Monday, July 18, 2011

Friday, July 15, 2011

If You Can't Laugh, Then Cry

Let's call her Jackie: she wears denim jeans shorts and a bright pink blouse and flip flops. She’s just over five feet tall, has long blond hair, and quite a gap between her two front teeth. Her smile is friendly.

As her two-year old runs circles around the quiet parking lot of the church where I serve as a health clinic chaplain, Jackie chats with me. It was an unreal conversation. I get the impression that she’s sort of talking to herself and to me at the same time.

We make eye contact. “I haven’t been out of jail that long, but I’m still on probation,” she begins. “You know, they serve food here tonight.” The church’s soup kitchen for the homeless is one of the better places to eat on Friday nights, or so I’ve heard. Given my business casual garb, I’m impressed by her willingness to assume that I may be homeless, or at least as hungry as she must be.

It turns out Jackie had been arrested for a relatively minor offense related to her drinking, but in jail, she was convicted of “scratching a guard’s nose” in a scuffle, which landed her more jail time. “But I don’t even remember that,” she states matter-of-factly. Really?! Then she found out she was pregnant, and life changed for her: she stopped drinking.

“Before, I’d party. But in jail and pregnant, I just kept to myself. Slept a lot.” She laughs loudly, self-consciously, but not unpleasantly. Her son, a kinetic dynamo, runs barefoot across the lot’s rather hot asphalt.

Fortunately, she was able to get out before giving birth to her son. Now her mom is paying her rent while Jackie tries to find a way to get by on $345 a month, the amount of welfare she receives for her child. She’s not eligible for cash assistance while she’s on probation; in fact, the probation office takes part of each month’s payment to cover her outstanding legal expenses incurred by the state.

“I just can’t believe they take money from a baby. I mean, it’s one thing to take money from me, but from my child? And the money’s just going to buy makeup or something for somebody.” This doesn’t make any sense to her (or to me!), but she doesn’t seem angry. In fact, she suddenly laughs again. It’s a startling laugh and oddly timed, but not suggestive of ill mental health. Perhaps tired acceptance with a bit of self-deprecation tossed in besides?

“I love God and all, but I’m just not really into him. I mean, he never shows up. He’s not there when I need him, not really. There’s all these problems in my life and if he loves me, where is he? And the earth and the water are all messed up. Why doesn’t he make them clean, make them new again?”

“You mean God?,” I clarify.

“Right. God. I’m just not going to be all crazy about him. Because the fact is that he’s not around. It’s like he doesn’t exist or something. He should show up. I’d really like to see him.”

I’m stumped. She has a good point. Where is God for her? Her son plays between us with his fire trucks. I see God in this small, full-of-life child. Maybe she does too. But even if she did, this wouldn’t be for Jackie the same God who would clean up the earth and solve her problems. Thrown off guard by her metaphysical non sequitur, I’m struck by the respectful, downright practical, sincere, and unassuming way she talks about God. It’s pretty straightforward: God’s not pulling his weight in the relationship, and she’s just about given up on him.

“I don’t always think about spiritual things. I take showers and feed my baby and go on walks and stuff too, normal things.” She laughs. “I’m just not going to be crazy about him.”

Her son picks up a handful of graham crackers while Jackie’s not looking, throws them on the ground, and stomps on them.

“Don’t do that! That’s good food. Never waste good food! That was a special present from my mom.”

I’m surprised by the instant emotion in Jackie’s voice and I realize up to this point in the conversation emotion really hasn’t entered into the encounter. Jackie had been talking as someone who had utterly accepted her situation and had even learned to laugh about it, albeit somewhat strangely.  But hunger triggered passionate rebuke.

I learn that Jackie spends each day walking around with her son to different parks. She’s waiting for her probation to end so she can leave the county. She spent three months looking for a job but had no luck.

“I like watching my son better anyway,” she quips as she smiles at him.

I share with her that I recently became a father and am bit nervous about my baby’s upcoming move into ranks of the physically mobile.

“Aww, you’re a dad? I bet you have everything you need for your baby.” Her voice trails slightly. Again, there is no accusation behind the words, no assumption. This is a woman who enters into each moment afresh, seemingly free from the accumulated assumptions and questions I’d been piling up within since I’d met her.

When her son throws his fire truck into the trashcan for a second time, she decides it’s time to move on to the nearby park. I ask her name and promise to keep her and her son in my prayers. She slowly walks on, dragging with her a wake of pathos.

As far as I can tell, Jackie is responsible for the situation in which she finds herself. But I can’t help to wonder what our society may have been able to offer her as well: A job? Food stamps? Temporary housing? She’s fortunate that her mom is paying her rent, or else she would certainly be living on the streets. With a two-year old.

The clinic where I’m working is soon to cut drastically its hours due to an inability to secure sufficient funding. More than one hundred uninsured citizens are soon to lose access to their primary care physician.

Sometimes I wish I could laugh like Jackie can. Instead, I feel like crying.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Las semillas nos caen: Homily delivered 7/10/11

Click here to read a sermon I delivered in Spanish at St. Paul's Cathedral in San Diego on July 10, 2011.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Breathe In, Breathe Out

[Cross-posted on God's Politics blog as "The Bookends of Life" on July 26, 2011.]

There's something special about the bookends of our lifetimes. I became a first-time father seven months ago and a hospice chaplain just one month past. Growing up and growing old, especially the first and last months of our lives, can be surprisingly similar experiences.

I fed my daughter sweet potatoes for the first time last night. Introducing her to solid foods has been a treat. While we're trying our best to teach her the sign language words for "food", "more", and " all done", Robin still finds closed-mouth grumble-whines to be the best way to let us know she thinks sweet potatoes aren't all that hot. Another, subtly nuanced whine might instead wonder, "You don't happen to have any more mashed banana or applesauce around, would you?" My attempt to turn the filled spoon into an acrobatic and roaring airplane met with scant success.

This morning I waited for an elderly hospice dementia patient wake up from her nap and eat lunch with the help of a nurse. The process was strikingly identical, down to the nurse’s creative and encouraging spoon movements and tones to convince the patient that one more bite of pureed spinach was just what she wanted. “Open up!,” the nurse chimes cheerfully. "Tastes great!” And the patient, just like Robin, alternated between the repeated mantra “one-more-one-more-one-more” and “no-more-no-more-no-more” so that the words melted together into a train-like whine-moan.

After the nurse left, I sat down next to the bed, introduced myself, and sat in silence for some minutes while I held her hand. As I read aloud a brief service from the Book of Common Prayer, her eyes fluttered shut and another nap overtook her. Okay, that might be something unique to the elderly: much easier to initiate nap times!

As the clock moves its inexorable hands closer to the moments of birth and death, the sacred nature of these twinned transitions really emerge. There are the rituals we humans have developed, varied by time and place and culture, to celebrate and mourn beginnings and endings, both of which reside in each person’s first and last breaths. So much rides for each of us—for our families, communities, and species—on God’s sustained gift of life. Perhaps these moments remind us of the precariousness and blessedness of our own privileged position between existential inhalation and exhalation.

But these first and last moments point not only to that “space between,” but to that which lies before and after this sensual, devastatingly satisfying gift of life. Here the Spirit takes control over minds struggling to understand, hearts overflowing with love and grief, and souls slipping into new homes.

What a joy it was to watch Laurel’s grandmother meet Robin, almost 90 years her junior, for the first time! Babies are truly the Patch Adamses of any nursing facility. But there was something vibrating in the air, something I just sensed, as peek-a-boo continued. Perhaps it was an intuition within the awe of watching these two together that I feel when I wonder at the immensity and stillness of an old-growth redwood, or a canyon carved deep by a river, or a centuries-old cathedral. There is immortality here, the good kind: the kind enabled by memory’s constant and unassuming and patient resurrections. Most of all, I just sensed God’s presence in the room that day. And I sense it now, as Robin breathes softly, rhythmically, in time to my patient’s more labored but easily as sweet, numbered breaths.