“Chaplain needed on ____.”
This is the page or message we get in the Pastoral Care office when a nurse finds a parent in tears. When I get that message I generally start by looking at the patient’s chart to get a little background. Often its a patient recently admitted whose diagnosis is vague at best. I head upstairs and begin to pray for some words that will comfort this family as they wait to find out what is wrong and what treatment will be recommended.
I often come upon the parent in the family lounge trying to hide the distress they are feeling from the patient. I ask them to tell me what’s going on and out spills a story that generally goes like this: He has been sick for several days and I ignored it. I am a terrible parent. How could I not know that something was so wrong? And all the tests have told us nothing! Why can’t they figure out what is wrong with him? What will I do if they send us home again? How will I know if he is okay? What if I lose him? The feelings are almost the same in every case: guilt, fear, powerlessness. In these moments I mostly listen and validate the feelings being named. When it seems appropriate I will ask them if they want to pray with me. If they say yes, I’ll ask them to name the things they want me to lift up to God and together we begin to pray. As the tears subside, they will then jump up and say, “I’ve got to get back in there. I’ve left him too long.” I promise to check in later and the visit ends.
The next day, I will make my way back to the room and often meet a very different person. The parent is fully in control, sitting beside the bed playing a game with the patient or eating a meal. It often takes them a few minutes to realize who I am because they are in such a different place. I often learn that the doctors have figured at least a few things out, and that a plan is being developed to treat whatever is wrong. The feelings of fear and anxiety have diminished, and they are all feeling hopeful that the patient will get better and be home soon. Again I listen, reflect back to them the hope I hear, and together we pray.
This pattern closely resembles the creative process Jerome Berryman writes about in Teaching Godly Play (p. 136). He writes,
Think of the creative process as a circle. When the creative process is opened we begin to scan for a better idea. This continues until there is an insight, which is then developed and finally there is closure once again.
Of course the circle – our circle of meaning – has had to stretch to make room for the new insight and as with any stretching it can involve some stress and even pain. For the parent of the child in the hospital, the new diagnosis may be easily treated, but it might also be the diagnosis of something more intractable. Whatever it is, their lives are forever changed by this event in the life of their child.
As the chaplain my role is not to make the process of moving from the chaos we feel in the scanning part of the circle to closure move faster or do the work for the parent. All I can do is be a companion on the journey; help the parent feel less alone in the process. Often the chaos is frightening (that feeling of being out of control) for the person who is there and for the people around them. I have seen how helpful it is to stand with a person in the chaos. It seems to steady them…help them get their feet back under them as the water rushes around so to speak.
This is a huge learning for me. My tendency in life is to rush in and try to fix things. If it is anxiety or fear, I want to do what I can to make it go away. I think this “fixer-attitude” is one of the things that led me to feel so burnt out as I prepared to come away on this sabbatical. There were days when I literally felt sick or in pain as I struggled with my inability to fix whatever was wrong. It was as if I was carrying the responsibility of the creative process of everyone in my life and even the parish as a whole. I have discovered this summer, that it is often more helpful to simply come alongside someone and walk with them through the chaos. Again to quote Jerome Berryman,
Children and adults tend to prefer certain aspects of this circle (the circle of the creative process), which are related to their personalities. In Godly Play (and I would add as chaplains or in my role as a parish priest) the mentor attempts to move the children through the whole circle of the creative process, despite personal preferences, so they will have the whole process available to them. This completeness is the gift of the Creator in whose image we are created. Teaching Godly Play, p. 121
Perhaps the best we can do for people plunged into chaos by life is to be the one who believes in them…believes that they have the resources as a child of God to work the process at their own speed and that we believe wholeness will be restored. It might not look anything like it did before, but we know it is coming and we are there cheering them on.
This week I left Dallas to attend the North American Godly Play Conference held at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. I was leading the Advanced Training held in conjunction with the conference, and it was my great joy to be doing that with my dear friend Nancy St. John. They put us up in a beautiful little cottage, complete with a screened porch overlooking a lovely garden. I treasured my mornings on the porch with Nancy. Linda Clapp, another beloved friend, decided to observe the Advanced Training which meant we had lots of time with Linda too. Linda, Nancy and I have been training together for fifteen years meaning we can almost finish each other’s sentences.
Here are some of the other high points of the week:
- Jerome Berryman’s keynote address on Godly Play: Is it worth it?
- Dr. Robert Whitaker’s keynote address on Spirituality and health.
- Spending three beautiful days in the stunning Chapel of the Apostles (that’s where we held the Advanced Training), with its tall ceilings, and huge clear glass windows looking out on the beauty of God’s creation.
- Leading a workshop on nurturing children’s spirituality for 90 people!
- Jerome’s visit to the Advanced Training and the opportunity to teach about the story he calls, “The Greatest Parable” with him!
- Taping the Greatest Parable (a huge four part story about the life of Jesus) for the Godly Play You Tube Channel with Nancy one late afternoon in the Chapel of the Apostles as the sun began to set.
Another important piece of work I did was a presentation on Godly Play Resources, the little company in Ashland, Kansas that makes the materials we use in Godly Play rooms. I serve as the Materials Consultant for GPR helping them to maintain quality and developing new materials. I asked the staff at GPR to send me pictures – lots of pictures – of the people in Ashland making the materials we use. I turned it all into a slide show complete with music. I wanted to bring conference goers to Ashland and put faces with the much loved materials we all use. It was the last morning of the conference so only a few people were left (maybe 50 or so of the 250 who were at the conference throughout the week) but for the people there it was very moving. I was touched to see so many wiping there eyes as they watched. Here is a link to the slide show: We are Godly Play Resources
Sewanee is a kind of magical place. Everything moves more slowly (the speed limit throughout the town is only 15 mph), there are large expanses of grass, beautiful, leafy old trees, castle-like buildings across the campus, houses nestled among the trees with big front porches, gardens filled with black eyed susans (my favorite), and this time of year butterflies seems to be everywhere. There is a tradition that says angels roam around, dancing in the gardens and protecting all the inhabitants. When people drive through the stone gates as you leave town it is the custom to touch the roof of your car to “grab” a Sewanee angel to take with you. As I finish out my time
as a chaplain here in Dallas I am doing so protected by my Sewanee angel!
One of my goals during my time at the hospital has been to help the full time chaplains and chaplain residents think about how they “chart.” Yes, just like the medical staff we are required to document our visits with patients, families, and staff in the medical charts.
As part of team of family support services, the chaplains work with the social workers and child life workers in the hospital. What is sometimes hard to discern is how the work of the chaplain is different from what these other professionals are doing for children and families. We know we are there to support their spiritual lives while they are being treated for physical issues, but how do we write and talk about that in meaningful ways.
I experimented with this when I wrote a verbatim – a word for word report of a visit I made with a family, complete with my analysis of the visit. By way of an analysis I “combed through” the conversation to look for the ways the patient and the mom were expressing their spirituality, and how I was supporting it by what I did, said, or by what I didn’t say or do. I used Rebecca Nye’s description of children’s innate spirituality which she calls “relational consciousness” – an awareness of our relationships with the self, others, the transcendent, and the environment to guide me. The conversation revealed this awareness in the patient in many ways. As I considered how I supported and nourished her awareness of these relationships, I looked for how I used Rebecca Nye’s six principles in the visit – Space, Process, Imagination, Relationship, Intimacy and Trust.
I also looked through the conversation for the times when the patient or her mother were grappling with existential issues such as aloneness, freedom, questions of meaning, and death; looking specifically for how my actions or words (I told a Godly Play story) helped give voice to these issues. The staff and residents in the pastoral care department took that work and began to think about how they might better chart these things on a daily basis. I wonder what their chart notes will look like going forward?
I think this kind of thing could go far beyond the hospital and the work of chaplains. The goal of the chaplain is to support the child’s spiritual life while they are being treated in the hospital, but of course all of us who love children want to do this whether they are in the hospital or not. We need to “tune our ears” to hear the child’s spirituality and then set to work to find ways to support and nourish it so it can flourish. As we get better and better at hearing our children, we can find more and more opportunities to nurture that spirituality.
We know that “relational consciousness” comes naturally to young children. But as children move through adolescence and into adulthood they often repress or discard it altogether as the values of the culture press in on them. If the adults in their lives can listen for it in their daily conversation and encourage it, perhaps that can change – perhaps the children will begin to feel as if this awareness is valued by the world and theirs will grow stronger and stronger as they move into adulthood.
This past week I have had some wonderful or “sublime” moments with children and some perfectly tragic ones – and some sublime moments mixed in with tragic ones. I suppose every sublime moment has an edge of the tragic mixed in since just being in a children’s hospital means something is seriously wrong – something that requires the family to come here. Even so, let me try to describe what I mean.
One day last week as I was working with a family whose child was actively dying, I went and visited a child on the general pediatric floor who was sick and sad, but obviously getting well. The little girl was resting in her mother’s arms so at first I visited with the mom, but then I noticed the little girl peeking at me. I said hello and told her my name. I said, “Did you hear me tell your Mom that I’m a chaplain.” She nodded seriously. I said, “Do you know what a chaplain is?” She shook her head no. I told her that sometimes I pray with people, or just talk with them – that I’m here to talk about how they are feeling in their hearts not to poke and prod them or give them shots. I said, “How is your heart feeling today?” She said, “Its sad.” I said, “I’m sorry its sad. It is hard being sick.” She nodded. Then I said, “You know, chaplains also tell stories. Would you like to hear a story?” She sat up and said, “Yes!” enthusiastically. She told me she had to get “cozy” first. She arranged the blankets and puffed up her pillow and then settled back down.
I pulled my miniature Creation story out of my bag and began to tell it. She was entranced and engaged on all levels, touching the material, wondering with me about what might be the most important gift and where she was in the story. When I finished she said she was ready for a nap. I said, “That’s great. I hope you have a good nap. Can I come another day with a story?” She smiled and said yes. I turned to say goodbye to her Mom who whispered, “Can you come every day?” I smiled and said I would try.
In the meantime I found my way to the Emergency Room where a little girl was being treated for a broken bone. She was alone, since it happened while her Mom was at work, and she was terrified. I sat with her while we waited for her mother. She slept a little, but she was in a lot of pain and needed her Mom. I said, “I know how scary this must be. Would you like me to say a prayer?” She whispered, “Yes.” I said a short prayer and then asked, “Do you know any prayers?” She drew a deep breath and started, “Our Father…”, and together we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together. It was a holy and precious moment – and blessedly her mother arrived shortly after that.
All of this happened as I was also caring for the family whose child was actively dying. And the last “sublime” moment for me was when I stood with the staff at the very end of that long sad day. The drama and emotion of the day was exhausting for us all, but as we stood alone in the room (the family had been escorted to their cars) we gathered in a circle around the child and prayed. I prayed the Prayer of Commendation from the Burial Service in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Those simple words were a “sublime” way to end what had been a long and difficult day.
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen. The Book of Common Prayer, p. 499
Twice a week a chaplain from the Pastoral Care Department at Children’s Medical Center leads a “Meaning and Purpose Group” for patients being treated on the Psychiatric Unit. The goal of the group is to provide inpatients with a developmentally appropriate way of reflecting on and expressing their own sense of identity, purpose and meaning within the personal, social and spiritual milieu in which they identify themselves as members. Patients carry a variety of diagnoses including depression, suicide ideation, self-harm, and other medical psychiatric diagnoses. The chaplain uses the Godly Play® approach, bringing a story to the circle each week, sharing the story, and allowing some time for the patients to respond to the story in the group and individually.
I have been privileged to observe this group a few times, and last week they let me “drive” – that is I was the storyteller. I chose to tell the story of the Exodus which, for those of you unfamiliar with Godly Play, is told in the desert box (a large box of sand) with small wooden people figures and blue felt to represent the “Red Sea.”
I cannot begin to express how incredible Godly Play is in this particular setting. The children sitting in this circle range in age from 10 to 17, and the existential issues that all of us grapple with in some way or another are fierce and threatening for them. I am speaking of questions of meaning and purpose, freedom (both the need for freedom and the fear of it), aloneness (the need to be alone, and the need for others to come close), and death. We “bump up against” these things throughout our lives, but for these children they have become all too real and powerful, and they are hungry for a way to talk about them. The children, no matter how religious, immediately recognize the power of this language and begin to use it to make meaning.
Jerome Berryman refers to Godly Play as “the chaplain’s strange language” in his book, The Spiritual Guidance of Children: Montessori, Godly Play, and the future. He writes:
The play therapists at Texas Children’s Hospital, especially Jackie Vogel, in the mid-1970’s were the first to understand Godly Play and what “the chaplain’s strange language” had to do with children’s ultimate concerns, which are obvious in a hospital setting. The play therapists knew quite well how to help children cope with the fear of the unknown. They could help children play this out, for example, with a model of the hospital’s surgical suite to make going there more familiar and to help the children talk about their fears. However, when children asked, “Am I going to die?” something changed in the communication. This was not a questions about the unknown. This was about the unknowable, so a whole different kind of language was necessary. The parable of the Good Shepherd needed to replace the model of the surgical suite to make the existential meaning required to adequately respond to such a question. (p. 111)
Berryman goes on to talk about how helpful it is to be present to a child with those types of concerns as a storyteller rather than an expert about religion. And really any Godly Play story works, not just the Good Shepherd. What makes this work, suggests Berryman, is that the story is not “explained.” Instead it is placed between the storyteller and the children, and then together we enter the story to be with God and each other as meaning is created.
The Exodus held many connections for the children in the psych group. They connected powerfully with the feeling of being trapped, or pushed up against the Red Sea as the Pharaoh’s army pursued them. During the art response time one child drew herself as the Pharaoh saying, “I’m the Pharaoh in my life. I’m keeping myself trapped – not letting myself go free.” The story also gave them hope, e.g. saying that they knew that even though it felt awful right now, God would show them a way through just as he showed Moses how to get through the Red Sea.
Over the years I’ve heard Jerome Berryman say, “Godly Play has the power to change the world.” I’m not sure about that, but I know it has the power to help children, and the adults who love them, draw close to God, to each other, and to grapple with the difficulties of life whether large or small. And I guess when you think about it, that could most definitely change the the world!
Throughout my time in the hospital I have gone to visit children and families, only to discover a little one all alone in his or her room, staring up at a mobile, or fussing with no adult to comfort them. This is disconcerting for me, as a parent, and I often wonder how best to help. I yearn to pick the little one up and cuddle them, but I don’t know how sick they are and if this is even permissible. I look for a nurse to tell me something about the family, but often they are busy with other patients.
In the beginning I would simply walk past and look for a patient or family with whom I could talk, but it never felt right just walking past those little ones all alone in the hospital. After a while I started going in to visit anyway, and would play with the little one or sing little songs. I sing all the little songs I used to sing with my children: “The Itsy, Bitsy Spider”, “Twinkle, Twinkle,” “Jesus loves me,” and even some of the made up songs we used to sing to the tunes my daughter learned when she took Suzuki piano. My children will appreciate knowing that I made a little two year old laugh yesterday when I sang, “Wake up, Shake up, Take off your pajamas. Eat your breakfast, time to go to school”, one of those silly little songs our family sang for weeks as our daughter learned to play it on the piano. When I sing, the children stop fussing. Their eyes shine and if they are old enough they will clap at the end of each song. Still, I have struggled with the worry that a parent would be offended in some way that this strange chaplain was singing and playing with their child without permission.
I’ve been here long enough, I guess, that I have stopped worrying about that. And lately, I have been trying something new. Knowing that often the best thing for a baby developmentally is for a parent or caregiver to simply talk and tell stories to them, I’ve started doing just that. I still sing “Twinkle, twinkle little star” and “The Itsy, Bitsy, spider.” But then I quietly begin to tell them a parable – sometimes more then one.
No matter how old – just a few months, or a year or more – I have discovered that they love this storytelling. They get very quiet and look intensely at me, sometimes smiling, but usually just seriously listening. I firmly believe that God is made present to us when we read or listen to Scripture. I know I feel God’s presence as I speak the words and look into those little eyes. I wonder….how does that work when the person is too young to understand the words? Do you need to understand in order to feel God’s presence? I wonder…
My prayer each morning as I exit the garage and walk across the sky-bridge to the hospital is, “God, guide my feet today. Lead me to the families and children who most need me.” I believe these encounters with these babies are answers to that prayer, and I am grateful for these holy moments.
This week I became friends with a patient who was in for about a week due to a chronic condition. His Mom came at night to be with him, but during the day she had to work so he was on his own for several hours. Nurses and staff did their best to check in on him, and Child Life workers brought him art projects and games to occupy him. The hospital has its own “TV Station” that broadcasts different shows, many of which are interactive. The kids stuck in their rooms can call in an participate. If they win something, one of the volunteers runs upstairs with their prize. All this is to say he kept busy, but it also became a chance for me to spend some time with him talking and sharing Godly Play stories.
I shared the Good Shepherd first, and he helped move the figures and afterwards played out several different scenarios. He was especially struck by the dangerous places and shared with me some stories about his school that would make your hair stand on end. His condition is serious, so he spoke about worrying about death a good bit.
Later in the week I checked back in on him and discovered he was feeling much better. He had been out and about during the day, visiting the play room and more. He had been given a game system to play with and had some new games he was excited to show me. They thought he might go home the next day.
This time I had the Ark and Flood with me in my “chaplain bag” and I asked him if he would like me to tell it to him. We cleared a space on his bed and I laid out the big brown underlay and began. He helped move the figures again, and when I skipped the part about the raven and said, “Wait, wasn’t there a raven?” This boy knows his Bible stories. At the end we wondered about the story. He loved the end when everything was ready for a new start, but he thought the flood was the most important part….or maybe when God came close to Noah. That is after all how Noah knew he should build the ark in the first place. I said, “I wonder if you have ever felt God come close?” He said, “When you come to visit.”
At the end when I was putting things back in my bag he picked up the ark. He really loved how smooth it is and commented on how heavy it is. I said, “You know, I know the guy who makes those. His name is Mike. He would love to see you playing with it.” He asked about Mike – where he makes the arks and where he lives. Then he said, “You know this ark is such a safe boat…its too bad Jesus didn’t have it.” I said, “What would Jesus do with it?” He said, “He could have hid in it when they were looking for him to kill him. It would have been perfect.” I said, “It is a very safe boat.” He then reluctantly handed it to me so I could put it back in the bag.
I left him with some paper and crayons and suggested he might like to make something about how the story felt to him. I think he probably just fired up the Xbox and began to explore his new games. However, I know that for a little while God came so close to both of us, and we came so close to God…it was a holy time and place. Thank you Mike for your beautiful boat!