Wounded Warrior

Afghanistan photoToday I attended a conference for mental health providers serving our Veterans. This conference focused on the emotional and spiritual cost of war. With soldiers returning from multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan we find that many of our veteran’s carry wounds that may be physical but also of the mind, heart and soul. The VA estimates that 31% of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan war suffer from PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

How can it be otherwise? Since Sept. 11, 2001 our nation has placed an incredible strain on our men and women in uniform. Many have served multiple deployments in often brutal conditions, while placing a strain on marriages and families. A friend who served as a chaplain in Iraq, speaks of the human cost to families as they struggle to find a new normal for life after the war.

The conference focused on the need to get services to our warriors who deserve our very best effort. A speaker from the Veterans Health Administration (VA) offered these disturbing statistics: Veterans dealing with depression wait on average 8 years before seeking help; those with substance abuse average 22 years before seeking treatment. And, only 50% will seek treatment. Imagine the pain that these wounded warriors carry.

The challenge said the speaker, is for the VA and community partners, secular and religious, to strive to grow the number of those who do seek help and to shorten the time in which they receive services.

The poet William Stafford wrote: “Every war has two losers”. People of good will can debate whether a particular war or any war is justified. But what should never be debated, is our nation’s commitment to honor and take care of our warrior’s (and their families) who have sacrificed so much. They deserve our very best effort.

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Travels with Sandy

Travels with Sandy.

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Travels with Sandy

Sandy for blog rotated
In July we laid to rest Sandy, our sweet old dog. She was 15 and 8 months old. Last November we had a birthday party for her. We invited other dog owners who would understand that special bond between we humans and our dogs. We didn’t invite any other dogs because truth be told, Sandy got along better with people. We hosted this party (her first) because we sensed that it would be her last. Our dog had been diagnosed with cancer the previous year. Our veterinarian was surprised that she was still with us.

Sandy was a loyal and affectionate companion. She was also a marker for our family. Our daughters were age 7 and 4 when as a puppy Sandy arrived at our home. Sandy has travelled with our daughters from elementary school to college. She offered unconditional love and a listening ear during the sometimes stormy times of adolescence. When home from college Sandy would welcome each daughter by doing her ‘happy dance’ which consisted of running in a circle.

Late this Spring my wife and I moved from Oregon our home of twenty years to Massachusetts. Moves are never easy. I asked our veterinarian if he thought Sandy was up to the trip. He responded, ‘she isn’t in pain and as long as she is with you, she is happy.’

An objective observer might say that taking an old dog cross-country wasn’t a sensible thing to do. (I should note that Sandy and I and my friend Bob, would be driving cross-country in a small Honda Fit).But as I said, Sandy was a marker for our family. She was a constant source of affection and loyalty and at a time when we were saying good-bye to so much, our family needed the comfort that Sandy always provided.

So it was that Sandy went for her last long ride, 3000 miles. She calmly watched the countryside pass and her often rhythmic snoring matched the rolling of the tires. Being an old dog she needed to be walked several times a day. This slowed our progress but the emotional comfort she provided was worth it.

My wife Tricia arrived a few weeks later at our rental apartment in Massachusetts and Sandy was there to greet her. Our daughter visited and Sandy wagged her tail.

Two months later we took Sandy to a vet. The veterinarian with great empathy told us that the cancer had spread and that she thought it was time to ‘let Sandy go’. She said that ‘dogs have a way of hiding their pain because they want to stay with their pack’.

A few days later I took Sandy out for her last walk. She and I walked into the woods and I buried my face in her mane and wept. I thanked her for being such a wonderful friend to me and our family. Sandy stood by my side and slowly wagged her tail.

We drove Sandy to the pet clinic and she was laid to rest. Her ashes will go into the garden of the house we moved into this past week.

It’s been said that we attribute human emotions to our pets such as loyalty and love. What I do know is that Sandy graced our family with great comfort over the course of her long life. She helped us raise our daughters and gave us one last gift in helping us get settled in a new place. Thank you, sweet old dog.

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The Gift of Robin Williams

The Gift of Robin Williams.

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The Gift of Robin Williams

We mourn the passing of Robin Williams at age 63. He was an extraordinary person who touched the lives of millions as a comedian and actor. Initial reports suggest that he took his own life. A spokesperson for the family say that he wrestled for much of his life with depression and addiction.

His comedic genius served as a backdrop to my generation and touched the life of my children’s generation through endearing performances such as the Genie in the Disney animated film, ‘Aladdin’.

Robin Williams Photo

As an actor he won an academy award for his role as a grieving, empathetic therapist in ‘Goodwill Hunting’. In the film ‘Dead Poets Society’ he portrayed a beloved teacher who drew from his own reservoir of pain and spoke to the deepest longings of his students.

Robin Williams portrayal of these two fragile characters rings true because we sense that he brought his own vulnerability to the role. His experience resonated with our own sense of vulnerability and struggle.

As a comedian he had us rolling on the floor in laughter, even as we sensed that his comedic gift came from a fragile place. This connection between darkness and laughter wasn’t unique to Williams. His death feels so personal because his authenticity as a human being touched us deeply.

Robin didn’t hide his struggles but put them out for all to see. My hope is that his example will encourage and challenge each of us to be honest about who we are. One truth I’ve learned in 30 plus years of being a pastor is that no one has their act completely together, certainly not me.

We all have our areas of light and shadow, hope and despair. This mixed bag is what it means to be human. That Robin’s despair ultimately took his life should not discourage us from being open about our own vulnerability and struggles as well as our hopes and dreams.

His example challenges us to respond to the seemingly polite question: ‘How are you today?’, with an honest answer: ‘I feel good, happy’. Or, ‘I feel alone/anxious/sad/hopeless/angry’. The truth is most of us feel a mix of emotions every day.

In choosing to be emotionally authentic with each other, we have a responsibility to listen and be compassionate and caring. To let each other know that we have each other’s back. This is what it means to be part of a healthy community.

This is a bittersweet time. We are full of grief at the passing of an immensely talented, flawed and courageous human being. And, we are full of gratitude for the joy and depth of humanity that Robin Williams brought to us all. May God’s comfort be with his family and all who grieve his passing. To the Creator’s love we return his expansive soul.

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God’s First Language

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Thomas Keating, the Catholic monk and mystic writes:

“Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation. In order to hear that language, we must learn to be still and to rest in God.”

When I was in high school, a teacher said to me: “I must have the radio or television on at home. I can’t stand to be by myself.” At the time I found that curious. But the older I became the more I understood what he was saying. To be alone is to face what is going on in one’s mind and heart and that can be a scary place to be.

Yet all religious traditions, including Christian, reminds us that in being quiet we not only sit with our thoughts of light or darkness, but we make room to be met by God. Keating reminds us that in order to hear God we must first be quiet. Rather than silence being a place of discomfort, faith reminds us that it can be a place of meeting where we are reminded by our Creator that we are known and cherished.

Sometimes we need to be quiet to gain perspective. In our busy lives how then do we listen? Keating suggests Contemplative Prayer: ‘Each day carve out 20 minutes to be silent…allow thoughts to pass like boats on a river without judgement….select a sacred word (hope, love, peace etc.) to help focus you when you become distracted’.

In time the ancient monks and mystics tell us, we will begin to hear the Creator’s voice in the midst of the silence. In doing so we find ourselves no longer fleeing silence but embracing it as a place where we are met by the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.

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Weddings and Idealistic Distortion

Seascape-Wedding-Coupl51DAThis evening I am officiating at the wedding of my cousin Chris and his fiancé, Laura. He and Laura are in their mid-twenties and have been dating since High School.

In preparation for the wedding they filled out an on-line survey designed by psychologists to help an engaged couple reflect upon various aspects of their life together: personality and communication style, finances, spiritual values, how they relate to family and friends etc.

Once the survey is completed I receive a summary which serves as a take off point for conversation. In the past 15 years I’ve used this tool with approx. 150 couples.

The summary includes a category called ‘idealistic distortion’. This measures how realistic the couple are in recognizing the challenges that come with married life. With 50% of marriages in the USA ending in divorce, the idea is to help couples manage the inevitable challenges that come.

Most young couples tend to have a relatively high rate of idealistic distortion, in other words a sense that their love will never fade. Older couples that I meet with, often married previously, bring in a higher level of awareness that life gets complicated.

This evening I will stand with Chris and Laura on a peninsula looking out to sea. We will gather as family and friends as we offer our blessing and ask God’s grace to uphold and accompany them throughout their life together.

As we do so, our ‘idealistic distortion’ as family and friends will be high. We will choose to be idealistic, choose to be hopeful, even as we know (from our own life and marriages), how complicated and challenging life can and be.

We will have great hope for Laura and Chris, because we know (and they know), that they are not setting on their life alone. Their marriage will be accompanied by the love, support and prayers of many.

One thing I say to each couple before I pronounce them married, is this: “Today you have made a life-long commitment to one another. But this is more than a two-way partnership. You are acknowledging your openness to the accompaniment of God, who is the source of all that is good, lasting and true…that which we call love.’

This evening our idealism level will be high. Because we know that Chris and Laura won’t journey alone. This is very good news.

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