Experiencing resurrection hope in times of struggle

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Believing in the resurrection seems easier on a beautiful Spring morning, when children and flowers are newly clothed in bright colors and fresh pastels. Less so when we are facing struggles and an uncertain future. The Christian community, with the help and encouragement of our consumer culture, wants to focus on Easter, and forget about the week of struggle that preceded it. In the Jewish story of the Exodus from Egypt, it is easy to focus on the moment of rescue, and then the final entry into the land of promise flowing with sweet blessings – and ignore the suffering and struggle that accompanied the departure and the journey from where they were to where they ultimately would rest.

Life is not all fresh flowers, laughing children, and abundant prosperity. I read an interesting observation recently – that dependency is our natural state. We begin and end life that way – unable to fully care for ourselves. We are all in some way “dis-abled”. The notion of being independent, autonomous, all self-sufficient persons is a myth and aberration, fleeting and ephemeral. This is not to suggest that life is bleak and hopeless. That too is a myth – the idea that dependency equals deficiency; that we are somehow less if we need others. In the life and ministry of Jesus we see one who makes himself vulnerable. Paul says is Philippians 2:5-11 that Jesus “emptied himself.” The Greek word for this is kenosis. In Christ God chose to experience the fullness of human limitation, and thereby blessed it as holy. Whether or not God NEEDED human help, God chose to enlist and even rely upon the help, support and agency of humans, who were and are limited. We are at one time marvelously able some ways, and dis-able in others. God entered fully into this dis-abled state. God knows the road we walk, because in Jesus he has walked it with us.

There is some comfort in knowing we are not alone in our struggle. Yet this does not end or even ease our struggle. The fact that you are also sick with the flu does not lessen my symptoms. In fact, if we share life together, things become more difficult if we are both down at the same time. Ideally when one is weak, another is strong, so that we can adequately share one another’s burdens and joys.

The book Tuesday’s With Morrie by Mitch Album offers a wonderfully poignant illustration of this idea. In this story Morrie, a retired professor living (dying from?) with ALS tells Mitch, his former student turned reluctant biographer, about his own transition back to dependency. Morrie reached a point in his disease process where he could no longer perform the tasks of personal hygiene and self-care – in other words he could no longer wipe his own bottom, clearly not a condition from which he would recover. Rather than fight the humiliation and shame that often accompany this situation, Morrie chose to interpret his experience as one in which he was receiving tender, loving and compassionate care as he had in the first years of life. Think about this. Many people long for intimacy and are starved for human touch. Here Morrie is forced to receive both under less than ideal circumstances. By grace his is able to shift his attitude and thinking to humility rather than humiliation. What needs to happen in us to experience that same freedom and release from pretension?

In Morrie we see both emotional and physical struggle. He makes a mental shift that helps him receive care with a new attitude and emotional experience. But does this lessen his physical distress? Perhaps not. Yet many scientists and psychologists have demonstrated a connection between the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical experiences of being human. A positive attitude actually does ease our experience of pain, and a discouraged countenance will reduce our tolerance to hardship.

As someone who proclaims hope in the resurrection, I want to believe that suffering does not have the last word in our lives. We want to think and believe that things will get better. But sometimes they don’t. So what do we do with our hope in the resurrection and its power in our lives when things go from bad to worse? The cancer patient and his family pray and hope for treatment to work and to hear the words “remission” or “cure”. The cardiac patient and her family likewise hope for a full recovery from surgery and return to a vibrant and active lifestyle. This is our hope and prayer. Yet we know that none of us gets out alive. We will all die someday, from something. Our hope is not to avoid dying so much as to live a long and full life, and to avoid prolonged suffering. We want 70 or 80 years or more, and then we want to go quietly in our sleep, not being a burden to others. According to the Centers for Disease Control three fourths of the US population will die following a prolonged illness or injury. The vast majority of us will not “go gently into that good night“.

When we have this conversation in a hospital or long-term care setting, we are not saying anything new. One might even ask at this moment, “Where is the word of hope?” Yes, that is precisely the point. At Easter of all times we want to hear, believe and proclaim a word of hope. Let me suggest several things that can help us experience and share resurrection HOPE even in times of struggle:

  1. Honesty: Be honest about what we are experiencing. We cannot find true hope until we honestly face our real struggles, fears and even despair. This is not easy, but it is essential.
  2. Openness: Share our awareness. You can do this by writing in a journal or letter. You can talk with a trusted friend, confessor, or professional. We need to BOTH feel/think it and externalize it somehow.

When we do these two things, we begin to get a handle on our struggle, and gain some power over our fear and despair. This is why many spiritual traditions call for confession – naming the struggle is a form of personal agency and gives us mental, emotional, spiritual and even physical power in it. In AA this is revealed in the 4th & 5th steps. We may discover that things are not as bleak as we first believed, and that we are not alone.

  1. Projection: Identify and name positive outcomes – project them into the future. Remember how Morrie reframed his experience from shame to blessing. Consider how a funeral may become a time of when people give and receive forgiveness, mercy and grace to heal old wounds. The Apostle Paul presumes to use pregnancy and the birthing process as a metaphor for struggle followed by blessing. The struggle is real, but so is the potential for positive and life-giving future. What inspiration can be found in those who face illness and death with courage, integrity and even joy?
  2. Expectation: Anticipate the good that can and will come. As we read in Hebrews 12:2 “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” This theme recurs in scripture, particularly regarding the experience of Jesus and his role as our example.

It may help us to also remember that no one believed in the resurrection until they personally experienced the risen Jesus. The Apostles and disciples had been repeatedly told, along with the rulers of the people and the crowds. It is hard to experience resurrection hope during our times of struggle, hard even to hope and believe. One great blessing of walking this road is that we are then in a position to offer real hope to others because of what we have seen and known. Everyone’s experience is unique, and yet we can draw strength and hope from each other. We proclaim the Easter resurrection of Jesus each year both to remind ourselves, and to tell the world, that we might all live in hope. (Acts 2:22-28; Psalm 16) There is always room for HOPE.

To explore these ideas further, please contact me: cell: 214-288-1663; email: Ken@SynchronousLife.com

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May you live a Synchronous Life of integrity, vitality and harmony.

Spirituality in Patient Care

Through most of recorded history spiritual beliefs and religious practices have been assumed to play a central role in health. Religious leaders were often also seen as healers, or at least mediums through whom healing might come. The 20th century particularly saw a separation between the practice of medicine and spiritual/religious belies and practices. Harlod G. Koenig’s book  Spirituality In Patient Care: Why, How, When, and What addresses this gap and argues for the inclusion of patient’s religious and spiritual life as an essential element in “patient-centered medicine” (8). He makes use of volumes of research data to demonstrate the value of religiosity to health, and the importance of health professionals addressing this aspect of their patients’ lives.

The book outlines, as the title suggests, the why, how, when and what of including the spirituality of the patient in the treatment conversation and plan. He then proceeds to discuss some risks – i.e. some ways that religious and spiritual beliefs and practices might be problematic, and how do address these. One example is the notion that illness or suffering is somehow “God’s will” which might dispose a patient to resist treatment or might interfere with that patient’s openness and capacity for healing (108). He outlines professional boundaries for health professionals, and then spends a chapter on each of the following disciplines and how they might address spirituality in patient care: Chaplains and Pastoral Care; Nursing; Social Work; Rehabilitation; Mental Health.

His final two main chapters are spent outlining a model curriculum for including religion and spirituality in medical training, followed by an overview of beliefs and practice found in world religions. These chapters are helpful not only for medical schools but particularly for staff development and inservice training in medical facilities. Ongoing conversation is needed to develop the ability of all health practioners to address these issues effectively with patients and their families. The failure to do so can hinder the ability of patients to develop a relationship of trust with their medical team and to make full use of these resources for their progress toward wholeness.

I highly recommend this book for medical practioners as well as clergy and other religious professionals and lay leaders who function in healthcare settings or interact regularly with people in matters of their health. Below are links to chapter summary notes for use in a book club or other study.

Spirituality in Patient Care – Overview & Intro
Spirituality in Patient Care – Chapter 1
Spirituality in Patient Care – Chapter 2
Spirituality in Patient Care – Chapter 3
Spirituality in Patient Care – Chapter 4

(Other notes coming soon)

Religion and military hospitals

Earlier today I received an email fwd that originated last September when someone at Walter Reed mistakenly published an unvetted policy restricting the distribution of religious material, such as bibles, even by family and clergy. Here is the language of the policy, as reported by Fox News, et al: “No religious items (i.e. Bibles, reading material, and/or artifacts) are allowed to be given away or used during a visit.”

The policy was quickly retracted and a new one published that was consistent with the long and ongoing history of the military respecting, honoring and appreciating the role of religion and spirituality in the lives of our soldiers, veterans and their families.

Here is Walter Reed’s Pastoral Care site which makes fairly clear their commitment to the religious/spiritual/faith aspects of soldiers’ lives.

Some of the original email text includes: This military, where homosexuality is celebrated and Christianity is censored; where witches are financed and crosses are scorned; where bestiality is embraced and Bibles are banned; where same-sex “weddings” are encouraged but international charity is not. After three years of ideological warfare, the administration’s intent is clear: to disarm the military of its biggest weapon. Faith. Regardless of Presidents agenda, there is absolutely nothing in the Constitution that empowers the government to stop family members from giving Bibles or crosses to their loved ones. And from a PR standpoint, I’m not sure the best way to boost approval ratings is by denying comfort to wounded warriors. Unfortunately for our troops, who have endured so much turmoil under the administration, this is another blow.

Can anyone else hear the fear? And with fear often come paranoia, conspiracy theories, and scapegoating. None of which is constructive.

 

Following is my reply to that original email:

That wording was an unfortunate gaff on the part of someone in an office.
Certainly not a part of some larger conspiracy, nor is it the kind of policy that any president from either party would have had a role in formulating.
My guess is that the policy language originated in response to soldiers who had unwelcome visits of a religious nature, either from pushy family or clergy, I have seen that in my work as a hospital chaplain. And an over zealous writer somewhere thought they had a way to protect patient rights.
I’ve worked at a VA hospital in the Chaplain service, and the VA is very much open to the role of religion/spirituality in the lives of soldiers and veterans and their families, and recognized the role that spirituality plays in health.
Some examples are:
Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
VA site on Spiritual Health
National Chaplain Center of the DoVA

Hope that helps offer some clarity.
Rev. Ken Crawford, Pastor