Category: Religion and chaplaincy

Rev. Laura Arnold talks compassion fatigue and the spiritual value of colostomy bags

In Part Two of our Minty Fresh interview, Rev. Laura Arnold–former hospital chaplain, current pastor of the Decorah United Church of Christ and Director of Online Learning for the Center for Progressive Renewal–talks compassion fatigue and the spiritual value of blessing colostomy bags. Read Part One of the interview.

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): Many of the chaplains I worked with had keen senses of humor. Do you think that being able to see find the lightness in dark situations is important for the job? Was there a time when finding the humor in a tough situation allowed you or a patient to get through something bad?

Laura Arnold (LA): Humor is absolutely essential for chaplaincy, be that playfulness with patients at times or the use of humor and joking with chaplain colleagues as a way of processing and coping with the situations we are faced with.

One afternoon, I was called to visit with a patient who had just been through a procedure to get a colostomy bag. She was depressed and not sure that God could love her anymore. It was hard to focus on her words as the pressure of her body produced an actively audible gargling bag of waste. “Let’s bless your colostomy bag!” I announced during our conversation. She burst into laughter—roaring about whether or not I’d have to use oil or water, whether I’d have to hold the bag, and whether I could stomach even being in the room much longer with the eruptive gurgling and the stench. I’ll admit it was the strangest idea I’d had in a while, but I’ll tell you it was one of the most remarkable and honest times of blessing and prayer I’ve had. We could be honest as well as playful about the absurdness of the experience, but name that, even in the midst of it, God was there with her.

Playfulness was constantly present with my chaplaincy colleagues. We kept a list of public service announcements that we would occasionally act out. My favorite tales and skits included these: don’t tick off your spouse if they are carrying a

This was not a good idea.
Public Service Announcement: This was not a good idea.

hatchet, but in the event you do, ask them to leave it in your head until you get to the ER; drinking on rooftops is generally a bad idea as is having sex on a bridge without good guard rails; masturbating on the gear shift of your car is generally a bad idea as it leads to an awkward need for Xanax after having your car towed to the trauma bay.

MFM: From TV, we’ve learned important facts about hospitals. For example, thanks to accurate, fact-based documentaries like General Hospital, Grey’s Anatomy, and ER, we know that hospitals are populated almost entirely with hot, young doctors and nurses who all sleep with each other. Did your own experience working closely with doctors and nurses differ in any way from those highly realistic portrayals?

LA: I generally find medical dramas to be a bit over the top and roll my eyes at how they portray reviving folks in cardiac arrest through the cleanest, gentlest looking CPR imaginable (y’all, seriously, it’s intense in person) or portray such mild suffering experience by so many folks in their last bit of life or make it seem like every case has a fully collaborative team of well-rested, properly nourished, Ivy league trained physicians. The reality is that most docs and nurses I’ve worked with are exhausted, emotionally drained, and generally overwhelmed by their patient load. Many experience stressed home lives because of their own compassion fatigue and disconnection with their families, simply because they don’t have one more ounce of energy to give when they get home. I’d love to see a show that grappled with the hard questions nurses and docs face: when ought treatment shift towards palliative care rather than charge on at full steam, what the moral implications of what patients receive kinds of treatment, and how do you help prepare someone to die well? And I’d like a network show to include chaplains. Seriously, how is it that the Colbert Report had a chaplain repeatedly on the show and not one hospital drama does?

Rev. Laura Arnold on chasing chickens and strapping on a crash helmet

Self-proclaimed church nerd Laura Arnold served as a hospital chaplain and as the Associate Minister for Theological Education for the Southeast UCC Conference in Atlanta, GA.  She currently serves as pastor of the Decorah United Church of Christ in Decorah, Iowa and as the Director of Online Learning for the Center for Progressive Renewal. She is active in her local community, seeking to demonstrate God’s love in the world. In Part One of the Minty Fresh Mysteries interview, Rev. Arnold shares some of the wit and wisdom that served her well during her time as a healthcare chaplain.

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): Burnout seems to be serious occupational hazard for chaplains. Was that a factor at all in your decision to transition from healthcare chaplaincy to parish ministry?

collar and brickLaura Arnold (LA): Though I have always been drawn to the local parish (and get church nerd excited about all aspects of church life—even meetings), chaplaincy was a seemingly perfect balance between the adrenaline junkie in me and my love of pastoral presence and theological reflection.

But there was a turning point.  I wouldn’t call it burnout as much as warping of worldview after being a part of the aftermath of so many devastating injuries and violence. I began to presume that pregnancies were inherently dangerous and healthy infants were rare, that violence was a normal experience, that everyone I loved was going to wreck their car and suffer a brain injury, etc.  In truth the warping of my worldview happened over a long period of time, so it wasn’t until the morning I started to strap a bike helmet to my head before getting in the car that I started seriously considering what the work of chaplaincy was doing to my spirit.  I was becoming someone I didn’t want to be and knew it was time to transition to another form of ministry. That said, I wouldn’t trade my years in chaplaincy for anything.  It was a tremendous and overall amazing place to serve.

MFM: You’ve shared with me that you had some pretty, ahem, colorful encounters with patients and their families, like the time a patient’s family member put his hand on your rear end during a prayer circle. (I’m totally going to use that in a future Lindsay Harding book, by the way.) What’s another example of a time when a patient’s family or friends were really undermining your ability to provide spiritual care?

LA: A family asked for an anointing and blessing upon a dying family member.  We scheduled a time for the next day when the family could all be present.  I wrote a beautiful liturgy and was honored to preside given that I had formed a long standing pastoral relationship with the patient as he was dying.  When I got to the room, oil and liturgy in hand, a brother announced that they had decided to check out the phonebook and call in a “real pastor.”  Ignoring their brother’s wishes, the family decided that I as a woman did not have proper authority to provide spiritual care.

As difficult as family and friends of patients sometimes were, staff members also managed to doubt the validity of our role. It was 3:04 a.m. when I was called by a charge nurse for an “urgent consultation.”  I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and fixed my hair before heading up to the floor.  The nurse only pointed to the patient’s room and announced that he was incredibly upset and “needed some Jesus.”  What the patient actually said he needed was to have the chickens chased out of his room because their clucking was keeping him awake. Given that his experience of his hallucination was real, I proceeded to run around the room, arms swinging wide open, “gathering the chickens,” then loudly announcing that I was taking them all to the elevator to send them downstairs and outside.  The report was that he was asleep within 15 minutes of the chickens’ being driven out.  While I’m thankful that he finally slept, I wonder what in the world prompted the nurse to call me.  I continue to wonder if it was misconception of what chaplains do or if it was a manipulative use of power.

Read Part Two of the interview with Rev. Laura

Karen B. Kaplan dares you to read her book

Encountering the Edge_frontRabbi Karen B.Kaplan, former healthcare chaplain and author of Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died, has kindly agreed to be the next victim, er, interviewee, in my chaplain series. I read her book, and I can certify that it’s minty fresh!

In 1992, Karen was ordained as one of the first 200 female rabbis worldwide, and she later became a hospice chaplain. Endorsed by a reporter for The Huffington Post, you can see stories and commentary about how people deal with death on her blog, offbeatcompassion.com.

Currently, her focus has shifted exclusively to writing. She teaches essay writing and grammar to speakers of English as a second language and heads The Angry Coffee Bean Writers’ Group. She’s currently working on a collection of compassionate science fiction short stories (no swords, no murderous robots).

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): You’re Jewish, but as a hospice chaplain you often provided pastoral care to non-Jews or adherents to different “flavors” of Judaism from your own. How do you think your own religious beliefs played into the way you approached your work?

Karen B. Kaplan (KBK): Ideally, chaplains aim to keep their own agendas, including religious ones, out of the way, so they can really listen carefully and take in what the patient is trying to express. Our job is to go where the patient goes, not have the patient follow us. In other words, a chaplain’s job is not so much to provide answers but to ask questions. So your question could become, “How do the religious or non-religious beliefs of a patient shape how you provide pastoral care to that patient? The answer is, if a patient is secular, we might discuss spiritual matters all humans face such as the meaning of life and how they want to be remembered. As for people of different faiths from my own, I simply listen to them express their beliefs and explore how those beliefs may be encouraging, strengthening, hindering or confusing them at that moment. I follow their lead; if they are distressed, I help them articulate their concerns.

Patients rarely know anything about my beliefs, unless they ask. And even then, I usually turn it around to ask about their own beliefs, which is what they really want to and need to talk about

MFM: Frankly, you’ve seen a lot of dying and death–your body count would put a mafia hitman to shame. What do you think happens when we die? Did your idea about the afterlife (or lack thereof) change in the course of your work?

KBK: You have a colorful way of putting things. I do answer these questions in detail in the book, so I don’t want my answer here to be a spoiler. However, I’ll give some hints: With a front row seat as it were between the edge of life and impending death, I have listened to many patients tell me their beliefs about the afterlife, everything from the traditional heaven/hell dichotomy to creative ideas of their own. I just hope that in my case, I don’t have to end up with my dysfunctional parents and that there will be an Option B for people like me.

MFM: I recently interviewed Stacy Sergent, who, like you, published a memoir about her work as a chaplain. I’m going to ask you the same question I asked her: If you could fictionalize your account, how would you change it? I’m guessing your fictionalized memoir would have at least one spaceship in it…

KBK: Funny you should ask. Fact is, I’m happy to report as I am not on hospice, the last chapter is fiction! In that chapter I imagine that at some nice ripe age in my nineties that I will be on hospice and thinking back on my life with the help of a chaplain. The reader will see a dialogue between me and that chaplain. You might think this is hokey or very risky to do, but like the rest of the book, it passed review after review with flying colors. One point of doing this exercise was to reveal how my own life story influenced me to take on such an admittedly peculiar career.

MFM: I liked your ending, too. In fact, I cried when “you” died. Still, I’m disappointed that you refuse to add vampires or spaceships to your memoir. If you’d like, I will spice it up for you–Fifty Shades of the Hospice, perhaps? No? Moving on then… Talking about death and dying can bring out strong reactions in people, so I’m wondering, did any of the reactions to your book (or the idea of you writing such a book) trouble you or upset you? Or were you able, to quote the great poet Taylor Swift, to shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it (i.e. other people’s opinions) off?

KBK: No, no one’s strong reactions have upset me. I expected such reactions. Furthermore, as a chaplain visiting the sick the dying and the bereaved, I have had plenty of experience with strong emotions face to face, so anyone backing away from my book in horror is mild stuff in comparison. Besides, I have not heard too much negativity. I think people who dislike the subject keep that to themselves and solve the issue by not purchasing the book.

It is a bit amusing how close friends, even with their very own signed copies, have put off reading anything within besides my signed note to them. Shall I dare them?

The real Chaplain Jesus Lady: All of the drama, none of the angsty vampires

For the next few months, Minty Fresh Mysteries will be profiling some real-life chaplains who’ve written interesting and thought-provoking accounts of their work. I’m kicking things off with Stacy N. Sergent, whose incredible Chaplain Jesus Lady blog I discovered while researching the second book in my hospital chaplain mystery series, A Death in Duck.

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Chaplain Jesus Lady herself, Stacy Sergent

Stacy was born and raised in the mountains of Harlan, Kentucky. She completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, and a Master of Divinity at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, as well as five units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Carolinas Medical Center and Spartanburg Regional Medical Center. Her experience varies from English teacher to French interpreter, children’s minister to return desk cashier at Lowe’s, all of it enriching in its own way. These days she is a gardener, a blogger, a crocheter, an occasional preacher, and a hospital chaplain at Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston. She makes her home just across the bridge in Mount Pleasant with her wonderful dog, Hurley, who takes her for frequent walks on the beach.

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): As a young, female hospital chaplain, do you find that you defy people’s expectations of what a chaplain should be? Have there ever been times when you’ve been able to use that to your advantage?

Stacy Sergent (SS): Yes, I am sometimes a surprise to people. Just this week someone knocked on the door of our office and when I opened the door, he said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I was looking for the chaplain.” When I explained to him that I was the chaplain, I could tell he was completely caught off guard by this. He fumbled for words for a moment, then explained that he had previously met with one of our male chaplains for prayer. I offered to pray with him, but he declined and said he would come back later. That only happens occasionally. Usually once people get over the initial surprise, they open up to me and find that I’m able to meet their pastoral care needs, even if I’m not what they expected. There have been times when my presence as a young (and very short) woman has been disarming, usually with men expressing their grief in loud and angry ways. They expect me to be scared away, I think, but when they find that I don’t turn and run from their anger, their surprise is often enough to make a crack in the facade. It allows them to trust me with the sadness that is really behind their show of anger. And once they know that I can handle it, then the real grief work can begin.

MFM: I’ve heard it said that the role of a chaplain is to provide a “listening presence.” What does that mean to you? Do you ever want to stop being a listening presence and become, say, a “screaming, hollering banshee presence”?

SS: Being a listening presence is harder than it sounds, at least for me. It takes tremendous effort to stay in the moment with someone, not to let my mind wander, not to express disapproval or judgment, not to just think of what I need to say next. Active listening is tough and tiring. But it never fails to amaze me how much it means to someone to feel truly heard. So many times I’ve had a patient or family member say to me, “Thank you for everything you did for us. It meant so much.” And I find myself wondering what exactly I did — because I mostly remember being in the room with them and not saying anything. To anyone observing from the outside it would have looked very much like doing nothing. Yet being heard let them know they were not alone, and as a chaplain it’s my hope that by being there with them, even in silence, I bear witness to God’s presence with them, too. And yes, there are a few times when I’ve had to bite my tongue, when someone has literally made me want to scream, but I’ve always managed not to, so far.

MFM: You’ve written a wonderful memoir about your first few years of chaplaincy. I read it and loved it. But as a fiction writer, I want to know, if you could fictionalize your account, how would you change it? Would it become a black comedy? An erotic thriller? Would you change all the doctors into cowboys?

SS: First of all, thank you very much. I was beyond thrilled when I read your review of my book, since I am such a fan of your writing as well! This is a really interesting question. I never thought about what my story would be like as fiction. I suppose it could be wish fulfillment. I could, like your fictional heroine Lindsay Harding, eat lots of junk food and still be thin. And I could have romantic interludes in the elevator like the characters on Grey’s Anatomy. I can’t tell you how disappointing it is, after years of watching that show, that of all the thousands of times I’ve been on hospital elevators, never once have I had occasion to make out with a gorgeous doctor à la McDreamy or McSteamy. Of course, if I really wanted to sell books, I would need the hospital to be threatened by zombie hoards, only to be saved by the chaplain who is secretly an angsty vampire. All these missed opportunities . . . But I will say, I’m pretty happy with the story I did tell, and really touched with the messages I’ve been getting from people all over the place who say it resonated with them. I think so many of us experience times of questioning who we are and what God is up to (if anything) and what it all means. Exploring those questions honestly through my own life was an exhilarating writing experience, even without zombies or vampires or elevator makeout sessions. And people seem to enjoy reading it, so even better!

When your time’s up, even Gandalf isn’t going to be able to save you.

I have a friend who is a nurse. Not just any kind of nurse, either. She specializes in the care of people with ALS, which is also known as as the disease that makes everyone throw a bucket of water on their heads. The average person diagnosed with this terrible, degenerative neurological disease lives 2-5 years, so for her, experiencing death is a pretty regular part of caring for her patients. A few Christmases ago, my friend was awakened during the night by the cries of her mother-in-law, who was experiencing symptoms of a heart attack. The elderly woman, who lived with my friend and her husband, had been growing increasingly frail, sickly, and confused during the years leading up to this and had, as a consequence, filled out a Living Will, specifying that no heroic measures should be undertaken to preserve her life. Yet, when her cries awakened my friend, her natural urge was to rush into her mother-in-law’s room and start performing CPR. She called 999 (the UK version of 911) and began frantically pumping on the elderly woman’s thin chest. She thought about trying to administer aspirin or beta blockers and wondered how long it would be before help arrived. But after a few frenzied moments, she stopped. Instead, as she awaited the ambulance, she called her husband into the room. They both held the old woman and stroked her hair. They spoke softly to her and told her how much they loved her as she took her last breaths.

Even though I never met the woman who died, this story has really stuck with me. It shows how, even for those of us with a lot of experience with death and dying, the natural instinct is often to do something, anything to prolong life. So many of us can’t see what my friend was able to–that a lot of the time, we’re not prolonging life. We’re prolonging death.

By no means am I an advocate for giving up on life. Indeed, I’ve spent most of my professional career supporting biomedical research projects aimed at improving and extending life for both animals and people. And probably one of the things I like the most about writing murder mysteries is that I get to decide who dies, when. Unless I kill them, none of the characters I love will ever die. Even with that kind of omnipotence, though, have you ever noticed how most writers don’t raise people from the dead? Dumbledore, Gandalf, and countless other powerful wizards lack this one, very useful ability. And in fiction, as well as many religious traditions, when someone is brought back, they’re often a twisted, evil shadow of their former selves. From the zombies in Haitian voodoo to that creepy kid in Pet Sematary, lives that are resurrected aren’t restored. Instead, death, for them, becomes a prolonged, tormented state. In fact, the only positive examples of resurrection that come to mind are the few ancient Greeks, such as Achilles, who came back from the dead as gods, and Lazarus, who came back as just plain, old Lazarus. And then, of course, there’s Jesus himself, whose triumphant resurrection is thought to show that conquering death is ultimately possible.

For me, though, the lack of other example in literature or real life (the occasional “woman wakes up in morgue” story notwithstanding) is telling. I think we, on some very, very deep human level, know that death really is the bourn from whence no traveller returns. Now, I’m not saying that it’s impossible that we could go on to some other existence after our earthly deaths. As I’ve said before, I personally don’t think so, but it would be really nice. I guess I’m just saying that we all know deep down that when the party’s over, it’s really over. And that’s what makes just sitting back and letting go so damn hard.

Beam me up, Chaplain.

This piece was originally published in the November 2014 issue of the Association of Professional Chaplains Newsletter. Reprinted here with permission.

“For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain…  It wasn’t until I was beginning to do Star Trek that the subject of religion arose. What brought it up was that people were saying that I would have a chaplain on board the Enterprise. I replied, “No, we don’t.” –Gene Roddenberry

“Roddenberry made it known to the writers of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation that religion and mystical thinking were not to be included, and that in Roddenberry’s vision of Earth’s future, everyone was an atheist and better for it.[39] He stubbornly resisted the effort of network execs to put a Christian chaplain on the crew of the Enterprise. It would be ludicrous, he argued, to pretend that all other religions would have become obliterated by this point, or that such a cosmopolitan people would impose one group’s religion on all the rest of the crew.”[40] Wikipedia entry on Gene Roddenberry

250px-leonard_nimoy_as_spock_1967

I was intrigued when I discovered recently that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, hated, and I’m talking blood-boilingly, eye-buggingly HATED, the idea of putting a chaplain on board the Starship Enterprise. Before I go any further, let me issue the disclaimer that I’m not an avid Trekkie. While I am a casual fan of both the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, I don’t speak even a word of Klingon and I’ve never seen a single episode of Deep Space Nine. I encourage true Trekkies to boldly go where no Mindy has gone before by engaging in the Trekkie message board discussion about the topic of chaplains, religion, and Star Trek.

Despite my lack of Trekkie street cred, Roddenberry’s stance was interesting to me for a couple of reasons. First, I have a strong suspicion that anyone who’s been a chaplain for more than, say, four minutes has at some point encountered similar antagonism to the mere fact of their existence. I’m guessing this applies in all realms of chaplaincy, but since I know the most about chaplaincy in the hospital setting, I’ll use that arena to illustrate what I mean.

Many hospital chaplains will have run into a doctor who felt that they were “in the way” or even that they were undermining patient care or challenging the doctor’s authority. Or maybe you’ve had an experience in which a patient became enraged at a gentle offer to pray with them. For example, I remember my boss at the Duke University Medical Center coming into my office wide-eyed with shock after having a patient’s family scream at her in the hallway. “You come in here with your soft voice and your little prayers! What good is that? She’s in pain! She’s dying! You’re useless!” (Side note, after the woman died, the family actually sought out my boss to thank her for putting up with them, and for finding snacks and tissues for them).

Sometimes such antagonism is born out of the anger and fear that surrounds a trauma or a death. Other times, though, it comes from a sort of cognitive dissonance. Hospitals are supposed to be shimmering bubbles of modernity — the best that modern medical science has to offer. They’re about stuffing people full of precisely engineered, molecularly-targeted drugs and doing things to them that involve really big, fancy words. Words like stereotactic laser-assisted surgery and autologous mesenchymal stem cell infusions. To some people, suggesting a simple act like offering a prayer to a higher power might be as welcome in such a setting as offering to bring out the leeches and bloodletting tools.

For others, it’s not about the setting; they just can’t get on board with the idea of religion at all. I write novels about a hospital chaplain in a small North Carolina town. In my first book, I included a scene where a patient’s wife tells the chaplain that she doesn’t need the chaplain’s help because she isn’t “superstitious.” BURN! Like most of my best lines and plot elements, that was based on a true event. In that real-life situation, I felt that that word was carefully chosen to be extra insulting. Not just “not religious,” “not a Christian/Muslim/Jew/etc.,” or “not spiritual.” Such people might’ve had a bad experience in the past with someone trying to foist their own beliefs onto others. They may lash out because they feel threatened and might simply not understand that chaplains are not evangelists.

Roddenberry’s anti-chaplain stance also spoke to me as someone who falls on the humanist end of the Unitarian Universalist belief spectrum. I, too, have sometimes wished that we little homo sapiens could move beyond a certain kind of religious expression. It’s hard to learn about yet another zealot overseas beheading an innocent person or a rigid religionist in our own country passing discriminatory laws based on narrow interpretations of their personal faith without wishing that there was “nothing to kill or die for. And no religion, too.”

But Roddenberry fundamentally misunderstood the role of a chaplain, and indeed the role of religion in our lives. I agree that in Star Trek’s science-driven, cosmopolitan future world, it would make sense that some aspects of religious turmoil and even perhaps facets of religious belief would naturally fall away. Let’s sincerely hope we’re done beheading each other in the name of religion by then. But Captain Kirk and his shipmates are still humans. They still live and die, become angry and jealous, confront the unknown, and, most importantly, confront the unknowable. As long as there are humans, there will be a need for those who can help them understand what it means to be human. And that’s why chaplains will be needed every bit as much in Star Date 2364 as they are today.

Hospice chaplain Karen B. Kaplan sends a postcard from the edge

In her creative nonfiction work, Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died, hospice chaplain Karen B. Kaplan shares her patients’ stories–some heart-breaking, some funny, some profound–and refuses to offer easy answers or sound-bite wisdom about what it means to face death. Excerpted below is Chapter One, entitled “You’re Too Nice Looking to Work for Hospice- -Being Made Welcome to My New Career.”  For more samples of Rabbi Kaplan’s writing and information about her book, check out her blog, offbeatcompassion.com.  She hastens to warn readers of my Lindsay Harding mystery series that her book has no detectives, murders, or blind dates with teenage Zoroastrian Civil War reenactors.

Karen B. Kaplan has some stories for you

Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan:

I started looking for hospice work in 2005 as I wrapped up a three-year contract with Progressive Temple Beth Ahavat Sholom in Brooklyn, New York. As my contract was drawing to a close, I interviewed for pulpit as well as hospice positions, being ambivalent about leaving congregational life. The congregation was unaware that I was considering serving at a hospice. As of yet unannounced to a soul, soon after I got the offer from United Hospice of Rockland, one of these fans said, “Rabbi, I don’t care how far away your next post is, I will follow you there.” I told him I was overwhelmed with his faithfulness and touching sentiments, but that he would not want to fulfill his vow as the only way he would be following me would be as a hospice patient! A portrait painter would have had a heyday capturing the motley crew of emotions all over his face.

And that was one of the more positive reactions to my announcement of my career plans. One person made such an expression of disgust you would think I had already ritually defiled myself from contact with the dead as described in the Book of Leviticus. He was afraid I would be contaminating him in no time. Sure enough, he backed away from our remaining opportunities to get together over coffee. Someone else, upon hearing the news, raised his arms as if to protect himself, emitted an “Oh!” looked away, and retreated a step or two. Mentioning my new career to my congregants definitely was a way to throw a curveball into a conversation. (Nowadays, there is a mischievous part of me that sometimes gets a kick out of springing this surprise upon unsuspecting listeners such as fellow Bed and Breakfast guests.) Yet another congregant gave me a knowing look, saying “That is just the kind of job that would suit you.” Maybe I was imagining it, having been stung by the premature end of my tenure, but it felt like the subtext of that remark was “A pulpit rabbi you should not or could not ever be.” So onward I went, with all these votes of confidence, to life at the edge.

Knock, knock. Who’s there? Death.

There’s a great quote in Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s book Americanah about blogging. She describes a blogger so eager to impress her followers with her wit and freshness that she begins to feel, over time, “like a vulture hacking into the carcasses of other people’s stories.” As I peck at the keyboard in my little corner of the Great Blogosphere, I can relate. I, too, suffer from the blergy, sinking feeling that everything interesting and meaningful that can be said, has been said a thousand times before by people way fancier than I am. Undaunted, I will blog on, because, like Allison Janda, I am a blogoholic. All of which is to say: consider yourself warned that Adiche’s quote is going to be especially true about this blog post, because not only am I going to talk about things that other people have written, but I’m going to talk about, well, carcasses. In this case, human ones.

I’ve written about death on this blog before, so you may already know that I have an interest in the subject. If you are very clever, the fact that I write murder mysteries about a hospital chaplain (whose job in large part involves providing pastoral care to those facing the end of their lives) might also have dropped a subtle hint.

Thus, I was heartened to learn that there are other young women who’ve given this topic some thought. [And, yes, I did just have a birthday. And, no, saying “young” and including myself in that age bracket wasn’t a typo.]

Caitlin Doughty isn’t like stuffed squirrels smoking pipes.

When I first heard about mortician and death scholar Caitlin Doughty’s new book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, I thought it was going to be a piece of hipster shock art, like those weird taxidermy scenes of, say, chipmunks playing miniature banjos or stuffed squirrels smoking pipes. After all, the publicity photos showed Doughty, an attractive Morticia Addams type with black hair and red lipstick, holding a skull. This signaled to me a posture of somehow being “cooler” than death.

But you really can’t judge a book by its cover (or an author by her ability to look sexy wielding a skull). The glossy Betty Page pin-up image is only bait to pull readers into a thoughtful and engaging work about the modern American experience of life and death. There’s humor and humanity in her book, but she never comes across as flippant. If anything, she encourages us to think more deeply, and become more engaged in the essential fact of life that death is. Doughty doesn’t believe in an afterlife; she’s someone who has suffered from existential fears and has stared death in the face…literally. From all of this, she has, in my opinion, grown wise beyond her years.

Another young woman whose writing on this subject I greatly admire is Stacy N. Sergent, a.k.a. Chaplain Jesus Lady. You’ll have to trust me that the Lindsay Harding character who features in my murder mystery series is not based on Sergent, although they’re both funny, young, compassionate, Southern, single and have very curly hair. However, it’s been wonderful to discover Sergent’s blog, which so often expresses views that mirror my own and, by extension, Lindsay’s. As an ordained Christian minister, Sergent falls on the the opposite end of the theological spectrum from Doughty. However, the two women share a passion for advocating acceptance of the inevitability of death and compassion for those facing it. I can’t recommend her recent post “D is for Death” (in her ABCs of hospital chaplaincy series) highly enough. I’ll leave you with the words she closes with:

We are the same. I am with you, as far as I can go. God is with you all the way. You are not alone. Even in death, not one of us is alone.

False Advertising, Indeed.

Over the past few years, I’ve occasionally asked friends and acquaintances to describe a typical chaplain. If people have any notions at all, they reference Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H—a Christian, middle-aged, celibate dude with a kindly twinkle in his blue eyes. I suspect that even in the era of the Korean War, that stereotype bore little resemblance to reality, and there can be no doubt that the Father Mulcahys of the world don’t make up the majority of the ranks of today’s chaplaincy. But the myth of the typical chaplain endures.

Being a chaplain isn’t a typical job, though. While there are federal non-discrimination laws that would bar a corporation from hiring or firing someone based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation, religious denominations are still free to ordain only those whom they deem worthy to provide pastoral care. So, depending on a person’s religious background, they may never have seen a faith professional who doesn’t conform to the mold that their denomination lays out. When these folks meet a chaplain, they may come to that interaction with a very narrowly proscribed vision of the right “man” for the job.

So what do you do when you’re not one of the Father Mulcahys of the world? At times, it’s hard to hide the fact that you don’t meet someone’s expectation of what a chaplain should be. When a female chaplain walks into a hospital room, it’s pretty obvious that she’s not, for example, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, or, say, the Pope. But what about those attributes that we can hold inside ourselves—our deeply held spiritual or political beliefs or our sexual orientations?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the dilemmas that humanist/agnostic/non-conformist and LGBTQ chaplains confront. At what point should they “out” the part of themselves that may not jive with someone’s expectations of what a chaplain should be? Here’s what got me thinking. I write murder mysteries about a fictional hospital chaplain in small-town North Carolina. Mostly, the books’ reception has been positive. But a reader recently posted this flaming one-star review to Amazon.com:

This review is from: A Murder in Mount Moriah (Reverend Lindsay Harding Mystery, Book No. 1) (Kindle Edition)

The cover says “A REVEREND Lindsay Harding Mystery.” Now I have no problems with women who are called into the ministry…and…I fully recognize that ministers are fallen human beings with good and bad moments, too. But a woman of the cloth who…enthusiastically supports the gay lifestyle of her boss, who is also an ordained minister…? No. Just no. False advertising indeed.

This review was titled “False advertising!,” and I suspect this reader felt tricked because no mention is made of a gay character’s sexuality until you meet his partner (well into the book).

Should I include cautionary labels for those who don’t like the idea of a gay chaplain?!

The experience made me wonder: am I under an obligation to warn readers about the liberal/progressive content of my books, even though there is no sex whatsoever and only one brief (heterosexual) kiss? And if I am, how would I do it, short of putting a Tipper Gore-style cautionary label on my covers like “Contains a chaplain who wrestles with the nature and existence of God,” or perhaps titling the next volume, “The Liberal Murder Mystery with the Gay Chaplain in It”? And in real life, should chaplains let people see their “content,” or should they simply remain closed books?

Theoretically, this wouldn’t come up as an issue very often. Pastoral care doesn’t provide a stage for chaplains to shimmy across, displaying their personal theologies and ideologies like Vegas showgirls. And there’s a reason that chaplains don’t carry ramrods; chaplaincy isn’t an evangelical mission. However, in order to build rapport, especially in longer-term pastoral relationships, it is sometimes natural and even necessary to engage in personal conversations. Some of those in spiritual care need that sort of quid pro quo sharing in order to establish trust. The Reverend Laura Arnold, a former hospital chaplain who now serves as a United Church of Christ minister in Iowa, vividly described this dilemma in her 2012 article “Life as a Queer Chaplain” on Kim Knight’s wonderful Patheos blog. Rev. Arnold talks about that knife-edge moment that many queer chaplains experience when deciding whether to play the pronoun game when asked about their romantic relationships. Is it worth the risk of potentially rupturing a relationship with a patient? Is it worth the sometimes soul-diminishing pain of ignoring a patient’s homophobic rant or disparaging comments about non-believers, when these things go right to the heart of one’s identity?

I’m not sure there is a right answer, and in some ways all of us deal with versions of what I call The Thanksgiving Dilemma. That is, do you call Great Aunt Pearlene out for making crude, racist comments about your sister’s new Filipino boyfriend, or do you just bite your tongue, keep the peace, and pass the gravy? Rev. Laura was able to reconcile her own position by embodying, “a living alternative to the hate filled rhetoric spewed from some pulpits that has scarred and convinced queer people that they are despised by God, abominations, excluded from heaven.” She said she feels privileged to be able to convey God’s love by fully inhabiting her identity.

For myself, all I can do is keep writing about my little by little my bunch of diverse, quirky, and fully human chaplains, hoping that they can crack open a tiny space in the hearts of readers. And that in that space, acceptance can take root and kindness can come into full flower.

Do you have a solution to the Thanksgiving Dilemma? Share it in the comments section!

Excerpt of the Patheos blog used with permission. Read the full text of Reverend Laura Arnold’s article on “Life as a Queer Chaplain.” 

Originally published in PlainViews September 3, 2014, Volume 11 No. 16. Reprinted with permission. 

Solving a bunch of murders would probably ruin my life.

I’m a pretty normal gal. I have a part-time job running the clinical research center at the Virginia Tech vet school. I’m a mom who shops at Kroger, walks the dog, and makes pasta salad. I do yoga, volunteer, and have Friday-night drinks with the neighbors. One thing I don’t do is solve murders.

Readers of the traditional or “cozy” mystery genres will know that one of the criterion often used for defining these books is that the protagonist should be an amateur sleuth. (There are notable exceptions to this, but it generally holds true). In other words, the person who solves the mystery is just a regular Joe or Josephine. Hence, my Reverend Lindsay Harding Mysteries fit the bill. Lindsay is a hospital chaplain. She’s not a police officer, a member of the armed forces, or even a private investigator. She’s a normal person, thrown into murder investigations by chance (actually by me, but don’t tell her that!).

I’ve been working on the third book in the series, and I find myself wondering — what would it mean for Lindsay, as a normal person, to be confronted frequently by the horror that accompanies the sudden, violent taking of a life? How might it change her as a person? Some mystery writers have addressed these questions with considerable skill. My religious-based mystery-writing hero, Julia Spencer-Fleming, is one of these. As personal tragedies pile on top of repeated exposures to the darker shades of human nature, Spencer-Fleming’s Reverend Clare Fergusson character grows, changes, and becomes more complex. And, crucially, Rev. Clare buys a new car. You read that right. She begins the series owning an impractical sports car, but at some point she realizes that she needs something that handles better in the snow. So she gets a Suburu. I know this may seem an odd thing to fixate on, but this exemplifies what’s right about Spencer-Fleming and wrong with so many other mystery series.

Way too many books, especially in the cozy genre, fail to recognize the deep wounds that would accumulate if a person were constantly confronting life-threatening (and life-ending) situations. Experiences, especially traumatic ones, change people. But some authors seem to take their characters and plots in the opposite direction — as their series progresses, they write about murders with all the the gravity and emotional depth of a game of Uno. Their characters’ quirks become like the pun-heavy jokes your weird old uncle trots out every Christmas — they may have been amusing the first few times, but now they make you want to stab yourself in the neck with a shrimp fork. By way of example, I’ll pick on two of the most successful series is the genre (the writers of which are both conveniently deceased, and therefore unable to argue with me): Lilian Jackson-Braun’s “The Cat Who…” series and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series. In these books, bodies stack up, but the equilibrium of the main character is totally undisturbed. Miss Marple might give a little frown or an exclamation of surprise as she steps over yet another corpse, but then she calmly returns to sipping her Earl Grey. In the last few installments of “The Cat Who…” murders roll in and out of the pages like buses out of a Greyhound station. They might occasion a quick-witted quip, but they don’t “stick” to the characters.

What’s a writer to do? Part of the charm of traditional mysteries, and cozies in particular, is that they provide an easy, often funny, read, free of the kind of gruesome violence that so many of us find overly disturbing. I love the humorous elements of these books, as they remind us that there is light to be found in even the darkest of places. But I personally can’t stand to read a character who remains static while the world around her repeatedly throws dead bodies at her feet.

Don’t worry. This doesn’t mean that the Lindsay Harding series is suddenly going to change from being fun beach reads to being a meditation on the hopelessness of existence. But it does mean that, if I achieve what I set out to do, that Lindsay will evolve.