Aging & End of Life: A “Mental Health” Issue?

I came across the following article on Sunday morning in USA Today: “Aging: The One Part People Don’t Talk About – and 5 Ways to Cope.”  In my first two congregations, the majority of my time was spent ministering to elderly people who were facing physical and mental decline, feeling more isolated and helpless in their state.  I’ve found it deeply meaningful helping people deal with questions about their quality of life and feelings around their loss of independence.

So the article certainly peaked my interest.  It named the reality of grief, loss, anxiety, and dread that comes with aging and decline.  As the title suggests, it even offers 5 helpful ways for folks to cope.  However, I started to notice a trend: all of the experts interviewed were caregivers from the mental health field.  In fact, the author of the article represents a non-profit news company that covers health issues.  Strangely, this disturbed me, and caused me to ask:

“Is facing aging and the end of life a mental health issue?”

Now before you assume I’m going to sound like one more of those overly religious type who is going to offer a rant and lament about how the church or God is being pushed out by mental health professionals, let me offer that I have a lot of respect for these folks and in fact, I even work closely with them in my work as a pastor and chaplain.  They offer so much help and relief for so many who are in pain, and are a huge help to elderly folks who struggle to grasp what is to come as they near death.  Yet, I think relegating these issues and the elderly people who suffer from them as “mental health” issues falls well short of actually helping them come to terms with their reality.  I wonder, is the solution much simpler than that?

Aging and end of life struggles for me as fundamental questions about the value of human life and its sanctity.  What does it mean to preserve human worth when people lose their functionality and independence in a society that ties a person’s value to such things?  What might our obligation or responsibility be to participate in preserving people’s dignity and worth as they age?  Do we even have an obligation or responsibility at all?  In short, will we care for our aging when they need us most?

The experts in the article all suggest that the aging need us.  We shouldn’t let them face their struggles alone.  This sounds simple, and it is.  I think what bothers me is that we tend to place the whole burden of seeking help on those who are suffering.  We leave it up to people to seek mental health or medical professionals who will diagnose their pain and prescribe solutions, when all that is really needed is for others to take notice and care.  If we need experts and professionals to tell us to connect to and care for one another, then our society – then we – are in trouble.

To be human is to suffer, and to acknowledge another human is to acknowledge when they are suffering, and come along side them in their need.  This is a basic thing that for generations, has kept us from completely destroying each other and ourselves.  In fact, I would contend that caring and connecting are basic human functions – as important and natural to life as eating, drinking, and breathing.

When I think back on the folks in my congregations, I can’t help but recall how they wanted nothing more than to see children, grandchildren.  They wanted people like myself who would listen to their struggles and acknowledge their feelings of grief, loss, and fear. (Although I will admit I am guilty  of letting my inattentiveness and discomfort cause me to fail them at times)  For the most part, they didn’t ask myself or anyone to fix their situation.  In fact, most had some level of acceptance at a process that was inevitable.  What they needed was relief from their feelings associated with aging, which strangely, all that was needed was someone to take time to care and connect.

All sorts of data shows what we all know to be true in our hearts and minds: when we deny the basic need for connection in the face of hardship, we collectively decline faster physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  We make our struggles worse.  The question is, will we continue to relegate caring for those dealing with the all too common feelings of fear, anxiety, and frustration associated with aging to a small cadre of credentialed professionals?  Or, will we come to the realization people facing such things don’t always need professional help – they need us.

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“Just Keep Pushing.”

Sitting down to write this blog post is representative of my whole 2017: I can’t seem to get started. All year-long, the struggle was real:

  • I could never start any of my homework for my Continuing Education Program.
  • I found myself having to force myself to head to coach wrestling.
  • It was like pulling teeth to carve out quality time with my wife.
  • It was hard to sustain effort, because the task seemed never-ending…and at times I felt unnecessary and questioned if I was actually bringing folks anything of value.
  • I just about everything I tried to write….it didn’t get written.

The ideas were there.  The pull to go do those things was strong.  Yet I couldn’t just get myself in gear.  Things in my head and heart never seemed to get turned into action.

This is a familiar feeling for me.

It takes me back to my competition days.  There were those moments when I just didn’t have it.  My body unresponsive from a drastic weight cut or overtraining. Seeing moves and openings, but a split second slower than my opponent. I was mentally distracted.  My fear and nerves got the better of me.  Some days, it was simply, “That guy is better than me today.”  He was putting points on the board, I was just hoping he’d cut me and give me the free escape point.

Here’s the thing in wrestling though: you don’t have the option of quitting.  Even after the guy lets you up, you have to keep wrestling.  You have to keep pushing, even if you know it’s not gonna be easy and success is unlikely.

You have to keep pushing.

I think 2017 was so difficult on so many levels for so many people.  I don’t think I need to expend too much energy writing those things here; you can name them.  People I speak to, they’re frustrated results aren’t what they expect, or they’re afraid to commit for fear the result won’t be what they want.  (That’s how I feel about this post right now.  I’d like to delete it because honestly, I’m about 99% sure you’ll think it’s rambling drivel.)

Yet, just like on the mat, I’ve learned that results aren’t the point, and you can’t be afraid of failure and the opinions of others.

You just keep pushing. I tell the athletes I coach this.  I tell the people I care for as chaplain/pastor the same thing.

So shouldn’t I follow my own advice?

Maybe it won’t be great, but maybe it’ll be enough.  In fact,

  • Since they don’t give grades, maybe it’s enough I just learn something.
  • No matter how I feel, I just need to show up for practice.  Being on the mat is always good for me (time has taught me that).
  • No matter how busy my day, I leave a little in the emotional/mental tank for the wife for quality time.
  • Helping just one person is enough; in fact, caring and helping people IS enough.  The ideas and projects can wait.
  • Maybe I just need to write once a week, whether it’s profound or not.

This year, I’ll worry less about the result, the outcome.  For those things that are important to me, no matter how I feel, I’ll just keep pushing.

 

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Reflections on the Sailor’s Creed

I wrote this for my Command’s Plan of the Month and Individual Augmentee Newsletter.  I offered this as a reflection on events in Charlottesville and as a reminder of what our Force is about from the “Chaplain’s perspective.”

“I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all.”

Most of you likely recognize the words above; it’s the final line of the Sailor’s Creed. Interestingly, the Sailor’s Creed is a relatively new tradition in the long and rich tradition of the U.S. Navy. The Creed we know today was the product of a series of Blue Ribbon Recruit Training panels in 1993, led by the Chief of Naval Operations at the time. A few other minor changes were made to make it as inclusive of the whole Naval Force, and its final revision coming in 1997.

I’ve always found the last line of the Sailor’s Creed a bit odd. While the other stanzas are very Navy-centric, tied to our Oaths of Office and Core Values, the last line almost reads more like something you’d hear from civilian life. It seems like redundant language, and really, not very relevant to the Navy context. Aren’t excellence and the fair treatment of all sort of a “no-brainer?”

Some of you might be aware of recent events surrounding rallies and protests in our nation. I know this is a potentially polarizing topic that many of us would rather avoid. Yet, I don’t think that we can. When attitudes of hatred, bias, and prejudice rise up in our society, we need a reminder that such things have no place in the same, and certainly not in our Navy and Marine Corps team. It is the belief that every person has the fundamental right to be treated with respect and fairness, regardless of race, creed, upbringing, or lifestyle. The person to our left and right are our brother and sister, volunteering to take an Oath to defend what we hold most dear.

This is why, I believe, the drafters of the Sailor’s Creed added this final line. It serves as a reminder of this fundamental right, and of our fundamental responsibility to preserve this right for all people. Let us support one another as we each make sense of these events individually. More than this, let us be committed to the fundamental respect and care that makes our Navy and Marine Corps team the greatest in the world.

Let us daily affirm our commitment to excellence and the fair treatment of all.

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Responding.

I type this from the other side of the world right now.  As I follow the events of this weekend in Charlottesville, VA, about 3 hours from where I live, it's interesting how the physical distance has given me critical distance to reflect and fashion a response to all that's happening.   The time difference means I literally get to "sleep on it" and wake up in the morning a bit removed from the raw emotion.

A word about that: there is a difference between reacting and responding.  Reactions are the words and actions that come immediately out of an emotional, psychological, physical stimulus.  It's instinctual and it just happens without any thought.  Habitual reaction to life around us is potential dangerous, as Charlottesville is showing us.

Responding is different.  It examines the thoughts and feelings we're having, and fashions words and actions that consider the whole context.  Responses often get a point across; they seem rational.  Reactions are the exact opposite.

One isn't necessarily better over the other.  It really boils down to what's in the human heart: what one values.  Jesus said as much in the gospels: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."  Values and one's heart are found intertwined.  Your reactions and responses will be just as twisted if your values and your heart are as well.

The other thing about reactions is that once the thought or emotion has passed, so does the action. Responses tend to lead to committed, sustained action.

But I think the benefit of responding is that it disciplines just to reflection, and that reflection is to challenge the assumptions we do hold in our heart that create convenient little blind spots for us.  You know, things like "racists are bad, but you have to consider the liberal communists are just as bad too."  Or deftly trying to separate oneself from white supremacists upon the argument "that's not what conservative politics are about." The rally, by the way, was called, "Unite the Right", so I find that kind of hard to do.

However, my challenge to respond goes out to my liberal, white – yes white – colleagues.  There are a lot of ad hoc rallies and prayer vigils being held, and that is great.  But that is reacting.   My fear is people will stop their action at that, and maybe commit a few conversations months from now.  Within my own spheres, it's great that clergy and others got involved, marching, attending prayer and worship rallies in conjunction with "Unite the Right."  It's great my social media is blowing up with all sorts of pictures from the event and posts about sermons preached, follow on rallies and vigils attended, scripture passages and inspirational quotes.  I'm glad you felt compelled to react.  But I can't help but think, "What took you so long?" because it's not like this hasn't been happening elsewhere, and for quite awhile.

Think about how you will respond: you need to get off the sidelines and into the game, long-term.

I say this because as an Asian-American, transracial adoptee, I've had to walk that journey.  It was hard, I resisted, but in the end I'm thankful I when though the process of responding.  For too long, like many Asian-Americans, I've pretended there isn't a problem with racism, nationalism, and hatred in this country.  Life and a vocation change forced me to think, and to get off the sidelines myself.  Let me say this: not only did that journey lead to a better response in the face of injustice, hatred, and prejudice, but it also made my reactions much healthier and more rational.

Charlottesville showed us that hatred and violence associated with racial superiority has no boundary – it can and will touch all of us.  Ironically, it took white on white violence to get a large amount of people into the game.

Will it do the same for you?  How will you respond?

PS: I know this isn't easy.  Everyone has their own timeline and pace…trust me, so did I.  So know I certainly love you regardless of what pace you're at or if you care to give it a go at all….I just hope beyond my own cynicism and doubt you'll find the courage to respond.

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Sermon 5 August 2017, Emmanuel Lutheran, Virginia Beach, VA

Text: Matthew 14:13-21

A good friend of mine sent me an article a couple weeks ago, the title: “Make America Great Again is Now a CCLI licensed Christian worship song.”  The song was debuted at First Baptist Church in Dallas as part of their “Let’s Celebrate Freedom Rally,” at which then candidate, now President Trump was the keynote speaker.

Your Pastor Aaron asked me to preach a couple weeks ago, to which I gladly agreed….and then he told me, “Your topic is to preach on the intersection between God and country, and by the way, I’m going to be vacation.”  Let’s just say he owes me, big time.  This is one of those hills no preacher wants to die on, a topic preachers usually avoid altogether.

And perhaps you are all feeling the same way.  You’re tired of the left-leaning, right-leaning rants about how certain stances and policies are consistent with Christian faith or not, and judging you for whether you are Christian or not. You came here this morning to get away from that stuff.  Church is supposed to be a refuge, a safe-haven, an escape from such things, right? 

Perhaps, rather than to define what the intersection between God and country is this morning, it would be more relevant to acknowledge just how exhausting living in our country today is.  The things that I think most of us care about, don’t seem to be getting better.  People are less considerate.  They are less empathetic towards others.  We hear things other people say and at times perhaps even hear ourselves saying things that we never imagined saying to another human being.  What’s worse, it even seems like collectively, we actually enjoy living this way.  Being inconsiderate, less empathetic, hateful, and violent is something people actually seem to be proud of.  Maybe we feel compelled to say something, a Christian response.  But even that is met with so much scrutiny and criticism these days that it would just be better to not put ourselves out there anymore.  Exhausted, we just don’t want to deal with any of it.

If our gospel story this morning is any indication, Jesus probably wouldn’t blame you.

Our text opens with Jesus withdrawing to a deserted place.  But what we don’t hear this morning is why: the opening verses of chapter 14 is the story of John the Baptist getting his head chopped off by King Herod, fulfilling a party request made by his wife and daughter for “John’s head on a platter.”  It’s a sobering reminder of the world that Jesus lives in….an inconsiderate, less empathetic, hateful, and violent one.  So Jesus withdraws…perhaps because he himself doesn’t want to deal with it.

But we hear how the story ends: Jesus feeds over 5,000 people.  He does something and I suppose, so should we.  Just exactly what is the intersection then between God and country for us?  What is the Christian response?  Or, the question so many leaders in our Synod seem to be preoccupied with, “What is the Lutheran response to life in our country today?”

I was about 15 years old, and after chores were done one night, dad asked me to head over to one of our neighbor’s farms a few miles down the road to help them with their chores.  Of course, I resisted….we had just put in a hard day of field work ourselves and all I wanted to do is head into town to hang out with some of my friends.   After a nice little “discussion,” my dad just sighed and said, “Can you just go over there?  They could use the help right now.”  So I jumped in our truck and headed over to help our neighbors finish their chores.  The thing is, I knew the real reason I was going over there: about two weeks before, the family had lost their father and husband.  The wife and her  daughters were doing all that they could to get the chores done and keep things afloat and hold onto the farm until while they sorted things out.  I knew that…but to be honest, it didn’t matter much to me.

What is the intersection between God and country?  The more I read this morning’s gospel story, the less I believe it has anything to do with us, or what we do.  At best, our responses range from complete avoidance and escapism to an obligation and burden we try to pass off as altruistic.  I think the intersection even goes beyond what God simply does for us, because we are famous for wasting a lot of time trying to decide what action is godly and pure, which never really gets us anywhere.  The miracle itself isn’t so much that Jesus was able to feed over 5,000 people with so little resources.  The miracle and good news is WHY Jesus does that.  “Jesus saw a great crowd; and he had compassion on them and cured their sick…..and he said, ‘They need not go away….bring the fish and loaves here to me….and he gave them to the disciples and the crowds.”

Intersection is about a God who comes into our nation and to us out of complete and utter compassion.  The miracle is that God continues to look at us with compassion.  In my current ministry, I spend a lot of time with service men and women who come back from deployments, having seen and done things connected to the reality of combat and war.  I spend time with men and women who have spent so much time away from their spouses and families because of these deployments, the damage done….to the point that recovery and repair is impossible.  These are people who don’t want to have their situation fixed, because there’s no miracle to be worked.  They’re exhausted, and have exhausted every measure…..and what they wonder is, are they worthy of, and will anyone – will God – look on them with compassion.

Perhaps it is the same for you as well.  We wonder if God still has compassion for us, for this nation, or if we’re truly left to fend for ourselves.  The good news this morning is that Christ looks on us with compassion, and a compassion so deep that God continues to intersect our lives.

In a nation starving for empathy, impoverished by hatred, indifference, violence, and disregard towards anyone and anything that doesn’t serve us or the factions that demand our allegiance, God intersects with our world in Christ out of compassion to feed us with the gift of compassion.  Whether it’s an act of feeding more than 5,000 people, or feeding a small group of people around the Communion Table, or in other acts we see in our everyday lives, God’s compassion is the real miracle that sustains us, changes us, and gives us hope.  Amen.

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Searching.

This past Sunday morning, I decided to make my way down to the congregation I belonged to prior to heading off to seminary. It was an important and formative place along my journey: they cared for me as I mourned my dad’s death in 2006, they allowed me to lead youth ministries and serve on the church council as a layperson, and it is where I ultimately decided to attend seminary and become a Lutheran pastor.

It was a good worship service.  The sermon was great, I saw and chatted with familiar faces, but I left feeling very much that I no longer belong at this congregation. It’s a feeling that has been all too common this year as I continue to sit in pews in Sunday’s, listening to the preachers words, receiving the sacrament, and while appreciating how connected everyone else around me seems to be,

I find I’m still searching.

At this moment in my life, I’m not sure why I keep going.   Perhaps it is to capture a sense of nostalgia, an old familiar feeling.  Perhaps it’s because the longing I feel is really a desire to be able to sit in a pew, look around, and say to myself, “This feels like home.”  I don’t think that’s quite right though.

 

I’m discovering that for this part of my journey, being a vagabond of sorts when it comes to churches and belonging feels right.  It has actually been life-giving to simply appreciate a faith community is on its own terms, without having to feel the weight of expectation that my attendance leads to homesteading there.  For someone who has been overly critical of what churches are or aren’t doing, there is something freeing in that process.

I haven’t ruled out being surprised.  I haven’t ruled out that one day, I’ll want to be part of a church long-term again.  For now, I’m comfortable being a transient presence, I’m comfortable simply appreciating things as they are, in the present moment.  I’m content to be encountered by God rather than seek to have an encounter with God.

I’m comfortable searching.

 

 

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Courage.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. ~ 1 John 1:8-9

I was talking with a friend and colleague of mine about his sermon this past Sunday.  After the usual stumbling back and forth conversation, only to realize we are thinking exactly the same way in believing that it is the Holy Spirit, through God's Word, where the fundamental work of change happens.  Yet, what is the role of the person in all this?  When I think of myself, I think: COURAGE.

Courage to listen, take notice, and reflect….

Courage to look in the mirror and be honest about my hyprocracy, my pride, my self-indulgent need to "fix" what is problematic external to myself…..

Courage to admit my sin – those dark, ugly tendencies and urges that I'd just rather pretend don't exist….

Courage to admit where I am complicit and where I am in complete denial and avoidance altogether…..

Courage to really look in the mirror at the image staring back at me, stop deceiving myself and be honest.

For me, it is only when I exhibit this kind of courage do I ever properly hear God's Word as gospel, and thus the Holy Spirit is able to work in me.

Perhaps it is the same for you as well.

Lord, give us this courage daily so that we might be changed, and that we might be an instrument of your change in the world.

 

 

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