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Wednesday, January 20, 2016 – 2:32am
Photo by Kent Miller

Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods

I’ve been on retreat at a cabin in the woods since last Monday — a silent, solitary retreat. As my time here got underway, I took a few notes each day — a sort of mini-journal — and got the idea of stringing them together.

Monday, Jan. 11, 2016
Arrived in mid-afternoon at my rented cabin in the snow-covered Wisconsin countryside. Went inside, lit a fire, and unpacked the car, quickly, motivated by the sub-zero wind chill. Outside, acres of bright fields and dark woods. Inside, just me. Plus enough clothing, food, and books for a week of silence and solitude.

Last night, someone asked if I liked being alone. “It depends,” I said. “Sometimes I’m my best friend. Sometimes I’m my worst enemy. We’ll see who shows up.”

It’s 9:00 p.m., an hour before Quaker midnight, but I’m going to turn in anyway. I’m drowsy and at peace. The fire I’ve been staring into seems to have burned away the worries that tagged along with me.

Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016

Woke up about 5:00 a.m. and lay awake for another hour in the dark, watching my worries rise phoenix-like from the ashes and flap around to get my attention.

“Welcome and entertain them all!” says Rumi in The Guest House.

“Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

Guess I need to have a chat with the “beyond.” Looks like he/she/it didn’t get the memo that I came here for some peace.

Now, a few hours later, I’m feeling that peace again. It came from a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast, all ready simultaneously despite the fact that I’m a certified kitchen klutz. It came as well from looking out on the snowfields, brilliant under the rising sun — but beautifully etched with the shadows of trees and stubble poking up through the snow.

The “beyond” was right: peace comes from embracing the interplay of shadow and light (and a good breakfast doesn’t hurt). After breakfast, I read the January 12 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton, a collection of daily meditations:

“It seems to me that I have greater peace… when I am not ‘trying to be contemplative,’ or trying to be anything special, but simply orienting my life fully and completely towards what seems to be required of a man like me at a time like this.”

Simple and true, but so easily lost in Type-A spiritual striving! What was required of me this morning was simply to make breakfast despite my well-documented ineptitude. The deal is to do whatever is needful and within reach, no matter how ordinary it is or whether I’m likely to do it well.

This afternoon, what I needed was a hike, though the wind chill was six below. I’m no Ernest Shackleton, but I learned long ago that winter will drive you crazy until you get out into it — and I mean “winter” both literally and metaphorically. “In the middle of winter,” said Camus, “I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”

I didn’t discover summer on my hike. But the sun blazed bright on the frozen prairie, warming my face. And high in the cobalt blue sky, a hawk made lazy circles as I’ve seem them do in July. For January, that’s close enough to summer for me!

Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016

I slept poorly last night, and I know why. An hour before bedtime, I binge-ate a box of Jujyfruits while reading a book about spiritual discipline. The book made a few good points but was not well written, and I scarfed down the Jujyfruits as a stimulus to stick with it. My bad. But clear evidence that I could use some discipline!

I feel better now because the oatmeal I made for breakfast — on my second try — was healing. Pure comfort food. On the first try, I got the ratio of oatmeal to water wrong and left it on the burner too long. The pan looks like a grotesque avant garde sculpture of metal and grain: “Agrarian Culture Defeated by Machine.” Again, my bad. But my kitchen klutz credentials have been reinstated.

I guess my theme today is “Screw-ups in Solitude.” In solitude, my bads make me grin. If I committed them in front of others, I’d be embarrassed or angry with myself. Self-acceptance is easier when no one is around.

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu tells about a man crossing a river when an empty skiff slams into his. The man does not become angry, as he would if there was a boatman in the other skiff. So, says Chuang Tzu:

“Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

In solitude, I can empty my boat. Can I do it when I’m not alone? Maybe.

“Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

That quote comes from a book I wrote, so I should probably give it a try!

Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016

Woke up at 2:00 a.m. and found myself regretting some things I got wrong over the past 77 years. Wished I had been kinder, or braver, or less self-centered than I was, and had a hard time remembering the things I got right.

Knowing that the 2:00 a.m. mind is almost always deranged, I got up at 4:00 a.m., dressed, made some coffee, stood out in the dark and cold for a bit, and saw Venus gleaming low in the southeast. The goddess of love: that helped!

Then I read the January 14th entry in A Year With Thomas Merton. Once again,my old friend had a word I need to hear, as he reflected on the complex mix of rights and wrongs in his own life:

I am thrown into contradiction: to realize it is mercy, to accept it is love, and to help others do the same is compassion.

Merton goes on to say that the contradictions in our lives are engines of creativity. It’s true. If we got everything right or everything wrong, there’d be none of the divine discontent or the sense of possibility that drives us to grow. What we get wrong makes us reach for something better. What we get right gives us hope that the “better” might be within reach.

Now I feel ready to step into the day animated by the counsel of Florida Scott-Maxwell:

“You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done… you are fierce with reality.”

I fully intend to get fierce and real today. But before I do that, I’m going to take a nap!

Friday, Jan. 15, 2016

This morning, for no apparent reason, I woke up with a grin, another one of those “guests” Rumi spoke about, “sent as a guide from beyond.” But this time the guest is a welcome lightness, a sense of impending laughter.

Most of my heroes are folks who are no strangers to laughter. Grandpa Palmer comes to mind. The man was proof-positive of William James’s claim that “common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds.” Grandpa taught me to drive when I was 14. First time out, I made a dumb, dangerous move on a back-country Iowa road. When we came to a safe stop, Grandpa was ominously silent for a moment. Then he said, laconically, “If I’d of knowed you was gonna do that, I don’t believe I’d of asked you to drive.” He never said another word about my near-disaster, and for the past 60 years I’ve driven accident-free!

Merton was well known for his sense of humor, a quality not uncommon among monks. In The Sign of Jonas, a deeply moving journal of his early years in the monastery, there’s a line on page 37 that always makes me smile:

“I had a pious thought, but I am not going to write it down.”

And I love this claim, found in a Hindu epic called The Ramayana, as told by Aubrey Menen:

There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.

I’m sure I’ll experience all three today. The first is ever-available, if my heart is open. The second is guaranteed, since wherever I go, there I am. As for the third, I’ll do what I can with it. As Chesterton quipped:

“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016

A cardinal in winter(Parker Palmer)

Today’s opening line in A Year With Thomas Merton, “You can make your life what you want” if you don’t “drive [yourself] on with illusory demands.” I don’t think it’s entirely true that I can make my life what I want. But it would help if I stopped making demands on myself that distort who I really am and what I’m really called to do.

After five days of silence and solitude, many of the demands that hung over me when I came out here have lightened or lifted. Since I’ve done little this week to meet those demands, the lesson seems clear: they were mostly the inventions of an agitated mind. Now that my mind has quieted, its “illusory demands” have vaporized, and I feel a deeper peace.

I remember a story my businessman dad told me about how he dealt with pressure. In his office, he had a desk with five drawers. He’d put today’s mail in the bottom drawer, after moving yesterday’s mail up to the next drawer, and so on. He’d open letters only after they had made it to the top drawer. By that time, he said, half the problems people wrote him about had taken care of themselves, and the other half were less demanding than if he’d read the letters the moment they arrived! As Black Elk said to the children in his tribe when he told a teaching story:

“Whether it happened that way, I do not know. But if you think about it, you will see that it is true.”

Of course, the curse called email did not exist in Dad’s day. Still, his story points the way: make five folders for my email, and use them as Dad said he used his desk drawers. In certain respects, you can make the life you want!

Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016

Sunset in winter(Parker Palmer)

On this last full day of my retreat, I’m still meditating on the opening line of the January 13 entry in A Year With Thomas Merton:

“There is one thing I must do here at my woodshed hermitage… and that is to prepare for my death. But that means a preparation in gentleness…”

What a great leap — from death to gentleness! So different from Dylan Thomas’s famous advice:

“Do not go gentle into that good night…
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

When I was 35, raging seemed right. But at 77, it’s Thomas Merton, not Dylan Thomas, who speaks to me.

The prospect of death — heightened by winter’s dark and cold, by solitude, silence, and age — makes it clear that my calling is to be gentle with the many expressions of life, old and new, that must be handled with care if they are to survive and thrive.

Sometimes, of course, that means becoming fierce in confronting the enemies of gentleness. If that’s a contradiction, so be it! As Merton said in The Sign of Jonas:

“I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

 

 

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water jug    I will bring a cup of water,

Here’s the best that I can offer

In the dusk of coming night,

There is evidence of light,

With the pattering of rain,

Let us bow as if in grace

Consider all the ways we heal

And how a heart can break!

 

passion-of-christ

 

Oh,  abide with me

Where its breathless and its empty,

Yes, abide with me

And we’ll pass the evening gently.

Stay awake with me,

And we’ll listen more intently

To something wordless and remaining

Sure and ever-changing

In the quietness of now.

 

Let us ponder the unknown

What is hidden, what is whole,

And finally learn to travel,

At the speed of our own souls.

There is a living water,

A spirit cutting through,

Always changing, always making

All things new.

fen marsh

 

Oh, abide with me

Where its breathless and its empty

Yes, abide with me

And we’ll pass the evening gently

Stay awake with me

And we’ll listen more intently,

To something wordless and remaining,

Sure and ever changing,

in the quietness of now!

 

There are things I cannot prove,

But still somehow I know,

It’s like a message in a bottle

That some unseen hand has thrown.

You don’t have to be afraid,

You don’t have to walk alone,

I don’t know but I suspect

That it will feel like home!

 

100_5651

 

Oh abide with me

Where its breathless and its empty

Yes, abide with me

And we’ll pass the evening gently

Stay awake with me

And we’ll listen more intently

To something wordless and remaining

Sure and ever-changing

In the quietness of now.

 

A Permeable Life is about what presses out from the heart, what comes in at a slant and what shimmers below the surface of things,” Newcomer says. “To live permeably is to be open-hearted and audacious, to risk showing up as our truest self, and embracing a willingness to be astonished.”

 

A Permeable Life

I want to leave enough room in my heart
For the unexpected,
For the mistake that becomes knowing,
For knowing that becomes wonder,

For wonder that makes everything porous,
Allowing in and out
All available light.
An impermeable life is full to the edges,
But only to the edges.
It is a limited thing.
Like the pause at the center of the breath,
Neither releasing or inviting,
With no hollow spaces
For longing and possibility.
I would rather live unlocked,
And more often than not astonished,
Which is possible
If I am willing to surrender
What I already think I know.

So I will stay open
And companionably friendly,
With all that presses out from the heart
And comes in at a slant
And shimmers just below
The surface of things.

 

 

Excerpt From: “A Permeable Life: Poems and Essays.”

A Permeable Life, produced and engineered by Paul Mahern (John Mellencamp, Over the Rhine, Willie Nelson, Lily & Madeleine), will be in stores on April 1, 2014, from Available Light Records, distributed by MRI/Sony RED Music.

Newcomer is simultaneously releasing a companion book, A Permeable Life: Poems and Essays. Newcomer has attracted a devoted following with her warm voice, exquisite melodies, and an irreverent yet spiritual view of the world.   As in the work of poets Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry, Newcomer’s songs are based in the ordinary, and infused with images from the natural world.

Author Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “She’s a poet, storyteller, snake-charmer, good neighbor, friend and lover, minister of the wide-eyed gospel of hope and grace.”

On April 1, 2014, Available Light Records, distributed by MRI/Sony RED Music, releases a new album of Newcomer’s music entitled A Permeable Life.  On this album, Newcomer’s signature deep voice takes on a quiet conversational tone, close and intimate.

Recording artist Carrie Newcomer’s work cuts across secular and spiritual boundaries. She has had many artistic collaborations with notable authors such as Parker J. Palmer, Barbara Kingsolver, Jill Bolte Taylor, Philip Gulley, Scott Russell Sanders and Rabbi Sandy Sasso. She facilitates workshops on songwriting, creative writing, spirituality, vocation and activism. Newcomer, who tours throughout the U.S. and Europe, has also toured with Alison Krauss.

 

northcarolinaweddinginn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

big sister with baby brother

“Tell Me About God:  I’ve almost forgotten…”

Today in her sermon our priest told this story.  It was immersed in a Lenten meditation, and described a story that was originally written by Parker Palmer and then was shared by Marcus Borg.  Now I share it with you here.  It is from a different sermon but describes the same source material.  It brought tears to my eyes.  

In the Hebrew language the “voice of God” is named as “bat qol”.
It means – the daughter of a sound.
Sometimes we translate it as a still small voice, but I think that is a bit problematic
Because a “still small voice” suggests a voice.  Words and all that
It is I think, better described as the daughter of a sound –
something that is beyond the boundaries of speech

I don’t know how many people have spoken to me
about the fact that they haven’t ever heard that voice.
I am saddened that we – I – in the church haven’t fostered a better appreciation,
and that we have left people feeling that God is not speaking with them

The Quaker movement calls it “leadings” or “proddings”
Marcus Borg says that sometimes it is nudges or clobbers
Frederick Buechner says it wonderfully:

Listen to your life.
Listen to what happens to you, because it is through what happens to you that God speaks.

It’s in language that’s not always easy to decipher,
but it’s there, powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.

Have you had a voice of reassurance – especially if you are scared or unsure – bat qol
Have you seen someone whose life is clearly suffering get turned around – bat qol

This week, we start the season of Lent, and we will be working with a resource
that is aiming to help us understand and appreciate Jesus’ life.
It is about a journey to Jerusalem – from the Transfiguration on, this is precisely where he is heading
On that journey Jesus speaks about the way – the path of following him.
To listen to Jesus means to follow him on that path that leads to Jerusalem.

Borg comments:

“Jerusalem is both the place of confrontation with a domination system,
and it is also the place of death and resurrection,
it is the place of endings and beginnings, of endings and new life,
the place where what we feared was the place of death becomes the place of new life.”

Listening to Jesus means embarking on that journey,
and it is the journey at the very center of the Christian life.

Lent invites us to head on that journey
and to listen for the bat qol along the way

Early in our lives, we have what some people call the birth of self-consciousness,
the awareness that the world is something separate from us.

At some point, the world ceases to be immediately responsive to your needs,
and we become aware that “the world there” is something separate from you.
That’s the birth of self-consciousness, or even more simply,
that’s the birth of the separated self.
And it happens very early in life.

Lent invites us back to a new birth.  A new listening.  A new life.

Parker Palmer – a Christian writer –  tells a story about a three-year-old girl
She was the first born in her family.
But then her mother became pregnant,
and the daughter was very excited about having a baby in the house.
The birth goes well, and the mother and the new baby come home.

After they’ve been home for a couple of hours,
the little girl tells her parents that she wants to be with the baby in the baby’s room, alone, with the door shut.
She’s absolutely insistent about the door being shut.
It kind of gives her folks the willies, you know?
They know she’s really been looking forward to the baby
but at the same time, they are a bit nervous about sibling rivalry
and the impact of such a big change in the girl’s life.

Then they remember that they’ve recently installed an intercom system
in preparation for the arrival of the new baby,
and they realize that they can let their little girl do this,
and if they hear the slightest weird thing happening, they can be in there in a flash.

So they let their little girl go into the room.
They close the door behind her. They race to the listening post.
They hear her footsteps move across the room.
They can tell that she is now standing over the baby’s crib,
and then they hear her say to her two-day-old baby brother,
“Tell me about God. I’ve almost forgotten.”

It captures the sense that as we grow up,
and as we learn the language of this world, we engage in a process of forgetting

Because as we learn the language of this world,
the categories of this world get imprinted upon our psyches,
and our sense of being a separated self grows stronger and stronger.
That sense of disconnection continues throughout childhood,
until, by the end of childhood, we may have lost that sense of connection altogether.

Frederick Buechner again,
Increasingly, we live our lives from the outside in rather than from the inside out,
taking our cues from the world, taking our cues from others, taking our cues from culture.

During Lent, we are invited to reconnect with the one who is the source of our life
To listen again to the bat qol –
the daughter of a sound which we might hear with words – in prayer or in conversation
Or which we might hear as we pay attention to life, or to our own deep feelings
Or which we might hear with a sense of reassurance, or in a time of healing
or which we may hear in the call to journey to a place where
in a confrontation with the systems of this world, and of its governments
we undertake a process of dying, and discovering new life.

Midwife for the Holy

by Emma M. Churchman on December 31, 2013

A Journey into Hospital Chaplaincy

Hands2When I was a child I never dreamt of being a hospital chaplain. I generally detest hospitals, and I don’t trust medical professionals. Hospitals can be giant cesspools for infection and disease; they smell funny. The souls of the dead roam hospital hallways, and I see dead people. Personally, I wouldn’t consider myself to be a “real” Christian; I couldn’t imagine qualifying to be a chaplain.

So when a Christian friend from my Quaker seminary recommended I train as a hospital chaplain through a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program, I honestly laughed in her face. Eventually, about a year into her pestering, I flittingly agreed and applied to one program in the middle of rural Appalachia, because I couldn’t think of anything better to do during my last year of seminary, and the idea of leaving the Midwest plains and being in a paid training program in the midst of gorgeous mountains and a temperate climate was appealing. Ah, isn’t that how most ministers find their paths? Mine is a default ministry.

My background is in teaching Quaker young adult spiritual leadership development, which I have done at both Pendle Hill and Earlham College. In my 30s, I trained as a Reiki practitioner, an energy healer, and a shamanic practitioner. As a Quaker minister, I participated in the School of the Spirit’s Way of Ministry program. I helped to found Quaker Voluntary Service (QVS) a few years ago. I also directed Arch Street Meetinghouse in Philadelphia. After almost a decade of working for Quaker organizations, I found myself at Earlham School of Religion in a master’s of divinity program, discerning what it means to be a Quaker minister and a healer/shaman. During this time, I officially launched a private practice as the Quaker Shaman, and have since met with hundreds of clients to help them discern God’s will in their lives.

These days spiritual discernment for me is pretty straightforward. I just ask God yes-no questions. It took me a decade of practice to recognize that I can actually feel a “yes” or a “no” from God in my body. First, I had to be willing to be in relationship with my own body. Eventually I was able to recognize that my body is my prayer stick: my Truth teller. God’s “yes” feels like a lifting in my chest; God’s “no” feels like a weight in my abdomen. My own will or ego feels like a strain in the back of my neck and my shoulders.

Driving to my CPE interview, I said to God: “I’m going to need a real clear sign that you want me to do this, because I (my ego) don’t want to.” I felt both shame and arrogance driving to interview at a hospital catering to southern Evangelical Christians. What did I have to offer to these people? I had even called a member of my peer ministers’ support group en route to the interview to proclaim just how much I didn’t want to be a hospital chaplain. This was my desperate attempt to set the stage for an easy release from this particular ministry.

But I got a clear “yes.” My theory is that I get clear answers from God because after years of tension, I’m actually now willing to listen to Spirit when the answer is different from what my ego desires. I had to be willing to release control, trust that God’s got the bigger plan, and recognize that I might only be given the immediate next step of that plan. My first CPE supervisor, the man who interviewed me, was that “yes” from God. He is a Southern Baptist who participates in native rituals with the local Cherokee population and is a recovering alcoholic and twelve-stepper. My heart leapt when I met him. My fear of not being Christian-enough, ministerial-enough, able-to-pray-out-loud-enough, compassionate-enough, or mainstream-enough dissipated when I met Don.

Don showed me that you don’t have to fit into a particular box in order to be a “real” hospital chaplain. He was excited to have a Quaker minister and shamanic practitioner train as a hospital chaplain. On top of that, my being psychic didn’t seem to faze him in the slightest. Don taught me that I was born to be a chaplain, and that all are on a spiritual journey, whether they call it that or not.

At the hospital I discovered that I am a trauma junkie. The world made sense to me the first time I was paged to the Emergency Department for a dying patient. I was hooked. Since I started working as a chaplain, I have come to understand that most people who work in trauma (doctors and nurses, emergency service personnel, police, firefighters, sheriffs, etc.) are drawn to it because they come from trauma. My own family of origin is a unique, foul pit of trauma. I viscerally understand what it’s like to experience physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse and have spent my entire adult life trying to survive and overcome my childhood trauma. In chaplaincy, I have been given an opportunity to utilize the coping skills I developed in response to that trauma, and get paid a salary (as opposed to shelling out money for therapy to overcome my ingrained coping skills). The deep shame I have carried from my trauma has transformed itself into hope.

It is oddly comforting and familiar to be with others during their trauma experiences. When I am standing in a bay with a screaming patient lying on the table surrounded by doctors and nurses shouting orders, and with family members in the waiting room wailing for God, I am at peace. I know how to breathe in that reality. I am calm and cool in the midst of the storm. My idea of a good day at work involves spending 8–24 hours hanging out in the Emergency Department and Intensive Care Units of a Level One Trauma Center attending to patients and their family members who have suffered significant emotional, spiritual, and physical trauma from altercations with other people, weapons, cars, trees, or natural disasters.

Afew weeks ago within a three-hour afternoon stretch, six people from five incidents came into the emergency room, including two drivers who had hit each other in a motor vehicle collision, a young boy who had been physically and sexually abused by his older cousin, a man hit in the head and spine by a tree in a logging incident, a young man with a brain injury from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and a female patient in cardiac arrest. Can you imagine just how hectic it was in the ER with all of those patients, family members, and medical personnel trying to address these critical incidents? The level of anxiety and fear was palpable.

By the time I left the ER that afternoon, I still had 15 hours left of my 24-hour shift. On days like that, I try to pace myself, because I literally have no idea what will happen when I’m at work. I pray into those days, asking God to guide my ministry when I am too spent to think clearly. When the pager goes off yet again after my fifth attempt to lie down in my on-call room to sleep, I pray that God will show me how to be present to the patient and family I am about to encounter in the middle of the night. I also pray that God will wake me up enough to be able to find the back door to the ER at 3:00 a.m. Then I pray that God will ease my heart enough to be able to fall back asleep again. Sometimes I leave the hospital feeling faith-filled and well-used. Other days I just go straight to bed and don’t get up until I have to go to work again.

As a chaplain, I hold hands, pray, find warm blankets, and bring hot coffee to those who need it. I cry; I laugh; I remain silent when there are no words that could bring comfort. I am the person that staff, patients, and families turn to when they feel alone, afraid, overwhelmed, happy, excited, exhausted, or worn out. I am the witness and the accompanier. I lay my hands on those who are suffering, and weep with them. Sometimes I pray verbally, but often silently. I wipe away tears, and I hug equally into grief and joy. I place my hands on the heads of doctors, nurses, emergency workers, helicopter pilots, and police officers, and bless them. I ask God to protect them and keep them safe. I ask that their hearts remain open to those they serve.

Iam a midwife for the Holy.

I wait for the coroner to arrive. I sit with the body of a patient who has died, because the family doesn’t want them to be alone. I hold a dead baby when its mother cannot.

In my own awkwardly unprogrammed way, I lead chapel service on Sunday morning, standing at the front of the room offering whatever gift God has given me that day to share.

I help interpret medical jargon and figure out how to address the questions families are too scared to ask doctors. I coach surgeons to communicate simply with patients and families. I sit in family consultations with medical teams. I make the rounds visiting patients with doctors and medical personnel.

I gather medical and non-medical staff together to debrief particularly challenging traumas—those cases that haunt them, cases that they unceasingly relive in their minds. This often happens to our staff members who handle pediatric physical and sexual abuse cases. The staff crowds in and around the trauma rooms when these children are brought into the hospital; they want to protect these children and help them heal. The staff takes it personally if these children die on their watch. I take it personally.

Gracious and loving God, you know everything about us. You know us from the tops of our heads to the bottoms of our feet. You know us and you love us. Be with us here now. Help us to feel your love, your comfort, and your strength. Abide with us in our time of need. Release our bodies, minds, and hearts from suffering and fear. Cradle us in the unknown.

As a life-long Quaker, I was taught to find that of God in all people. As a result, I try to be open to all spiritual possibilities. My biased belief, however, is that too many hospital chaplains assume that people want Christian-centered ministry, and assume prayer and salvation should be offered. In my role as chaplain, my goal is never to convert patients to Christianity, to save them, or to baptize them. Personally, I don’t believe that Jesus died on the Cross for my sins; I am not baptized and don’t believe I need to be saved in order to be closer to God. I am a follower of Jesus’s teachings, but I would not call myself a Christian. My theory is that the Apostle Paul suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder and was more focused on streamlining and managing Christian churches than on following God’s will. The Bible is a helpful reference guide for me but certainly not the Word of God. Prayer can be verbal, but it can also be nonverbal for me. I believe that God created us, but that God also gives humans the choice to live into God’s will for us. I don’t believe that God causes suffering; I do believe that God suffers alongside us. I don’t know if heaven or hell exist, but I’m open to that possibility.

I don’t particularly care whether or not those I serve go to church, believe in Jesus, read the Bible, or pray to a Heavenly Father. Mainly I care about whether or not they are able to express what they believe and find comfort and relief in doing so.

My intention is to listen to patients, families, and staff deeply, and to help them articulate their own theological truth—I strive to meet them theologically. If a patient wants to pray to a male God and ask Jesus to release him from sins, then I offer prayer in that way, but I don’t assume that will be a part of our interaction. The other day a nurse practitioner in the ER asked me what he should do if a patient requests a satanic priest (apparently this had happened to him recently). I told him to page me immediately. When he asked what I would say to the patient, I told him I would ask the patient to tell me more about why she or he desired a satanic priest. A nurse manager, overhearing the conversation, asked how I would pray with that patient. I said that I would ask the patient how he or she wanted to pray.

My job as chaplain is not to judge someone else’s theology, but to help them understand it more fully. Many trauma patients who come into the hospital do not self-identify as spiritual or religious. I have found, however, that theology rears its head when people experience a life-altering trauma or illness. All of a sudden they want to understand why they are suffering, and they want to look back on the trajectory of their lives and question their choices. Theology 101 happens all the time in the middle of the night in the trauma bay, and I get to be a part of those discerning conversations.

God is the Great Physician and Teacher, the Source of all that is and all that shall be, the Eternal Spirit, Creator, the Pain Bearer, the Great Mystery, the Holy, and the Mother and Father of us all. God is with us in our most trying moments, our deepest sorrow. God celebrates with us, and wraps us in loving arms while we weep. God hears our prayers. God offers healing, but not always in the ways we imagine healing to be possible.

God’s hands are our hands. God’s heart is our heart. I see this every day with my colleagues, some of the most generous, empathetic people I know, who deeply feel the pain and grief of those they serve at the hospital. Our housekeepers, engineers, registrars, security officers, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, surgeons, nurses, and house supervisors offer excellent spiritual care to patients. I feel honored to walk alongside these good people, many of whom have different theological frameworks than those I claim. What we do hold in common are willing hearts and minds, and a deep desire to know God’s presence in our midst.

I am a child of God. I am a trauma survivor, a compassionate listener, an empathic healer, an intuitive Truth teller. I am a death doula, a minister to souls, a discerner of God’s will, a witness and a guide: a midwife for the Holy. I walk alongside those who are suffering and afraid. I help others to discern God’s will in their own lives, and I serve as a reminder of God’s presence in each moment. I am the Quaker Shaman. This is my path.

Emma M. Churchman is a life-long Quaker and member of Swannanoa Valley Meeting in Black Mountain, N.C. She has a MDiv from Earlham School of Religion and a private practice as a spiritual director and transformational coach (Quakershaman.com). She is currently in a chaplain residency program at Johnson City Medical Center in Johnson City, Tenn.

Submitted by Paul N. in response to reading her work…

The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath; it is twice bless’d;
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes . . . – Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice

O love, O pure deep love, be here, be now
Be all; worlds dissolve into your stainless endless radiance,
Frail living leaves burn with you brighter than cold stars;
Make me your servant, your breath, your core – Rumi

from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche

Peggy D also said the following:

Santa Fe, NM

“This article strikes me as amazing, coming from a woman who has enough openness to let texts and titles move aside, and thereby get to the direct trauma of whatever person is before her in the hospital. As a Buddhist practitioner, it would never occur to me to request a chaplain if I were hospitalized, but this article shows me that there are chaplains out there who have room for complexity and Christain doubt. I’m glad she’s in the world.”

 

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory