is to ask the person right before the prayer, “is there anything in particular you want me to pray for?”

While I always do ask this question before offering my prayer, I don't think the straightforward approach is quite enough. The experience of doing this workshop – and interacting with the great people who came – helped clarify for me why I want to do something more than simply rephrase the person's hopes. It's because offering a prayer is not just about the words of what I say. I think it's not even just about the feelings expressed along with those words. When you're in a real pastoral conversation with a person – where real pain and real, deep hopes are expressed – something more comes into the room. Something is summoned. Maybe it's called the shekinah. Maybe it's called God. Maybe it's something from all the other people who care. Maybe it's just spirit. But, as intangible as it is, it's real and powerful and a key to true healing. It should not be ignored.

But that “something” can't be truly summoned – or be a part of the prayer – if what is expressed is not something in common, something shared, that was part of the encounter. That's why the number one question I ask myself in composing this part of the prayer is “What do I hope for this person?" Bringing myself into the prayer in this way, allows me to offer a more powerful prayer, one that expresses Shared Hopes, and provides a more complete caring experience.

As you can imagine, however, this kind of a "Use of the Self" in spiritual care is controversial, and the participants in the workshop challenged me about it, expressing shock at the possibility that I might offer a prayer for something that the person I am caring for does not want. My answer to them is that, if you truly take a Shared Hopes approach, that that kind of "contradiction" of the suffering person's hopes is not what happens when you express your hopes for them -- because in a Shared Hopes approach, it's not really my hopes or the person's hopes I express -- it's the shared ones that arose in the "space between us" during our conversation.

There's a theory behind this. It's called intersubjectivity. In short, it holds that communication and the creation of meaning are not things that one person does on his or her own. It's something that is co-constructed by the two or more parties in any interaction. It's an especially influential idea in psychoanalysis, and it provides a theoretical basis for the therapist to use the feelings he or she experiences as a tool for understanding, and caring for, their clients. This theory has freed psychoanalysts from feeling they have to take the kind of cold, detached attitude that Freud did with his patients. Instead, they can become more warm, human and genuine with them. This theory has the potential to free spiritual caregivers in the same way, so that they can bring true emotion, feeling and spiritual depth to things like their spontaneous prayers. [The best expression of this theory in the field of pastoral care is Pamela Cooper-White's book Shared Wisdom .]

3) הודאה/hoda-ah/Thanksgiving (and a wish for peace/shalom) -- This part (along with the first one) is a tremendously important part of my approach to spontaneous prayers that is missing from so many other approaches (which tend to only include "ask" elements). It is a chance to return to a place of humility (after the audacity of asking God for things) and to restate something about what we believe about God and about our wish to be in relationship to God. It is also a chance to take our prayer outside the small, immediate realm of the patient's experience and bring it out into the broader realm of all humanity. And this is a key part of almost all religious practices in the major faith traditions -- to link each individual with the community at large in a way that brings greater power to our effort to elevate our spirits and reach for something higher. Communal experience nurtures faith, as do our acts of caring for others. Thus, I conclude every prayer with a wish for peace, starting with the person before me, but then moving outward. First to wish for peace for the person's immediate family and loved ones, but finally I move on to a wish for peace for all people.

Before I offer this request for shalom, I first, as the Amidah does, offer thanks, and say something like, "Dear, God, we thank you for everything you have given. We thank you for the gift of life, and for all that we have been able to know -- especially the love we have been able to experience -- during our time here on earth."


Another part of a Shared Hopes approach -- one that I borrow from the Jewish prayer tradition -- is to, as much as possible, put the language of my prayer in the language of "we" and to say things like "we pray for you to give her strength, oh gracious God." (Jewish standard forms of prayer -- like the Amidah -- ask for things using the language of "we".)


I was so impressed with the people who attended my workshop. Many of them are already using spontaneous prayer in their work and they shared their experiences with it. One participant shared that sometimes when there is a prayer that appears to have particularly touched a person, he writes it down and shares those written words with the patient.

Another participant shared a four-part framework for composing spontaneous prayer he uses in Hebrew. His approach is very similar to mine, but differs in the last part especially:

ברוך אתה ה' (אלוהנו מלך העולם) ה_____________ ץ
1) This approach begins with the words that start every standard Jewish blessing, "Blessed are You, HaShem our God, King of the Universe, Who ____________." The "Who" part is key here. In the blessing before eating bread, we say "Who brings forth bread from the earth." When we say the havdalah blessing marking the end of Shabbat and the beginning of a new workweek, we say, "the one distinguishes between the holy and the secular." In this approach, the spiritual caregiver works closely with the person to determine which "Who" of God to address here. (This process, I believe, allows the prayer to start, as my introductory section does, by saying something about the person's theology in making that introduction to God.
אתה יודע
2) Literally, "You know". The words following the "You know" are a chance to say something about the situation the person finds his or herself in, and to hold that up to God.
3) This is an "ask" section, just like mine.
אבל אם לא, תן לי כח להתמודד
4) I was fascinated by this final section, because it is not something I have in my framework. It says "but if my requests are not granted, give me the strength to cope."

I think this is a very powerful thing to have in a prayer and it can -- as the participant himself stated -- foster an important humility that can be a key part of a spiritual growth that can lead to better coping. It seems to me to reflect an acceptance that is a key part of a suffering person's coming to a stronger place, one that has room for entering into a positive relationship with God even amid inexplicable suffering.

Here is a copy of the contents of a handout, I created for the workshop. It has some more details about my approach and that of others who have worked in this area before, especially the work of Rabbi Bonita Taylor, a New York chaplaincy educator (Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor) who has long focused on helping her students gain experience with offering spontaneous prayer. The handout, especially, emphasizes the importance of linking a prayer to an assessment. That is, as I said at the beginning, the truly effective spontaneous prayer has to be one that is specifically tailored to the person and the person's situation and hopes. So much of the prayers some clergy and spiritual caregivers offer do not meet this important minimum condition. While they may indeed be said off the top of the caregiver's head -- rather than read from a book -- they are essentially canned words that the caregiver would say for anybody.

It was such a privilege to give a workshop at this pioneering conference and to have some close contact with people doing such exciting work in Israel. I am grateful to have had the opportunity. I pray it will be the will of the Holy Blessed One -- the One who is the author of all knowledge, compassion and spirit -- that I will be able to offer more such workshops in the future and to learn again from students and to continue to grow in my knowledge and mastery in this area. And may it be the Holy One's will that there will be many more such conferences in Israel and that the infant field of spiritual care there will continue to grow and to thrive.

[X-posted to smamitayim ]

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bringing professional caring to Israel

The fifth annual Spiritual Care conference in Israel opened today with an emotional and intensely personal keynote address by Rona Ramon (pictured above), the widow of Ilan Ramon, Israel's first person to travel into space, who was killed tragically in 2003 during the re-entry of the shuttle Columbia to the Earth's atmosphere.

It is amazing that this is only the fifth such conference in Israel. This nation of contrasts is, one one hand, a highly modern economy fueled by a high-tech industrial sector that is still thriving amid the world-wide recession. And, in many other ways, it is yet an infant nation, still building institions, like chaplaincy (and environmentalism, as I wrote a few weeks ago), that we take for granted in the United States. I feel so privileged to have a chance to be present among the 150 or so pioneering professionals who attended Ramon's talk this morning and who will be at the conference over the next two days.

As I write this, I am listening to a lecture by a true pioneer -- a woman who is working to not only bring Spiritual Care to this young nation, but to bring it to a relatively new and sometimes challenging population to care for: immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Tomorrow, I will be a presenter, myself, giving a workshop on techniques for offering spontaneous prayer.

I am so excited to be here at the conference at the Ma’ale HaHamisha Conference Center in these beautiful hills on the western outskirts of Jerusalem!

[X-posted to smamitayim]
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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Lag B'Omer

It was quite a scene in Jerusalem last night. For more pics/info click here.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Standing at the mountaintop

One of the exciting parts of the Hazon-Arava Israel ride for me was that the riding days of our journey from the Mediterranean to Red seas were separated by one of my very favorite Torah portions: קדושים/kedoshim, or Holy ("you will be; for Holy am I, HaShem Your God").

I love this Torah portion, or parsha, because it stands at the very center of the Torah. Not only is it in the very middle of the middle of the Torah's five books, but it is at the center of the Torah's central narrative: the narrative of a people coming out of slavery to the wondrous -- but also terrifying -- task of trying to be all of everything that God expected them to be. And God surely expected a lot of a people who, as slaves, had never even before been expected to make decisions for themselves. God expected them now to have so much wisdom as to be able to even figure out how to be קדוש/kadosh, to be Holy.

The Torah tells of the many stumbles of the people Israel in their efforts to find their way to becoming what God expected of them as they wandered through the desert. They sometimes complain and wish for the simpler times that were the predictability of the simple life of a slave. But the biggest stumble came just before back in chapter 10 when Aaron's two sons, in their excitement, brought "strange fire" before God, and were destroyed for this mistaken attempt to take part in holiness.

The whole rest of the Torah, beginning here with this parsha, is about the acts of repairing from this mistake -- about the acts of learning how to be Holy. The parsha gives a grand list of requirements for being Holy that is a kind of updating of the Ten Commandments. This list is almost the same as the Ten Commandments, but it has one important addition -- it commands us to take care of the poor and make sure they have enough to eat from the produce of the Land. And this book of the Torah comes towards its conclusion with this specific focus on the land and who may eat of it. It declares that you cannot treat this land as a resource that can just be used constantly with no regard for its limit. In the seventh year, the land must -- as God did on the seventh day of creation -- rest. It must have a Shabbat:

וְהָיְתָה שַׁבַּת הָאָרֶץ לָכֶם לְאָכְלָה, לְךָ וּלְעַבְדְּךָ וְלַאֲמָתֶךָ וְלִשְׂכִירְךָ וּלְתוֹשָׁבְךָ הַגָּרִים עִמָּךְ.
And the Shabbat produce of the Land will be food for you -- for you, and for your servant, and your maid, and your hired hand and for the stranger who dwells among you. (YaYikrah 25:5 )

Rashi, the great Medieval bible commentator, says that the reason the Torah lists all these people who may eat from the food of the Land is to emphasize that in that year -- that special Shabbat year of the Land -- you cannot act like you are a בעל/baal -- a master -- over the Land and the people who work and live on it. You are equals, and you must share in the food of the Land equally.

This, the Torah tells us at the central place that is this great parsha, is part of what it means to be a Holy people -- to be willing to rest the Land when it is the time for it to be rested, and also to be willing to make sure all are fed, and all know what it is like to be treated equally as a human being.

Riding through the desert at the beginning of this week, I thought often about what it means to be Holy. I thought of how precious water is. I thought of the great gift that God has given us in these modern times to be so free of the terrible diseases that for most of human history killed most people in the earliest years of childhood -- to have so much abundance of food that literally billions can be fed every day even with so much food just being thrown out before being eaten. These are the gifts that have come with our mastery of the tools of science, gifts that would not be possible without the intelligence that God has given us.

Yet with such great gifts comes so much responsibility. Being a Holy people in our time means limiting our overuse  of the tools of science. It means not squeezing every drop out of what lies in the ground below us. It means giving the Land its Shabbat in its time. And it means that all among us are able to live full lives and enjoy the benefits of this Land.

We spoke of water so often during the bike ride. How precious it is, and how much we squander it. The experts who spoke to us sought to raise our awareness that the water that we use is not just in the obvious uses that happen when we open a faucet and take out water for things like our showers and our cooking. Every product we use -- the very clothes on our backs -- took water to produce. If we're really going to preserve this precious resource, we need to raise our awareness of all the inefficient ways it is used in the manufacturing and food production that supports us.

This is nowhere more true than here in the Middle East. The shortage of water regionwide is not what caused the conflicts that plague us, but it stands in the way of finding solutions. If there ever is to be peace, a way must be found for everyone to drink, for everyone to have the opportunity to live a full life.

Our speakers told us of some of the amazing things that are happening in Israel to solve the water crisis, things like the desalination plant in Ashkelon, and the widespread use of recycled sewage water for the irrigation of crops. Israel is one of the world leaders in these kinds of technologies. They are not cure-alls -- it takes a great deal of energy, for example, to make desalination work -- but they are wonderful examples of the determination of people here to find solutions.


As I let go of the brake levers on my bike to start that final descent from our position near the mountaintop of  הר יואש/har yoash -- some 2,300 feet above Eilat and sea level only about six miles away -- I thought of how precious life is. I cried with joy inside as I felt the wind whipping by my ears and witnessed the glory of the mountain and hillsides I was screaming by. God was out there somewhere and I was standing -- even as I was rolling rapidly on my two wheels -- before that Lord of my life. I was grateful for what I had been given. And, I promised to do my best to take care of it and thus make it a place where God's infinite and wondrous Holiness would be welcome among us humans here on earth.

Shabbat Shalom!

[X-posted to smamitayim ]

Saving the world with two wheels

Jerusalem is a tremendously hilly city, yet, as our bus plodded its way through some of the city's most crowded neighborhoods on its way to the central bus station last night, I was cheered to see people on bikes -- some of them wearing the kippah that marks the religious, male Jew -- winding their way through the dense traffic on narrow streets.

One thing that makes Jerusalem doable by bike (despite the challenges of the hills, etc.) is it's actually amazingly compact compared to America's sprawling cities. Even Jerusalem's most far-flung neighborhoods are only about six miles from the city center, and most people's commutes are much shorter. Many Americans, on the other hand, find themselves commuting dozens of miles in each direction every day.

This more-compact nature of Israeli cities is just one of the many ways Israel has set itself up in a way that makes a more sustainable, and environmentally friendly, lifestyle possible, and is a reminder that there is much we can learn from the way Israelis approach life.

That is not to say that Israelis are more environmentally conscious than we are. I was reminded of this last Shabbat when we were in Mitzpeh Ramon as part of the Hazon-Arava environmental bike ride trip. I stepped outside the prayer service for a moment to get some air and think alone. It was so beautiful to look out towards the huge desert crater -- an inspiring example of God's works. But below my feet were the cigarette butts and other garbage that Israelis seem to feel free to dump anywhere. As one of the speakers on the trip told us, environmental consciousness is only beginning among the general population in a country where security concerns have long been paramount. He held out hope to us that things are changing, however -- as evidenced by the recent election in Tel Aviv of some environmentalists to city government -- and Israel is growing to be more consciously concerned about preserving some elements of the quality of life, and not just the preserving of life.

I was so glad to have a chance to contribute something back to Israel with two wheels (by participating in -- and raising money for -- an environmental bike ride). The bicycle has never been just a means of recreation for me. When I was a kid, I had a paper route, and I hauled my papers with a bicycle that had baskets on its sides and to which my Dad (of blessed memory) had jury-rigged a folding shopping cart as a trailer. I rediscovered the bike as a means of carrying cargo (groceries and such) while an adult in Los Angeles, and have continued that practice even amid the hills and winter winds of Reading, PA. I try to cast for myself in Reading a life more like the one I am able to have here in Jerusalem, a life where things are only a few steps -- or a few pedals -- away, and I do not have to get into some gasoline-burning and carbon-fume-expelling device every day.

Heschel talked about the glory of Shabbat as Judaism's great solution to the dangers of technological civilization. Shabbat does not ask us to abandon the benefits of technology -- we get to work for six days -- only not to be dominated by it, to be able to live free amid it. Those five riding days from sea to sea and inside the great emptiness of the Negev desert were a reminder that there is another way than living dominated by technology, and of how two wheels can help free us to be able to live free. I was so grateful to be a part of it, and hope to keep learning from it.

[X-posted to smamitayim]

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The fires -- soon!

When we arrived home, today (see here), we found this pile of wood and cardboard in the entrance of the building. Now, just having come back from an environmental bike ride, I am somewhat hopeful it is piled here for recycling purposes. But I know it is much more likely that it is preparation for next week's Lag B'Omer, a holiday that the religious and the secular alike celebrate here by setting bonfires all over the city . . . . . I just hope they move it out from underneath the buidling before they torch it up! :)

[X-posted to smamitayim]
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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Kibbutz Ketura!

That's where I am.

If you want to know more, click here!