Tag: chaplain jesus lady

When God prank calls you

When I was in my early twenties, I planned to go to seminary and become a Unitarian Universalist minister. I cherished this dream for several years, going as far as meeting with admissions officers from Meadville Lombard Theological School. This revelation may come as a surprise to those who know how much I love swearing and sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Over this past summer, I mentioned my now-silent religious calling to chaplain and author Kerry Egan. She asked me what made me give up on the idea. “Well,” I said, “I realized that I’m not good at being. I’m great at doing, but horrible at being.” She knew just what I meant. Religious folk are supposed to exude a calm, non-striving presence. I’m a halfway decent listener and I’m genuinely empathetic. But I’m also an antsy, leg-jiggling, nail-drumming advice-giver and people-helper. A lot of times, what people, particularly those with spiritual problems, need is to be truly, deeply heard. I’m about as deep as a jelly roll pan and about as still as a Mardi Gras parade. I am not minister material.

What I didn’t share with Kerry was the full backstory of the period of my life that led me to give up on the idea of ministry. The decision not to pursue ministry grew out of working with the Worst Possible Mindy. Worst Possible Mindy–let’s call her WPM–is a former boss of mine, a hospital chaplain who worked at the Duke Medical Center. I think of her as the worst possible version of myself because she seemed to embody and amplify all my foibles. She was full of great ideas, but terrible at seeing things through to completion. Her prodigious energy sizzled out of her in all directions, often leading to confusion, chaos, and crisis-mode actions. She had strong opinions and never curbed the instinct to share them. Although WPM probably meant much of what she said in jest, her need to be heard could make her come across as an rabid alpha female or a bully. Watching her operate was like watching the Bizarro Superman version of myself. As a boss and as a human, she was pretty much a disaster. The fact that she was a chaplain, someone who was supposed to exemplify the best of humanity, someone who was supposed to be in close touch with the universal and the divine, made her failings seem 100 times worse. I gave up on ministry because I was afraid that would happen to me — that standing on that pedestal would lead to a nasty tumble. I concluded that my dream of becoming a minister had been wrong. God hadn’t really called me.

Kerry’s response to my statement about being versus doing was that she, too, lacked the essential skills of a minister. “I learned them,” she said. “I’m still learning them.” They reminded me of the tagline of Stacy Sergent’s wonderful Chaplain Jesus Lady bloglearning (and unlearning) about life, death, God, myself, and other things…  I’ve thought about those words for months. I don’t know if I’ll ever go to seminary. However, the idea of learning has had an effect on me. Most ministers aren’t born to be ministers. Good ministers remain open to learning how to be more human rather than striving to attain saintliness.

Maybe certain in-born characteristics can help your chances of success, but most of the being is actually in the doing, the trying, and the learning.

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!

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.