Thursday, September 29, 2005

Inmate Priest is Tangible Sign of Hope for Those in Prison

Episcopal News Service: Inmate priest is tangible sign of hope for those in prison.

"The congregation is small. There are about 42 communicants, and between 15 and 20 show up on any given Sunday night for Eucharist.

"In that respect, it's very much like any other parish in the Episcopal Church," says the Rev. James Tramel, who ministers to the congregation.

The congregation is different in one major way. All of the communicants and Tramel are in prison at the California State Prison, Solano."

I have never met James, but he studied at CDSP while I was there, while he was in prison. His story is a fascinating one, and worth following because it offers hope not only to those in prison, but to many of us on the outside.

Monday, September 26, 2005

For a Good Laugh

This is worth a listen. Note to self: never mess with old Texan ladies holding Bibles.

Link thanks to titusonenine.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

My First Shift of On-Call

When I did my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Alta Bates/Summit Medical Center, in Berkeley and Oakland, I was scheduled for my share of on-call duty. Once or twice every two weeks, I carried the on-call pager, ready to respond to a pastoral emergency at any time of the day or the night.

But the pager never beeped. After eleven weeks of this, my fellow chaplains began to wonder. Does he turn the pager on? Does he know how to work the thing? Is he ignoring the calls?

We were all incredulous. I had a great run of luck, right up until the last night I had the pager, which finally beeped when I had but two hours left of my last shift. Even that last call was not that hard. The family's own pastor showed up soon after me and took charge. It turned out that I got very little experience with emergency pastoral care that summer, much to the chagrin of all my jealous and tired fellow-chaplains.

My luck has changed. Before I left the chaplain's office this Thursday, I asked one of the veterans if I should stay around for a couple of hours. I asked if it is common to get calls early in the evening. No, he said, you'll only get an early evening call once every four or five shifts. And only once every few months will you get calls in the middle of the night. Go home, he said.

I hadn't driven ten minutes when the pager beeped. I was told of a major family emergency. So I turned around and went back to the hospital.

During the emergency the pager beeped again. Once the major emergency stabilized, I was informed that I had another visit to make. It turned into a busy night, and I didn't get home until 10pm.

As I went to sleep, I thought to myself that after this busy evening, surely I wouldn't get a call in the middle of the night. I was wrong. I got a call at 4:20am. A distraught family was at the bedside of a very ill loved one. Up I got, off I drove to the hospital, and by the time I had charted the visit, it was 8:30am. I went home, showered, ate a big-boy breakfast of ham, eggs, hash browns, and toast (thanks Karen!), and was off again to a full day of training, during which I faded in and out of consciousness.

As I sit and write this, early on Sunday evening, I am still tired. I wasn't tired during the emergency calls. I was a bit numb, and thankful for a liturgical tradition that can supply words when I have run out. But now, even after a weekend of rest, I have not recovered.

This will be a difficult pace to maintain.


Tuesday, September 20, 2005

More on the Clericals

I have been wearing my collar, in case anyone is wondering, and I am tempted to keep doing this. There are distinct disadvantages, I know. But it helps in a number of ways.

For one, I am immediately recognizable. Consider me in my environment: I'm a guy in a wheelchair in a hospital, and even in regular clothes, I must look a lot like a patient. But as I have grown into my new priesthood, I have begun to realize that in clericals I am seen first as priest, then as a person in a wheelchair. This has caused its own twists of perception, for me and the people around me. But in the hospital, if I can be perceived first as a religious professional, especially to the other health-care professionals, this will be to my benefit because I will be thought of as a chaplain in a chair rather than that guy in the chair who is also a chaplain. When I did my first unit of chaplaincy a couple of years ago, I had a hard time with staff remembering me as a chaplain, referring me to patients, and referring patients to me. I now wonder if this dynamic contributed to this problem.

The second advantage is that there is no bones about why I am in the room with a patient: I am there as a chaplain, as a religious person. This can go both ways, as some of you have pointed out. It might make me less approachable. But not yet. It has, instead, with folks who self-proclaim to be hostile to religion, made the starting terms of the discussion apparent. People immediately perceive my religious committments, and this has begun discussion rather than limited it. I think this might be because, in clericals and a chair, I present as such an enigma that inter-personal barriers fall due to simple curiosity.

All said, I have just started. Time will tell what is best. I hope to remember that each decision I make should be in the service of the patient, not my ego or some abstract sense of identity. If I can remember that I am first a servant, and second a priest, this will serve us all well.


Finally Seeing Patients

After three and a half days of orientation (which consisted mostly of talking with and listening to managers and bureaucrats) we finally got to our units today. The longer the orientation got, the more I ached to do this, to just get started with what I am at the hospital for: pastoral visits with patients.

I have been anxious about this. I haven't been sure that chaplaincy is what I should be doing. This anxiety has been elevated by the fact that I have not been visiting patients yet, spending my time doing things that I have little patience for, like paperwork and learning how to negotiate a local bureaucracy. It was about to make me go completely batty.

But we finally got our assignments, and at least for a little while, I will be working on the Rehab/Neurological unit and the Trauma Nursing unit. So this is where I went, visiting both these units, introducing myself to clerks and nurses, and even seeing some patients.

While I was on the units and meeting patients, my anxiety was lifted, not just because I finally began doing what thought I signed up to do, but because got a deeper sense that this is what I should be doing. It wasn't overwhelming; there was no ray of light or angelic choir, just an abiding peacefulness. I am where I should be. I don't feel happy, or glad, so much as I feel calm and still. For the time being, things are as they should be.


Friday, September 16, 2005

ACNS Digest: Church of Nigeria Redefines Anglican Communion

ACNS Digest: "With a careful rewording of her constitution, the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) redefined her relationship with all other Anglican Churches."

This is a must read for any Anglican or Episcopalian who follows the international politics of our communion.

It signals a significant change of polity.


How I Know I'm Not in Berkeley

We had a short service at the hospital this morning, for the survivors of Katrina. My CPE supervisor spoke first, on the thought that God is not absent in this tragic event, but profoundly present, especially in our response and service to those who are hurting and displaced. There was nothing that jarred my sense of place in this speech. But through the next two speakers I quickly came to realize that I was not in Berkeley.

The next speaker, standing between an American flag and a California flag, prayed charismatically to "God our heavenly Father," in "the name of Jesus." I have no particular problem with this, to be sure, though I would have been more comfortable if other religious groups were equally represented. But the absence of any other religious group, and the way the preacher prayed, made it very clear that I was no longer where I used to be, just weeks ago. No public religious event would have proceeded like this in Berkeley! Berkeley's sin would have been different. There the Christians would shamedly pray like a Unitarian, with no reference to Christ or any Trinitarian relation of persons. It would have been just a vanilla-flavored prayer to a generic "god."

The next speaker had us close in singing "God Bless America." I have never sung this before, but as the camera panned across the audience for the local news (me sitting there in my bright white clerical collar), I figured I should at least look like I was singing. So I mumbled along, "God bless America, da-dum, dum-dee-dum . . . "

I can't imagine that we would have sung this in Berkeley either, because the song is so closely associated with a kind of religious patriotism that is frowned upon. But as I thought about this petition to God for a blessing, I began to wonder if it is more appropriate than we might think. After all, we are asking God for a blessing, and God's blessing upon America would not be to leave this country as it is. God's blessing would surely look more like the leveling that Mary asks for in the Magnificat, or what Elijah prophesied to Israel. God's blessing would be the humbling of the proud, and the lifting up of the lowly. Blessings are to ask for God to change what is, not to keep things as they are.

So there I was, not far at all from my old home, but in a culture that was not ashamed of civil religion or of publicly asking for a blessing from God. This would have been different in Berkeley. But, like I said, I am not in Berkeley anymore.


Thursday, September 15, 2005

My First Day at the Hospital

I just completed my first day at the hospital. My peer group will be interesting. We are from all over the world, from the Middle East, Korea, Canada, and the U.S. I am, to my surprise, the youngest in the group, by a number of years. We are all Christians: one United Methodist, myself an Anglican/Episcopalian, and three (count 'em, three) Presbyterians.

One of my own small struggles has been what to wear, not out of vanity, but out of identity. As a priest, when I am acting in that capacity, I wear a collar. Up until now that means once a week, on Sundays. There are few priests out here, at least among Episcopalians, who wear the collar on a weekday. That has been my practice as well.

But in the hospital, I will be a chaplain. It makes sense to dress like the priest that I am. But I am on the West Coast. Will this visible churchy dress close more doors than it opens?

I spoke to my supervisor at the end of the day today, and we talked over the pros and cons of the clerical collar. Cons: some people may close up if they have bad memories about the religion of their childhood, a common affliction here in California. People may also think I am a Roman Catholic priest, and this may be confusing. Pros: I will be easily identifiable as a chaplain and as an ordained minister.

But to me, of greatest interest is how people react to me in a visceral sense if I wear the collar. I will visually represent, in one person, both holiness and physical affliction. What will that conjunction mean to a patient in the hospital?

What we decided together was that I try both, alternating, and see how it goes.

I'll let you know.


Sunday, September 11, 2005

A Little More on Forgiveness

A question arose for me this morning, about our role as a forgiven people. Being forgiven people, as I wrote in my previous post, offers to us the possibility of forgiving others. But what does this forgiveness look like? Are we to forgive without the reckoning of the debt? Or do we, like the lord, approach our offender with the offense, making the action of forgiveness and reconciliation an interpersonal event?

The answer to this is easy to say, but very difficult to do. While I do not recommend approaching anyone with the threat of torture - notice that in the parable the one who owed the steward did not punish the steward for the steward's lack of mercy, but the lord did - the gospel of Matthew is clear that we do approach those who sin against us.

This is difficult, not just because it is hard to approach someone close to you with something hurtful, but because we know that they may not be able to hear it. This action might very well end up in a broken relationship. But this kind of interpersonal event can be difficult in unexpected ways. While we might approach someone and say "you hurt me in this way," there is a distinct possibility that we might hear that we ourselves were the cause of the offense. We might hear "I did that because you hurt me first."

This only underlines the need for all of us to be practiced in repentance, as Matthew is also clear about. And this is how we ought to read Jesus' saying about the plank in our own eye, not that only the perfect may approach the sinner, but that only the repentant ought to ask for repentance from others. And as I wrote the other day, repentance begins with asking the Lord our God for the forgiveness of our sins against Him, a forgiveness that makes possible our forgieveness of others. And in this way, if our own planks in our own eyes are revealed in our own approach of the one who hurt us, we can take the time to say "it looks like I am at fault too. Forgive me, even though I have asked you for your repentance." We can repent, along with the original offender, because we are already practiced in the discipline of repentance.

And by this we are not only reconciled with God, but become a reconciled and reconciling people, and through this reconciliation a true witness to the world of God's mercy and forgiveness.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Proper 19, Year A: St. John Chrysostom on the Lord

Again, we read harsh words in Scripture this week. A few weeks ago, when I wrote about St. Augustine's thoughts on the Canaanite woman, the harsh words came from the mouth of Jesus himself. This Sunday, they come from the mouth of a lord, a lord who is most often understood to represent God.

(For the entire Gospel reading for the coming Sunday, click here.)

I know that some will preach this Sunday that the lord in this passage is not God, but that the lord is just an unjust lord, and that the parable is a tale told in order to expose the unjust economic system of Jesus' time (a view popularized especially by William R. Herzog, II). Perhaps others will shy away in other, less direct ways, from the possibility that God speaks harshly and threateningly. But what might we lose if we depart from the traditional reading that God is represented by the lord in this parable?

If we look to how the Fathers read this passage, we will begin to find an answer, because the early church was much more willing to imagine God as a lord. This is in contrast to the popular contemporary trend, where references to God or Jesus as Lord are being systematically removed from our worship.

Read what St. John Chrysostom writes, about the most difficult line in the passage, where the threat of punishment arises:

"This discipline occurred in order to effect his transformation. His purpose is to frighten him by this threat so that he may come to supplication, and not merely that they all be sold."

The lord has more in mind that the threat. The threat is intended to yield a particular result: not the fulfillment of the threat itself, but the supplication of the steward to his master. Chrysostom continues:

"For if the lord had done this with unmitigated punishment in mind, he would not have granted [the steward's] request [for mercy], nor would he have bestowed upon him a special favor."

The lord never intended to carry out the threat, but rather to make possible the glorious condition that the steward desperately needs: forgiveness. Without the threat, there is no supplication. With the threat, there is a supplication that makes forgiveness possible.

But why did the lord call for the reckoning of accounts, rather than dismiss the debt outright? Chrysostom writes that

"he did not dismiss the debt, and he called for an accounting. Why? His teaching purpose was to show him with all justice precisely how much debt he was going to free him from! In this way at least he might in due time become more gentle toward his fellow servant."

The lord wishes to teach the steward mercy and forgiveness in order that he might show mercy and forgiveness. And this is the real test, one that this steward fails. Despite the lifting of the punishment that the lord could very well have meted out, the steward turns and shows no mercy to the one in debt to him. And in the end, the steward receives punishment because he does not show mercy, despite the mercy that was shown to him.

There is simply too much at risk if we dismiss any notion of God's Lordship over us. I hope that we can also think of Jesus as a friend, as one of us, even as a mentor. But to give up on the idea that God does rule, that God does have the power to punish, is also to give up that it is God who has power to rectify what we ourselves do not have the power to make right. God's lordship means not only that God has the power to punish, but that God has the power to forgive. And to take away God's forgiveness, according to this parable, is to take away the possibility that, through our own forgiveness, we might to be merciful to others. Is this not what we pray, that God "forgives us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us"? That is what this parable makes clear: it is our own forginveness, given by the Lord our God, that is the root of right relatinship with others.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

It's Defended

So . . . it's done. I defended, and I got a "pass with no revisions." No content problems, no reader needs to see it again. The only changes I need to make are on small points of style.

It's a strange feeling. Much of my life over the past four years has revolved around writing and reading. Now I don't have to do any of that, despite the great enjoyment I get from both of those activities. The shift from intense study to intense pastoral work will take some adjustment.

I'm curious to know for myself what I will choose to read, and what I will choose to write about. Will I keep reading ancient theology? Will I keep writing about the Fathers of the Church? Or will I write about baseball and cappuccino?

You all will be the first to know, because "Baby Priest" is now my primary outlet for my thoughts and reflections. So stick around. It's a mapless terrain from here on in, and I could use some fellow travellers.


Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Countdown Begins

I'm in Berkeley, staying at Julien and Sabeth's place tonight. In just over twelve hours, I will begin to defend my thesis on Gregory of Nazianzus, just down the street from here.

Though I'm pretty sure that things will go well, it doesn't mean I'm not nervous! I hope the words come when they need to.

I'll post again tomorrow once the defense is over, and after I have sifted through what happened.


Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Making Old Things New

I went over to the hospital today, the hospital where I will begin a year-long Clinical Pastoral Education residency in a matter of days. I had to get a test to confirm my immunizations. I don't like to think that I have only been to the UCDavis Medical Centre twice now, and I have already had to spill blood. I sincerely hope that this de-sanguination doesn't move from the literal to the figurative too soon.

To be honest, I can hardly believe that I am doing a yearlong CPE residency. During my whole seminary program I have been discerning between two vocations: a parish ministry or an academic ministry. I never, ever, thought that I would do any more chaplaincy. This was not the plan. But here I am, waiting on the unplanned residency. I trust that God is in this, because I am deeply relying on him, and will continue to deeply rely on him. If this was not my plan, let us hope it is God's.

It didn't help that I did not have a great experience in my summer of CPE. A lot of blood was spilled in those few weeks, a lot of it mine. I certainly learned a lot, about myself and how I cope with stress and injury, and about how to minister to people in those situations. But as many of you know, that kind of learning is very, very, hard. In some sense it was especially hard for me, because to be present with someone who is coping with a stressful injury forces me to be present to how I have coped and continue to cope with my own injury. Even though I have recovered healthily from my own trauma twelve years ago, being alongside someone who knows now what I knew then compels me to remember just how difficult these adjustments are in a deeply personal way, making my own old wounds painfully present.

I feel like I am about to begin training for a marathon, or that I am on the ground but about to start preparing for a spacewalk. There is a lot of hard work ahead of me. The only difference is that the goal is not one that will bring any glory to me, like crossing a finish line, or a fantastic journey into weightlessness: the goal is the care of suffering people. May God's glory be revealed to me through them, may God's glory be revealed to them through me.

Pray that for all of the emptying, I might also be filled, that my weakness becomes my strength, and that through this work I grow into the life of the Holy Trinity; pray for those to whom I minister, that their weakness turns to strength, and that God enters their life through my ministrations.

Lord in your mercy . . .


Archbishop of Canterbury - Elderly Deserve Protection

++Rowan spoke the other day on two issues I am concerned about, assisted suicide and euthanasia. His position is a bit weaker here than it has been elsewhere, but I am glad to see our most senior hierarch take this position. Read the release here:

Anglican Communion News Service

The whole speech is here.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Meeting Rickey Henderson

Joe, Grace and I went over to Blair Field today. After buying the tickets to the Golden Baseball League's first post-season game between the Chico Outlaws and the San Diego Surf Dawgs, just after pulling out of the parking lot, I saw something in the middle of the road. When Joe pulled up, it was my first souvenir of the trip: a ball that someone had hit out of the park during practice. This was a good omen. This game was off to a good start.

A plan began to develop in my mind. What if I could get Rickey Henderson, former Oakland Athletic and Toronto Blue Jay, two time winner of the World Series and future hall of famer, to sign the ball? He plays for the Surf Dawgs. If I could get him to sign the ball, it would surely cap off the trip. So when we returned to the park before the game began, I went down near the Surf Dawgs dugout. As Rickey finished his warm-up I called out to him with the ball in my hand.

"Rickey, can I get an autograph?"

He ignored me.

"Rickey, autograph?"

He looked over.

I held out the ball and pen.

"After the game," Rickey said.

So I went back to my seat. I had a suspicion that he was brushing me off, and that after the game he would disappear, and I wouldn't get my signature. I resigned myself to this.

So Joe and I enjoyed the game, for what it was. Not many fans, and about the kind of talent you expect from an independent minor league game. It was cool to see Rickey hit a long double and a home run, though.

After the game I went down to my spot near the dugout. There were a few of us there hoping for autographs, but Rickey walked right by us all. I watched him step into the dugout, and when I thought all hope was lost, I looked away.

"I guess no autographs today," I said to the man who had caught Rickey's home run ball. He was hoping for a signature too. We were both disappointed.

We all waited for a minute. While I was looking out into center field, away from the dugout, the man with the home run ball said, "No."

"He's gonna sign yours."

I looked into the dugout, where Rickey was talking with his manager. Rickey pointed at me, telling me not to go anywhere.

After a minute he came over, signed my baseball, and posed for a picture.

Rickey Henderson is a man of his word. He said he would sign for me, and he did. He ended up signing for everyone else, too, though I don't think he felt like getting all that attention that day.

It's funny how things work out. I went to Southern California hoping to see the A's beat the Angels. But that didn't happen. What did happen, what wasn't planned or hoped for, turned out to be the best part of the trip: meeting the greatest leadoff hitter in the history of Major League Baseball, and getting his autograph.

I think I can go home happy.


Thursday, September 01, 2005

P at the Big A, Day 2

At the game tonight, I sat near a quadriplegic Angels fan who was making fun of his other quad friend. He was joking around in the dark humor that can develop among people who have suffered something together, but who are willing to still laugh about it. It's the kind of humor that makes most onlookers uncomfortable. That's part of what makes it is so funny.

"Don't get him a hot dog," said the one quad to the other. "He always spills mustard all over himself."

He turned and said to me, with an evil grin on his face, "darn A's fan. I ought to come over there and flip you out of your chair."

"I'd like to see you try," I said. "You're more crippled than me by at least twelve vertebrae."

He just grinned.

That was about as enter- taining as it got. The A's lost again tonight. This despite the hope and cheers of Grace, the biggest A's fan I know (that's us in the picture on the right). I thought for sure that the A's would win with their biggest booster in the crowd. But they fell again, 3-0.

Joe said we could get some tickets to a minor league game for tomorrow. Though I saw the A's lose twice, at least I might see future hall of famer Rickey Henderson play for the San Diego Surf Dawgs. That should be fun.


On Long Beach

I spent the afternoon exploring Long Beach. I didn't think that this part of my trip would have anything to do with baseball, but as I passed by a fisherman on the pier, he called out to me.

"A's man, I love the A's! I wanted to go to that game so bad last night!"

He had a can of Budweiser on his bench. He was in a very good mood.

I mentioned that I was at the game, and that I was going that night, too. He said how desperately he wanted to go to the game.

"You know "Blue Moon" Odom?" he said.

"I've heard of him," I answered.

"He's my Uncle."

He didn't seem too terribly delusional, so I don't think it was just a story. Who knows, maybe I did meet the nephew of an old Oakland Athletic pitcher.

And here I thought I was just out for an afternoon at the beach.

More photos of my afternoon at the beach.