Category Archives: chaplaincy

The One thing I would tell everyone

Kat asked me last night what I think is the most important thing that people need as far as spiritual, emotional, and health support. This is something we think about a lot in our soul crafts of spiritual support (me), yoga teaching (her), and resilient community building (both). I thought long and hard about what I have learned so far in my many, many conversations with patients and spiritual seekers, people in pain and people who are thriving.

There are so many stubborn people. Men and women who desperately cling to how they have always done things, how their church tells them they should think and believe, how the supermarkets advertise, or how their families pressure them. They resist change and they suffer. I want to grab their faces in my hands and ask, “Do you really feel this way? Do you really think that? Does eating this or that really make you feel good?!? BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE TO!! Listen to your heart. Listen to your body. Follow it’s lead.”

People need to be affirmed, honored and celebrated that they can trust their heart, that they their personal experience of Divine love is valid and worth something. Ironically to follow the crowd, to feel the pressure of the system or the hierarchy to think and feel a certain way without the affirmation of one’s uniqueness is a profoundly lonely experience. How many pastors really want to say the things that they feel they must say so as to not make their parishioners too uncomfortable? Why do we twist, bend, argue, and force ourselves to believe in a God or a way of living that when we really listen to our hearts doesn’t feel good or compelling at all?

Your unique and personal experience of your soul, of Spirit, of transcendence, is worth something. It is important and valid and true to you. It is written on your heart. I want to know about it. I don’t want to know what someone else has told you that you have to believe, I want to know what you feel, wonder about, and live by. And I hope that at least in my company, you will feel free, unfettered, and fully welcome.

May you recognize in your life the presence
Power and light of your soul.

 May you realize that you are never alone,
That your soul in its brightness and belonging
Connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe.

 ~John O’Donohue

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Why I’ve started to dislike Easter

I think Easter is supposed to be the cornerstone holiday of Christianity, at least that’s what I grew up thinking in my Evangelical upbringing. After all, Jesus died to pay the price for all our sins and then he rose again, finalizing it and making it clear that God approved of the sacrifice. It’s a great opportunity to remind us all how important it is remember our sins and to commit our lives to him and to believe that he really did do this for us.

I don’t really like going to church on Easter anymore. I mean, I’ve heard this same message a hundred times… Easter doesn’t make it any more real to me. I just end up feeling like the pastor is using the opportunity of a packed church and a suffering savior to get more commitments to follow Jesus. But I don’t think there was anything in Jesus’ death and resurrection that was saying believe that I did this and you will go to heaven. There was nothing in his death and resurrection accounts where he said follow me and make me your God.

I also don’t really like working in the hospital on Easter. I have done this the last two years. Last year, I spent most of the day with a family of 30 or more relatives waiting to hear whether a 14 year old boy, who had a completely unexpected stroke, was going to die. And prayed with a man who held his newborn child who had died in delivery. This year, I had to talk with a family whose father and husband, most likely dying from full body shut down, after the doctors found a softball size tumor on his last day of checkups after pushing through metastasized melanoma. We talked about letting go, about grieving, about the fact that he might not go home.

If I had to choose between the hospital and church on Easter, I think I would choose the hospital. To me it feels closer to real life and rings truer to what Easter is all about. Granted, God’s presence is as present at church as it is in the hospital, but in the hospital people have to wrestle with it more… and God’s presence, the work of Christ in the universe, the person of Jesus should be wrestled with. Always, and without exception. I guess I’m just not into “Hurray for Jesus” anymore. I’m not into easy answers, or sealed in blood, or done-deal salvation. If Jesus is the “blue-print,” as Richard Rohr often mentions, if he is the full representation of God, or the ultimate archetype of truth in the universe, his death and resurrection are not a series of facts that must be believed for eternal salvation. His death and resurrection are not a story to be told with much theatrics and passion with the hopes of getting a few more Christians to add to the Book of Life.

If Jesus truly is the revelation of the Divine in humanity, his death and resurrection are a cosmological statement that says, “See, this is what God is like. Death happens. It is a necessary part of human life, it is a necessary part of the spiritual life. And when we die, God comes through with hope and new life. It has been this way, it is this way, and it always will be this way. If you are afraid to die, you will not face the new life.” My sin did not put Jesus on the cross. The reality of life put Jesus on the cross, just as reality of life raised him from the grave. And is it a unquestionable proven fact that he rose? No. But then again, sometimes archetypes say more about truth than fact does anyway.

Idealizing transference and religion

Had some thoughts after church today, coming from worship and also from many experiences as a chaplain. As one who gravitates towards psychoanalysis (especially Kohut’s theory of Self Psychology) and spiritual direction (especially the tradition of the Christian mystic), there are some things that stand out to me differently from when I did my theological training in seminary. As one who has merely scratched the surface of Self Psychology, I may butcher the theory as I reflect on this, but I hope it provides some usefulness as we think about God, religion, and a deeper awareness of the Self.

Self Psychology breaks down the three basic self object needs into mirroring, idealizing, and twinship. Mirroring is hearing from caregivers that I am wonderful, special, and valuable. Idealizing is having someone I can rely on who is a image of “calmness, infallibility, and omnipotence.” Twinship is having those who I can feel similar to and be in like relationship to. When these needs are not met sufficiently, an individual suffers from self object need derailment and will seek to meet these needs in increasingly unconscious ways – self object need transference.

It is the Idealizing transference that I pick up on a lot with religion. It makes sense to me and it fits when it is minor. It can be helpful, good, and stabilizing to the self to give God

There is significant benefit in seeing the God who exists both in light and darkness, in presence and in absence.

the role of a perfect, stable, faithful foundation. After all, to make this transference with a human makes for a much quicker “frustration” as a human is soon to let us down at some point. But this frustration is what we need to form a health sense of self. In religion this idealizing transference can go overboard, with some potential life-shattering results.

Essentially, an idealized transference happens when there is a low sense of self worth, an ingrained feeling of not being able to do it on my own. Often fathers and elders meet this basic idealizing need, and in recent history of suppressed emotional expression, working away from home, and at times, narcissistic tendencies, many men and women suffer from a deep woundedness in this area. If we have not had good relationships with idealized figures who show their lack of perfection and therefore encourage us to hold ground in our self, we will constantly be looking for others (God/Jesus included) to be that foundation.

Sadly, and often, life happens for people and their faith is shattered because God doesn’t seem to pull through for them. This is very real and frankly, many of our worship songs don’t prepare us for this. I see this in the hospital, and it is one of the reasons I say to people, “I have come to learn that often the answers we easily come to in church, don’t really fit in the hospital.” There is significant benefit in seeing the God who cannot be so easily pinned down and understood, the God who is at times unexpected (the Wild Goose in the Celtic tradition), the God who exists both in light and darkness, in presence and in absence.

This is such a scratching of the surface, but it gets me thinking. Here’s a really good from a therapist/mother’s perspective: Demigods on Eggshells.

How I changed my name in residency

2014-07-03 12.04.30When I started this last year, I was faced quite painfully with many of the forgotten and unexpressed emotions that I had for such a long time resisted. I was a boy once with dreams, an imagination, an innocence, and a carefree-ness.

I began to believe things, one way or another, about myself. Things that were not true. Things that made that boy “grow up.”

Shame, guilt, competence, fitting in, having the right answers, not getting caught… these were things that I didn’t know or care anything about. But I began to believe things, one way or another, about myself. Things that were not true. Things that

2014-07-03 12.08.28made that boy “grow up” and push down feelings of loneliness, sadness, anger, and confusion. My supervisor told me one day, “Nate, I want to know that little boy’s name.” For a long time, I just called him “the Little Swedish Baptist boy.” He was the one who was hurt, the one who was not quite ok just the way he was.

And then one day, or over the course of a few days (I don’t remember how the process fits together), I realized that I have always been known as Nate. At least since our family moved to Michigan and I first experienced what it was like to be bullied by my peers. There was another Nathan in the class, a mean little guy, who was so cruel to some of us. I was the new kid so I accepted the name change. And Nate was the self I crafted. Nate became, to an extent, a false self. Not to say there weren’t glimpses of my true self coming through, and often, but I’ve experienced a lot of “hedging in” in my 34 years. A natural and good curiosity told that this or that was outside the realms of orthodoxy or was “new age” or was silly or an embarrassment… the list could go on. I realized that around the time of using “Nate” as my name, I first began experiencing tangible shame.

2014-07-03 12.06.51So I tried introducing myself as Nathan. It was a reminder to myself that my true self can do this job. My true self is ok to be present here. Often speaking of this significance brought me to tears. So Nathan is sticking. As my supervisor noted one day, “It’s almost as though you are realizing that Nate can’t authentically do this work of chaplaincy, but Nathan can.” How true, how true. It becomes easier and easier for me to speak of myself as Nathan, a name that for many, many years didn’t seem like it fit me any more. Each time, part of my true self is brought into the relationship and I am reminded of who I am.

cropped-img_3359.jpgTraditional rites of passage for men almost always involved some sort of naming. A boy would go into the wilderness, leaving his family and his community, to connect with Spirit and with self. It was in the wilderness that he would find what his true gift to give to the community was. And he would be given his new name. He would then re-enter the the world of his people with his new responsibility (Bill Plotkin calls it the “soulcraft”) and his new name. It is in a legacy such as this that I will often say that this time has been a year-long rite of passage. For I have my soulcraft, my sacred dance, and I have my name.

How do I deal with devastating tragedy?

After almost nine months of working in the hospital, facing tragedy, death, suffering, I am recently coming to a more clear understanding of how I face it, how I can continually encounter it. The temptation for me, and I would imagine for many, is to come up with a reason, an explanation, or even some way of being prepared for the devastation of life lost suddenly or illness. Visualizing how I might be, getting my skills in the grief process honed in, numbing… there are lots of ways to be prepared, some better than others, many that I regularly utilize.

I am now saying I never am “prepared” for this. I wish and hope and pray on everything I know that it doesn’t happen, on my shift or anyone’s shift. I get a call and the first thought that goes through my head is, “Oh dear God. Not again.” For me, there is not a pretending that it doesn’t happen, or that it won’t, but a desperate hoping that individuals, families, or communities will not have to suffer today. And when they do, I am hit in the gut with the sadness, the devastation, the agony that they still do, despite my deepest wishes. I never want to be “prepared” for this. Because most of the people I meet are not. And i want to be near to them in their pain, to try to understand, even in the slightest, what it might be like for them.

And when I leave a family, or someone leaves the hospital, I have to say goodbye and do it all again. And the thing that helps me is to recognize that this really did happen and it happens countless times every. single. day. There is no pretending, no numbing (as much as I am able), just acceptance and a continuing hope that it won’t happen again.