Posted in reflections

Repurposed

I’m not sure when I started liking instant coffee.

Maybe it’s the simplicity. There’s no need to fuss with fancy machines that clutter up limited kitchen counter space.

This morning I spooned the last of my hazelnut Tejas Café into my Starbucks mug. Reaching under the sink, I nearly tossed the empty container into the trash, then hesitated. It was a well-made plastic jar, with a sturdy top and thick clear plastic sides. Fashioned in a factory, then filled with coffee, it shipped to the HEB grocery warehouse. A driver then delivered it to my neighborhood store. There it had waited on the shelf…for me. Oh, the good times we had! Every morning, I received its aromatic offering. Now, a few weeks later, the jar had nothing left to offer. It was empty. We looked at each other. Was this the end?

Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life asks: “What on earth am I here for?” For a while, my alma mater used the slogan, “Discover Your Purpose.” Like that empty jar of coffee, what do you do when you come to the end of your purpose? Is there a purpose after the purpose? Can we be repurposed?

This can be a challenge for retirees. After an active work life spanning forty plus years, some at the traditional retirement age of 65 are like a Honda Accord with 200,000 miles on the odometer, well-worn for sure but with another 100,000 miles in the engine. My father had served as Corporate Comptroller of a large supermarket chain in the Northeast. He later found purpose in a duet of blue collar jobs, first as a delivery driver for a parts manufacturer, then as a cashier at the local grocery store. Only at age 87 did he turn in his name tag. Other retirees have found new purpose through volunteer work at church or in the community.

Yet it’s more than retirees who face this question. At any age, career change is repurposing. An educational missionary for 23 years, I’d taught pastors from the certificate to the doctoral level. Though fulfilling, the face-to-face and online classrooms with their supplementary administrative and supervisory duties consumed me. My purpose had morphed into my taskmaster. It was time to repurpose, but what next?

As a pastor in Missouri, prior to missionary service, I always looked forward to visiting at the hospital when church members fell sick. I’d also held a weekly Bible study for residents of a nursing home and remembered how they’d brightened up when we prayed and sang hymns together. Teaching at a university in Kenya, an offer arrived to move to Austin, Texas. I’d receive a stipend for one year as a hospital chaplain resident, a combination of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and 1,000 hours clinical work in a network of hospitals. Amy and I said our farewell to African brothers and sisters and jetted West.

Residency was a grueling year. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I’d hurriedly get dressed following an urgent middle-of-the-night page for a Code Blue or to comfort a grieving family in the ICU. In my weaker moments, I wondered if I’d made the right decision to leave a status academic position. But my doubts always evaporated when tearful families said: “Chaplain, we’re so glad that you came.”

Now I’m a hospice chaplain. The listening and comforting skills I honed in hospitals serve me well. Alzheimer’s patients in skilled nursing facilities can be calmed by a prayer, a hymn, or even a silent vigil at their bedside. Exhausted caregivers in private homes – usually a husband, wife, or daughter – need someone to witness their tears and to listen. After a heart-to-heart yesterday, a caregiver smiled and concluded: “I feel peaceful. Thank you, Chaplain.”

The prophet Isaiah writes: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19, NIV). My coffee jar is no longer empty. It now sits on a shelf, filling up with coins for the annual missionary offering at church. In the same way, God has repurposed my ministerial vocation. What new purpose will follow your purpose? New directions can unfold slowly, but be at peace. Whatever your age, God still has meaningful work for you to do.

Posted in reflections

Listen well, love well

I sat across from a homeless man in a hospital room. For 45 minutes, he poured out his heart. My job? To be present with him, to silently witness his pain and frustration. At the end, we prayed together. He said he felt better, lighter. He thanked me for listening.

In nearly a year on the job as a hospital chaplain-in-training, here’s the greatest takeaway so far:

People need to be heard.

James 1:19 encourages us: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (NIV). What does it mean to be “quick to listen”?

  • Listen to understand, not to respond. This can be the hardest part of listening. We start out well, but after a few seconds, we begin mentally planning out our response. That response usually begins with “Yes, but…” And suddenly we’ve become a sparring partner in a debate rather than an empathetic listener.
  • Listen deeply by asking clarifying questions. If something is unclear, a short question seeking clarity shows others that you’re present with them, that they’re being heard. “When you said ‘I’m so tired of it all,’ what did you mean?”
  • Listen to pray more specifically. Details matter. I know that I wasn’t listening closely if I ask a question and someone responds: “As I said earlier…” My question reveals that I had tuned out. On the other hand, when I close a patient visit with a prayer, I will often rehearse the detailed concerns they mentioned, bringing them specifically to God in prayer. One patient observed afterwards: “You didn’t miss a thing!” To listen well is to love well.

 

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Over the past week, anger and frustration have boiled over on our streets. Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” If there’s one thing that I can do to move the needle a fraction in the right direction, it’s listening – not to respond, not to debate, but to understand.

Please tell me your story. What are the everyday indignities and frustrations that you live with as an African-American, Latinx, Native American or other minority in the United States?

I’m listening.

___________

Image credits

  1. Ear: Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Left_ear.JPG#file
  2. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Nobel Foundation/Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Martin_Luther_King,_Jr..jpg