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What Can Only YOU Do?

Posted October 31, 2015

To Do List


It only happens two or three times a year, but I always feel guilty.

Volunteers from my church show up on a Saturday morning, don neon-orange vests and troop outside to pick up litter along a two-mile stretch of highway the church has adopted.

I stay home, working on my talk for Sunday morning. And feeling guilty.

Shouldn't I be out there in work boots and heavy gloves, trying to balance on the steep shoulder of the road to pick up trash with one of those grabber things? Wouldn't it boost the volunteers' morale to have the minister along, or prove how much I appreciate them?

Uhhhh, it might. But would they rather have that, or hear an inspiring and well-informed talk the next day? Because no one else is working on a talk for Sunday.

What can I do that no one else can?

This is not just a minister-thing. I bet there are areas of your life where you're wondering whether you need to show up or not, what is best for you to focus on, or the flip side, how you got stuck with chores you don't want to do!

So I'm sharing this crucial question to ask yourself: What can only YOU do?

KEEP THE PLATES SPINNING

I'll tell you how it works for me as a minister, and you can translate it to your life, okay?

A church has a lot of moving parts:

  • Who unlocks the church on Sunday morning, turns on lights and air and starts the coffee?
  • Who counts the money and pays the bills?
  • Who teaches the kids? Who trains the teachers?
  • Who chooses from among countless community projects and good causes, then organizes volunteers to work on them?
  • Who keeps an eye on the building, spots whatever is breaking down (it's always something), and finds someone to fix it, whether volunteer or vendor?

Those are just a few. With all these tasks crying out to be handled, how does a minister – one lone person – decide where to be and what to do?

I ask myself: Which of those tasks requires ordination? What was I trained for? What can only the minister do?

Oh! That quickly and sharply narrows my focus. A church needs a minister mainly to speak on Sundays, to teach classes and to pray with others.

Most people in the congregation are not trained for that particular work, but they can do lots of other things, including those I ‘m not good at. (Teaching kids and accounting for money come quickly to mind.)

So what can only YOU do?

I DON'T MAKE COFFEE

Does this sound selfish? We don't think twice about employing this philosophy in other areas.

Look at a football team. Ideally, each player is in the position where he performs best. Some players make great quarterbacks, others have the strength to be defensive linemen, and others never fail to catch the ball.

(I'm using a sports metaphor. Impressed?)

The players focus on what they're good at and were trained for, and we expect no less.

I knew a minister years ago, the inimitable Mary Omwake, who refused to make coffee for her church on Sunday mornings. That's not why she went to seminary!

I heard this through the grapevine, so I'm not sure exactly how Mary explained it. But her point was, if no one in a church of 1,500 was willing to show up early to brew a pot of coffee, then obviously the congregation didn't care much about coffee.

At first, I thought Mary was being a little snooty. Too good to make coffee, are we?

After I became a minister, I understood perfectly why she took that stand. It wasn't arrogance or stubbornness. Instead, she wisely was focusing on the things only she could do.

(For what it's worth, Mary's church always had coffee when I was there.)

Maybe that's where I learned this idea of focusing on the tasks only an ordained minister can do, but I have applied it broadly in other areas of my life.

I encourage you to check in with yourself often. What are the things only you can do? And where are you stuck making coffee when someone else could do it?

PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS

You might be familiar with the Clifton Strengthsfinder, an online survey that instantly tells you what your Top 5 strengths are. I love it because it helps people own what they naturally do well, instead of trying to shore up their weaknesses.

We have adopted a Strengths culture in my church, so all the active members have taken the Strengths survey. It has helped tremendously in focusing on what's good about each person, and it helps them answer the question, What can I do best?

My strengths, by the way, are Intellection, Connectedness, Learner, Ideation and Input. Which basically means, Leave me alone and let me contemplate the vast oneness of the universe.

Since the congregation learned that about me, I don't think they've ever expected me to pick up trash on the highway. It's not one of my strengths!

Meanwhile, I have learned to treasure the Activator, Achiever, Maximizer people who show up to clean the highway, lead community projects and organize fund raisers.

WHAT'S NOT YOUR JOB?

I know it can sound elitist to say something is “not my job.” But really, do you want members of your family or workplace struggling to perform tasks they're not good at?

What if we all could focus on what only we can do?

I hear you saying, “But someone has to do the laundry!” Yeah. But some do it better than others. And some might actually enjoy creating cleanliness and order.

I think it's a conversation worth having, at home and at work. Ask the others how they see themselves, what they think only they can do, or think they do especially well.

And love! What do they love?

It might not be inspiring to feed the dog or vacuum the living room, but sometimes I get a little thrill just checking another item off my To-Do list.

If you have leftover chores no one wants, that's an opportunity to ask how important they really are. What if you've been knocking yourself out to deliver results no one cares about?

I ask myself nearly every day: What can only I do? And it keeps me on track.

Hope the question is useful to you, too.


PS – I'd love to hear whether you think it's realistic to focus only on the things you love and are good at. How do you set priorities? Or do you feel trapped doing certain things because someone has to? Share in the Comment section below.

   

Depth of Faith in the Depths of Despair

Posted October 24, 2015

storm clouds


Six o'clock on Saturday morning, still dark, and heavy rain is pelting my roof and windows.

The sound of rain used to be so comforting, so welcome in these dry Texas hills. I would wake briefly, feel grateful, then turn over in my cozy bed and snuggle back to sleep.

Then came the Memorial Weekend flood this year, which devastated swaths of Wimberley along the Blanco River and Cypress Creek. Even though my hilltop stayed safe, the pouring rain this morning makes me nervous.

I doubt the people who still live on those river bluffs are sleeping at all.

The river rose from ankle depth to 44 feet in one hour that night, roaring through town in a wall of water and broken tree trunks and debris that leveled everything in its path. Many fled their flooding homes in the middle of the night. Some were awakened by screams outside in the dark.

If you heard any of the news coverage in May, you probably heard about the families visiting from Corpus Christi, three hours from here, who were spending the holiday weekend in a house that was torn from its moorings by the raging river. When the floating house slammed into a bridge, it broke apart, and the people were swept away.

One man staggered to shore miles downstream, but he lost his wife, son and daughter. The little girl's body has never been found.

I think of them now, as I hear this driving rain.

WHAT IS FAITH?

Just yesterday, I read an interview with the surviving father, who said his faith has sustained him through these terrible months.

The news story seemed to assume we all share a common definition of faith, but I doubt it.

What is the “faith” that gets us through hard times? Faith in what?

I keep telling people that God is in every situation. How could it not be, if what we call God is the divine energy, intelligence and love that stands under our very existence, our ground of being?

But does it help to know that? Is it comforting?

I should have clearer answers. After all, I've just finished writing a book about the spiritual path through difficult changes. I keep insisting that you are never alone, never abandoned when a door has closed in your life, that God is in the midst of your tears, your questions, your anger.

But I worry that it's too easy to sit in my dry, comfy apartment with the power still on, claiming God's in his heaven, all's right with the world.

What does faith mean to you?

That there's a God with a larger plan, a higher power that knows what it's doing even when it seems to wreak havoc in your life? That divine “will” is at work?

That seems cruel to me, not comforting.

That the worst of our human experiences have purpose and meaning?

That no matter what happens, we are never alone or forgotten?

I do believe those things.

HOW THE DIVINE SHOWS UP

I also understand the need for God with skin on, and that's who we can be to each other. It's who we are anyway, the divine in human form.

The father who survived the river, Jonathan McComb, said the support of others has been enormous comfort for him. He received condolences from all over the country.

(He also said his lost family came to him in a vivid dream, which I believe was a real visit from their souls on the other side.)

What has sustained you through the most difficult times of your life? Have you held onto something you would call faith? How would you describe it?

And what do you think we can offer others in those times? Our blessings and prayers, yes, knowing all is well for them. Holding a picture of their recovery and endurance. But what else?

WHEN STORMS COME

The rain I hear this morning is an autumn cold front combining with the upper edge of Hurricane Patricia as it plows inland from Mexico's Pacific coast, leaving floods and destruction in its wake.

We are told to expect “significant flooding” in Wimberley. It's going to be a long day, listening to the rain and wondering what might happen.

But this is part of the human experience.

What is faith for you? What has seen you through storms in your life?

I hope you'll let me know in the Comments below.


PS -- Hey, I had a wonderful time last weekend in Dallas, speaking about Hell in the Hallway, Light at the Door for the first time since I finished the book, which should be available in a few weeks. Unity of Dallas videos all its Sunday talks, so you can watch it on their speaker page if you like, dated Oct. 18, 2015.

   

Reflections on (Another) Birthday

Posted October 17, 2015

elderly couple, dancing shadows


When were your Good Old Days?

I've had several golden eras – the campaign trail as a political reporter, the camaraderie of the newsroom, my early days as a minister.

The first few years at Unity of Dallas, I was in charge of a Wednesday night service with an absolutely terrific band called the Unitunes – who knew, that what every church needs is a sexy harmonica player? – and a dedicated group of attendees who all sat down front like a mosh pit.

To celebrate the 100th Wednesday night service, a graphic artist in the group made yellow paper butter tubs that read: I Can't Believe It's Church! The whole congregation wore those tubs on their heads that night.

Maybe you had to be there.

Anyway, I'm back this weekend to speak at Unity of Dallas, and we had a little get-together of the old gang, which doubled as a birthday party for me. (Oct. 18, is the official b-day.)

It felt so good and familiar and homey to be with them, like sinking into a warm bath.

And just when I began to wonder if we could ever recreate the magic, I noticed changes in my friends – their looks, their health, their circumstances. They have scattered to other places and projects.

They feel love and gratitude for each other, but they are no longer a “gang,” with or without me.

You can never step in the same river twice. It keeps moving.

THE GRAND DESIGN

I used to have a recurring dream about going back to the newsroom. But even in my dreams, I didn't recognize the people, and I didn't know how to use the computers. I never could remember the story I was supposed to be working on.

Deep down, we know there's no going back.

Nor should there be.

Life is designed to keep moving. Whether we move through time or it moves through us, or it's all happening at once – who knows?

But I think the plan is that we will take on a persona, a situation, a group of friends, a job or project for a while, then move on from it, just as we eventually will move on from this life.

Haven't you had many lifetimes within this one? Your time in school, maybe the early days of a marriage, or when the kids were younger, or different careers and interests?

Does it make change any easier? Does it make loss more bearable?

Maybe, as we get older, we can put change in better perspective. Maybe we can relish the Good Old Days for what they were and move on without lament. Or only a few pangs.

Or maybe the people, places and times become ever more precious.

WHERE IS HOME?

Thomas Wolfe is the writer who titled his novel, You Can't Go Home Again. And of course you can't. Home as you knew it is no longer there, and you are no longer who you were.

Wolfe wrote, “Something has spoken to me in the night . . . and told me that I shall die, I know not where. Saying: ‘[Death is] to lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.' ”

I believe we die many of these deaths in a lifetime, ever moving to greater knowing, greater love and a larger earth.

I'm grateful to have a life full of Good Old Days. I wish I had been more aware at the time how very good they were.

But you want to know the best time of my life? Now.

If you had asked me that question at nearly any point in the past decades, I'd have said the same thing. Now.

Now is the best time.

And all we truly have.


PS – The new book, Hell in the Hallway, Light at the Door, probably will be out in mid-November, just in time to give for Christmas! Don't you know someone who's in the hallway?

Meantime, I had a long conversation about the hallway with Janet Conner on her radio show, The Soul-Directed Life, and I told some of the stories in the book. Listen here.

   

The Caregiver Crisis

Posted October 10, 2015

HELP puzzle


My question in last week's blog -- asking what I could say to caregivers that might be comforting -- hit a deep and painful nerve.

Sooooo many people responded, some of them howling in anguish, to describe the dilemma of the caregiver: wanting to do what's best for a failing family member – usually a spouse or parent -- yet feeling trapped and resentful.

For some, their only hope for the future is the merciful death of someone they love.

“I feel that I am held hostage, and I want it to be over!” one said.

Let me share with you some of their comments and advice. Because it enlightens us all to know their situation. And they did answer how best to help them.

Stay with me on this. There are bright notes of hope at the end.

Some of these caregivers left comments after the blog dated Oct. 3, and I urge you to read what they said in full. Others emailed me privately, which I use with permission. And just a note: All the responses came from women.

THE DAILY DEMANDS

The most common description focused on the constant, constant, constant demands on the caregiver. Relentless. Unceasing.

Nights are as busy as days, like having a newborn who wakes every two hours. Decisions may be made in a fog of sleep deprivation.

And the requirements to handle every detail come from every direction, not only from the sick person.

  • Paying all the bills
  • Finding the best medical resources
  • Juggling the personalities of health care workers. Do they come when they promised? Are they competent?

It sounds to me as if family caregiving requires the skills of a project manager or logistics expert.

Add to this . . .

The hopelessness. One woman said it hurts to see her handsome, macho husband so thin now, struggling to walk.

Another woman, whose husband is sinking into Alzheimer's, said, “For me, the greatest challenge is knowing that today will be the best it ever is, i.e., it's a slow regression, and what he could do or who he could remember yesterday may not be the same today. And there will be less available tomorrow.”

The loneliness. The person they love is still present physically but may not be there mentally or emotionally.

One woman said she longs for a grown-up conversation. Another, whose husband was knocked flat by illness and is struggling to recover, said she is “touch deprived and skin hungry.” He simply is not available.

The guilt. It hurts, to love someone but not to like them sometimes. To wake up dreading another day.

I was struck by how many emails ended with an apology – for whining, for self-pity – as caregivers beat themselves up for not being loving and cheerful every minute. To me, that's like someone in prison apologizing because they don't like the accommodations.

SO WHAT HELPS?

Not all caregivers are housebound – some are still working full time jobs. Some have young children and might be single parents. Many are no younger than the person they care for.

Real help is hard to come by because no one else knows what to do. They don't know the routine and the schedule, the eccentricities and the possibilities for a good day or bad.

Professional day care or respite care can cost thousands of dollars if you want a real vacation. And if the patient is disruptive, which can accompany dementia, help is even harder to find, in home or out.

“What they actually need is lots of money,” one woman said on behalf of caregivers.

But ask for help, many said. Ask for time off, even ask for financial help.

And notice that asking for help sometimes shifts a family dynamic. One woman said when she finally asked her siblings for help, she had to relinquish her role as the one who handles everything.

Several people mentioned how their own health declined while caring for someone else. And how detached they became from their own lives.

“Since my parent passed, I can finally breathe . . . but have forgotten how,” one said.

Put your own oxygen mask on first. Don't be a martyr, others advised.

A couple of women also mentioned their experience prompted them to make their own end-of-life plans. They don't want anyone they love to have to become caregivers.

HOW OTHERS CAN HELP

Actions speak louder than words, one woman said. Saying how brave the caregiver is, or how much you admire them, sounds empty.

If you want to help, show up! Offer to sit with the patient for a few hours. Or take the patient out, if they are able to go, even if the conversation won't be normal.

Most of all, listen compassionately to the caregiver. You're not there to give advice or fix problems. Just acknowledge the difficulty. The caregivers want to be seen and understood in their struggles.

“The mere fact that one can hear the sorrow, see the hopelessness, understand the guilt, forgive the resentment, and be present with the loneliness is sometimes the most precious thing we can offer,” said a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

Ask what the person was like before this illness. Let the caregiver talk about and remember who this sick person really is.

Ask, What are you doing to care for yourself? Being wounded and weary doesn't help anyone.

A woman in my church who is a former hospice worker and now a grief counselor recommended two books she has found useful:

  • The 36-Hour Day: A Family Guide to Caring for People Who Have Alzheimer's Disease, Related Dementias and Memory Loss by Peter V. Rabins and Nancy L. Mace
  • Real Alzheimer's Guide for Caregivers that Tells It Like It Really Is by Suzanne Giesemann

THE SPIRITUAL REFRAME

So what gets them through? What gives meaning to this grueling experience?

The answers seem to be spiritual. Practically no one lives on an elevated plane all the time, but many said it was the only way they found peace and solace.

“I have described the role of caregiver as entering a domain where the only visible signs say NO EXIT,” one woman said. “Then there is the other part of me that is trying to teach me the blessing of surrender, surrender as a gift, a pathway to sanity.”

Others recommended spiritual practices:

  • Meditate and pray
  • Pray, Show me what needs to be done today.
  • Use the Serenity Prayer
  • Keep your heart and mind open
  • Journal
  • Watch for blessings every day
  • Be grateful for lucidity and glimpses of the person you knew
  • Be open to mystical experiences with the dying. “Because of that experience, I know without a doubt that we are never alone and ‘death' does not exist,” one woman said.

“The blessing?” wrote another. “For the first time in my life, I felt unconditional love from my mother, for myself. For the first time in my life, I had patience with myself and others. For the first time in my life, I learned, but more importantly felt compassion.

“I do feel it is necessary for us, as caregivers, to give thanks for this opportunity to make this trip with our loved ones. Not everyone gets this experience. Letting them know they are loved in every way is showing them God's love.”

A friend of mine had caregiving experience with her mother and grandmother, her in-laws, and finally her husband through 13 years of illness.

Now four years past his death, she said she is even more aware of the lasting lessons of caregiving.

“My life has been so enriched with each opportunity to learn about me, to share JOY, to see the blessings and to learn that each day I could be open to Life's lessons as well as the blessings.

“The questions are, How can I show up, finding the new each day? How can I be the woman/wife/sister/friend I really want to be? What does it mean today to live and love this person as they are today?”

So what could I say to a caregiver that would help?

“For me... Don't say sorry,” she said.

Instead, she suggested I say: “What a blessing! That is, how much you will be able to learn, how you have a chance to be present in a different way each day, how much you can open your heart to let all the love you have inside, shine.

“God has allowed you a very sacred opportunity and chose you, right now, this way, to be of service. Rest in that knowing. And by the way . . . Always know that my prayers and thoughts are with you."

   

The Long Way Home

Posted October 3, 2015

caregiver word cloud


The woman sat next to me, weeping with weariness and frustration.

She was the fulltime caregiver for her mother with Alzheimer's. And she wasn't sure she could take it anymore.

My heart ached for her, but . . .

As a minister, it's not unusual for someone to approach me with a problem I have no idea how to solve.

I don't even know the right words to say.

So I'm asking you: What do caregivers really need?

HELD HOSTAGE

How many millions of people are taking care of parents or other relatives with some form of dementia or debilitating illness? How many are giving baths or feeding those who can no longer perform basic tasks for themselves? (An estimated 40-million in the United States, according to AARP.)

And how much of your life are you supposed to give up to help others?

If I could wave a wand and change one thing in the world, I think it would be to abolish the need for long-term caregiving. We'd all just be happy and healthy until the day we die.

Maybe the caring brings blessings I don't realize.

But for the unpaid family caregivers I talk to, this period of their lives is grueling and seems endless. They sometimes feel like hostages, even if they are being held captive by their own loving hearts.

WHAT WOULD HELP?

What can I say to them that won't sound glib or dismissive? Is there a way to reframe the situation that makes it more bearable?

A quick Internet search yields caregiving tips and blogs and quotes, programs and guides and support groups. Have you found any of them useful? Are there books that are helpful?

I know some people arrange for respite care, and others have home health workers who visit. Or hospice. Some have supportive families to share the load.

It may not be the daily tasks that are so exhausting but the unrelenting responsibility for someone's care. It has to be factored into every decision – financial plans, vacation plans, professional opportunities.

I know so many people who have put their lives on hold to care for an aging parent, sometimes for a decade or more. Some felt they had a choice; many didn't.

And I never know what to say to them, except I'm sorry. And how good of you to volunteer for this.

THE COMPASSIONATE RESPONSE

If you have been in this situation – or you're experiencing it now – what would be the most meaningful form of compassion you could receive? Is it words or actions?

And what about your friends and family? Has anyone ever said or done exactly the right thing, something that touched you so much you nearly wept with gratitude?

I really would love to hear about your experience. Because this problem isn't going away, and I believe I am among legions of people who would be more supportive if we knew how.

I hope you'll write about it in the Comment section of the blog here.


PS -- I've been proofing the galleys for Hell in the Hallway, Light at the Door, and I signed off on the cover most of you liked. This is really getting real! Book should be out in a few weeks.

   




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