Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Caption Contest

This image just struck me as so absurd I thought I'd let you all decide what caption would best fit with it.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Six Pictures and a Video

We had a busy day on Saturday. Matt and Eleanor got up early and made me breakfast. Then we went to church to a drop-in reception for Jonathan and Lauren Kelly, who were here "in view of a call" as the new youth minister. After Eleanor's morning nap, Eleanor and Matt went over to play with Silas and Joel so Alice and I could roam free. Then we traveled on to dinner with Matt's grandma and cousins. This picture was taken near the end of the evening in front of "Great-Ma's" house.

Eleanor loves playing with her toys and books. I set her down here whenever I need a few minutes to eat or do some other necessary task. Within minutes, her orderly play area looks like this.

Eleanor loves opening and shutting doors and lifting flaps. Since the cabinets and other doors are off limits to her, we used one of the many boxes that we had after the move to make suitable doors for her to open and close. She likes being in her little "house."

My parents bought Eleanor these bath toys. Matt told me that the large pink alligator is Daddy Alligator and the small green alligator is Baby Alligator. So, the large green frog became Mommy Frog and the small pink frog became Baby Frog. What a mixed up family.

Bath time = fun time.

This is Matt's favorite way of dressing Eleanor for bed. Don't worry, I usually untie her sleeves and put them on her arms before she goes to bed.

And the promised video. This is Eleanor's second music video. Thanks to They Might Be Giants for such good music.

Video Hosting - Upload Video - Video Sharing

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Devotion - No Easy Answers

Good morning, I'd like to welcome you to our time of devotion. We gather here every morning but Saturday at 8:30 for a time of prayer and reflection. You're welcome to join us if you're able. We'd also love to spend some time visiting with you today. If you'd like a visit from a chaplain, please call 2569 from any hospital phone.

Not long ago I met a woman here in the hospital who was going through a really tough time. She had been struggling with an infection that threatened to take away her sight, she had lost her job and as a result, her home and her daughter was no longer speaking with her due to an ongoing disagreement they had about her lifestyle (and the girlfriend she lived with). And all of this had happened in the space of about six months. It felt to her like her whole life had come crashing down around her. And like anyone who feels so totally threatened and out of control her mind turned to the one thing she could control: whether to go on living. This was not the first time she had contemplated suicide. She bore the scars of having faced this demon before, earlier in life. But honestly, she had been doing so well with her depression, that is, when everything had been going well. But now, things were not going well, not well at all, and she had come to the hospital for help. While waiting to see a doctor she had asked if she could talk to a chaplain and by luck or meticulous providence she got me.

I could tell immediately that she was a person whose relationship with God meant a lot to her because I was not the first minister she had consulted about her problem. She was grasping at trying to understand two things: why did this happen to me? and how can I end it? She told me of her many church "friends" who told her that she simply didn't have enough faith. If she would believe more and doubt less, then she would be healed and have all restored to her. She had been told that God was testing her and received a word of prophecy from another friend that God just wanted her to trust him more.

She had been trying so hard to act on these statements. To make her faith WORK. One look into the earnest desperation of her eyes let me know that she was trying as hard as she could to trust God. But it had been six months and the only news she had gotten had been bad news. She had trusted these friends but was beginning to suspect that their answers to her questions were somehow falling short of the reality of her situation.

As she unfolded this story for me I was struggling not to smile. Not because I thought her situation was humorous but because I was marveling at how little we humans have changed and how little we have learned over the past 2500 years. The smile I hid came from the direct parallels of he story to the story of Job in the bible. Job gets trotted out quite a bit as an illustration of calm stoicism in the face of unbelievable personal loss and tragedy. In the space of a few weeks he loses his entire fortune, his home and all of his family. His wife, in the bitterness that springs from the unspeakable pain of losing children, asks him "Why don't you just curse God and die (no doubt what she felt like doing)?" And he responds with those famous words "The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord." I've seen folks mouth those words in the face of incomprehensible loss, grasping for the kind of peace that they believe will come if only they "don't question God."

But lets fast forward Job's story a few months to the point where this young woman I mentioned earlier had reached. Job spends several days in silence, mourning the loss. But soon his friends hear of his great loss and gather around to offer their support. But before long they begin to speak and offer spiritual advice on his predicament. They suggest that there must have been something Job had done to offend God, to justify this kind of punishment and the sooner he figures it out and repents of it the sooner things will get better. Job cries out that there must have been some mistake. His friends reprimand him. This is just the way the world works. If you're do right in the eyes of God, all will be well with you (and indeed that maxim had described Job's life up to this point). If you do evil then you will be punished. It was as simple as that to Job's friends. Job had been punished, therefore he must have done evil.

For the young woman's friends it was as simple as this: God was testing her. If she simply prayed with enough faith, if she believed and trusted enough then God would heal and restore her. But she and Job both realized that these answers, and the simplistic understanding of the way the world and God work couldn't describe the complexity of their experience and they certainly couldn't account for the immensity of their suffering. But neither of them were willing to curse God and die, though both considered it (Job says at one point he wished he'd never been born, a common sentiment among those contemplating suicide). Instead they raised their voices to heaven and dared to ask "Why?" They dared to let their anger, their pain and their frustration out towards the God they had loved and trusted who, right now it seemed was ignoring them.

I don't know how much comfort it gave this young woman to know that she is not the first to find herself in this position. I do know that she was relieved to discover that even though well meaning, theologically minded friends had placed the blame squarely on her shoulders for the persistence of her problems, it might in fact not be that simple.

There is something in us that wants to believe in the idea that if we are good then bad things won't happen to us. It makes us feel that we have control, by means of our choices to avoid calamity. If we're good little boys and girls then Santa will bring us toys. But if we're bad then switches and coal will come our way. But the nasty side effect of this idea is that it becomes our fault when the whole world crashes down upon us. And I've seen people at this point, when they are most wounded and struggling, turn all their anger and pain in on themselves, following Job's friend's advice, looking for that secret sin in their life, or maybe in the lives of those close to them.

But the reality is that life is complex and we may never understand "why" something happens. The why may become the meaning we are able to make out of it. I believe God reaches into tragedy and sculpts beauty and connection. But just because God finds fertile soil in a freshly burned forest doesn't mean he set the blaze. Nor does it mean he didn't. As my Presbyterian friend reminds me, we should never reduce what God is doing to one thing.

Many of you may feel you are being tested, like the young woman, and maybe you are. The funny thing about God's tests, is that it's hard to know when you're in the middle of them. You may be feeling like the songwriter Dave Bazan when he sings "If this is only a test, I hope that I'm passing, cause I'm losing steam, but I still want to trust you..."

The point of Job, I believe, is that there are many things about this reality that we lack the capacity to understand and we are left reaching out, perhaps with desperate eyes, with a voice hoarse from shouting, we are left with hands outstretched to a God we cannot fully understand but who loves us, and will see us through.

[play "The Secret of the Easy Yoke" by Pedro the Lion]

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Devotion - Screens

This one is for Benji who so often warned me of screens. In case you all hadn't noticed, we've been hiding previously unreleased photos of Eleanor in my boring devotionals for those who need a baby fix along with your Jesus.

Good morning, I'd like to welcome you to our time of devotion. We gather here every morning but Saturday at 8:30 for a time of prayer and reflection. You're welcome to join us if you're able. We'd also love to spend some time visiting with you today. If you'd like a visit from a chaplain, please call 2569 from any hospital phone.

A week or two ago I went to the dentist for the first time in a few years to get my teeth cleaned and checked for weak spots. It's always a little intimidating to go there but I've gotten accustomed to the (sometimes) false confidence that comes from this jacket and tie, the seeming importance I sometimes trick myself into thinking it projects. I strolled from my desk in the pastoral care office down the hall to the dentist here in Med tower 1 for my appointment, announced my presence to the receptionist, took the next to last remaining seat, and pulled out my favorite toy, I mean vital piece of work related office equipment, my palmPilot or handheld computer. Facing the rest of the room I began prodding the screen of my palm to pull up something interesting with which to entertain myself until I glanced up at the room. Two adults were scanning two different issues of Time magazine decorated with the faces of terrorists we've recently killed (this was denoted by a big red X across their faces, you've gotta give the Time editorial staff credit for subtlety). One other adult was poking the front of her new Cingular brand smartphone/PDA/handheld computer with Bluetooth (appropriate for our locale) wireless internet, email, QWERTY keyboard, text messaging mp3 function, cloak of invisibility, power lasso and theft deterrent. Her toy made me look like a hillbilly. Her son next to her held out his flip-phone like captain Kirk on the original Star-Trek, apparently scanning the room for life, or at least something interesting. Periodically he would share his readings with his mother who would respond with nods and loud beeps from whatever she was poking on her phone's touch screen. The scene made me stop.

We have so many devices to pacify us, so many ways to avoid being bored. We spend so much time diverting ourselves from the very people and events right in front of our faces. For the past few days I have noticed a young man in the waiting room near the chapel with a game-boy advance sp video game, headphones dutifully plugged in as his family waits for news about their loved one in intensive care. I peak over his shoulder from time to time to see where he really is, where he is taking his mind on this vacation from the long, tedious hours of fear and boredom in the ICU waiting room. It looks like he's skulking through dark dungeons, killing monsters as he goes. I, like many parents, feel a little frustrated when I see kids so immersed in video-game realities that they fail to engage in real life conversation and interaction. I'm always trying to pester my younger brother into talking to me during long car rides instead of turning on his mp3 music player and drifting away. But can I really blame this young man if he would rather be anywhere but here in the hospital? Screens can be useful things. They can give us information, they can transport us out of places we'd rather not be but God knows many of us probably spend way to much time looking at them. From computers, to TV's to cell phones, we focus hard to see what they are showing us. The poet Wendell Berry said once to "beware of screens," intentionally leaving his meaning ambiguous. I think he means the kind of screens we've been talking about. I also think he means for us to see that you can understand that word another way. Because as we hold up the cell phone, the game boy, the pda to see what it's saying, we're holding it between us and what's in front of us, all the electronic screens we surround ourselves with can literally become screens which block our vision of reality. Especially when that reality hurts.
I've stood a countless deathbeds with patients and families at the last moments of life and traced the paths of loved ones eyes not to their dying patient's face but to the screen displaying the falling blood pressure, breaths per minute, oxygen saturation, heart rate. True, this is useful information but I think our eyes are drawn to it both out of habit (we have trained ourselves well to watch screens so we don't miss anything) and because the screen, though saying the same thing, is easier to look upon than our dying loved one's face. I'm afraid that sometimes, by fixing our eyes on screens we miss what is behind them; that is, the deep, rich, heart-wrenching, life-enriching intensely personal realities of life, and it's absence, death.

Working here in the hospital, "neck deep in the human condition" as my boss likes to say, constantly surrounded by suffering and crisis, it can be overwhelming. There are times when I am with families who are experiencing unspeakable stress as they watch those they love suffer as their bodies disintegrate and shut down, there are times when I feel like I'm holding my head underwater, just being in the presence of such pain, suffering, such immense significance. There are times I need to step out and take a breath, to turn away from the searing pain and look at something innocuous and synthetic, like a screen, a watch, a pager anything other than the face of a human in pain.

Sometimes you need to take that break, in fact if you don't learn to take those breaks, to come up above the surface of the flood of emotion that has engulfed you, you may feel even more swept away and hopeless. But on the other side of the coin, it is sometimes easier to divert our attention from the real suffering of others rather than engaging it, coming into their presence and feeling it with them. Grief, loss and suffering are very individual and personal experiences, labyrinths that we all must find our own way through. In hindsight many of our paths may seem similar but when you're in the midst of it, you can only see the next step forward, if that. Finding the balance between facing the pain of reality and giving your mind and emotions the space to absorb it is the work that many of you here in the hospital are working on.

But it is my pleasure to remind you this morning that there is one who takes no breaks, who interposes no screens between his glorious personal presence and our contorted painful suffering. In fact he looked so deeply into it that he dove in, head to toe immersed in bodily existence, incarnated to engage our suffering, to feel with us for a while and eventually to embrace feel it in every bone in his body on the cross. It is in Christ that we can say even more fully than the writer of Psalm 22 "You who fear the Lord, praise him; all you descendants of Jacob glorify Him, and stand in awe of Him. All you descendants of Israel. For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither has He hidden his face from him; But when he cried to Him for help he heard."

In the old days there was a veil, a curtain, a screen hung between the place in the temple where God dwelled and the place where people were allowed to come. On the day Christ died that screen was torn in half. And though we may have to put up screens from time to time, just to get room to breathe, I think we would do well to remember that it is when we take them down, fold them up, turn them off and put them back in our pockets and look out with openness to the people all around us, it is then that we are most like God. Lets pray.

God, take down our screens. Show us new levels of empathy with the suffering and may we see more clearly the need and glory of those all around us. Amen.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Devotion - Lost in the Move

All week I'm doing the devotions for our daily morning devotional time in the Baptist Health Medical Center chapel. Since this is pretty much the only thing I'm writing this week I thought, "why not?" Be edified (or failing that entertained). :)

Good morning, I'd like to welcome you to our time of devotion. We gather here every morning but Saturday at 8:30 for a time of prayer and reflection. You're welcome to join us if you're able. We'd also love to spend some time visiting with you today. If you'd like a visit from a chaplain, please call 2569 from any hospital phone.

A few weeks ago my family and I moved from our tiny apartment into a larger one across town. We had been packing and preparing for weeks in advance but we still weren't ready. My friends and I moved two horse-trailor loads, two full suburbans and about four pickup-truck loads full of stuff. And we've got most of it moved now.

You never realize the shear amount of how much junk you've accumulated until you have to carry it, piece by piece. We carry it in one plastic bag at a time, day by day we accumulate. Then, when we move, we feel the weight of it. After my (loyal or gullible) friends moved the washer, dryer, refrigerator, and sleeper sofa up the 25 steps into our new apartment a new realization dawned on me. I was poised on the landing about to make the final trek up the last few stairs, four boxes stacked precariously in my arms: gravity doesn't want these things up here. The universe in fact is exerting very strong forces of attraction on the matter inside the boxes (books, bookends, various contents of various drawers, cooking utensils) to pull them down to the ground. Eventually entropy will prevail and the order I have created through the contrivance of a staircase and a 2nd floor apartment will come apart and the planet will suck anything left "up," down. The most sickening part of it all is that I know we'll only be in Little Rock for another year. Then we'll be doing it all over again.

A number of my friends are moving as well. One friend just finished dental school and called me that same weekend on his way to his new home in Georgia. He wanted to tell me about his move. My friend is in the Army who is paying for his dental training. They're also paying for him to move. While we were unpacking boxes so we'd have enough to go back the next day and pack some more, he told me of the movers who came and packed up his 2000 sq. foot house in five hours. It took three men that long to box up, wrap up, and label every item they had accumulated over the course of four years there. It took them another three to load it all onto a semi-trailor. Amazed he asked what it would have cost him were he not an Army officer, if the military weren't footing the bill. $12,000. "Jason," I said, "don't tell me these kinds of stories. I'm never going to be able to afford anything more than u-haul on a minister's salary, so next time just spare me the misery of knowing what I'm missing."

My truck and help was enlisted by another couple of friends moving from here to North Carolina. They needed to pick up a "baker's rack" from yet another couple who were moving from Little Rock to San Francisco. The first couple was moving from a small apartment to a larger home on the East Coast that would be able to accommodate said rack. The other couple was moving from a 1000 sq. foot condo to a 450 sp. foot apartment on the West Coast that would scarcely have room for air and the books they would need for the medical residency and theological degree they hoped to pursue there, let alone superfluous kitchen accouterments.

While we looked through the gutted condo we talked about movers. The San Francisco couple had packed themselves and were waiting for their movers to arrive. We all agreed that it was probably faster to let other people pack your things for you than to do it for yourself. It's simply too hard to take the hundreds of artifacts that populate our homes and put them into boxes without thought. Each item has a history, each one a piece of our history, it is attached to our minds by the strings of a thousand lineages, lines that trace back through our lives and we can't help but rattle that web when we move, awakening the spider of memory that crawls back from some forgotten corner to remind us where we got that vase, remember the time we bought this paint set at that art store in Beijing? Oh, what about the class we read that book in? Do you remember the professor and the way he would always lecture about everything but what we had read? Do we have to keep this magazine rack? Do you really think your mother will notice if it gets lost in the move? Do you remember when I told you to get those shoes? When you were afraid your feet were too swollen and wouldn't fit but they did?

The essayist and poet Wendell Barry says that making a home is about more than a place where you stay. It is a place in which you create artifacts of shared experience. Indeed our homes become repositories of thousands of tiny (and not so tiny in the case of the sleeper sofa) shared moments between us and those whom we love.

When we come to the hospital, often our minds are focused inward, on the pain or disease that brought us here. But when you're forced to stay here for days, weeks, months, you are pulled from that web of memories, all those artifacts that tie you to your history and the events and people who have shaped you. The body you have trusted and lived with your whole life no longer seems trustworthy. It's easy not to feel like yourself. It's easy for others to treat you differently than you're accustomed to.

Even though for most of us, the move to the hospital is a temporary one, it has some of the same side effects. I know lots of folks who spend time in the hospital bed going through the dusty cobwebbed boxes in the corners of their minds. Sometimes a move to the hospital reveals feelings, emotions, experiences that have been left unpacked in the closets of our hearts. Old buried hurts between us and others sometimes return to the surface.

We've been unpacking steadily now for about two weeks, taking things out of boxes organizing books and inevitably, it happens that something comes up missing. And you never realize it's missing until you need that hair straightener, that paint can opener, that extra box of rubber bands and then the search is on. Sometimes when you come to the hospital, you're so caught up in the crisis that has brought you here that you don't realize what you've lost in the move. Your clothes, the comfort of your home, and perhaps most importantly your control have been lost in order to help you medically. It's all too easy to lose your motivation to work to get better as setback after setback undoes the progress you've worked so hard to make. It's also very easy to lose a lot of your personhood in the process. When everyone is so concerned about how your body is feeling, it can sometimes feel like no one is concerned with the way the rest of you is dealing with all of this.

As Dr. Karen Treadway who teaches med-students in Boston said in a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine: "the dilemma that will face all of you as you go on in your training. As you acquire more medical knowledge and responsibility, you will focus more and more on the problem and forget the patient attached to it."

But it is at these times, I am happy to remind you that we have a physician who understands what it means to be human and what it means to have others treat him like he's not. As the author of Hebrews says in ch. 4 v. 15
For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.

It is at those times when we feel our life has been turned upside down, when we feel most dissected and dehumanized by the machine of medicine or the monster of disease that we may take comfort in the God who has always been about finding and restoring that which was lost, no matter how far we may have moved. Let's pray.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Nappy Bottles

Sometimes Eleanor likes a bottle to wash down her green beans. Before you call Child Services, let me tell you that it was IBC and empty.

Eleanor is always so happy when she wakes up from her nap. Take note of the pretty color of the wall. I painted it myself, with the help of Ben and Brandy Utter. It was the same ugly color of the bathroom, which is a grayish purple.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Yes I Love Technology

Here is the promised video of Eleanor on the go. She gets faster and goes further every day.

In other news, Eleanor has great interest in the computer from the future.

She also has great intrest in Allison, even though she doesn't light up.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Water not so Deep

Our new apartment has a wonderful deck perfect for an Eleanor pool. One day last week, I spent nap time inflating a small pool that I bought for her. It took about ten minutes to fill it with water and then ten more to get her sunscreened and into a bathing suit (both of which were unnecessary since she would have been happy in nothing and the pool was shaded). She had so much fun. She started out splashing in the pool, then she became more interested in the water that had splashed out. Then we started with the bubbles. It was fun all around.

In other news, Eleanor now proudly sits in a real high chair for her meals. Since we have room for one now, Matt's mom graciously donated a nice chair that Eleanor loves.