Rattle not OK

When I was young, my parents had bought something for me for Christmas that had a sign on the outside of the box saying “Rattle OK”, meaning that if you shook the box and heard loose pieces rattling about, that it was normal – nothing was broken. But for us, a “rattle” is not a good sign. If we are scattered – if pieces of our selves, our souls, are loose, it is a sign that we need help.
Think of God as the good parent that God is. If you are carrying a heavy burden (of worry, stress, fear, anxiety…) hand it over to God to take care of it. It is too heavy for you alone, you cannot bear it. But God, the kind and capable parent, can carry whatever is weighing you down and knows what to do with it.
We are trained by the world to be independent, to bear up under incredible stress, to solve our own problems. However, Jesus teaches us that God is more than willing and able to help us if only we ask. We are not made to be alone, to do everything ourselves. To rely solely on your own ability is to put yourself in God’s place. This is a form of idolatry – it is to say that you do not need God, because you are enough. Instead, give your burdens and brokenness to God, the faithful and capable parent, to take care of.

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Knowledge of Father and son.

Then Jesus became filled with joy from the Holy Spirit and said “I praise you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because it pleased you to hide this knowledge from those who are wise and educated, and have revealed everything to children. My Father has entrusted me with everything. Only the Father knows the son, and the Father is only known by the son, and those who the Son has chosen.”

MT 11:25-27, LK 10:21-22

“Come to me, everyone who is worn down by life, and I will raise you up. Everyone, work alongside me and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and with me you will find rest. If we share the work together it will be easier, because I will give you only light burdens.”

MT 11:28-30

Speaking privately to his disciples he said, “Your eyes and ears are blessed because of what they see and hear! There are many prophets, kings, and righteous people who wanted to see and hear the things you see and hear now, yet didn’t.”

MT 13:16-17, LK 10:23-24

How NOT to do Pastoral Care.

There is a lady I know who took the same Pastoral Care class that I did. She is a nurse and goes to church regularly. She is certified as a minister in her church. She isn’t ordained, per se. I thought that she would know how to handle it when I told her some heavy news.

My mother-in-law is now in the hospital. She passed out and hit her head. Just days earlier she found out that her cancer had spread to her lungs. I know that means she has just a few months left.

I don’t want this lady to pray for her to live longer. That isn’t why I started to tell her what was going on. I thought we were friends, and in a way we are. She tells me heavy stuff and good stuff. She tells me about the important things going on in her life. We celebrate together and mourn together. But it really is that I celebrate and mourn with her, about her issues, and she doesn’t return the favor. It isn’t reciprocal.

One thing that you have to remember about Pastoral Care, about mindfully listening to someone while they are in a bad situation, is that it isn’t about you. You aren’t supposed to talk about your situation, or compare, or outclass. You can’t tell the other person a story of how it is worse for you or someone you know. That kind of “perspective” isn’t helpful and it isn’t kind. It is the exact opposite of what is necessary.

What is necessary is just listening, and I mean really listening fully. Not being distracted, not trying to leave, not looking around at your phone or watch. You can ask the other person how they feel about it, and you can say “Gosh that has to be hard” but that is about all you are allowed to say.

They just need a safe person to talk to – one who can handle this information in a way that is healthy for both people. A good listener is like Houdini once he had prepared. He could warm up his stomach muscles in just such a way and then anybody could punch him in the stomach as hard as they wanted and he’d be fine. He had trained himself how to do this. A good listener does the same. If they aren’t ready for it, a hard story can destroy them, so they have to train to be able to receive it. Taking a pastoral care class is part of this training.

I should have known better when I first started talking to her yesterday. Just after I reminded her that my mother in law has pancreatic cancer (not a pushover kind of cancer), she turned away and made some (unrelated) joke to the instructor of the class we were in. I felt slighted, but I decided to give her another chance.

When she turned back to me, I kept on with the story. I’m a bit torn about what to do because of the history of physical and mental abuse she allowed in her house. It is my father in law’s fault that the abuse happened, but it is her fault that it continued. They were both very immature when they got married. They are both still immature now, and they are in their 70s.

So some of the issue that I’m dealing with is how much are we supposed to get involved in this situation. You reap what you sow, right? But as a Christian, I’m supposed to forgive, right?

I just feel like if I pretend nothing happened, then I’m doing the same thing she did. I’m saying that it was OK. And it isn’t OK. Abuse is never OK, whether you are the one doing it or you are the one allowing it. By allowing it, you are sanctioning it.

So this lady, this minister, this person who has taken the same class I have and should know better, she starts telling me a story. Now, it isn’t a story about her, but it isn’t a helpful story. It isn’t enlightening, and it isn’t useful. It doesn’t tell me a way to deal with this situation. It actually makes me feel worse.

(Trigger warning)
(I didn’t get this warning when I got this story)
(Such is life)
It was a story about a couple that she knew in a nursing home. Both husband and wife were in separate rooms, and it was for a terrible reason. The husband was abusing his wife, sexually, and their children were OK with it. “She’s his wife” they’d say, as if that excuses rape.

(Warning over)

She went on and on with her story and I felt trapped. Finally it stopped and there was some silence. I digested this, still not knowing what to do about the situation I brought up, and feeling worse because of the story she told. Helpless. Raw. Frustrated. Dirty.

I digested this story and knew that my boundaries had been violated. I told her that I can’t handle those kinds of stories, and she apologized. She said she was a nurse and terrible things happen around and to nurses all the time.

She proceeded to tell me some of the horrible things that have happened. It got graphic.

Somehow her apology ended up being even worse than the reason for the apology.

She didn’t see the error of her way – she didn’t get that telling that kind of story to anybody isn’t a great idea. It is especially a bad idea if the person is experiencing a problem.

I can handle it. I’m pretty strong, emotionally. I’ve learned a lot about boundaries. I wonder about anybody else she might “help”, and how they will react.

I now know that I can’t trust her with anything heavy.
She’ll drop it on me.

The purpose of taking a pastoral care class, in fact, the purpose of being a minister, is to learn how to help people. It isn’t to carry someone else’s burdens for them. It is to carry them with them for a little while. When you do that, you make it a bit easier for them to see what they are supposed to do. When you do that, you give them a little breathing room.

You are never supposed to add to their burden.

Stones

I have a friend who needs more sleep. It will help with his anxiety and depression. It will help with his heart condition. It will help him to be more focused and less forgetful. He knows this, yet he keeps staying up late and getting up early, so every day is a repeat of the last and it is full of failure and pain. But like with liquor or drugs or any other vice he has to want to change and then there has to be grace in there somewhere too. It is hard to be stuck where you are, going around in circles. It is like Sisyphus, forever pushing that stone up a hill.

What stones do we have? Guilt. Shame. Anger. Fear. Hate. Racism. Abuse (of self or others). Drugs. Some of these stones are given to us by our parents, by classmates, by society. Some we pick up ourselves throughout our journey in life.

After a while it becomes very hard to carry all that weight. Sometimes we continue to carry our stones out of habit. Sometimes it is out of a sense of duty or obligation. Sometimes it is out of fear – what if we don’t know how to act without it? We’ve carried it around so long that we started to define ourselves by it.

I knew a guy who is an alcoholic. That is how he defines himself. He doesn’t say that he is a person with a drinking problem. The problem has become his personality. He has decided that “messed up” is who he is. He carries around this stone like it is a normal thing now.

I know women who stay with the same boyfriend for years even though it is plain that he is no good. He sits on the couch playing video games all day while she goes to work and supports both of them. He makes fun of her in public. But she stays, because she’d rather be in a bad relationship than no relationship at all. He is her stone. He weighs her down. But she doesn’t know how to move on. She doesn’t need him financially, and he isn’t helpful emotionally. But she’s defined herself by “being in a relationship”, even if it is unhealthy.

We are like that with our stones. We’d rather stick “with the devil you know” than to be on our own.

My Mom wanted to quit smoking for years, but she knew that my Dad would never quit. She thought it would be too hard to quit while he kept smoking. So she kept it up, all two packs a day of it. He finally left us to go live back home with his Mom (in his 50s) and then we found out my Mom had lung cancer shortly thereafter. She quit smoking then, but it was too late. She died at 53. Then he died just 6 weeks later. They had both killed themselves out of habit and an inability to change.

I wonder if Dad ever thought the same thing – that he wanted to quit smoking but didn’t think he could if Mom kept smoking? Wouldn’t that have been ?

I wonder if our friends and coworkers are like that? I’ll quit gossiping if you do. I’ll quit telling racist jokes if you do. What if we are playing chicken with each other? What if we are keeping ourselves back because of others? Who is going to be brave enough to take the first step and just drop the stone she is carrying that is slowing progress down?

Not taking care of our bodies is another stone. Overeating is a form of self-abuse. There is a pain that comes from being overfull. There is pain that comes from the guilt and shame of the addiction itself. Somehow the punishment (the obesity, the disability that comes with being so large) is seen as deserved. Sometimes the problem is that the person feels lesser-than, that he doesn’t deserve to feel good, to feel love. Sometimes becoming obese is a way to keep people away.

Sometimes people say they are too old to change. This too is a lie we tell ourselves so that we don’t get better. We think we can’t, so we don’t even try. As long as you are alive, there is hope. And if you start trying to get better, you’ll gain more life. You are only dead when you give up. As long as you keep trying to grow, you’ll get stronger.

One way to drop that stone is to realize that you are carrying it. You’ve carried it for so long that just dropping it outright seems impossible. Try doing it in little steps. Journal about it. Journaling helps you notice progress. It is like writing a letter to yourself.

I’m sending you a letter, now. I used to be where you are. I still have stones I’m carrying. The things I’ve done to grow and stretch have given me the insight and strength to get over and around other stones. I’m sending you this letter to let you know that you can do it. It is hard. It takes a lot of work. You’ll fall and fail quite a bit. You’ll stop doing the work for a while and then remember and start back up again. That is normal. You aren’t failing. You’re being human. I’m cheering you on.

In a way, I’m also sending a letter back in time to myself, to let myself know that there is hope. I’m 44 now. I was nowhere near this balanced and aware and healthy at 24. I wonder where I’ll be at 64? At 84? I need to remind myself to be gentle with myself but not allow myself to fall off the path completely. I’m trying to remind you of the same. Forgive yourself your failings, but keep on working on them.

I wonder if we can get a letter to Sisyphus and tell him to just walk away from that stone? Forget pushing it up the hill. It is easier to climb up the hill unburdened.