Thursday, October 30, 2003

Born to eternal life is in dying that we are born to eternal life. --from a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

I didn't make it to church this past Sunday morning. I'm an on-call volunteer chaplain at the local hospital and I was called twice Sunday morning. The first time was to see two people in intensive care, one of whom wasn't expected to survive, and when I finished, a nurse asked me to see a third. One of the patient's family members tried to pay me for praying for his wife. He just didn't know what to do. After I prayed for his wife, I prayed for him and hugged him.

I left the hospital thinking I would make it to the second Sunday church service, but I was quickly called back a second time. There was a young couple with a stillborn baby, and the family was distraught. The parents wanted the baby baptized.

I've never baptized anyone before. I sat in the hospital lobby for a few minutes with The Book of Common Prayer, looked over the words of baptism and prayers for the dead, then I went to the maternity ward.

A nurse took me into a back room where the infant had been prepared. She said she would bring the baby with a special container of water for the baptism to the patient's room.

I found a very distraught young couple, maybe 21, and their equally distraught parents. I explained that I was from the local Episcopal church and would use prayers and words of baptism from The Book of Common Prayer. They nodded their assent. First, I said prayers with both the parents and family.

The nurses had made the little baby boy look as nice a possible. It was heartbreaking to look upon this little bundle of cold flesh that should have been this couple's baby. The staff him wheeled into the room on a little infant crib, wrapped in a little white receiving blanket with yellow applique flowers. The nurse handed me a sea shell full of water. I prayed the words of baptism, using holy oil and the water, and added in prayers for the dead.

No one seemed to notice that it was not the smoothest baptism ever, and the family, especially the grandparents, seemed to take comfort from it. The baby's mother was still in shock mixed with the beginning stages of anger, while his father was weeping softly, but took my hand in thanks.

It's going to be a long road of healing for them. They called me Tuesday night (while I was facilitating a bereavement group, ironically). When I called them back, they told me they had been fighting, things were terrible, and they had some other problems as well. I am trying to get them connected to counseling, which I hope they will take advantage of. They can't handle this by themselves.

I keep hearing the words of baptism -- "marked as Christ's own." That baby belongs to Christ, and nothing can change that, and nothing can harm him now.

I could not offer any explanations to this mother why God did not intervene to save her child. I could only share my faith that God did not "take" her child from her. We live in a fallen world in which evil roams, and that evil takes various forms--including the death of a baby. God did not take her baby from this mother, but when this baby died, Christ received him into His arms. That baby is there in Christ and will be restored his family in the end, just as Lazarus was restored to Martha and Mary. Christ wept with this family in their grief, just as He wept with Martha and Mary.

There are no words that will comfort this mother right now. Faith has not been a big part of this family's life, but I hope that it may take root now. I asked the young mother to talk to God, to tell Him exactly how she feels and how angry she is. I asked this young couple to lay hands on each other and pray for each other to heal from the awful wounds they've received. They may not be able to do it yet, but I'm praying that they will be able to do so at some point. It will bring them so much healing.

I want to write more about baptism, but I have to go now.


Monday, October 20, 2003

Choosing life

An update -- I talked to my brother's boss this morning. She is willing to help him get disability and come back to his job when he is better -- if he gets treatment. I also called our local treatment center for information and advice, for he will need more help when he gets out of the hospital.

I looked at my posting from last Sunday, October 12. I prayed, "Please bring my family together through Your mediation and Your grace. Bind us up in Your love." God has been answering that prayer. He brought Toby back. Now, the question is, will my other two brothers be able to accept him? They've been angry at him for "not being interested in his family." I'm praying for reconciliation here.

There is help for Toby and there are people praying for him. He will have to choose to accept the help. I can probably have him forced into a treatment center, even if he doesn't want to go, but it won't accomplish much if he's just marking time.

God remembered Toby and brought him back from the land of the dead. Now, Toby will have to choose life. God will not let Toby slip through His fingers, but if Toby chooses to jump from the palm of His hand, God will let him, even as He grieves over it. God gives us the choice.

Please pray for Toby to make the right choices.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

From the edge of the abyss

Psalm 88
3 For my soul is full of troubles,
And my life draws near to the grave.
4 I am counted with those who go down to the pit;
I am like a man who has no strength,
5 Adrift among the dead,
Like the slain who lie in the grave,
Whom You remember no more,
And who are cut off from Your hand.

I have a third brother I haven't talked about in this blog. He hasn't been around much. I'll call him "Toby."

Toby is an alcoholic. He's been one since late adolescence. When he's drinking heavily, he cuts off communication with everyone and drops off the face of the earth. He had disappeared once again the last few months. I tried to find him when Mom went in the hospital, with no success.

He disappeared once for about six years, then turned up a couple of years ago, just when I was starting to think he was dead. I had put his name on the emergency prayer chain at church. There are wonderful intercessors at this church who have kept Toby in their prayers ever since.

Toby called me yesterday. He had gone to Mom's house and no one was there -- not Mom, not her pets. He thought she had died. He sounded like he was in bad shape.

When I got there, I could see that he was indeed in awful shape. He had a bad case of the DT's. Some of the stuff he was saying made no sense, and I realized he was having hallucinations. His arms and legs had gotten thin, while his abdomen was huge.

Toby didn't want detox, but I finally got him to agree to medical treatment. I took him to Burger King for a cheeseburger and coffee, which he could hardly get to his mouth for the tremors, then to a care center, where the doctor arranged for admittance to the hospital.

Toby has been in my prayers continually since Wednesday night. We had a parish (church) meeting to talk about the divisive issues in the church over homosexuality and the election of a gay bishop.

I stood up and spoke about my brother. He has hated himself since he realized he was a homosexual. He spent his adolescence in torment over it. He did not choose to be gay.

If sin is a deliberate and unrepentant disobedience against God, then homosexuality is not a sin. It is not a choice. It causes anguish. My brother always felt he was outside the social pale, an outcast. Toby has been a recluse most of his adult life. Adrift.

Frankly, I was surprised by the outpouring of love, sympathy and understanding for our gay brothers and sisters at this meeting, in this politcally conservative part of the country.

One woman stood up and talked about the Catch 22 gays find themselves in: We heterosexuals seek out loving, committed relationships. We treasure them. Yet, we deny these loving relationships to homosexuals. We tell them having a relationship outside marriage is a sin. At the same time, we tell them they can't have any kind of blessed or married relationship. We expect them to live without a committed, loving relationship.

This stabbed me in the heart. I thought about Toby's loneliness, his rejection of himself. I don't think he's ever had any kind of close and loving relationship.

I think Toby had intended to drink himself to death on this last tout. God heard his cry and the prayers of many and rescued him from the edge of the abyss.

When Toby was trying to avoid detox yesterday, (he's been through it at least twice before), he told me he wanted to find out about Christ. I know he was trying to con me -- to find a hook I'd respond to. I told him I was "his" person to talk to about it, but the first priority was medical attention. I anointed him with oil and prayed for him before taking him to the medical center.

When I left the hospital today, the technicians were getting ready to do a scan of his abodmen. I took his hands, prayed for him and told him again that I love him. I know he was humoring me by letting me pray, but I believe the Holy Spirit is working on his spirit.

I love you Toby, and I will keep praying for you. I will be tough enough to do whatever I need to do to help you.

Today, I've been offering up prayers of gratitude to God for saving my brother, for pulling him back to the land of the living. I am saying prayers of thanksgiving for all those who have been praying for my brother.

Monday, October 13, 2003

My bum and me

I know "bum" isn't the politically correct word today -- we should say "homeless person," or, "street person." But somehow, "bum" just seems to fit him better -- in the tradition of the hobo bums of the depression.

Holding up a sign saying, "HOMELESS VIET NAM VET ~ PLEASE HELP," he has his bit of turf staked out in the median strip by a traffic light on a busy, four-lane road. He gets a good flow of traffic stopped or slowed to make a left turn into a shopping plaza.

A while back, I started giving him a dollar or two when I'd go by. He is always dignified; he doesn't take the money from your hand. He receives it, gently. He doesn't have the disorganized, unkempt look of the schizophrenic or other mentally ill person. He is neat and looks in relatively good health. A short, white beard covers his face. He has the tired, sad look of the down-and-out.

If I lived in a big city (and I have before), I'd be more cynical (and I have before). But I live here, in a little town in Central Florida. I know all the arguments against giving bums money. One of the grande dames of the church lectured me outside the Diocesan Cathedral in Orlando: Don't give them money, it only encourages them. They just spend it on drugs or booze. Send them to the police station -- they'll help them find a place to stay and something to eat.

I gave one of them a dollar, anyway, incurring her wrath. I figured, what better place to hang out and expect Christian charity than in the environs of a cathedral? And I know enough about street people to know they'd rather lay down and die than go to a police station for help. They wouldn't get it, anyway, for the most part (I've worked for a police department before. I'm finding a lot of my checkered career history coming in helpful in ministry).

For example, I know that Florida is tough on the homeless, the addressless. You have to have a mailing address to get most services. You have to have some proof of residency. Women and families with children and an address can generally get assistance -- food stamps, financial assistance and housing allotments, etc. But for men without an address, there just isn't much of anything.

Nor is there really any kind of homeless shelter in my little town. The needy can make the church soup-kitchen circuit and get one hot meal a day, and that's about it. If I did have the resources to do what I want, I would start a homeless mission. And a permanent healing mission. Maybe I'm starting to feel some kind of call in this direction.

I know that my little bit of money would be used more efficiently through one of the church or civic charities. They assign admininstrators and caseworkers to make sure the money is well spent, and used properly. It is used to buy things in bulk. Very economical and efficient.

I'm going to write a check and send it to the national church tomorrow, but this evening, I was in the left turn lane to go into the shopping center, and there he was. I fished in my wallet for a couple of dollars and found only one dollar bill and a five. I left the one in its nest and pulled out the five. As I came alongside him, I handed it to him through the window. He accepted it graciously.

"God bless you, darlin'," he said. Our eyes met, and we acknowledged each other's humanity.

A five dollar bill doesn't get you much in today's economy. but he and I have both been on the short end. When you need it and it isn't there, it can be a lot. It may have bought him a cheap, fast-food meal or an even cheaper bottle of wine. It isn't up to me to say how he spends the money that is now his. He surely won't go laughing all the way to the bank with it. And if he needs the comfort of a bottle of wine to keep him company on this rainy night, that's between him and God.

It was that human contact that was important tonight. Not to be elevated by my own self-interested charity, but to have that connection. That we see and recognize each other as real people with souls. I was on the giving end of the money this time. I don't know about the next time. And who knows, I may have entertained an angel.

I rolled through the evening, wrapped in his benediction, his blessing.

God bless you, too, my dear bum.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

True Confessions

My families are a mess. I wrote about the difficulties in my family of the flesh in the preceding posting. It seems like my church family is in a bigger mess.

I wrote about the threatened schism in the Episcopal Church on September 26. Now I'm seeing the effect in my own parish.

Last week, I tried to get hold of my parish priest for some help getting my mother into a Christian retirement community, only to find out he had gone to Dallas for the American Anglican Council (AAC) convention. He hadn't bothered notifying the vestry that he was going. There wasn't any priest available to help me. With the hospital social worker's help, my mother was accepted into the Christian community without a pastor's recommendation.

I feel a bit betrayed. After talking so moderately in the beginning, Father Dearest has jumped on board the AAC train, following the bishop's lead. First, the Father sponsored a resolution at a diocesan meeting, repudiating the actions of the general convention (he did this without informing the vestry, either). Now he went to the AAC convention.

I'm noticing a difference in the way people act, too. The person who sponsored me for confirmation has been talking very conservative--but not talking to me. Never even asked how my mother was doing, although I've seen her twice in the past week, or put my mother on the prayers of the people list for the hospitalized last week--she's the one in charge of that.

A few days ago, I wrote a long E-mail to Fr. Bojangles, AKA
  • Le Pretre Noir
  • . It was a confession of my anger, with a lot of ranting and raving, but I didn't actually get to the point of asking forgiveness. Now I'm asking God for forgiveness of my anger. And, again, I'm praying for God to keep my heart from becoming hardened.

    Rumor has it that Father Dearest is at the top of the list for replacing the canon to the ordinary, who submitted his resignation over the direction the diocese is going. Is F.D. being influenced by that, or truly following his heart? I don't know. Maybe both.

    F.D. had to sign an AAC oath to attend the Dallas meeting. The oath calls for the Archbishop to:

    " a. Discipline those bishops in the Episcopal Church who, by
    their actions, have departed from biblical faith and order;

    b. Guide the realignment of Anglicanism in North America"
    --in other words, a separate province. This is schism.

    A delegation of four representing the Episcopal Church was turned away from the convention. Obviously, reconciliation isn't big in the AAC vocabulary.

    The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which the AAC claims to uphold in their oath, declared willingness " to enter into brotherly conference with all or any Christian
    Bodies seeking the restoration of the organic unity of the Church.." This just doesn't fit the actions of the AAC.

    I know our parish is largely older and conservative, especially the monied people. This has to be a factor in any parish priest's thinking--the rectors all have to look out for the financial situation. So, I had expected him and the rectors of most of the churches to go the conservative route. I just didn't expect this jump on the bandwagon from F.D.

    I don't think most parishioners are aware of what they'll be getting into with an AAC-run province and diocese. Most have only even heard of the AAC very recently. I hadn't paid any attention to them until the general convention, when they started the schism talk. A friend was more aware, though, and said I better do some research on them.

    I found out they are ultra conservative, indeed. They have strong ties to right-wing organizations like the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), which is not a religious, but a political organization dedicated to stamping out anything they consider liberal -- like the mainline churches. The IRD and the AAC share the same address.

    A recent report by Steve Levin in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed the following:

    One major source of its funding [the AAC's] is Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., of California, a $10-million-a-year patron of conservative causes through the Fieldstead Foundation. An Episcopalian, Ahmanson is heir to a savings and loan fortune accumulated by his father. Ahmanson attended St. James Church in Newport Beach, Calif., which, until recently, was run by the Rev. David C. Anderson, now president of the American Anglican Council.

    For many years, Ahmanson was associated with the late Rev. Rousas John Rushdoony, considered the father of Christian Reconstructionism, which advocates basing American society on biblical laws. For 10 years ending in 1995, Ahmanson contributed a total of $700,000 to Rushdoony's Chalcedon Foundation and served on its board of directors.

    Since then, both Ahmanson and his wife, Roberta, have repudiated Christian Reconstructionist philosophy.

    Roberta Ahmanson was recently named to the board of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, which works closely with the American Anglican Council.

    "The theonomist or [Christian] Reconstructionist philosophy is antithetical to our idea of religion and democracy," said Diane L. Knippers, a new member of the council board and president of the institute. "Roberta wouldn't have come on our board if she didn't agree with us."

    Well, I'm afraid they are too much in agreement. Ahmanson has poured money into groups who believe homosexuality, adultery and apostasy, or heresy (as defined by them) should be punishable by death. They believe in stoning, like in the Old Testament. Howard Ahmanson has ties to a number of religious and political right-wing organizations. Pat Robertson is moderate, heck, maybe even liberal, compared to them.

    Wake up, people. Do you really want groups like these setting church policy? Saying what you are and aren't allowed to do in your parish?

    And watch out if you end up on the opposite side of an issue from them.
    Barking dogs

    My house is quieting down. The Best Dog in the World and Good Old Boy are flopped and snoring on the floor. My mother's little poodle was in the household for about 20 hours. Putting him in with my two dogs started a dogfest of hyper barking, tearing through the house, and more barking. Barking at each other, barking at the neighbor's dog who was barking because they were barking. I vaguely remember telling them to 'shut UP' several times during the night.

    My brother picked up the poodle this morning, to take him to live with him and his family. My mother is now in an assisted living facility (ALF). I've been working very hard the past week, making all the arrangements. I met the hospital social worker to arrange for a good place with good care for my mother, near me, where I can check on her care, visit her and take her for outings. I'm happy to report that Mom is stronger, physically. She doesn't seem to have any short-term memory retention at all, though. I'm praying for improvement.

    I have been in a number of nursing and assisted living facilities in the area through ministry activities. I know the good, the bad and the ugly ones. Mom is in a good one. Not that she wants to be in any at all--every day, she is convinced she is about to go home. I called Friday afternoon and the nurse said Mom had been sitting with her pocketbook all day, waiting for me to pick her up and take her home-- although Mom hasn't been able to remember what her house, where she lived for 20 years, even looks like.

    Getting Mom in the ALF was accomplishment of the biggest step. There were still her pets to deal with. I had been stopping by her house every day to feed and check on them, leaving the dogs on the screened patio with the door set for access in and out of the yard. The ALF nurse said her parakeet could take up residence in the parlor, so I moved him there after getting Mom in (sadly, Mom didn't recognize the bird, although she's had him for five or six years).

    Two of my brothers said they would each take one dog, but they seemed content to let me run back and forth (20 miles one-way) to take care of them for another six weeks, when they would come down for a Thanksgiving family meeting. I nixed this by putting the dogs in the kennel at my vet's. There was a good possibility the dogs would get out of Mom's yard again (they had done this on the day I took my mother to the emergency room and I had to chase them down). They were overdue for their shots, which would incur big trouble with animal control if they should survive long enough to be picked up. And now the poor dogs were increasingly anxious about being left alone.

    So, now the poodle has gone to his new home, freshly bathed, with up-to-date shots, and the other dog should go to hers next week. I'm still looking for a home for the cat.

    It hasn't been easy dealing with my brothers. I feel like they left me all alone with the situation until I had taken care of everything. I hardly heard from them while Mom was in the hospital (neither did she), but as soon as Mom was transferred to the ALF, they suddenly started calling a lot. The brother who hasn't gotten down here yet called me the other night and grilled me about the place where Mom is; is it a good place, and so forth.

    Maybe the tone of self-righteous pomposity in his voice stemmed from a bit of guilt. Of course, he has been much too busy with his life and his job to be here for any of this. I'm working hard at not being angry. He really doesn't know how bad Mom is, because he hasn't absorbed what I've told him and he hasn't been down here. He had seemed content to wait until Thanksgiving to even see her.

    Something will have to be done with Mom's house. It needs to be cleaned up and sold, but I'm not even going to try and tackle that right now. I would need power of attorney (POA) to handle it, anyway. The not-here-yet brother asked about the house when he called the other night. He sounded like he didn't want me to take action to get POA--maybe he wants it. But he'll still expect me to handle the grubby stuff, while he makes long-distance decisions. Wrong. If he wants it, he can have it, but he'll take care of things from that point on.

    I'm praying against a hard heart, and to keep decent relationships with my family.

    Dear Lord,

    Give me strength and courage to deal with the challenges that each day brings. Give me a cheerful heart and countenance. Give me a soft heart, so that I do not harbor resentment or antagonism. Please bring my family together through Your mediation and Your grace. Bind us up in Your love.

    Give me discernment to see the way, and energy to go there, for I am very tired.

    Saturday, October 04, 2003

    My mother's keeper

    I haven't blogged all week because my mother has been in the hospital. Getting her there was not an easy task. My mother is stubborn and didn't want medical attention. I had to offer her the option of calling paramedics into her house to check her (and she hates people coming into her house), OR going to the emergency department. She chose the latter.

    She was in bad shape. She's had heart-related problems for about 10 years that have helped accelerate her into what is now undeniable mental confusion and senility. She had not been taking her medication properly (the main thing necessitating the hospital stay), and she has not been taking proper care of herself. She's been painfully thin; now she's getting that skeletal, emaciated look. She won't bother to eat much, even prepared foods--she says she just has no appetite.

    I've tried unsuccessfully this year to get her to look at assisted-living facilities, but she's refused to have any serious discussion about it. She only wants to stay right there, in her own house.

    So, every day the past four days, I've been making the 20- or so-mile trek back and forth to the hospital and her house, to check on her and her pets and home, while trying to work as many hours as possible and track down her doctors for a discussion. A friend called me "a good daughter." I don't feel like one.

    My mother has always been stubborn. She was the product of a broken home back in the days when divorce was not the norm. She grew up in a financially needy household, never sure about keeping a home. She has always been determined to keep control over her circumstances. She has not wanted to live with any of us children, and I frankly think we would have a great deal of difficulty living with her in the house. She wants to be in control of her own turf.

    I've worried and watched her go downhill. The saddest part about it is that she has been aware of her own deterioration, which has made her panicky at times. She was an intelligent woman who read voraciously and educated herself. She used to be sharper than me. Now, very noticeably since this last episode, she can't figure out even the simplest things, like how to use the hospital-room phone, though I've shown her several times each day. She can't remember what her house, the one she's lived in for the past 20 years, looks like, or whether it has a garage or not. She's not sure where I live.

    I tried to talk to her doctor about her confusion and forgetfulness months ago, after her last hospital stay. He brushed me off then. This time, he didn't, thank God. My mother can't keep up the pretense of doing all right any more. The doctor is assigning a caseworker to her, to see about transfer from the hospital into an ALF. As angry as she will be, she just can't stay in that house alone.

    I'm starting to feel a large weight lift off my shoulders. At the same time, I know I didn't get over to her house to check on her as often as I could have. And I could have done more to help her with household chores, if I'd been willing to sacrifice more time and energy. Should I have pushed harder to get her out of that house? (forced a competency hearing?)

    What ifs and maybes. They're the things that drive us crazy. The tools of the devil to work us over, I've heard.

    I don't feel like the good daughter.