Posted by: Joe LaGuardia | May 3, 2013

Pets can make great caregivers too!

grievingThe question of whether pets go to heaven will forever be a theological debate, but one thing is certain: Pets can sometimes make great pastors.  Very few pet owners will doubt that our four-legged friends can provide divine presence, heartfelt encouragement, and unconditional compassion when needed most.

The Bible’s approach to animals varies from book to book.  In the Garden of Eden, animals were companions to be named and beloved (Gen. 1:18-20).  The book of Proverbs points to animals as creatures to be studied and admired (Prov. 6:6), whereas the book of Job points to animals as symbols of chaos (Job 41:1-2).

Some animals were God’s agents for change (Jonah found that out the hard way), while others became symbols of peace in the New Heaven and New Earth (Isaiah 11:6-8).

The New Testament tended to use animals (specifically dogs) in a pejorative light.  Dogs were considered dirty nuisances, and Jews often called unwelcome gentiles “dogs.”   These were no mere pets, and having an animal around meant having to share resources that most first-century peasants lacked.

Ours is definitely a culture that treats and views animals differently.  It’s hard to find a household that doesn’t boast at least one dog or cat, and we southerners have made it culturally couth to have a great hunting dog around.  Women of posh stature carry little toy poodles in purses made just for their fury friends, and a dog will always be (wo)Man’s Best Friend.

Granted, it’s a stretch to talk about having a pooch for a pastor or a cat for clergy.  After all, a pastor is a leader and a shepherd.  A pastor leads the sheep and is not to be confused with the sheep; but, pastors have as their primary role the gift to edify and encourage by simply being present.   I know many a pet that have played that role.

Whenever I get sick, my family abandons me.  They fear catching what I have, so they shove me in the bedroom, lock the door, and feed me by pushing a tray of bread and water through a little hole in the wall.

Not so my cat.  She has a sixth sense that tells her I am not well, and she’s always right there by my side when I’m down for the count.  Unlike my wife and children, the cat never fails to be there in my most vulnerable hour.

Talk to any dog or cat lover and she will tell you that her pet has an uncanny ability to sense what she, its owner, is feeling.  Some animals are even said to grieve when their masters grieve.  It may be nothing more than the animal picking up on our body language or a certain scent, but it can be a source of comfort nevertheless.

A recent article by Solange de Santis explored how therapy dogs helped victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.  Lutherans dogs, especially, were gaining a reputation for providing pet therapy ministry throughout the nation following similar tragedies, and they were quite popular to Newtown residents.

In a Decatur senior-adult living facility in which I am chaplain, residents have a monthly meeting for pet therapy.  We also host an annual “Blessing of the Pets” service in the Spring  in which we say a short litany and pray over our little loved ones.

As my family, like so many others, can attest, pets can be pests sometimes; but, more often than not, they can be pastors too.  At this rate, our pets will go from wearing diamond-studded pink or black-leather spiked collars to white and black pristine clergy collars in no time.

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Posted by: Joe LaGuardia | March 29, 2013

Reclaim Sabbath this Easter season

By Joe LaGuardia

“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

All that we do
Is touched with ocean, yet we remain
On the shore of what we know.
(Richard Wilbur)

pad

I.

When caring for others, sometimes words are the most valuable resources we caregivers have in helping loved ones.  I agree with Walter Brueggemann who wrote that we use words to “engage in world making.”  Our words carry great power.  They dismantle, dismember, and deconstruct; they rebuild, plant, co-create, and heal.  Words breathe into being new worlds, new realities, new beginnings.  They midwife opportunities for second, third, and infinite chances.

That is what happens when we use words with our loved ones, but what happens when we go before God in our private devotional time?   What happens when we enter our interior space where time rather than words carry greater power?  How do we utter words before God, before our family?

For, in the presence of God, our words and wisdom wither into foolishness.  Our power crumbles like idols before a cross that is symbol to God’s power; weakness turned on its head for sure.

We are silenced, and it is Sabbath that shuts our mouths.  Sabbath replaces our confidence with uncertainty, it sends our cliches out to sea.  God confronts our solutions with ever deeper Mystery and the work of unwording.

The goal of Sabbath is summed up in Palm 46: “Be still and know that I am God” (v. 10).

This is difficult for caregivers who make a living out of helping others.  We mistakenly believe that being busy is productive.   It’s easier to avoid Sabbath because when we enter into it, God forces us (like a stubborn musician teaching her apprentice) to play (with) the silences as well as the notes. We are forced to stop, and that makes us either feel useless or guilty (or both).

Yet, it is Sabbath–and unwording silence–that we fear most because in Sabbath our words lose meaning and the ability to control.  It’s where we face what T. S. Eliot calls the “undisciplined squads of emotions.”

Question: So what do we do when we are confident with only one-half of our calling (to encourage and help those we love), but constantly (and consistently) shy away from the other half of our calling–to journey into ourselves, confront Divine Mystery, be silenced, and remember who and whose we are?

Answer:  We must keep practicing it.  We put down our blueprints, our hammers and utility belts and give them back to God.  We toss the mantle of “I-have-it-all-together” andrelearn what it means to be malleable in the hands of the Potter.

II.

There are three steps that help us confront and enter Sabbath.  The first step is to realize that the cultivation of an interior life–the life that Sabbath is all about–is a part of our calling.  Our calling to care is not divorced from our calling to be cared for no more than our calling to surrender is no less important than our calling to serve.

Prayer, lectio divina, devotions, personal worship, journaling, silence, meditation, “quiet times,” and other spiritual disciplines of the church are just as important as our words.

Yes, we are busy folks and our schedules demand obligations–but if we don’t practice Sabbath, we are abusing our care receiver’s trust, deceiving the human resources department (as it were), and getting a full-day’s paycheck but only doing half the work.

The second step is to reorient our ministry to be caregiver outward from Sabbath.  This is difficult for us Protestants who see Sabbath as the last day of the week rather than the first day of the week.  Sabbath is not an afterthought so much as it is the very center from whence God sends us.

We follow the likes of…

Brother Lawrence, who asked God to invite him into the world of ministry, joined God, and then, in turn, invited God to join him in the mundane tasks and routines of every-day living.

Henri Nouwen, who sought silence as the only real way to hear a word from God.  “The Word of God,” he wrote in The Way of the Heart, “is born out of the eternal silence of God.”  It was silence that was the pregnant mystery from which God gives our next marching order, and it is only silence that can teach us how to speak: “A word with power is a word that comes out of silence.”

St. John (of Patmos) whose ministry to the seven churches of Asia Minor erupted and founds its inspiration from a Revelation he received in a cave–a symbol of the interior life if there ever was one.

Jesus, who ministered only after meeting God in the solitude and lengthy Sabbath of carpentry, baptism and wilderness.

The Israelites, who had to learn what it meant to trust in God with nothing more than rock-tainted water and damp manna before becoming a people holy enough to settle into promised land.

The third step is to simply practice Sabbath and make time for it.  Henri Nouwen wrote that we talk and think often about God, but our hearts are far from God (he called this notion the “crisis of our prayer life”).  Eventually, we have to stop reading, talking, doing, and ministering.  We have to put everything down and push everything aside . . .and simply do Sabbath…

“Be still and know that I am God.”

To add words to that verse is to realize that there is nothing more to say, to come upon “a different kind of failure” (T. S. Eliot).

III.

Exercise 1: Sit in silence for 5 minutes.  Introduce time with music for several minutes and keep time thereafter (officially starting your 5 minutes) with an alarm clock (this keeps you from looking at your watch or a clock and lets you rest easy).

Exercise 2:  Write down your weekly schedule for each hour of each day, Sunday through Saturday.  Include routine activities and family/personal obligations.  Do you pencil in Sabbath?  If so, where?

Exercise 3: Consider these questions for reflection:

  • Where do you lack Sabbath in your weekly schedule?
  • How do you practice Sabbath?  When?
  • How does your care receiver play a part in your Sabbath? Do you invite your care receiver to practice Sabbath as well?
  • What decisions and commitments do you need to make in order to reclaim Sabbath?

Resources:

Walter Brueggemann, The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 96.

Mark Burrows, “‘Raiding the Inarticulate’: Mysticism, Poetics, and Unlanguageable,” in Minding the Spirit, ed. Elizabeth Dreyer and Mark Burrows (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005), p. 341-361.  (All poetry cited in this article is from Burrow’s essay.)

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart (New York: Ballantine, 1981).

Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958).

(Author’s note: This was written for presentation at a pastor’s retreat, going on in mid-April 2013.)

Winter-trees-without-leavesI’ve been writing articles on spiritual disciplines this month.  I intend to continue that series, but since the weatherman is insisting that this weekend will be cold and wet, I’d like to shift gears.  This article is for readers who struggle with seasonal affective disorder or mild depression during the winter months.

Over twelve years ago, I didn’t realize how widespread seasonal depression was in our state because, being from sunny Florida, I didn’t even know such a thing existed.

In the first year we moved, there was a snowstorm in Atlanta and my wife and I didn’t waste time in building snowmen, making snow angels, and tossing around a few snowballs for fun.  We took pictures of our snow-covered cars for family in Florida.  It was really fun.

The seasons changed, and I appreciated all that God had to offer in creation: from the Spring-time mating calls of birds to the autumnal change of the leaves.  But then, about the second or third year here, I started to feel differently in the winter time.

I believe it was in the dead winter of 2004-2005 when I went to a friend–a social worker who knew more about counseling than I–to tell her that I had feelings of isolation and depression that I had never felt before in my life.  She recommended a therapist, and I went with great results.

Spring came, and I recovered quite well from the whole ordeal.  Our first child turned one, and things moved right along.  Then, when winter hit again the following year, those same feelings erupted.  I became melancholy and lethargic; I gained weight.  Although my withdrawal wasn’t as severe as the previous winter, I definitely felt differently.

I noticed a pattern as the years passed.  Winter came and I would get severe mood swings.  Finally, when last year’s winter proved mild, I got scared: winter came, then springtime, but I never recovered.

I was burned out, and my family and friends noticed a difference.  My best friend of twenty years told me that I seemed depressed to him, and he mentioned on more than one occasion that I was always the life of the party, what had happened?

Although we ministers–and Christians in general–like to spiritualize things and blame either Satan, sin, or dysfunction for mood swings and illness, I acknowledged that I was no different than roughly 6% of the U.S. population that struggles with what many doctors call seasonal affective disorder or SAD.

SAD is not uncommon for people who face harsh winters or, in the least, winters in which very little sunlight is available.  It can be a symptom of mild depression on the one hand or, in severe cases, bipolar emotional disorder or chronic depression.  It often overlaps one of these conditions, though it can simply affect people who face too much stress in their lives, pastors not withstanding.

The more I acknowledged my own wrestling match with this illness, the more I opened up about it with folks at church.  Turns out I wasn’t alone: by the time March hit, I managed to gather a small support system of like-minded people who face depression in one way or another.

We inquire about each other’s health every so often.  We send encouraging texts and emails (especially on overcast days).  We share resources. (Just the other day, one sent me a e-devotional on depression.)

No Christian who struggles with depression or SAD is alone.  Though “sorrow may last for the night, joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5b).  God, though seemingly distant, is always present; and, I can bear witness to the fact that reaching out and getting help can make all the difference in the world.

If you struggle with a similar disorder, I encourage you to seek help, speak with a trusted counselor, doctor or therapist, and hang in there.

(Postscript:  While browsing Baptist sites this evening, I stumbled upon a recently published article concerning SAD at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Press website.  My only critique of the article is that the author does indeed spiritualize the issue, assuming that a re-dedication to Christ and more Bible study time might do the trick in combating SAD.  That may be fine and dandy, but additional help may be required!)

(Trinity Baptist Church is observing “Worship in Pink” on Sunday, Oct. 21st, as a part of observing National Breast Cancer Awareness month.  Join Trinity for worship at 10:30 AM.  More information online.)

*****

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month.  It is a good time for advocacy, support, education, and remembrances of survivors and victims of breast cancer.  For churches serious about ministering to the whole person, this presents a unique challenge and pastoral opportunity.

According to the American Cancer Society, one out of every nine people are diagnosed with breast cancer.  It is the second leading cause of death for women, and the leading cause of death for women ages 35 to 45.

Thankfully, persistent research, greater awareness, and intentional education has garnered early prevention and more effective treatments.  Yet, the effects of breast cancer can become so complex that churches still struggle to respond.

For one, since breast cancer deals with an intimate part of the body, any conversation about this type of cancer can be taboo.  A majority of churches have male clergy so conversations about breast cancer may be avoided altogether.

Furthermore, breast cancer leads to, as chaplain Irene Henderson argues, two different areas of pastoral concern.  One includes issues surrounding a loss of self or sexual awareness, as well as a shifting sense of femininity and stigmatization.  This is especially true for people whose primary treatment is a mastectomy.

Irene Henderson tells one such story of a mastectomy patient who underwent chemotherapy.  The chemo resulted in hair loss, and the patient lamented that only when she lost her hair did people begin to sympathize with her.    Her pastor did not ask about grief over losing a breast, but was quick to offer help only after she came to church bald.

A second area of pastoral concern deals with the emotions of victims.  Like victims of other tragedies, breast cancer patients ask the inevitable “Why me?” This is a question that communicates anger, guilt, and shame.

No surprise, then, that many victims feel guilty when they are diagnosed and question whether they are at fault.  Victims question their level of self-care and wonder whether the diagnosis resulted from lack of dieting or exercise.

Nevertheless, Henderson says that a victim’s guilt should be neither ignored nor downplayed, but seen through to the end.  This reminds me of Psalm 23, in which God walks with us “through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Since breast cancer brings to mind one’s mortality (whether it is detected early or not), churches, friends, and support groups need to walk through the various emotions with their loved ones in this precarious and fragile illness.  One can only walk “through the valley,” not around it.  If done intentionally then, churches can provide much-needed pastoral presence in the midst of questioning, doubt, and anger.  This, in turn, can empower victims to take an active role in the disease’s treatment.

Other ways a church community can provide support is by listening to victims and acknowledging grief that occurs from losing a breast, sexual vitality, and any relationships.

If guilt is present, the church can foster reconciliation with God or loved ones.  If anger is the overriding response to a diagnosis, the church can affirm that God is big enough to handle the pain and sorrow of any doubting victim.

The church also needs to be present for single women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, as well as the partners of breast cancer victims.  Single women who face a mastectomy, for instance, may mourn the fact that breast feeding may not be an option if childbirth is a future goal.

Furthermore, a single woman can easily doubt her self-image and beauty, resulting in a decline of self-image and confidence.  Such issues need to be handled sensitively and with a trusted adviser, counselor or friend.

Partners of victims also need to grieve in their own way.  Some, for instance, need space to recognize that their loved one will not be the same after a surgery or treatment is pursued.  In some circumstances, the partner may also realize that he or she may have to move into a caregiver role.

By taking steps to confront breast cancer head on, especially during the month of October, the church has a chance to prophetically confront the new reality that exists on the horizon for all victims and bear witness to the “year of God’s favor” to the brokenhearted and those held captive to cancer.

(Source: Irene Henderson, “Matters Close to the Heart: Pastoral Care to Mastectomy Patients,” in Through the Eyes of Women, ed. Jeanne Stevenson Moessner [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996], pp. 207-221.)

By Faith Franz

Caregiving for a mesothelioma patient requires a great deal of selflessness and humility. The experience will be trying at times, but caregivers can tap into a source of inner strength to support their loved one through this trying time.

Patience is key when supporting a loved one through a terminal cancer diagnosis. As a caregiver, you will be called on to fill a number of different duties.

Often, caregivers take on additional responsibilities as their loved one’s disease progresses. Asking for extra help may be a big step for the mesothelioma patient, and caregivers should gently encourage their loved one to ask for assistance when they need it. However, caregivers should talk with their patients before simply assuming a new role – many patients like to maintain their independence as long as they can.

Some of the most common mesothelioma caregiving activities include:

  • Scheduling and driving the patient to doctor’s appointments
  • Administering or refilling prescriptions
  • Helping with household duties like cooking and cleaning
  • Helping the patient with basic hygiene activities such as showering and toileting

The often-packed schedule caregivers find themselves maintaining can be stressful. To help deal with the added responsibility and the pain of watching a loved one cope with a terminal cancer, mesothelioma caregivers can turn to various relaxation techniques. Prayer and meditation can help caregivers feel more centered, as can participation in support groups.

Caregivers often look to other caregivers for inspiration. Nobody better understands the intricate balance that must be struck during the journey than someone else who is going through it. Many churches, cancer alliances and care centers offer support groups that mesothelioma caregivers can join to rely on when they feel weak.

However, caregivers should also know when their loved one would best benefit from outside care. With numerous outpatient and inpatient options, caregivers can turn to organizations such as Hospice to add a level of care when their own reserves are running low.

Faith Franz is a writer for the Mesothelioma Center. She combines her interests in whole-body health and medical research to educate the mesothelioma community about the newest developments in cancer care.

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