Story and narrative

It’s an age-old problem—distinguishing between stories on the one hand and stories on the other.  (Yes, that’s what I meant to say.)  The problem is precisely that the word “story” can be used in more than one way!

“Let me tell you a story about the storied history of a three-story house.”

Do you think a story that begins that way would be just a story, or will it be history?  The plot might thicken, or it might not.

Children’s bedtime stories might include “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Curious George Goes to the Fair” and “Peter Rabbit” and “Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” and Bible stories and something about pigs and pancakes.  How will a child learn to distinguish and interpret all this?  (Then there is the comparison between stories about Santa Claus and stories about Jesus, but that’s another story.  I worry about this off and on, but I don’t recall having trouble separating fact from fiction as I moved into preteen years, so I guess my son will be okay, too.)

As skeptics are quick to point out, not every element in a biblical story may be “true” as a 21st-century western mind conceives of “true.”  To be sure, some discrepancies and inconsistencies appear.  I think some of the difficulties may be traced to textual provenance and editing concerns—i.e., we don’t have the original text or even a 2nd-generation copy of it, so we can’t pinpoint how a new word or different spelling crept in.  Other incongruities indicate that ancient writers weren’t concerned with the accurate reporting of “fact” in the same way we are.  Yet the narratives in our Bibles were written to convey important truths, and they are largely structured around historical realities such as the Herodian dynasty, the 2nd/rebuilt temple, the Philistines, or ancient Egypt.

In interpreting narrative, it is both important and helpful to pay attention to the tools of the storytelling trade, such as . . .

  • the presentation and development of characters 
  • the pacing of a story—where it slows down and spends time, and where its gaps occur
  • the setting 

In the area of “setting,” I recommend this short video produced by The Bible Project


More meditations: membership, ministry, & making connections

I am more committed to Christian togetherness than might be assumed by a casual observer—in part, because I don’t actually talk about it much.  To consider aligning with, regularly assembling with, and working alongside others is no light or inconsequential undertaking!  It can be wearisome to explain the mental, spiritual, and physical toil involved in searching for a group of Christians to which to belong.  This enterprise runs deep, requiring thoroughgoing thought and enduring energy.  The very idea of passively allowing geography, denominational history, or the availability of “programs” to make a choice for me is not really an option.  I shared prior thoughts in these two posts:

The crisis of ministry

Musings on ministry and membership

Reactions to those have been mixed, and I’ve wished at times that I had quashed the inner drive to speak “prophetically” or the desire to be understood in this sphere.  I didn’t have to make this so publicly explicit by blogging about it, but it is not out of character, given my “earnestly speaking” modus operandi, to attempt to say something that I believe is (a) important and (b) on the right track.  Words like these can be misread—or perfectly read and sincerely criticized.  Critical attention is never any fun, although it can be helpful.  Something in me craves new or renewed connections with various souls, so the effort is worth it to me.  It might at times be that two will talk past one another or simply turn away, coming from vastly different vantage points.  Perhaps simpatico and/or a potential for synergy might be revealed.  In a rare case, could someone actually be taught or influenced for good through a blog?

Sarah, a friend of nearly ten years with whom our family has shared a great deal, wrote something I want to spotlight:

“Struggling with similar things lately too. I think there is so much to be said about attending the church in one’s neighborhood regardless of minor differences to be connected to those who are literally one’s neighbors and to be serving in one’s physical community, but I don’t know if that’s enough for me. I think I feel guilty about that. The churches in my physical neighborhood feel uncomfortable…preaching that is shallow at best, congregation lacking young families, significant theological differences, and worship style and preferences that leave me bored and/or cringing. We have been attending a church 45 minutes away that just instantly felt like home in every aspect, but it’s hard to be involved and active while living at a distance. Tough. Do I sacrifice the potential for far greater spiritual growth and vibrant fellowship for the sake of what I think I’m “supposed” to do (plug in to The Church as it exists in my neighborhood)? How will that choice affect my daughter as she grows?”

Probably no surprise to anyone who read the first posting, Sarah’s response reverberated in me at a forte dynamic level.  Poignantly and succinctly, she has touched on concerns such as standards and traditions, geography and distance, guilt feelings, service/ministry, preferences/styles, and the intersection of church choice with parenting.  Here, I’d like to echo her good thoughts (con forza e con espressione!) and say a little more before putting these topics to rest for a while.

Communities and neighborhoods.  I know something about Sarah’s locale, but I don’t know her family’s neighborhood intimately.  I can really only speak to my own area, also drawing from past experience in other regions.  I perceive, sometimes to my shame, that my neighbors (in the most obvious sense) are not often the types of people to whom I readily, naturally gravitate.  The lifestyles of some appear to be undesirable or overtly sinful, or their families are broken because of criminal drug use, or their properties are not cared for, or their children are unkempt.  Of course they need friends and they need Jesus, but it’s not always the easiest proposition to deal with that need.  Children that behave poorly require too much of the attention in school, and it’s not exactly easy to put one’s child (or oneself) in the middle of more bad-behavior examples in the neighborhood.

Further complicating these critical feelings in me, I sometimes detect a “boot straps” self-sufficiency and a leave-me-alone quality in many residents of my area.  I don’t know whether it’s the Germanic heritage, the effects of windy or stormy weather, the legacy of a historically agricultural setting, or what, but I find many people unapproachable.  Put another way:  it’s at least as difficult as it is in East Coast Suburbia to get to know my neighbors.  One more thing: where we are, the preponderance of Roman Catholic and Lutheran heritage appears to breed a steely unwillingness to consider anything else.

“Feeling uncomfortable.”  Beyond the neighborhood, there can be a palpable sense of discomfort in a sanctuary or church hall—or, on the other hand, one can just as easily experience an inviting, energized vibe.  I think that some personalities tend to minimize these factors.  It is not insignificant for others of us.  This is not really the type of discomfort that Sarah referenced, but If I feel like a fifth wheel or an alien within a given group, I feel a tremendous inertia when considering either serving/ministering or being ministered to.  Such discomfort is just a part of the picture, and it’s partly mental, but it’s no less real, and sometimes, the chemistry just isn’t there.  Sometimes one just gets a feeling upon walking into a place. We’ve had instantly positive ones (at least one each in Sheridan, Searcy, and Atchison areas) but also instantly negative ones, some of which led to hasty exits.

A lack of families.  A family that moved away was one of three with a child roughly Jedd’s age.  We haven’t been back since, and I feel that we could be viewed as shallow ourselves since we were ostensibly going there partly for that relationship.  How childish of us.  Or maybe not.  Maybe it’s more about the “vibrancy” to which Sarah referred—and the deep desire for connection.  It is not necessary to have organized youth groups or children’s Bible school programs or senior citizens’ programs, but it’s generally a sign of health if a congregation has a range of ages and a balanced demographic.  Families with young children should be careful not to regale middle-aged or single folks with constant talk about their children, thinking it’s all about them, but it should be acknowledged that, for young families themselves, the likelihood of connection is increased if there are multiple young families in a group.

Shallow preaching.  Shallowness has sometimes played a role in narrowing our choices.  It would be unthinkable for us to align in any sense with a church that regularly featured shallow teaching; the churches that stand out positively in our minds do have fairly strong public teachers/preachers.  I fully recognize that many churches are not blessed with gifted communicators, and I lament with Sarah the prospect of having to try to gain nutrients from the tripe or high fructose corn syrup offered from some pulpits.

It might seem a strange question to some, but I nonetheless feel the need to probe. . . .  Because of preaching’s ubiquity and the proportion of time it typically receives, it typically garners a lot of attention when a family is trying to decide on a church.  Notably, the church groups spawned after the Protestant Reformation are distinguished from Roman and Eastern churches by an emphasis on public teaching as opposed to liturgical ritual.  Luther, Calvin, and others therefore played significant roles in the rise and eventual enshrinement of preaching and preachers.  I judge that preaching as a method is greatly exaggerated and has itself become an institution within the institutional church.  It is what it is, but the reality continues to warrant reconsideration.

Theological differences.  Within some churches of my heritage (not necessarily those I’ve been a part of myself), “theological differences” might be reduced to “worship style” wars or other puddle-depth considerations such as whether to have a kitchen in the building or whether to support para-church agencies.  But Sarah is one who knows well that there really are significant theological differences that tend to affect many things.  For instance, I experience sea-depth differences with a person who is interested in starting Bible study opportunities at one of the five churches I wrote about, and I know that there would not be room enough for the two of us in such an enterprise.  I could not even sit in a class with him.  Everything this person says smacks of a bent I cannot accept, and vice versa.  This fact does not damn either of us, but it makes it nearly impossible to work together in the same place.

Distance.  In our case, a couple of churches, including one I didn’t mention, are 25 or more miles away.  There are additional options at that distance—larger groups that would offer us more spiritual food and, in one case, more opportunity for corporate worship output.  We have traveled 40 miles one-way for more than year, and 65 miles for the better part of four years in another location.  Now, one church under current consideration is a 10-minute family walk away.  What are we “supposed” to do with that?

Cringing.  I was initially surprised when I read that Sarah sometimes cringes, because I know her enthusiastically positive demeanor.  But I know she is a thinker and a devoted disciple who also has some opinions once in a while . . . so my “hmmm” reaction turns out not to be paradoxical after all.  It’s rare in my experience that someone uses the term “cringe” to describe feelings and inner reactions to church, but I myself so immediately get this that I want to stand up and shout, “Amen!  There are others of us out here who cringe inwardly and sometimes outwardly when your churches do weird, meaningless, or adulterated things in the name of God!”

Thus ends this series of membership and ministry.  Perhaps in the future I’ll document some experiences from gatherings in Kenya and at camps, in rec rooms and at retreats—or perhaps I’ll point longingly to the open-fellowship chapel groups in Jefferson City, MO or Alfred, NY.  Even more likely, I’ll continue to move in the direction of simple/organic church.  Those who don’t really share the feelings and longings shared in this three-part series are in a large majority, and I don’t even mind if you pity me from afar!  If you don’t “get” or can’t support our struggles, that’s okay.  Perhaps you could consider it an illuminating experience in someone else’s sandals.

Musings on ministry and membership

I have learned a couple of things since posting “The Crisis of Ministry.”  For starters, I learned that I should be more careful in using words like “crisis.”  (I am not in a psychological crisis )¹  It would also have been ill-advised to call it a “crucible” of ministry.  Would anyone accept “psycho-social locus of moderate melancholia and partly floundering quizzicalness”?

I also learned that I underestimated the effect of the lack of recent, face-to-face relational time.  A common background goes a long way, but if I haven’t spent an appreciable amount of time with people in a long time, there’s a likelihood that we’ll both misunderstand or talk past one another when describing some things.  Despite the best intentions and the best of hearts, some comments did not connect for me.  Perhaps they spoke to readers; if so, that’s good.

Internet media can seem to whitewash things sometimes.  A quick comment after a fairly quick read of a somewhat hastily conceived blogpost won’t always be on target.  And I must’ve subconsciously overestimated the capacity of the intentionally written word to overcome any communication gaps.  A few might be able to read between my lines or interpret what I really mean or how I feel about it all, but a topic like this was probably better discussed face to face than blogged about.  I regret aspects, but can’t really say that I repent, because I’m about to sin similarly again.

I’d like to return to a few things so I can perhaps explain or respond to a few suggestions—or even answer “objections,” in a couple cases.  In no case am I intending to take anyone to task, and I’m intentionally moving Facebook and other comments around, so it’s hard to trace who said what.  I am using isolated sentences as a springboard to clarify and illuminate.  The quotes from friends appear in blue below.

Someone said,

We always tended to go somewhere close and just see where we could serve.”

This is as practical as it is good-hearted.  I have had this goal in mind, too, and actually, this is precisely how we started out in our current location and others.  We simply have not found that place we could serve.  We want to do this.  Maybe we are blind and/or deaf, but it has not worked out yet.

“I get the feeling you are looking for the perfect place to minister.  It’s been my experience it doesn’t exist.”

My experience, wider and longer in this respect than that of pretty much everyone I’ve run across, bears out that there is no ideal.  Truly, I have no ethereal dreams anymore and am not looking for a non-existent group.  After visiting scores² of them in the last decade+, I am all too aware that no perfect place exists.

“I find it hard to locate someone really on my wavelength.  I am just glad Jesus didn’t really wait to find someone on his own wavelength before trying to minister!”

Agreed on both thoughts.  What should “wavelength” matter if I find myself near a genuine person wants to please Jesus, learn scripture, and be in a community of disciples?  As for imitating Jesus in serving:  it is always good to think about the one we call “Teacher” and “Master.”  This makes me think about other things (i.e., all of them) that I don’t do as well as Jesus.

“Jedd definitely needs some church friends.  Maybe you can give him that without being totally satisfied in what you need.”

I can appreciate this.  I’m not sure how to weigh the church friends factor alongside others, but I’d rather that Jedd had some.  He does have friends at a Wednesday afternoon church-sponsored activity.  He had one other one that moved away.  He also has friends in our home group (adults plus one toddler).  It would be nice if there were a little quartet of 8-to-10-year-olds that could pal around together once or twice a week.  Maybe a couple of them would see each other at school, too.  But that “perfect group” doesn’t exist for Jedd, either.

Karly is better at “going along” than I am, but she is discontent and wondering what to do, too.  If our parental goal is to have Jedd maybe see two or three kids his age weekly, a line of questioning forms in my heart:

Should we go to a place where. . .

  • . . . we cannot conscientiously participate in some aspects of worship?
  • . . . we have been rejected (and even mocked a little, in one case)?
  • . . . we cannot “join the community” according to its present terms?

Is it really valuable for Jedd to be with a small motley crew of kids when he knows his parents are struggling upstairs, and when sometimes all he remembers is how crazy another kid was acting?  I’m actually unaware of any better possibility at the moment (given distance and other factors).  I suppose having regular “church ‘friends'” is valuable regardless, just like anything “stable.”  I don’t know.

“Church is not trying on people to see if they fit, instead it is looking at how God will use you with the people he has surrounded you with.  Ministering at home is part of God’s plan, but so is ministering to others in a local community.  I would say that if there is something you feel needs to be changed at a local church, first see if it is you who needs to change in your heart.”

Please recall that I am “ministering to others in a local community.”  We happen not to have a “church home” that most others would call a church home, but the lack of recognition does not in itself preclude that what we do have (or search for) can be pleasing to the Lord.  In other words, if our group doesn’t measure up to someone else’s standard, that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid “local community” in God’s eyes.

Now to the “heart.”  More than one person said something about this, and it took me at least a week to quell a negative inward reaction in order to respond as best I can.  The “heart” is a curious symbol.  Linguistics and historical cultural concepts aside, I would all too readily admit that my heart is not in great shape.  I intended to imply that confession in my expression “maybe it’s just me,” but it wasn’t clear enough.  In the third and fourth paragraphs in the original post here, I confessed that I am not who I once was in terms of the inclination to serve others.  I probably should have said more about that later in the first post, after specifically describing a few churches.  I don’t need to be informed that my heart needs examination.  I’m not blaming anyone for not knowing this, but honestly, for me, that “change your heart” verbiage is reminiscent of certain “multiplying ministry” (Crossroads/Boston/L.A. CofC) phrasings with which I was once associated at arm’s-length.  The leadership of that sect used to say you “had a bad heart” if you questioned said leadership.  Well, maybe or maybe not.  (Often, I think those questioning things were not the ones with the heart problems.)  In my case, my heart is certainly in need of some defibrillation or de-calcifying or something.  I don’t think my heart is so bad as to need a transplant, but maybe.  My heart is not as healthy as it was in say, 1981 or 1987 or 1991 or 2002.  My heart needs shaping.  My heart needs conditioning.  Give me an Rx, and it might or might not be the best one . . . but, yes, I do know my heart can use some help.

In the above suggestion to look at my own heart, I detect what I take as a sincere commitment to the gnat-camel and speck-beam principles.³  Yes, there might well be more wrong with me than with the people in the churches.  I’m not consciously judging anyone’s intentions or worthiness.  I’m thinking of groups far more than individuals.  As much as I can, I’m trying to separate thoughts about the people from thoughts about the institutions.  Yes, there might be “chemistry” problems that keep us from being close to certain folks, but I am speaking corporately when I say that the institutions we’ve visited recently range from “civic club” churches to sectarian maintenance groups to corpulent, opulent institutions.  (We’ve generally learned to filter out those that would impress us as repulsively off-track or comatose.)

Back in about 2012, someone I barely knew commented to someone I knew a little better that he didn’t “experience life” as she did.   Those individuals did seem to move to different drummers . . . and the way we experience church is not necessarily how someone else does.  Having lived in 8 states together in 13 years, my wife and I experience “church” out of an unplanned set of experiences.  After scores² of visits and many re-visits, the process of trying to connect and find a reasonable group to be with is exhausting.  I will simply ask that those who have lived in only one or two places try not to be quick to criticize the process and effects of “church searching.”  Some folks may always feel we need to relax our “standards,” and that might be a real need (but not in this one4 described below).  Still, where our Goodyear tires experience friction with the asphalt is here:  we have consciences and principles involved in our discipleship.  You do, too, or you wouldn’t have read this far.  To extend the metaphor, walking a few Sabbath Day journeys in each other’s sneakers would help people to understand each other—and sometimes, to prescribe for them.  Yet my sneakers don’t fit everyone else, so it’s sometimes hard to empathize, let alone help.

It takes all kinds in the world.  We are not of the kind that can sit and accept things we earnestly believe to be off-track and even wrong.  Here, we are not talking about carpet colors and “worship styles” and nursery staffing and parking lot ministries and church bulletin mistakes.  We are talking about deeper, more important things.  My frequently on-target wife commented incisively, “If everyone just went along with the status quo, nothing would ever change.”  It is precisely on this point that I will continue to lose some of you.  For me and us, it is a given that some things require change.  Other things, not so much.  In mere matters of preference, change is not often needed at all.  But it is not helpful to assume that, because you are okay with this or that, that everyone else can or should be content with it.

I can certainly relate to that calling you are feeling.  I’ve been starting to feel a sense that perhaps starting up something from scratch might be the way.  Now for the method.  I’ve lots of ideas.  We’ll see.  I don’t always wait years for an answer if I don’t get one bright away.”

Image titled Console a Very Sad Person Step 8

I too tend to look more for creating and innovating than reforming these days, but I’m also not sure if I have the gusto anymore . . . which almost leads full-circle to the sense of “crisis in ministry” about which I initially wrote.  I have a strong, inner sense of things I need to do in order to be useful.  That “list” has changed in the last 10-20 years, but remains a presence in my heart.  Too, the last decade has been chock-full of times of not doing nearly as much as I used to.  I have had those times of trying to settle into friendships and the ministry of others to us.  Or at least I’ve hoped for that, but very little has materialized, and when it did, it was all too short-lived.  The “sabbatical” of rest and preparation that one acquaintance referred to has lasted way too long, and it’s actually not fulfilled much of a purpose, as far as I can see.  (Yes, I know I shouldn’t depend wholly on my own sight.)

These days, it’s no secret that mainline denominations and other sects are losing members, generally speaking.  There are many more community churches and purportedly nondenominational groups springing up.  Most of these younger groups strikingly resemble the churches from which their pastors came, so it doesn’t seem that much new is happening.  I paraphrase my wife again here:  few are willing to step away from the traditional models—into something that doesn’t look like “church” as Americans and Europeans have defined it.

In mulling all this over, my wife and I remember knowing of some wacked-out people who had taken an evening or two to sit in lawn chairs, in the middle of a fairly busy neighborhood street, yelling at drivers to slow down around their children.  Sometimes it takes radical action like that, but prophesying against dangerous drivers that way doesn’t strike us as very effective.  (Nor do community action groups or speed bumps offer much good effect, but that’s another story.)  We don’t stand in the middle of traffic and scream at passersby that they need to leave and develop something new.  That is too stark an image, no matter how strong we feel.  Even as we continue to value individuals in all sorts of churches, along with some doctrinal tenets held and principles at work in various groups, we figure we’ll continue looking to innovate more than to join and reform established churches.

Here are a couple of places to go if you want to think more along these lines:

  1. A collection of thoughts and further links to Simple/Organic Church material
  2. A specific posting related to the book Simple Church
  3. A New Gathering of Christians—a work-in-progress document I began nearly a decade ago and haven’t thought about for quite a while

Next:  Responsive, resonant comments from Sarah, a strong friend of nearly ten years, will more or less outline the next post.

¹ Nor am I “in ministry,” in the sense that most people use that term.  Yet since I was a teenager, my confidence has been unflagging in that, in terms of the New Testament writings and more, there should be no clergy/laity distinction.  During two isolated phases of my life, I made a little motion toward becoming a paid, formally recognized minister in the institutional sense.  I once had a phone interview but pulled myself out of the running, realizing I was not cut out for it.  A decade later, I made the second cut for the worship minister position at a large Nashville church.  A year or so after that, I was almost hired as a half-time worship minister.  It seems better that none of these things materialized.

I doubt I will ever be a paid minister, and that is fine with me.  I am settled on the more important matter:  all believers, functionally speaking—by constitution and intent—are ministers/deacons/servants.

² Rough estimates of the number of churches visited since 2005:

  • 6 in Sedalia
  • 8 in Greeley
  • 35 in Fillmore (70-mile radius)
  • 8 in Kingsville
  • 6 in Sheridan
  • 12 in Searcy
  • 25 in Atchison (40-mile radius)
  • a couple dozen more when traveling (IA, WA, DE, PA, TX, TN)

³ One should not strain out a gnat and swallow a camel; one should first remove the plank from his own eye before attempting to extricate a tiny speck from someone else’s.

4 In a post in December 2016, I wrote this about one church.  There is probably an “excuse” for the existence of this group in God’s eyes, but that doesn’t mean we could or should be a part of it:

Most churches fall somewhere between mildly disappointing and stultifying in many activities.  The singing aspect of this church’s gathering, experienced for a grand total of five minutes this very morning, didn’t come anywhere close to either of those.  It wasn’t even embarrassing.  It was an utter travesty, and doubly so because no one seemed to be aware of how bad it was.

     aSd     du023d23yad -ad+^^^DqEl878m/]*

Did that make any sense?  Didn’t think so.  The singing at this place was like that:  nonsense.  The reasonable-quality gospel song sung from a poor-quality hymnal should have been familiar to at least half the people in the room, but the “leader” had not a fraction of a clue.  This was not your garden-variety obtuse or relatively unskilled leader.  This was like a paraplegic in a relay race or a short-order cook negotiating a nuclear treaty with the dictator of a 2nd-world communist country.  “Face to Face” ended up sung to a mixed-up, bad-form version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and believe me, no one intended that—or registered a quizzical look when it happened.  It was melodically confused and harmonically chaotic.  The next song, the Gaither favorite “He Lives,” began in at least three different keys with equal melodic confusion.  And no one even seemed aware.  And that in itself should be embarrassing.  Maybe I should have left out the 2nd half of this paragraph.  Nah.



The crisis of ministry

Unprompted, our son prayed one Sunday for us to find a church home, because, and I quote, “I’m getting pretty tired of going everywhere all the time.”  We feel your pain, son.  Well, not exactly the same way, but we do feel it.

I can think of at least five churches (some connection exists in four of them) in which I have felt a significant level of interest.  Unfortunately, I also experience a lack of ability to minister within them.  There is little “chemistry” with the majority of the people in each of these groups.  The scenario constitutes an inner sense of uselessness:  I feel that I would be unable to “minister” there.  In my own tiny world, this is something of a crisis.

There was a time when I was more likely and equipped to reach to the under-served, the underprivileged, the down and out.  One time, I almost got done in by helping the down and out . . . .  I let an acquaintance borrow Picture of 1977 Dodge Colt, exterior, gallery_worthymy old car while I was out of town on vacation, and when I returned, I discovered that he not only had had an accident but had also left illegal drugs in my car!  On several occasions, people have needed temporary places to stay.  Those friends were not in the same category, really, but still, they were in life-places of need, and I was capable of ministering to a few needs . . . so I did just that.  Then.

When I consider my life situations right now, it is abundantly clear why I am not as inclined to get involved.  I have my hands full taking care of myself.  (This sounds awfully selfish, doesn’t it?  One friend who knows a fair amount about me recently suggested that I must take care of myself.  Popular self-help malarkey aside, there is some truth to the notion of not being able to do much for others unless you are OK yourself. I probably need to listen to those with insight into my scenario.)

Back to the churches—and my disinclination to minister within them.

  1. Church #1 is composed of about 15 or 20 people, about three of which seem educated.  Those three are more or less disorganized and show too laissez-faire an approach for my taste.  Several others seem to have come from places in life that I can’t seem to connect with or help with.
  2. Church #2, where leadership is much more overt and capable, has a somewhat similar clientele.  Probably half of the 60 or 70 folks seem very “other” to me.  (I can think of five couples/families to which the above description does not apply.  There is a serious doctrinal disconnect with at least one of those, depending on the day.)  To be quite frank, I don’t recall ever having heard such a fine, well-conceived mini-lesson at the immersion of a new believer ever (not in Restoration Movement churches or anywhere else).  Sadly, there is evidence that two more of the families with which I could have shared chemistry have decided to skip by me, rather than the other way around.  This church recently put forward an opportunity to get involved with re-integrating prisoners into local society.  This notion sounded like something very worthwhile.  I am just not sure whether I, as an “at-large” Christian who knows several folks at this church, could be involved.  There is also a looming sense of “I don’t have the wherewithal anymore, anyway.”  (See above paragraph on “taking care of myself.”)
  3. Church #3 carries the moniker “biker church.”  Now, many of my readers who knew me only a dozen or more years ago might have a difficult time seeing me as a motorcycle enthusiast, & I’m not a crazy or obsessed one by any stretch, but I do enjoy short rides and have owned four motorcycles in my life.¹  Anyway, the Bluffs Biker Church already has a pretty good thing going, and its leader/teacher does not need any help from me to continue what he is doing.  Nor would I have as good a manner of ministering to the unique clientele as he does.
  4. Church #4 is a more traditionally formed one.  It meets in a modest, well-apportioned building about 35 minutes from us.  We found a couple of arm’s-length connections.  This is a reasonable group that uses a rotation of traveling public teachers.  While there can be benefit in this structure, and while we have appreciated some of the presentations on some levels, it differently perpetuates the preacher-centric mentality.  This setup, along with a permeating sense that this church is staid and set in its ways, combine to limit the possibilities for me to minister there.  Eventually, perhaps I could be one of the teachers, but I am not at all sure that I’d actually be ministering to anyone if I were.  Even my ability to lead worship in song would sort of fall on deaf ears there, if you know what I mean.
  5. Church #5, just visited a second time after an initially split impression more than a year ago, still puts me in two minds.  On the one hand, I like the personality of the group as I walk in, and there are two leaders besides the recognized pastor—unusual in such a small group.  I was even oddly impressed with the simple, unassuming music (over which no one was embarrassed—they were all participating).  The problem here is not the potential chemistry with the “people in the pews” with with the current preacher-pastor, who has a sort-of irritable manner.  He has seemed persistently, mildly annoyed and punchy both times.  He’s also more wordy than he should be.  Something about the group’s “look and feel,” despite the apparent normalcy and pleasant diversity of the people, makes me feel I’d be intruding.  Or travailing.  Or simply wasting my time and theirs.

Maybe it’s just me.

After a year-long wait, we did begin an intensive study in our home last fall.  This is my primary place of “ministry” right now, I suppose.  As I type those words, the thoughts of Will Campbell about so-called ministry echo in my head.  He believed that the very idea of “ministry” tends toward arrogance—as though I can do something better than you.  Despite being better equipped and more experienced in teaching than anyone else in the group, I wonder if I truly do “minister” or not.

Perhaps I should simply be content in little connections here and there:

  • showing someone that I remember something about a past tragedy in his life
  • intentionally verbalizing, in the presence of an acquaintance of unknown or affiliation or belief structure, that I distinguish between worthwhile Christian books and patently dogmatic ones that serve the denominational interests as opposed to God’s interests
  • expressing sincere sympathy when, in the course of my job, I meet or talk with people who are undergoing hard times

Those are such tiny, tiny things, but could they be viewed as ministering?  (Potentially, I suppose.)

¹  The present bike is the best fit for me, and it is an added nicety, that no helmet is required in my state; plus, a child (with helmet) is allowed to ride on the back.  So, Jedd loves riding with me.


The crisis of introversion

Bible study, score study, thought and planning—all these are done with a view toward helping groups of people later.  I prepare for the purpose of helping others.  The helping activities appear inherently somewhat extroverted, but the preparation activities are mostly rather introverted.  I often do my clearest-headed thinking while walking or driving alone.  Even work-related memos sometimes need quiescent thought before dissemination, so I’ve been known to repair to a different chair or to ponder important writings in the quiet hour before anyone else arises, before such things are finalized.

What if I have so few opportunities that the introverted, energized time ends with no purpose in sight—or with frustrating roadblocks?  If the introverted activities do not have an outlet, they are forced back into themselves, and the whole enterprise become preparation for nothing, really.  This, at times, is my crisis.

I know a woman who seems even more introverted by nature than I am.  This woman is my mother.  She has seasons of rather intense lesson preparation for a class full of women.  Her need for silence and focus is like my own.  Can she, and can I, be pleasing to God even in our introverted times of preparation, of thinking, of dreaming and wondering?  Or do the times of sharing in groups present the only fulfillment?

In the next post, I’ll discuss—in some detail with respect to church groups where I feel no real opportunity—what I experience as a “crisis of “ministry.”


MLK, Jr. Day: A Tribute to Will Campbell

This blogpost was conceived a week or two ago and has been created and produced entirely on this day, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  If you are short on time, perhaps you can at least mine a few nuggets from the quotes below.

Serendipitously, today, my son and I listened to an old cassette tape while driving in a truck of about the same age.  The recorded music was from Walt Disney World’s EPCOT Center, and the lead song was what I’d call a differently patriotic one:  “America, Spread Your Golden Wings.”[1]  Sometime before the song’s final chorus, three significant America quotes of American history are included as an interlude:

  1. The moon landing
  2. JFK’s “Ask not …”
  3. The quintessential Martin Luther King “ have a dream …” quote

I myself have never had much interest in Martin Luther King, Jr.  For one thing, I have been conditioned to be biased against just about anyone in the limelight.  That aside, I must admit that the lyrics and music of the above-mentioned song, along with the interweaving of these often-heard, spoken moments in American history, combined to inspire even me.  King’s words are without doubt memorable, influential, and inspirational.  To date, his now-50-year-old attempts to influence this country toward breaking down racial walls has not had enough impact.  The Civil Rights causes that King so ardently championed have been left with unfinished work.  Another voice along these same lines was that of Will D. Campbell.

Image result for will campbell
Will D. Campbell (1924-2013)

In my reading on topics related to the two kingdoms, political and eternal, I have hung on an item in my possession (thanks to noted author Lee Camp)—a compilation of selected Campbell writings, edited by Richard Goode.  I had not heard of Campbell before 2016, and perhaps you haven’t, either.  Allow me to introduce you to him.

Will Campbell was a preacher in Louisiana for two years before taking a “religious life” post at the University of Mississippi from 1954 to 1956.  He was forced to leave that position because of his participation in the Civil Rights Movement.  He later served as a race relations consultant for the National Council of Churches in New York, and he is said to have worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr.  Following are excerpts from blurbs found on the back cover of the book:

Campbell still has much to teach us all.  Quirky and courageous, Christian and contrarian, his life of love and labor on behalf of civil rights—and plain civility to those in need—deserves a wider hearing…

In this remarkable collection, Will Campbell unmasks the powers-that-be, envisions on alternative order, and calls Christians to radical practices of resistance and reconciliation.  The witness and these pages will call forth many adjectives:  “Unrealistic!”  “Outrageous!” “Scandalous!”  . . .  Most often, however, another word is best:  Gospel.  Unsettling and essential reading for contemporary Christians.

If I myself had said the above, I would hope that most of my readers would respect the opinions somewhat.  The fact that the blurb writers hail from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Duke Divinity School, respectively, will give the comments added weight.

Particularly appropriate on this day, the following words would perhaps encapsulate Campbell’s indictment of Christian whites in the South:

The pattern we have seen develop in the Civil Rights struggle has been somewhat as follows:  Negroes have grown tired of unfreedom.  They have done something about it.  In not one case has the leadership in the significant developments been furnished by whites.  In Montgomery, Birmingham, Philadelphia, always it has been Negroes who have initiated the action.  That, in the Christian understanding, is not as it should have been (bear another’s burdens)….  Neither individual man nor society has been redeemed to the point where we are our brother’s keeper or advocate very much of the time.  (177)

It seems to me that the voice of Will Campbell is one that should be heard not only on this particular day but also, more generally and broadly, by all Christians in our age.  Editor-compiler Goode comments, “Campbell incarnates the radical iconoclastic vocation of standing in contraposition to society, naming and smashing the racial, economic, and political idols that seduce and delude.”  (back cover)   “Professing disciples,” says Campbell, “must live an irrepressible conflict against the principalities and powers …  that divide and dehumanize.” (vii)  “Rather than crafting savvy strategies and public policies, . . . Campbell counsels, ‘”Be reconciled!'” (back cover)   I don’t trust that “social” problems can really be solved in this life, but in their spiritual aspects, such problems as racism will be eased, in small corners, by individuals acting like Jesus rather than through political solutions.

Campbell was at times what might today be called an “advocate for the African-American,” yet his notion of reconciliation was so radical that he even went so far, on a humanitarian basis, to champion whites who perpetrated deeply violent, terroristic acts on blacks.  He advocated, for instance, for one KKK member and for a law enforcement officer who was wrongly acquitted of a crime against blacks in the Deep South.  After certain civil rights were legally obtained for black Americans, Campbell “came to believe that American society was substituting rednecks as the new, preferred ‘least of these’ group.  Campbell cast his lot with them, seeking to illustrate reconciliation with these ostracized sisters and brothers.” (31)  I wonder what Campbell would perceive of the last decade or so.  I suspect it would not be one group that would receive his attention.

Truly, at least based on my cursory reading of Campbell in the last year, he would have been an advocate for any [insert group name here] Lives Matter movement, including the All Lives Matter one.  Each life is important, he would say, and all may be reconciled in Christ.  Yet he was tough on the Christian establishment.  For instance, he referred to Nashville, near which he lived in later life, as a very religious city.  “Seven hundred and eighty church houses.  But religion is a dangerous thing.”  (77)  “Campbell calls for disciples to give their lives in irrepressible resistance against all principalities and powers that would impede or deny our reconciliation in Christ—an unrelenting prophetic challenge leveled especially at institutional churches, as well as Christian colleges and universities.”  (back cover)

In my view, Campbell correctly calls out the religious establishment, endowing its collective identity with a tongue-in-cheek label, the “Steeples.”  He sometimes worked under a Steeple himself, but rarely did he appear to be most effective there.  Insofar as Goode has accurately represented Campbell (and I have every reason to believe the depiction is on the money), I would affiliate with his characterization of Campbell here:

He opposes the presumption that the only way the church can effectively suppress racism is either to align itself with humanitarian agencies and more stringently apply the wisdom of social science, or to acquire political power and more rigorously enforce U.S. constitutional law.  Both approaches, he says, are pagan insofar as they trust politics and or social science rather than the gospel.  (89)

The next quotation does not necessarily support MLK Jr day, but it serves to set up the succeeding one.

I agree that the Christian faith can be changed at many points that would make it more to my liking, more easily acceptable, more in keeping with my culture and my way of life; but the question we must always ask is “Is it Christian when we have finished with it?”  (93)

It is in that vein of deep challenge to the church Steeples (establishment groups) that Campbell pins white racist churchmen’s ears to the wall—those who in certain Deep South white churches of the 50s and beyond are blind to their racism.  The problem is not with those who would say, “We don’t care what God thinks, we want segregation and will have it forever.”  In that event, there would be some hope.  Instead, what Campbell suggests racist Christians actually said was, “We want segregation because it is God’s will.”  His stinging rejoinder:  “to deny God in the name of God is heresy.”  (93)

My growing affinity for Campbell has to do with his iconoclasm and his transparent honesty, no matter what.  He is rough around the edges and offensive at points, but I love when he says things like this (from a 1987 address titled “Values and Hazards of Theological Preaching”):

I don’t like the word ministry.  It is arrogant, presumptuous, condescending, maybe even imperialistic.  I don’t have a ministry.  I have a life.  (123)

In the course of reflections on the Lord’s Prayer, Campbell had queried whether we (meaning Christians in general) assume the kingdom of God would be pretty much like the kingdom of Caesar.  (xi)  Philosophical challenges to the Religious Right and fundamentalist-Christian America do tend to draw me in, so I am all ears when Campbell calls out Christians for mixing God and political goals.  In a late chapter in the book, editor Goode aptly called 1968 “a pivotal year in US political history.”  That year, which was of course the year of King’s assassination, Campbell and the editor of the journal Katallagete dedicated an issue to assessing the faith many Christians place in the democratic process.  Although it would have been appropriate for me to review and or analyze that essay on this day, I will have to defer that until another time.  I will be intently interested in what this courageous man said 40 years ago about the failings of the political system in attaining to the brotherhood of man.

For more on Will Campbell, you might begin at his the Wikipedia page here.  Another interesting read would be found in the transcript of an “oral history” interview here.

[1] On both the first and tenth anniversaries of 9/11, in Kansas and western New York, respectively, I redeployed that very song in music ceremonies.


Businesses that deserve praise

I don’t know what it is in my recent experiences, but I’ve been noticing several local businesses that deserve praise.

Photo of Cedar Ridge Catering & Banquet Hall - Atchison, KS, United States. Cool place good foodCedar Ridge is a unique restaurant near Atchison, Kansas.  Offering special buffet fare on Friday and Saturday evenings and on Sundays mid-day, this place is a gem in the rolling hills of eastern Kansas.  The hosts/owners have established the restaurant on their farm in a barn.  From outside, one wouldn’t be able to tell what delights await inside.  Some will enjoy the eclectic, sometimes “shabby chic” decor (or even driving a mile and a half on a dirt road), and all will enjoy the well-prepared food.  We particularly enjoy the brunch fare on Sundays around noon.


Los Tucanes is a Mexican restaurant in Kensett, Arkansas.  Apparently family run, the

Photo of Los Tucanes - Kensett, AR, United States. Interior of restaurantprecious children take minor serving roles and do a stellar job—far better, actually, than many older servers at chain restaurants.  The food is good, the salsa is fantastic, the prices are reasonable, and the whole place is a pleasure every time.


The final and most extended mention here goes to Powell Funeral Home, west of Searcy, Arkansas.  Although I have sung for and attended dozens of funerals, I had never really been a “customer” before.  From the first time I walked in with my mom to the last visit to finalize a few things a week ago, I’ve continued to feel that there’s no way every funeral home could be as good as this one.  The comments below are abbreviated from an online survey I completed.

     Our experience with each staff member and the facilities has been so positive that it would not seem right not to comment.  I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of local establishments that I would take the initiative to recommend to others, and Powell is without doubt now on that very short list.  [Since we opted to take care of some things by ourselves as a family, etc.], we did not have as complete an experience of the funeral home as other families, but that does not in any way alter our entirely positive impression of the facility and the way the people go about the business.
     Specifically, we were without exception greeted hospitably and with an obvious willingness to answer any questions.  Members of the family visited Powell approximately six times.  Each staff member, without exception (even where we cannot remember names) was 10patient and helpful.
     The standouts in our minds at this point are Brooks Sawyers, whose absolutely excellent demeanor is combined with rare efficiency and capability in office logistics and processes.  Quite frankly, I don’t know how Brooks could have been better throughout the last six weeks, up to and including our most recent visit to the office regarding additional insurance company needs for documentation.  I’m sure you have heard this before, but it is an exceptionally significant relief to be ushered through the process of assigning a portion of a life insurance policy to pay expenses.  Dale suggested this at just the right time and worked through Brooks on the details while two of us waited with confidence that things were being taken care of.  Dale manifest both knowledge and a strong ability to gauge our needs and personalities.  Again, each staff member has been a credit to the organization, without exception, but Brooks and Dale rise to the top in our memories.
Photo of Powell Funeral Home

Faith qua allegiance (part 2)

For me, allegiance is a central Christian concept, and it has been throughout my adult life.  In this first post on the word-concept allegiance, I traveled through a bit of personal historyreferring to the relationship of allegiance to human government, songs by Ray Boltz and Rich Mullins, and the influence of Lee Camp.  In the last two years—and especially in the last few months—the place of allegiance has been bolstered considerably in this believer’s thinking.  Allegiance has been inextricably connected to faith itself.

Life can bring great serendipities, synergies, and dovetailings.¹  I note the following that have come in the same phase of my life:

  • a heightened awareness of theological positioning around the word “faith” (and also sovereignty and free will), due in part to a men’s discussion group
  • persistent thoughts about allegiance to God’s Kingdom in a group study of Matthew
  • our home group’s study of Galatians
  • an academic blog’s feature of Dr. Matthew Bates’s 3rd book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone (Amazon catalog reference here).

Product DetailsWhile I have been mentally and hermeneutically challenged in all of the above, the connections are nevertheless satisfying.  Prior to applying this to my present study of Galatians, I’d like to highlight key portions of the lengthy interview with Matthew Bates (see here for part 1).  Here are the lead paragraphs:

Not since the Reformation has there been a challenge to the five solas as persistent and potentially persuasive as Matthew W. Bates’ third book, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).  This book has generated a groundswell of controversy that continues to build as more theologians, pastors, and laypeople are exposed to Bates’ nuanced proposal.

Bates’ thesis, at once radical and obvious, is this:  in the New Testament writings, the Greek word pistis, or “faith,” is better translated as “allegiance.”  He does not intend for every instance of pistis in our Bibles to be retranslated, but for him, there are specific contexts, especially in Paul and the Gospels, in which the only reasonable rendering is “allegiance,” as in the kind of fidelity or loyalty that one would give to a king.

Note that Bates is especially focused on the gospels and Pauline letters, and also note that allegiance is connected to divine sovereignty, something to which most Christians would give assent, to one level or another.  Next, here is a crystallization of what I take as the crux of the issue, from part 2 of the interview:

Interviewer:  Of the Reformation solas, only yours seems completely dependent upon human agency.  All the rest are due to God’s agency, whether that be scriptura, gratia, doxa, fides (as a gift from God, Eph 2:8), or Christos. How would you respond to the criticism that your sixth sola fails to meet the standard of the others due to misplaced agency?

Matthew Bates:  First, I am not arguing for a sixth sola, but primarily seeking to advocate for a truer understanding of sola fide (by faith alone).  My exploration seeks to uphold the solas while seeking greater precision with respect to their true biblical boundaries.  I do conclude that sola gratia (by grace alone) and soli Deo gloria (for the glory of God alone) need to be nuanced in particular ways in order to stay faithful to the biblical vision.  This is because grace and boasting have both been misunderstood with regard to works (of Law).  As far as I am aware, I am not seeking to add distinctive shades of meaning with regard to Christ alone or Scripture alone.

Second, in Salvation by Allegiance Alone I never state that pistis is solely dependent on human agency rather than God’s agency.  In fact, quite the opposite:

Grace in the sense of God’s prior activity precedes ‘faith,’ for God first had to bring about the good news before it could be proclaimed and before allegiance to Jesus as Lord could be confessed (Rom. 10:9–14).  Moreover, God is the creator, and every good gift comes from God (James 1:17), so we must affirm God as the ultimate source of ‘faith’ and all else. (p. 105)

What is being claimed is that faith, enabled by grace, is the only contribution that we make to our salvation. (p. 122)

So I do assert that in some sense the ability to render allegiance to Jesus the king is either due to God’s agency, or is at least a gift bequeathed to our libertarian agency in the wake of the Christ-event.  Yet since Scripture puts far more emphasis on our agency with regard to pistis than God’s agency, throughout the book I frequently speak about our own human agency in giving pistis to Jesus the king (emphasis mine, bc).  In so doing I am trying to give the same weight of emphasis that we find in Scripture.  Yet I deliberately leave the nature of God’s agency with respect to our own underdetermined.

This matter of agency is key for systematic theologians whose formulaic approaches almost make it a spiritual crime to acknowledge a human response to God—or, dare I suggest it, a human initiative in some sense.  Yes, “while we were yet sinners,” God took action.  But that notion does not negate the fact that we now owe God allegiance.  If allegiance is something God enables, fine, but as far as I know, I choose to give it, and I am glad to give it, in my human weakness, when I am at my best.

Matthew W. BatesWith respect to the word “gospel” (ευαγγέλιον | euangélion), Bates makes the statement, “We can’t make decisions about what ‘good news’ means on the basis of our feelings about what sort of ‘news’ would be better for us.”  Bates then points as an example to a popular author who “is allowing systematic concerns about what would be better for us to override first-century meanings.”  Taking what I believe would be classified a synchronic (within a time period) linguistic approach, Bates says, “The meaning of first-century words must be determined by first-century usages.”  He would say the same about the word “faith” (pistis | πίστις ).  In other words, it doesn’t really matter what what a 21st-century regurgitation of a Lutheran “faith alone” theology conveys to the modern Protestant ear.  Recovering as much of a first-century sense of “faith” (pistis) as possible is key to understanding what Paul and others meant when they wrote of “faith.”

Whatever one makes of Bates’s book,² there can be no doubt that coming to grips with a fuller range of meaning of “pistis” is key to a more adequate understanding of New Covenant “faith.”  And so, when I come to Galatians and struggle hermeneutically with whether in 2:16 or “pistis” means faith (RSV, ESV, NIV, etc.) or faithfulness (NET Bible and some more recent commentators), I now have another viable option:  allegiance or loyalty.

I might now paraphrastically expand some Galatians phrases to include the allegiance idea.  Consider a few more traditional English renderings, followed by the “new possibility” in each case.


ESV:  we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, …

NET:  we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, …

New possibility:  we know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through the Jesus Christ’s faithful allegiance, and we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by Christ’s allegiance, and not by works of the law, . . .


New possibility:  I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by loyal trust in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.


ESV:  And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, . . .

New possibility:  And the scripture, foreseeing that God would later justify the Gentiles by their faith-filled allegiance to Him, . . .


ESV:  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

New possibility:  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise that emanates from Jesus Christ’s faithful allegiance might be given to those who also believe loyally.


CSB:  for through faith you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

New possibility:  for through faithful allegiance you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

New possibility (expanded):  for through faithful allegiance —first, that of Jesus, and now, your own—you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus . . .

Whether this season is more filled with Santa and snowmen or shepherds and angels for you, consider allegiance to the King.  Perhaps the thoughtless use of phrases such as “newborn king” or “little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay” bothers you a little, as it bothers me.  Still, I affirm that Jesus did become Lord and Christ.  He became King.  And having faith in Jesus implies allegiance to Him as King.

¹ One such dovetailing was when we first engaged in the serious study of Paul’s letter to Philemon—a letter written to a “house church”—with a home fellowship that met in our living and dining room.  What serendipity, right?  (Or providence, if you prefer.)  I’ve written about that more than once.  Try these two:

Community in Philemon
A mini-odyssey with small groups (3 of 6)

² I myself pored over the serial blogposts and am about to order the book but but have not read it yet.


Learned in a hospital room

I learned a few things during the hours in my father’s hospital room.  Below are a few thoughts, developed a little since then.
  1. The motion of time seems different when a loved one is in a hospital room.  Sometimes it stands still, and sometimes you have no idea where the time went and why you never picked up your book to read.
  2. One should never underestimate the relief potential of water or ice.  When you can’t have water because of pending or past medical procedures, even a moist, cool swab on the lips can be appreciated like a good meal, a neck rub, or a thousand dollars.
  3. It is possible for a large proportion of a hospital staff to be caring, knowledgeable, warmly “connected” health workers.  There might be one favorite nurse or aide.  In our case, 4, 6, or even 10 rise to the top, depending on who you talk to.  The bottom of the heap was far above average.  Exceptional courtesy and warmth of personality can also play important roles in patient care.
  4. I’m a bit squeamish when I think of some of the things medical people have to do, and I recoil even from thinking about the pain of certain procedures, but blood and fluids are things I can deal with.  We can usually manage and get through what we have to, and it certainly helps to share the experience with multiple family members.
  5. No matter how knowledgeable, devoted, and caring the healthcare professionals are, it is quite possible and even likely that communicational misfires will occur.  Some of these may affect a patient’s ultimate health or even threaten life on occasion.  I attest to the fact that, on multiple occasions, information bits were missed by pros in our experience.  It is inevitable, no matter how good the technology and intentions.  Several of us helped to connect dots on occasion, most often with the thanks and attention of the docs and nurses.  It is important to read reputable web pages and to be informed, but I think it is even more important to be attentive in the moment, in the room.
  6. Being on the night crew has its benefits, and I suspect that night medical workers also require some additional skills in order to do the things they do in relative isolation all through the wee hours.
  7. Medical machines are fancier and more numerous these days.  Various equipment and supplies¹ for patient care seem to ease things a bit.  Technology advances, but there is always, always great value in a simple hand-massage or a genuine smile.
  8. Hospitals seem to have eased up on some of the visitation restrictions of the past.  At least in some units, relatives are encouraged to be there, not shooed out when “visiting hours” are over.  Many stay nights in patients’ rooms.  At some point in the last couple of decades, hospitals must’ve begun to realize more that having your own loved ones nearby is important.
  9. Wires and tubes and machines and hums and beeps are less mysterious than they first seem.  I learned some abbreviations and initials, e.g., NG, IV IG, and NPO and could readily use medical and anatomical labels when it might help in communicating.  After a while, I started pushing the IV silence button, having learned to recognize a few of the flashing codes.  I played with the position of the tubes and felt free to take the oxygen lines out for a little while for Dad’s comfort or so we could read his lips when he spoke quietly.  When the nurses or aides saw what I was comfortable with, they would sometimes ask me to help with something.  Partnership and teamwork were and are to be valued.
  10. Compassion tends to surface in a hospital room.

¹ There are automatically inflating calf “socks,” minty swabs for oral care and comfort, increasingly automated IV machines, and more.  Packets of this and that must fill many supply closets.  Perhaps these items are not so much new as new to me.)  Sometimes, another prop pillow or extra blanket was just the thing.  I shudder to think of the expense to the insurance company, not to mention the fights that may be ahead because of duplicated procedures and things that some actuary might unknowingly deem medically unnecessary.  In the room, though, all these things were good and used intentionally.


Caregivers and healthcare pros

Words cannot express my family’s gratitude for the physicians, nurses, aides, and technicians that cared for my dad during his month-long hospitalization.  Upon Dad’s hospital admission, his lifelong friend who was also his primary physician quickly called in another specialist —an oncologist (who was not dealing with any cancer in our case).  This doc brought considerable investigative gifts to bear as he put the pieces of this “Dr. House” case together and consulted with others.  Both of these men are highly respected as skilled, caring doctors, and also as committed Christian men.  That devotion was shown in multiple ways, including their giving their cell phone numbers to us.  They asked for, and responded to, our updates, even a couple of weeks after my dad had been transferred to another hospital for state-of-the-art treatment.  The primary physician/friend later signed my dad’s death certificate and also spoke at the memorial ceremony.

A general surgeon did excellent emergency surgery in the abdomen, and Dad healed well from that.  A neurologist read the initial radiology report in great detail and spoke with another specialist who was in transition to another hospital.  Two cardiac specialists saw Dad on rounds and monitored the circulatory system (only a side issue in this case), carefully considering the possible impact of each step taken.  We have two relatives with high-level biochemistry/medical university teaching experience; it was a blessing to be able to rely on their advice.¹

I had my favorites among the nurses and CSAs (Clinical Support Associates/aides) at this first hospital, but I loved and appreciated qualities in each of them.  The charge nurse Jennifer, for instance, showed above-and-beyond, sincere concern for Dad as he was administered a sedative prior to the second attempt at a lengthy series of MRIs.  Tracy connected with both my mom and my dad, and she prayed for us, as several others did.  Alicia, serving as an aide but about to graduate with an R.N. degree, gave amazing relief to my dad with skilled tissue massage.  I cannot recall a single caregiver at this hospital who responded with anything other than attentive, helpful care and promises kept.  Sure, some were a little quicker or slightly more skilled than others, but every one was good. 

Some nurses and aides seemed to travel in pairs, working closely together.  Callie & Susan and Stephanie & Emily made for great teams in the daytime, and Jason & Robert at night.  All the nurses and aides regularly asked if we needed anything, and when asked for something (ice chips, pillow, a med check, or whatever), each one responded willingly.

Brad the radiology tech stayed 3-4 hours past his shift to give my dad the benefit of his personal skill, seeing him through the 2nd painful, anxiety-laden MRI.  I don’t think we’ll ever forget Kristy from dietary, who, upon hearing Dad tease Mom in a whisper, grinned and said if her husband said that, she’d get “butter in a sock.”  It was hard to imagine that sweet person putting a stick of butter in a sock and chasing her husband around, beating on him.  With a grin, Kristy said, “It doesn’t leave marks.”  I’ll bet she’d heard that country “solution” from her grandmother.  This was the kind of personality and warmth that existed in my dad’s room for most of the time he was hospitalized.  

When we transferred Dad to a 2nd hospital, I was only there for one evening since my sister arrived then.  I personally experienced one rather arrogant internist who proved to be nearly worthless in our case, except in that he eventually called in a specialist when he finally humbled himself and listened to a few things my sister said.  We had the distinct impression that a couple of key people, including this “lead,” really needed to have read the medical chart thoroughly first.  A neurologist seemed attentive, and a physical therapist or two helped Dad sit up one time and encouraged him, but the week+ in that hospital was essentially wasted time.

On the other hand, the hospital above was very fine.  Finally, a bed had become available at this university hospital, so Dad was transferred to yet a 3rd institution.  No caregiving duds existed in this bunch.  Skilled docs with strong communication gifts included a CCU/ICU attending that we liked very much.  Jackie, a day nurse, could be slightly businesslike and gruff but also took good care of dad and had a strong hug with Mom one evening, mentioning her prayer for us.  Randy, another day nurse, holds a special place in our hearts because of his years of experience and obvious expertise, but also because of his faith statements and appreciation of our hymn singing on Thanksgiving evening.  Randy told us, “Every day I work for God.”  He also said one morning, as my dad had turned a corner positively, “I usually take care of really sick people, and you don’t need me anymore.”

My favorite nurse was Kelsey.  Her perfect pacing, her wide-open attention, and her consistent, thorough care through the night provided reassurance.  Each task (e.g., turning/wedging, leg/foot treatments, and bed changes, which she did herself instead of relying on an aide; not to mention the IV monitoring and more medically crucial items) seemed perfectly executed.  It was Kelsey who by her ways and spirit gave Mom the peace of mind to leave Dad alone for the night for the first time.  Rebecca, another day nurse, talked openly with me about Dad’s worsening condition near the end; she was very caring and attentive, as well.

After Dad’s death, a dear lady that Dad worked with recently commented, “I will even miss getting him a bottle of water every day, and the gratitude he showed.  He was a gentleman.  Completely.”  In the hospital, too, Dad’s gratitude was shown in his whispers and eyes, and most caregivers got to experience that.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone more adept at showing gratitude than my dad when he was a patient.  Although his voice was weak, no one mistook his genuine appreciation.

For all the aides, nurses, and doctors, we the family members now give thanks.  We had at many points hoped to return to the 1st hospital (at least) with Dad in a wheelchair, showing them the good news that he was recovering.  That was not to be.  Now, we give thanks for the Lord’s mercy in not allowing Dad’s earthly life to continue in a difficult, depressing, burdensome way.  We grieve, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope.   While Dad’s memory will live for quite a while in those who knew and loved him, it is infinitely more important that his soul will live eternally with God.

¹ Our medical vocabularies quickly grew—perhaps too quickly for our own good, because the terms would sometimes fly over the hospital bed faster than we could take them in or jot down notes.