Category Archives: spirituality

Healing when healing doesn’t come

I’ve been considering a talk I’m giving on Sunday about healing. It’s a challenging consideration as I wonder how to approach this, especially along the lines of grief and being hope free. Currently, I am sitting with two different aspects of healing. They are real, I would guess, to each of us, and they are connected. I’ll shoot a few arrows up and see if they land by the end or if they make sense. If not, that’s ok… maybe after a week’s time or maybe at some point before the end of your life.

The first aspect is that healing happens and it doesn’t happen, and often we don’t know why. Often healing happens to those who have done everything “wrong” and it doesn’t happen for those who have done everything “right.” Now I’m tempted to throw the whole framework out the window, but it is worth diving into because it is so real for so many people. Jesus says in Matthew 5, “God causes his sun to shine on evil people and good people. He sends rain on those who do right and those who don’t.” I wish he didn’t preface that saying with “You will be children of your Father who is in heaven” because honestly, it doesn’t really make me want to have that kind of father. The truth is there, though. The sun… the rain… they are indiscriminate of evil and they are indiscriminate of good. What about the sun that burned so hot, with no rain on so many parts of our country while fires burned homes of so many of our fellow earth brothers and sisters? Indiscriminate? And what about the rains that have fallen on Texas and Florida and all the destruction that was wrought there? Iniscriminate. And what about the rain that fell on the people in Las Vegas from the window of the Mandalay Bay hotel? Indiscriminate. And what about the drip, drip, drip of the medications that have no effect on people I see every day in the hospital. Again… whether they are do right or whether they don’t. It doesn’t seem to make a difference.

The author of Ecclesiastes writes,  I’ve seen it all in my brief and pointless life—here a good person cut down in the middle of doing good, there a bad person living a long life of sheer evil. So don’t knock yourself out being good, and don’t go overboard being wise. Believe me, you won’t get anything out of it. But don’t press your luck by being bad, either. And don’t be reckless. Why die needlessly?” (I love this version from the Message). So wisdom… over rated. Being good… over rated. Being bad or reckless… over rated.

Mary Oliver seems to have a response.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. The world goes on and no matter how lonely, how distressed, how broken down, this same world that continues to go on, offers itself to your imagination and announces your place in the family of things. You belong. The rain falls on you and the sun shines on you. And we are held, as one amongst the many, in the midst of our sadness and sometimes anguish of not finding the healing when we would give everything to receive just that.

This leads me to my second wondering, is there healing even when there IS no healing? As a chaplain, this is, of course, a rhetorical question. Anthony de Mello tells a story:

To a distressed person who came to him for help the Master said, “Do you really want a cure”
If I did not, would I bother to come to you?”
“Oh yes Most people do.”
“What for?”
“Not for a cure. That’s painful. For relief.”
To his disciples the Master said, “People who want a cure, provided they can have it without pain, are like those who favour progress, provided they can have it without change.”

De Mello taught that healing comes from dropping sickness… getting rid of that which is causing the sickness. Our natural state is health. So when someone has an infection, we want to get rid of the infection. When someone has cancer, we want to get rid of the cancer. We don’t add anything to be healed and we don’t add anything to be happy. So just at health is our natural state so is happiness. Happiness comes from dropping our illusions… our programming. This is the natural way of things. We are as natural as the world around us and where it is natural for us to be in a state of health, so it is natural for the world to be in a state of health. The world doesn’t need us to survive. The world will go on just fine without us.

Interestingly enough, the author of Ecclesiastes concludes his reflection on the overratedness of striving with the consideration that “it’s best to stay in touch with both sides of an issue. A person who fears God deals responsibly with all of reality, not just a piece of it.” This is why earlier, I said I would rather just throw out the whole paradigm that healing might happen to some and not to others. Reality demonstrates otherwise.

Our healing comes from embracing the reality and the paradox and letting it transform us. We are meant to grieve. We are meant to feel the absolute heartbrokenness that comes from those who do not experience the healing they so desperately desire. It increases our love which opens us to more and more areas in our world that desperately need healing. There is always healing that can happen and there are always things to grieve. And as we embrace, we heal, and the world heals, and we see that the more grief we can hold, the more joy we can hold as well.

Listen carefully to these words by Kahlil Gibran, and hear how closely this resonates to all I have been saying so far:

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say to you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily, you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at stand-still and balanced.

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Who holds the vision?

“Where there is no vision, the people will perish.” – Proverb

“In the last days, God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.'” – Prophet Joel

The question is an essential one and the importance of vision and it’s role in the community has been held in cultures since the beginning. These verses from the Judeo-Christian scriptures demonstrate the importance for me. Who does hold the vision when there are so many divergent ideas about who and what we should be as human beings?

I don’t believe that there will be a time when vision is more or less prevalent than right now. Mythically, there are no “last days”… or perhaps, we are always in the “last days.” I would say that all last days are first days and all endings are beginnings. So as things are coming to an end, new things are being created. If we are in the last days, then the truth of the passage applies.

For me, God is synonymous with Life… the Spirit of Life is poured out on ALL people. Not just the Christians, not just the Jews, not just the Yogis, not just anyone. All people. Humanity has been immersed in the Spirit of Life and those who have vision, prophecy, and dream their dreams will come from all corners of the earth.

I love the mystical reality of vision, prophesying, dreams. Prophecy (Greek in origin), divination (Latin in origin), and seer (English in origin) all mean the same thing. Each is, in it’s essence, about telling, not even necessarily about foretelling. As a teacher of mine says, when we focus on observing rather than techniques or “how-tos,” that is when we gain the keen insight to infer the likelihood of what is to come. So the more acute attention we can have for what IS, and is in the present, the better will we can anticipate and speak into the becoming and the evolving of what may come to pass.

THIS is why the all-inclusive access to the Spirit of Life, the nature of reality, the bigness of the smallness, the “divine light in you,” the sacredness of all things is so absolutely profound. This is why paying attention and the slowing down and the stripping away leads people of all ages to see, and to see clearly. THIS is the time. Now is when we must pay attention. And what is seen must be spoken, manifested even. “Manifest”  has as it root, mani-, which is hand… so essentially “made at hand.” Again, the time is now and we must make vision graspable and tangible (“that which may be touched”).

True Vision is for all people and brings all things together. It leads to tangible, manifested love. It holds ALL of Life, the beginnings and the endings, the living and the dying, the light and the darkness. Nothing is too great and nothing is too small. It is physical AND spiritual. There is no dualism only unity. Anything short of this is false vision, and we get this over and over and over again from those who grapple for the spotlight of power. True power does not have to be fought for. It is found in vision. It is this vision that keeps “the people” from “perishing.” It is drawn from the deep ocean of the present, from Life itself, and it makes that Life tangible for the people of all times.

You shall know the “***”, and the “***” shall…

The saying goes, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” There’s so much to this, and Jesus’ words have been used in so many different ways, by Christians and non-Christians alike. Truly, speaking truthfully about truth or Truth is no small task and perhaps best done with humility and much care. I will make an attempt, as this concept has been spiraling in my brain and spirit for days. This will all likely be a bit of a mind bender… but after all, truth should not be settled on too easily.

I do believe in truth or – maybe “and” too – Truth. I definitely believe in freedom and that living in truth, speaking truthfully with care not to speak un-truth, and pursuing the true can lead to freedom. The problem is, often what we tell others is Truth, is really truth but not true and is more akin to belief, opinion, or perception. Some things that are true actually DID happen and some things that are true did not happen. So when we offer our truth as THE Truth to someone, for whom it is not true, it doesn’t create freedom it creates division or worse, enslavement. In this regard, I hope everything that I write here can be affirmed as true. I will let you wonder where the big “T’s” and little “t’s” go, and what it really means to differentiate between different kinds of truth.

Jesus prefaces his statement about truth and freedom with “If you remain (abide/continue with) my word (logo – divine-inspired creative speaking), you truly are my disciples.” Jesus, the masterful teacher that he was, assured those who were with him that if they lived into the things he was speaking of, they would come to know the truth and this would lead to freedom. I think any good teacher, who believes in what they are saying and has tuned his or her ear to the movement of the divine would say something similar. Because it is true. Jesus plays with the words and concepts of “truth,” “father,” “belief,” “knowing,” and “death” until those around him wonder what he is talking about and ask “Who ARE you?”

I dare say, we would be wise to learn that words and how they are communicated are powerful and have significant effect. When I speak to my patients, to my family, even to strangers I want to speak freedom-making truth. But if what I am saying is my belief of what is true and not true for all, this sets someone apart from me. Now they have to think about whether they agree or disagree, whether their beliefs are the same or different. While this is not necessarily bad, it is not helpful when I imply that they can’t experience “freedom” like I do unless they assent to my truth.

There is a difference between “Life gives us joy and sorrow, living and dying, healing and sickness. It is possible for us to get through this, to live with this, to learn from this, and find fulfillment” and “God has a plan for us and wants to teach us through our difficulty. He doesn’t give us more than we can bear, and if we put our trust in Jesus, we can find the peace we are looking for.” The former is true is true for all, no matter what they believe and the latter is true for some and requires certain faith, theology, and doctrinal beliefs. I might believe the latter, but unless I say, “In my belief, God has a plan for ME…” and “If I put MY trust in Jesus…” etc, I am potentially offering division rather than an invitation to freedom. If I own it is as my truth, it moves from just being a belief to one that is true for all (i.e. it truly is true that this is my belief and I am aware that it might not be yours).

So what is true is not always truth and what is truth is not always true. Some things that happen are true and some things that happen are not true. Some things that are true didn’t happen and some things that didn’t happen are not true (let’s not try to assert those too much shall we?). Let us be people who vigorously and carefully assert those things that give freedom for all, not just for ourselves. Let us learn to craft our words in inspired ways that can be wholly true and truly freedom-inviting.

Winter – little deaths, seasons, and the end of life

“Transcript” from a talk I did. Another from the series is on Dying well.

What I want to do today is get into winter. Really get into it. Last week we talked about our dying time and how we might see it as one of the most important things in our life we can undertake. I received a question, “How do you help?” Tied with it is another question, “Do we have a choice in how we die?” While I don’t think we have a choice in what we die FROM, I do think many of us, if we are so lucky, will INDEED have a choice as to how we die… or another way I would answer this is that we have a choice in WHO WE ARE WHEN WE DIE. Does that make sense?

So who we ARE, at our own dying time and who we ARE when we are with others at their dying time really is how we help. This is how we HEAL and how we help others HEAL… and actually how we help the community and the EARTH heal, too. See it’s bigger than just us and our little lives! We help and are helped by getting into the NATURAL way of things. I said last week that dying happens to all healthy, mature, and connected to the Earth beings.

This is why I think reflecting on WINTER can be so helpful. Winter happens, well at least around here (not so much in California), every year, and it has happened for thousands and thousands of years. It is a necessary part of the cycle of life. The plants, the animals, the land, the water… they all depend on winter. Dormancy, hibernation, cold, death… these are part of the circle. And just as it happens to the Earth, so it happens to us. And our life cycle as well… birth/the new growth and becoming of spring, early adolescence/the fire, consumption, and excitement of summer, late adolescence and early adulthood/the shadows and mystery and preparation of fall… and adulthood to elderhood/the maturity, work, embracing, and then winding down of winter.

“December finds himself again a child
Even as he undergoes his age.
Cold and early darkness now descends,
Embracing sanctuaries of delight.
More and more he stares into the night,
Becoming less and less concerned with ends,
Emblem of the innocent as sage
Restored to wonder by what he must yield.”

~ Nicholas Gordon 

But what does our modern world tell us is good? If you were to consider a season that gets highlighted more than any others, what would it be? Summer. Movies, music, adolescent culture. And is it reasonable to think that this then affects how we view the later part of life… or how we idealize certain aspects of the NATURAL way of things?

So what can we do? How can we live into winter more deeply? I want to take some time to talk about this as a group. But first a reflection or a letter to the garden in December.

“It is December in the garden,
an early winter here, with snow
already hiding my worst offenses —
the places I disturbed your moss
with my heavy boots; the corner
where I planted in too deep a hole
the now stricken hawthorne: crystals
hanging from its icy branches
are the only flowers it will know.

When did solitude become
mere loneliness and the sounds
of birds at the feeder seem
not like a calibrated music
but the discordant dialects
of strangers simply flying through?
I have tried to construct a life
alone here — coffee at dawn; a jog
through the chilling air

counting my heartbeats,
as if the doctor were my only muse;
books and bread and firewood —
those usual stepping-stones from month
to freezing month. but the constricted light,
the year closing down on itself with all
the vacancies of January ahead, leave me
unreconciled even to beauty.
When will you be coming back?”
–  Linda Pastan, The Letter

Group reflection:

What are some of the rituals that you find restorative, or that you might try, to make your way through the “winter?” Literal OR Figurative

 “On the first day of winter,
the earth awakens to the cold touch of itself.
Snow knows no other recourse except
this falling, this sudden letting go
over the small gnomed bushes, all the emptying trees.
Snow puts beauty back into the withered and malnourished,
into the death-wish of nature and the deliberate way
winter insists on nothing less than deference.
waiting all its life, snow says, “Let me cover you.”
–   Laura Lush, The First Day of Winter

Dying well… one of the most important things you can do

This is a general summary of a talk I did at First Congregational Church in Oshkosh, WI on November 27th, 2016. It is part of a three part series on End of Life, Dying, and living into the seasons of Life.

We are going to be talking about dying and end of life. Please sit with that for a moment. What does it do to you? What feelings rise up in you as you consider the end of your life or the idea and reality of death?

There are a few things I do not know, a few things I do know, and a few things I have seen enough that I am very convinced of. What I do not know is what will happen after I die. I mean, really, how can I know this for certain?!? Yes, I guess there are stories of those who have died and come back. You can believe what you want to about them, but I’m not certain. What I do know is that death happens only once and it is as much a part of life as being born. It is literally woven into the fabric of the Earth. I also know that life itself is dependent on death. The very soil that feeds the plants that feed the animals and so on is made up of dead material. This gives me, as a Nature guy, significant meaning. My body is going to become compost one day and is going to give life to other living beings! This may not work for you. That’s ok. We each have our ways of making meaning of this experience, and that is what we are talking about.

The thing I am thoroughly convinced of is this: Over the course of our lives, we are putting together a story of what it is going to be like when it is our time. Both positive AND negative. Every experience we have affects how we will feel about our own death. So if we have loved ones who have died with pain and suffering or afraid and resentful, this is going into our consideration that this is what death will be like. If we have people we know who have died with grace, peace, and surrounded by those who they love, this will be added to our story. THIS is why how we go about our dying is perhaps THE most important thing in our entire lifespan that we can offer to those who come after us. This affects our community, our family, generations to come. Stories (the stories that future dying ones tell themselves) are told about us!

Stephen Jenkinson says that dying is never an individual event. Every death is a community event and it has ripples that extend farther than we can fathom. For generations to come and, depending on what you believe, from ancestors before. We get one chance to do it right… or I would say, well enough.

If you could put your experience into five words, how would you do that?

You’ll have to bear with me as I try to put these things in linear form. I am used to talking about these things with one person or a family and they come in response to their own story. Each idea comes with 45 minutes of dialog and our time is so limited here. So I am offering a few ideas and hoping some of them are helpful.

It used to be that people would die in the upstairs bedroom with family all around. It was more of a natural thing. But now it happens behind closed doors and the doctor comes out and tells the family that grandma has passed. So a lot of people don’t know what to expect and what might happen. The perspective you’ll get from a chaplain is much different perhaps than one you’d get from a doctor. I think we have to remember, and I tell patients this all the time, doctors are trained to heal. It is their mission to fix. I have seen there really is as much variety of feelings about end of life, and levels of comfortability, in doctors as there are in patients and families. You’d think that if a doctor is around death so often, they’d be more comfortable with it but this is not always true. But dying is not something to be fixed. I hear from medical staff, “So and so is depressed. She wants to die. Call the chaplain and get her some antidepressants.” But so often this is someone who is 95 years old and is all alone! I tell her she has every good reason to want to die. This is ok. Sometimes our spirits and our minds are ready to go but the body is hanging on.

Some people say we should live until we are dead. They don’t want to know about their dying. So they want to go out in their sleep or end their life prematurely. Stephen Jenkinson says it’s not the being dead they are afraid of but the dying. “How connected is someone to their life when they have to be told they are dying,” he says. I have said it before and will say it many times, dying happens to all health, mature, and connected to the Earth beings. It is a physical AND a spiritual experience and the more connected we are to the NATURAL way of things, the more we will be prepared for our own death. But that is the topic for the next talk.