...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Road trip memories

Very early tomorrow morning we will be driving to Iowa for my brother's wedding this weekend - she's dismayed about the early part, not the rest of it - where I will be co-officiating at the ceremony. I'm only able to "co" because I've been out of full-time ministry too long and lost my ministry credentials. So I'll be performing the majority of the service and a local pastor will step in to do the vows and make the final, legal pronouncement. It should be good. And not just because all the men in the wedding party, as well as yours truly, will be wearing kilts. I guess I'm lucky I've got a built-in joke to open with.

But in prepping for this, I wanted to get some cd's together and found an old one that the wife and I listened to a lot as we made the 7 day drive from Anchorage to Phoenix. Right now I'm listening to a song from that cd and I can see the winding road running through the forests of British Columbia, the headlights illuminating a wall of rock where the road cut through the mountains, my wife asleep in the passenger seat. It was a good feeling of coming home, of making a new beginning.


Saying goodbye

R.F.'s funeral was yesterday morning. The wife and I went to the visitation on Friday night, where I met more of his family and saw a few other staf members. It was strange to see him laying in the casket in a tux instead of a hospital bed with a gown. Stranger still to see how fake he looked with all that makeup on. But that few moments at the casket gave me a chance to say goodbye and I could not help but reflect on how much I've grown and experienced over the course of the last year. My wife's aunt died last summer and we attended both the visitation and the funeral. The visitation, quite honestly, freaked me out a little bit. I've only been to a few funerals and as far as I can remember, this was the first one with the actual body on display. And people were touching her, which made me even more uncomfortable. The wife grew up in a small town in Illinois in a larger church with the whole span of ages present. She'd been to quite a few visitations like this, so for her it was old hat.

But over the course of the last year, I've had the unique privilege of taking care of the recently deceased on a number of different occasions. And I do take it as a privilege - the chance to show a few last acts of love and respect for someone whom I had known and cared for, and who was deeply and passionately loved by the God who died to snuff out death entirely. I've cleaned them one last time, removed the IV lines, EKG leads and other medical implements that allow us to provide heroic care but also, in their own subtle ways, dehumanize the patient, make them into a squiggly line on a computer screen or a drip rate, rather than a person. So I take it as a solemn honor to rehumanize them, so to speak, to return them more closely to how they were when they came into the world. And standing there, sometimes alone with the body, I have found myself almost irresistibily drawn to pray for that person, to pray for their soul and for God's mercy on them. From the Orthodox and Catholic perspectives, I know there is nothing wrong with this. Prayers for the dead are salutary and beneficial for those whom we pray. I also know there is pratically no biblical warrant for it, which is why the Protestant perspectives deem such prayers as at best ineffectual (the person having already been judged based on their own faith or lack thereof), and at worst, sinful to some degree. I don't know who is right or what to make of it all except that it just seems right. It seems like the loving thing to do, to beseech God for their entry into His presence with joy, for His mercy on their sins, for them to hear their name called from the Book of Life.

So I said goodbye to R.F. on Friday night, but the wife and I were invited to a dinner after the funeral to celebrate his life. I felt honored to be invited, but as Saturday noon rolled around, I also felt quite uncomfortable about it. We decided to go and I'm glad we did. His family, those who weren't able to visit him much while he was in the hospital, needed to hear about his final week, the things he said, the feelings he expressed. They just needed to hear it and frankly, I needed to tell it to someone who knew him. It was good. It was bittersweet, shot through with rays of joy and eternal expectations despite the present pain.

Spy camera...

A while back, I expressed my consternation to my wife that you just can't seem to find a tiny digital camera like you'd find in a camera phone. Our current cell phone contract doesn't expire for some time - we've even still got our Illinois numbers because changing them would require a new and more expensive contract - and we already got our new phones sans camera. In describing this camera to my wife, I almost ivariably called it a "spy camera" because I was envisioning one of those little cigarette lighter-sized doohickeys that James Bond had. I found a few online at Overstock.com, but I'm loathe to purchase stuff like that online. Yeah, its basically a toy, but I don't want to waste my money either and since these were off brands, I decided to wait. And then, 2 weeks ago, I found one at Target, a Philips, for about $15. So I got my spy camera. The photo quality is low, you only get 20 pictures at the highest quality and you can't see the pics until you upload them, but I'm still liking it a great deal. Here are a few photos I took this morning of the Lutheran church we've gone to the last couple of weeks.

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And here are a few more from the grounds around our apartments. There's a little forested belt that runs along one of the rivers.

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Bad day

Work today started out kind of rough. We had one patient turn violent over night and lucky me, being the biggest guy in our hospital, I was called in to help this man off the floor after he slipped in a puddle of his own urine whilst fighting one of the nurses. I tell you, nothing makes that 445am alarm worth it more than starting your workday with someone else's pee on your pants. So we get him settled, or so we thought, and I head off to start on my regular duties. While I'm in a room, I hear a "Code Strong" go out over the intercom, which means "unruly patient or visitor". I stuck my head out the door to see if they needed any help but they seemed to have things under control. "Seemed" being the operative word. They had basically barricaded the guy in his room after he attacked the nurse again and called security. He was unhappy with this resolution and in an apparent effort to find an alternate exit, he tried to toss a table through his 8th floor window. And quite nearly succeeded, judging by the largeish hole that resulted. He was eventually carted off to one of the padded rooms in the ER downstairs. The incident created quite a stir and the corporate administrative staff were buzzing around most of the morning trying to "listen to staff concerns" and answer any questions. It was a real treat.

But the worst part of the day happened not soon after Houdini tried to pull his grand escape. We had a patient, R.F., and aside from a real nasty and persistent abdominal wound which would have healed in time, was in good shape. And he was a dear, dear man. He was 82, didn't look a day over 65, and had the sunniest, kindest disposition I think I've ever encountered. He was sweet, humble, caring and just earnest about life, faith and what he considered most important: God, family and helping people. He was a devout Catholic and prayed often, and was tickled pink when a pastor visiting another patient came in and prayed over him, as well. I was assigned to him all last week and he and I became fast-friends over the course of that week. We talked a lot, while I was giving him his bath or when I had time to hang out in his room. He was a WWII vet who was on the beaches at Normandy. When he came back he worked the rail yards and eventually became a yard-boss. He married young and was devoted to his wife until her death 8 years ago. Actually, he was still devoted to her and spoke of her often. His family was in with him all the time, which I think is a testament to the kind of man he was. He said probably 100 times last week that he thought he and I were two of a kind, which if true, would make me a much better person than I take myself for. He said he thought the world of me and, even though we'd only known each other for a short while, thought of me as a friend. He said "you don't make too many friends in this world, so you gotta keep the ones you do."

As I'm sure you've noticed, I'm talking about R.F. in the past tense. We found out yesterday at about 11am that he was being transferred to the local VA hospital at 1230 that same day. We found out so late due to a break-down in communication and after we had spent a good 45 minutes getting him onto a new bed, which required pulling his roommate and his roommate's bed out of the room in order to get the new bed in. At that time, we were chagrined due to all that wasted effort, but it wasn't that big a deal. I was going to miss him, but the VA hospital is closer to home than my work and I was planning on visiting him at least once a week. And, I was definitely going to take him up on the steak dinner he promised to take me and the wife to after he got out of the hospital. Last night, at about 6pm, his family called my hospital because his wound was bleeding profusely (which it hadn't been doing before) and the VA people had no idea what to do about it. He was eventually taken to the ER, but due to apparent indecision on the part of the VA doctors, it was too late. His pressure and heart rate dropped too low for him to recover on his own and his family, following what I believe would have been his wishes, declined to intubate him. He died early this morning. When last I saw him he was on a stretcher being wheeled down the hall, grinning but also a little teary-eyed. He told me that he loved me and I told him I loved him, too and not too worry, I'd see him soon. I guess I won't see him as soon as I thought. But on more than one occasion, his response to my "how're you doing?" was "I've got Jesus Christ so I can't be doing too bad", which leaves me with little doubt that I'll see him again, if only a bit later than we had planned. And I'm still going to take him up on that steak dinner.

His favorite restaurant was Cork'n'Cleaver - I hope they have one in heaven.


Holding pattern

Needless to say, things on the road to Orthodoxy have gotten a bit bumpy and the wife and I have decided to take a bit of a detour at present. From our many long conversations, which frequently turned into arguments (or at the very least hurt feelings on one side or another), it became clear to me that she isn't ready and I really don't know that she ever will be. Right now, its just too big a departure from the theology she has known and embraced her entire life and probably the best thing I can do in loving her is to yield to her discomfort, anxiety and resistance. So I have and we've decided to start looking somewhere else for a church home.

For me, this is a bittersweet moment. I am sad that Orthodoxy did not draw us in as I had hoped, but at the same time I feel a sense of relief that the tensions between us and the heartache this has caused is over. The joy that relieving this burden brought about in my wife (not Orthodoxy itself, but the burden of the disagreement we had over it) was sign enough that I'm making the right decision. But I also think some of that relief stems from my own trepidations about Orthodoxy. There were really only a couple of significant issues, but they kept on intruding. I was ready to move forward but scared of the possibility for error. I am worried about finding a church we can both feel comfortable with. We went to a Lutheran church on Sunday morning that seemed pretty good to both of us, so I think we should be able to find something. I'll have to do some more reading & studying on what's out there in liturgical and sacramental Protestantism.

I'm not sure how I'll reconcile the new perceptions and ideas that Orthodoxy has introduced. I doubt I'll ever be able to subscribe to sola scriptura if this road doesn't eventually take us back to the East. Similarly, I've found the more wholistic approach Orthodoxy takes to theology far more compelling than the legalistic language of Western theology. I mean, did Christ become Incarnate in order to die to open the door to humanity to participate in God's life or to simply move our names from one column to another on some heavenly scoreboard? I think the depth and beauty of that kind of thinking will be hard to find, though I can obviously "feed" myself with Orthodox writers. And, of course, the idea of the church being the Church will never be a possibility in Protestantism. While I maintain some hope that we will eventually end this detour, I don't want to hold on to that hope too tightly. I, of course, don't want to be disappointed if it never comes to fruition, but I also don't want to let it hold me back from trying to find a good church home, a place where we can get involved and feel like a part of something.

Thus far, this blog has largely been about my journey towards Orthodoxy. It first started as I struggled with my role as a youth pastor in a church that left a great deal to be desired and then, as that position ended, transitioning to being a student again, both in school and in the Orthodox church. I'm not sure where it will head from here but I plan on maintaining it. I have appreciated your prayers and words of encouragement and hope you will continue to keep the wife and I in your thoughts & prayers in the weeks and months ahead.


Gotta know when to hold 'em....

For no particular reason, things have seemingly come to a head in regards to the wife's and mine's exploration of Orthodoxy. We got into a little bit of an argument on Sunday over whether or not to start crossing ourselves during the liturgy. I've been doing it in my private prayers for some time, but out of consideration for her, I have not done it during the liturgy and wanted to start only when she was comfortable doing it together. We went to my mother-in-law's church service early Sunday morning before the liturgy for Mother's Day and then went to get coffee at a local cafe before heading over to St Nick's. We were having a pleasant conversation when I made the mistake of asking if she wanted to start crossing that morning. I've asked before and been rebuffed, but figured it was worth a shot. Things got a bit tense, which we resolved after church, and we ended up talking about Orthodoxy later that night. Basically, its coming down to the fact that the wife has stopped making forward progress in this journey, and frankly, doesn't want to go any further. She isn't saying 'no' to continuing to go to the Orthodox church and is willing to keep exploring, but she seemingly isn't able to get past any of the major issues she has with it. She hasn't gotten any more comfortable with the veneration of the saints and the Theotokos, is still troubled by the apparent lack of evangelism (only one person, a 13 year old girl, joined the parish this Pashca) and stumbles on the point of the sacraments. And the thing is, she doesn't really want to get past or accomodate herself to those things. There are also other problems that are probably quite parish-specific, namely, a lack of teaching and the fact that we haven't made any reasonably close connections with anyone in the parish during our time there.

So now I'm left wondering if its time to throw in the towel. I am not willing to join without her, primarily because we're probably going to start trying to have kids once I've got school almost finished and how would we raise them? And in the short term, we're both really struggling with the tension this is causing in our marriage. We know a guy from St Nick's who took 6 years of going back and forth before he was finally able to decide on Orthodoxy, so I still hold onto hope that even if we did stop our exploration at this point, there might still be a chance in the future. But I really don't know what to do. I'm not sure where we'd go, if I'm up for "church shopping" or if I'm ready to call it quits.


The Sacred Gift of Life - I

I have received and started reading both of the books I mentioned in an earlier post and so far, both have exceeded my expectations, especially Fr. Breck's The Sacred Gift of Life. I haven't gotten more than 50 pages into it and I'm already challenged and enlightened. Take this passage in the introduction:

To speak of the sanctity or sacredness of human life is also to speak of "personhood." One is truly a person only insofar as one reflects the "being-in-communion" of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. This is a much misunderstood concept in present-day America, where the "person" has been thoroughly confused with the "individual." Individual characteristics distinguish us from one another, whereas authentic personhood unites us in a bond of communion with each other and with God.

This relational understanding of personhood is obviously different than the common conception, and is radically opposed to those who claim personhood is dependent on the capacity for rational thought. I have in mind Peter Singer (and those who agree with him) who argues that it is fine to kill an infant and the severely mentally disabled or injured because they are nonpersons due to their inability to "think." But if personhood is intrinsically linked to relationship, than no one can ever be a nonperson - we all exist in a web of relationships, be they familial or other. And once ensnared in that web, which cannot happen but at the moment of conception, all human life is instantly personal. This also has obvious bearing on end-of-life issues for those with a severe brain injury that has left them in persistent vegetative state. I'm anxious to see how Fr Breck develops this concept in later chapters.

In the Introduction, Fr Breck also offers a frank discussion on the difficulty of moral & ethical consideration in a modern context. This is due both to the developments in technology and medical science that the biblical and patristic authors did not and could not envision, and to the Orthodox focus on "moral theology" instead of "Christian ethics." This focus on ethics as a theological discipline requires a sea-change in current medical thinking on the purpose of medical care. According to Breck, "[h]ealth and wholeness have ultimate meaning only within the perspective of God's eternal purpose, the divine economy to be fulfilled at the 'second and glorious coming' of Jesus Christ. Medical care, therefore, should serve not only the proximate goal of restoring or improving bodily health; it should strive to provide optimal conditions for the patient's spiritual growth at every stage of the life cycle." Needless to say, I have seen little concern for the patient's spiritual, or even personal, growth in my facility. It would require a complete sea-change in modern medical thinking to move beyond the mere mechanics of health and the fear of death that seems to drive so many doctors and patients. And medical ethics is not something that can be left to the so-called experts, "[a]t its core, Christian ethics is a function of the worshipping, serving Church. This means that the work of doing ethics is a communal, ecclesial work for which each of us is responsible."

Chapter 1, which I have yet to complete, is focused on explaining the theological underpinnings upon which Fr Breck will later develop his arguments. And I have to say that it is one of the best summaries of Orthodox theology that I have yet encountered in any of my readings. He covers a range of topics, providing a wealth of information in a concise and easily read format. I will pull out some key points once I have finished the chapter, which is necessarily a bit long. I'm looking forward to working through this book slowly over the next couple of months.


Christ is risen from the dead...

Last week, just before I started my shift, a patient died. He had first entered the hospital with heart trouble, suffered complications and was placed on a ventilator. He came to us in fairly good shape relative to some of the other patients we get. There is this semi-conscious state that a lot of people linger in as they start to wake-up from the complications they suffered through (some for weeks on end) and were completely unaware of. They are "in there"; they try to respond to your commands, though often they fail due to sheer physical inability. And they try to communicate - their lips are moving and their expression changes, hands gesture. It is almost impossible to make out what they are trying to say because they are unable to vocalize on the vent and frequently lack fine motor control, so you can't read their lips (something I've actually become pretty adept at over the last several months). And, of course, they are generally confused and would be speaking nonsense and non sequiturs could they actually form words. As I said, people can linger in this in-between state - aware but not oriented, trying to communicate but not coherent enough to realize what they need to do to overcome the barriers. Some stay like this for only a few days, others for a few weeks and a few never find their way out. They remain locked in their own mind for reasons that are rarely clear. He was one of the latter, though I must confess I thought the family moved rather quickly to putting him on a terminal wean. I think they were talked into it by their doctor(s) and though it is fairly likely he would have never pulled out of this half-life, I wish they had given him a another couple of weeks. Miracles do happen.

I ended up helping the family - his wife and daughter - carry some things out to their car. It was a somber walk and one that left me reeling. What do I say? How do I offer comfort? In the end, I didn't say much. I told them I was sorry for their loss and that I had enjoyed caring for him. But in my mind, as I'm walking with those suffering the agony of their loss and the mixed feelings of guilt and relief, the hymn from Sunday's liturgy repeated itself over and over in my head. "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death..." And that, to me, provided some comfort, some degree of understanding. His death was not the end. Death is not the end and the pain is just for a night.



In the May issue of Touchstone, there is an interesting article on high school students that are anything but typical. Terrence Moore writes from his own experience with what are obviously very gifted and very blessed students, and stand as shining examples in a field of peers that are jaded, entertainment-minded, relativists. It is an article that completely belies my own experience working with youth and one that offers some degree of hope for the future of this generation. But, it also scares the pants off of me.

To illustrate his point, Moore introduces us to "Promise", a young woman whom he knows personally. She comes from a good home, is intelligent, faithful and a hard worker. But...

Promise has never set foot in a public school. Her parents discovered in their freshman year of college how little their public schools had taught them and how unprepared they were for higher learning. Moreover, they would never allow their daughter to be exposed to the drugs, sex, and crass behavior that are the norm from middle school onward.

It is true that high schools have largely been turned over to the social norms of sexual and chemical experimentation in today's youth and that this trend is pushing ever lower. I saw it in my students and I heard their stories. I don't blame any parent for wishing to spare their child from the deluge of temptations they will face in today's public schools. And yet, I cannot help but think that this separation from the vast majority of her peers will be to Promise's detriment. How will she understand her generation? How will she know how to reach them? If she can't speak their language and know the things that matter to them, how will she lead them, as Moore suggests she will? I don't for one minute think that a child must succumb to the temptations of their peers in order to better understand them. But without at least some common experiences, how will Promise forge a link with those in her age group? I saw those highly intelligent, moral, faithful homeschoolers in the youth group I lead - I saw that they never fit in and that their separation invariably lead them to live in completely different worlds than their peers. It didn't matter what they knew or how their lives could have been examples to the other students; no connection was possible. And frankly, it is entirely possible to traverse the perils of public school and still come out well-educated and having resisted the temptations of sex, drugs and relativist thinking. I know because I did it.

From here, Moore goes on to list more of Promise's promising qualities. She doesn't disrespect her parents, drink or do drugs, sleep around or brush off school. She feels sorry for girls who do, not because she is self-righteous but because she believes they simply don't know any better. Promise rejects feminism and "...is pretty and enjoys feeling pretty." (This point strikes me as tendentious - what does being pretty have to do with anything and how would Promise feel and behave if she were unattractive? It does not strike me as particularly counter-cultural to enjoy being pretty, what with the amount of emphasis today's culture places on feminine beauty.) Promise is also politically engaged and aware of the import of today's key issues and debates, which I certainly found to be quite uncommon among my high schoolers. All-in-all, Promise is a bright, well-rounded, Christian student who takes her faith and education seriously. But Moore goes on to conflate what appear to me to be clear issues of morality (abortion) with politics and here is where I have the greatest problem with his description:

Promise wholly supports the war on terrorism. This sweet girl will tell you without batting an eye that anyone who blows up a building or decapitates someone for a misguided faith is pure evil. Promise is glad that strong and brave men carry guns to protect this nation both at home and abroad.

Supporting the war on terrorism is not on par with abortion, which is the issue he discusses immediately prior to this paragraph. Having genuine political disagreements over this country's response to 9/11 and the war in Iraq are simply not the same as abortion and nor is there an explicitly Christian position on these points. Also, both men and women defend this nation at home and abroad and I find it odd that Promise should discount this fact and that Moore should forget to mention it. It seems to me that failing to mention the sacrifice of women in the police and armed forces implies more than just Promise's rejection of feminism, although I could be reading into it. But what worries me most is that second sentence. Moore points to this generation's inability to think morally several times, but I cannot accept that this statement is well supported by sound ethical consideration. Perhaps I'm mired in relativistic thinking, perhaps I did not make it through public high school and a state university with a degree in religious studies without being infected by the shoddy thinking Moore derides, but I seriously doubt whether, as Christians, we can ever describe another human being as "pure evil."

Is blowing up a building or decapitating someone for a rightly-guided faith pure good? Is it a mixture of good and evil? Or is it pure evil, as well? What if you're blowing up buildings for a misguided foreign policy? How does that rank? What troubles me is the conflation of "misguided faith" with motive. Those executing the attacks of 9/11 or decapitating Nick Berg were not doing it because they knew themselves to be supporting a false religion; they believed their actions were both in accord with and demanded by their faith. And in that, they were actually acting on good motives. Don't mistake me - I believe terrorism to be intensely evil and motivated by demonic forces, but that does not mean that those who engage in it are "pure evil." They were seeking what they perceived to be a good end, an end pleasing to God and beneficial to their coreligionists, and if their actions had focused on planting trees rather than murder, no one would accuse that aspect of their intentions as being inherently evil. Though there are times when our subjective motivations have nothing to do with the objective moral status of our specific behaviors, we all recognize that motive is indeed a salient point. Our society routinely and uncontroversially recognizes a legitimate moral difference between murder and self-defense, even in cases where there was no actual threat to the defender.

So the question really becomes 'can a person acting on subjectively good motives really be purely evil?' I think the answer is no, just as someone acting on subjectively bad motives (who somehow brings about an amazing good like curing cancer or ending world hunger) can be said to be purely good. Our society would want to turn our misguided philanthropist into a hero of heroes, a celebrated and honored person, to shower them with praise and adoration even though they intended to do evil. We would label them as good and forget about their failings. This is why I find Moore's, and by extension Promise's, unsubtle thinking on this matter so disturbing. To label anyone, even a hate-filled, murderous terrorist as "pure evil" is to cease to see them as human. It allows us to do anything we want to them because they have become completely alien. And in doing that, I fear we cross a line that we simply cannot cross.

Final final finally finished

As of Saturday, around 845 in the morning, I officially ended this semester. Now onto a blissful and school-free summer vacation. I may try to pick up some extra work over the summer to pad the coffers for fall, when I will have to cut back on my work schedule. In the meantime, I will be focusing on preparing for my brother's wedding, where I will be co-officiating, in the first part of June. And, much to my delight, catching up on some of the pleasure-reading that has been so overwhelmed by school the last several months. My first 2 books are The Sacred Gift of Life and A Feast For Crows. The first book is due to my own lack of preparation for dealing with the hard questions, particularly end-of-life and meaning of suffering questions, that I either deal with now or will have to deal with as a nurse. I want to clarify my own thinking on the matter by examining the thinking of the Fathers and the Church. The second book is the long-awaited continuation of what has turned out to be an amazing fantasy series. I'm normally into sci-fi, but my brother concinved me to read the first one and I was hooked. Its not your typical kind of elves & wizards fantasy writing; there is magic, a world very much unlike our own and a fair share of otherworldy creatures, but it focuses much more on political intrigue and the growth of characters as they work through a tremendous upheaval that draws an entire continent into war over a vacated throne. Its quite good.