Sunday, December 23, 2018

An Unforgettable Meeting

The year was 1976, the month of May, and the seventh day. I received a phone call from St. Paul Lutheran Church that a Lutheran pastor from the Netherlands desired a meeting. He had gone to St. Paul’s because Ron Lavin, the pastor, had a number of koinia groups in the congregation. While there he heard about the Befrienders at the hospital, patient visitors trained in story metaphor listening.

He came and we began visiting. He had a similar lay ministry program in Amsterdam. As we talked we found our programs so similar and our learning so much alike that we began leap frogging much of the conversation to the next topic, methodology, and discovery, since we would be saying the same things. 

Toward the close of our conversation he said he had written a book about his program: In Levenden Lijve. I asked him to send me a copy. He said it is in Dutch. I said that’s okey. He did send me a copy. 

And this is what he wrote in front. 

“In remembrance of a fine meeting on May 7, 1976, in Davenport.” 

And a separate line,

“We knew each other before we met.”

Koert Lindijer

In 2016 my wife and I took the Viking Tour from Basel, Switzerland, to Amsterdam. My plan was to see if I could phone Koert. I received some help in contacting someone who knew him. Sad to say he had died several years before my arrival.

I still have the book and I have had parts translated. Palmer College of Chiropractic attracts students from around the world. A student from Amsterdam did the translating. 

The program he visited in Davenport is now 52 years old, others are continuing the training and supervision. I didn’t get a good answer to what happened to the program he was nurturing. 

Marlin Whitmer

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Parakaleo - "called one alongside"


A great New Testament word describing our relationship to God and each other is “parakaleo” in the Greek. The word means “a called one alongside.” Para for alongside and kale for called one. As the Hebrew word “henini,” meaning “here am I” registers presence, “parakaleo” describes our role as a listener. 

 The summary of the Law, Loving God, neighbor and self, becomes the focus as parakaleio, called one alongside, moves from God to neighbor to self.

The word is translated into English in a variety of ways, console, comfort, entreat,  etc. consequently reading an English translation of the New Testament will not show its frequency.

From the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel we have “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The word “comforted” is a form of parakaleo. “Those who are going through a profound experience will have a called one alongside. “That someone could be you or I or both. This Scripture verse is one of two sung in the first movement of Brahm’s Requiem.

Ronald Knox translates parakaleo as Befriender in the line from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. “Blessed are those going through a profound experience for they shall have a Befriender.”  The word advocate is related here as well, paraclyte.

St. Paul in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians in a passage, chapter 1, vs. 3-7. In five verses he uses parakaleo 9 times to describe our shifting relationship as God is alongside us, others are alongside us, and we are alongside others. This truly is the work of the Spirit, paraclyte, translated “advocate.” The Holy Spirit works alongside in the work of transforming whatever is taking place.

This is the passage from 2nd Corinthians.

"3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,   4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.   5 For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.   6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.   7 Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. 

Now I will put Befriender in the place of comfort in the 2 Corinthian passage.

"3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all Befriending,   4 who Befriends us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to Befriend those who are in any affliction, with the Befriending with which we ourselves are Befriended by God.   5 For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in Befriending too.   6 If we are afflicted, it is for your Befriending and salvation; and if we are Befriended, it is for your Befriending, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.   7 Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our Befriending. 

We have to remember St. Paul was a lawyer. He has a way of moving comfort, parakaleo, a called one alongside, around in the three aspects of God, self, and others. I like it. The passage provides a good foundation for story listeners as well. 

We are called to be radically relational. 

Marlin Whitmer
retired hospital chaplains
founder of the Befrienders in 1966, St. Luke's Hospital, Davenport, Iowa, now Genesis Medical Center.

Adding a recent experience in a local Greek restaurant. I pronounced the word as I had been pronouncing it, parakaleo. And he said parakalo. That is what you say when you answer the phone in modern Greek. I will be saying the word again the next time I eat there.


Monday, November 26, 2018

My Struggle with History


History was a high school class subject I disliked the most. Memorizing dates, countries, events, and names as single entities is what I disliked. It was like memorizing for spelling. The teacher was my track coach and as track coach we could connect. But the way he taught history was a different experience. 

That experience followed me to college where I made it through four years without taking a single course in the history department. This was a conscious effort, and somehow I managed with an advisor to use courses from the English and philosophy departments with a historical dimension as a substitute. Greek theatre, modern novel, Shakespeare, and philosophy from different periods of history, ancient, Middle Ages, modern.  I graduated cum laud to my surprise without a single course in the history department. Incidentally, the next year the college changed their ways to make what I did impossible. 

A rude awakening came my second year at the Virginia Theological Seminary when Dr. Zabrisky, Bill Clebsch, and Church History came into my schedule for three straight semesters. Now I had to connect dates, countries, events, and names in the life of the church with what was happening from a historical perspective, not a literary or philosophical. The background I had was helpful and expansive but not the full picture of what was happening on the ground. I did recover and because history was taught from another point of view other than facts and dates I was able to make meaningful connections and grow to see the importance of history.

Fast forward to today, I echo the quote from the philosopher George Santayana, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it," 

The philosopher Hegel generated a quote, “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” 

“It seems to me this tautology-like quote is a result of mistranslation, I’m not sure though. In German language and specially Hegel philosophy, there are two words for History:

1- History as reported in history books (plain reports) which is called “history”
2-History as a subject to philosophical reflection, “geshishte or reflected history”

Now it might be that Hegel meant this “We learn from ‘geshishte/reflected history’ that we do not learn from ‘history (plain reports from the past)’.” (haven't been able to find the source for this but it seems authentic.)

Our present day is ripe for harvesting the task of reflecting on our past. Ken Burns has done this with his Civil War series. The last of the series ending provides insight that we are still engaged in that struggle. In the words of Ken Burns, "the Civil War was history running on all cylinders. It was the most important event in the life of our nation, and its importance continues today. The blueprint of the America we know was drawn up then, and whether we know it or not, we are still walking around in the shadow of that war.” One of the commentators in the last series does a better job of focusing on the present in the light of the Civil War.

Reminders about our historical forgetfulness are cropping up in our daily newspaper. On Tuesday, November 20th, 2018, Esther Cepeda’s column was entitled, “Ignorance of history fuels hatred in America.” On November 25th, Michael Gerson wrote, “A Lot of Historical Forgetfulness.” His first line reads, “One of the worst things about our awful political moment is its historical forgetfulness.”

 A more recent spokesperson for our society from a conservative school, Hillsdale College, called the the present situation a Cold War. War to reference our society remains in the daily vocabulary as culture wars, fight, etc., Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times used “Trying to fight, Not spread, Fear and Lies.” The article seemed to be more about media manipulation. For me the war and fight as metaphors are misplaced. I am not at that level or intensity. 

I am planning to go with the metaphors of light and dark this Advent.  And I may even embrace the paradox from the Psalms, “to thee light and dark and both alike,” a both/and for reflective history.


Sunday, November 18, 2018

A Little Learning is a dangerous thing ...

"A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing, ..."

This is the opening line in a poem by Alexander Pope. The follow up line, often missed, “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring."   More important is the whole poem about learning, shared at the end. 

I have heard the first line, "A little learning is a dangerous thing:" was very popular with the public and recited frequently in its past day. Of late the line seems to have disappeared although I declare the reality is all to clearly present in this historic time with sound bites, immediate gratification, bottom line thinking, and an abundance of ideological thinking. Dialogue and discussion are more difficult in a polarized environment.

My introduction to the poem came on a Faculty Night at Virginia Theological Seminary some time during the academic year of 1954-5. Rule Howe, the pastoral care theologian, had returned from a sabbatical my middler year and on this Friday night his talk was centered on the second line of the poem. "Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring." I do not have notes or content from the talk but I do have a strong impression. Plumb the depths of what you are studying, learning, experiencing, encountering, in person and in community.

I have taken this to heart in the art of story metaphor listening, probing the various facets of how language functions in communication and meaning. This is my way of working on the branch of philosophy known as epistemology, the question of our time surrounding how we know what we know.

I am indebted to Ruel Howe for my continuing focus and persistence into the mystery of knowing and the way language functions. 

"A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:.
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
in fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts;
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise 
New distant scene of endless science rise!
So pleased at first the lowering Alps we try,
Mount o'er the vales, and seem to tread the sky;
The eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem to last;
But those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of our lengthening way;
The increasing prospect tired our wandering eyes,
Hill peep o'er hills, and Alps on Alps arrive."

Alexander Pope

As a life long learner my journey continues to "Drink deep, or taste not the Pieriean spring." A humility grows with knowing on knowing as one moves into the "mystery of silence."

Marlin Whitmer

Friday, November 16, 2018

Unintended Consequences

Unintended Consequences

The term came to my mind while attending the Mental Health Court Board the other afternoon. I was hearing a statistics report on how money was being saved by shorter jail time and recidivism reduction. Legislative folks were interested apparently and donors as well in the saving of money from the investment made. 

What struck me in the report was a figure that could not be obtained the first few years. Now that three years have past and graduates are out in the community there are other figures. Over 50 per cent are employed and over 60 percent are volunteering. Volunteering was part of their rehabilitation. They are continuing to be of service to the community as well as citizens in the work force, paying sales tax at least. They have not returned to jail so their previous cycle of behavior has been changed. These last items I would call unintended consequences not known or knowable in the beginning, perhaps envisioned and hoped for, but not the reality as they are now.

I have heard the term unintended consequences before. I have participated in a number of unintended consequences. I could tell numerous stories. Some had negative outcomes and some positive. 

The outcome of the first three Befrienders as story listeners at St. Luke’s Hospital in 1966, fifty years later had a number of unintended consequences, including the art of story metaphor listening, the grief resource group, the grief recovery group, and hospice of Scott County now the Clarissa Cook hospice. A more subtle change was to move the hospital culture to be more open to the importance of story in the organization as well as with patient care. It was definitely true after 25 years. I don't know if it is still true with a new administration and new people. 

Being a person fascinated with how language works I see one of my favorite words in this expression, intend and even tend as the root word. The word conveys to care for the process in progress. An unintended signifies part of the progress that includes aspects not apparent in the beginning. My own personal methodology in an environment which is more oriented to a management by objectives is intuitional intentionality. My intuition provides the direction in which to become intentional. Another blog about that. 

Positive outcomes that appear unintended can move to a more intended mode where further unintended outcomes reveal themselves on the horizon. The total process means continuing discernment as to which to pursue and which to correct as decision making comes into play. 

Another unintended consequence was revealed when I asked the director of the community mental health facility what they were finding as a result of seeing patients on the day of need instead of assigning an appointment a week or more in the future. The outcome: they are seeing more patients and a whole new clientele they had not seen before. The therapist seem to be surprised and energized by this. Another unintended consequence. Additional therapist have been added.

Another outcome that is not clear in my own mind is how they are reducing the number going to the emergency rooms.

Our store house of knowledge on the internet has some background to the term unintended consequences. The term has an author and some history. I will set aside some time in the future to read this background. In the meantime I am going to be adding the term to my connecting the dots approach. For unintended consequences is an important dot in knowing. The epistemological question of our time, i.e. how we know what we know.


Monday, November 12, 2018

The Story Listeners Task

This reflection has its beginning in the story telling culture of Sugar Creek township, Cedar County, Iowa, nine miles north of Wilton Junction. The environment is everyday down to earth living, farming. Other businesses have developed over time but in my growing up during the 30th and 40s we are talking about farming. I did not stay in this locale, at age 8 we became the wagon people after the loss of the family farm in 1938. I had some school time in Muscatine, West Liberty, Nichols, and back to Muscatine for my last 3 1/2 years of high school. Eight houses in nine years. Some were for shorter periods of times than others. My response in adulthood has been two houses since 1969 to 2011. I have added a two new addresses in seven years. Back to my topic: The Story Listeners Task.

The summer of 1953 brings the experience of being trained as a story listener by a person who was a story listener, Fred Kuether. Story listening was his method of supervision as a Clinical Pastoral Supervisor.  He did not tell us about his methodology at the time. I learned about his methodology 25 years later when I was developing a story listening method of my own. He was the catalyst for what I have generated.

Training 3 people in story listening as a way to change a rule in the hospital Auxiliary where volunteers who took the notions cart around were not supposed to talk to patients, 1966, became a beach head for change.

The a recorded visit with a patient opened my ears to hear how metaphors are a central part of the stories we hear.

Out of this personal history I identify and name the Story Listeners Task.

1. Stay with facilitating the story being told. There is some discipline to this which I can amplify at another time or in the revision of this post.

2. Respond to the clues provided by the story teller. A story teller will reveal a number of clues. When I was recovery from the loss of my first wife I was not all that open to the pain of others. As I was healing I remember a person saying , "last year was a difficult year." I did not respond to the clue even after hearing it. Realizing what I had missed I later asked him, "tell me about your difficult year." He had been receiving chemotherapy for a cancer diagnosis.

3. Listen for the metaphors in the story: root and orientation metaphors. Aristotle gave this advice in his Rhetoric over a thousand years ago. Slow learners. Root metaphors are nouns and pronouns. Orientation metaphors are verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and propositions. "Difficult" is the orientation in the last paragraph, point 2. All our words can be moved to new places making them metaphorical.

4. Reach a level of comfort with the uncomfortable. Since stories have different levels of emotion what you respond to will register how deep and how much pain you are ready to hear. As you become more comfortable with the uncomfortable the listener will be able to listen at.a deeper level.

5. Develop a tolerance for the ambiguity generated by the story.

6. Keep a journal and develop a support group for reflecting and learning.

Marlin Whitmer, retired hospital chaplain, BCC.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Mental Illness Navigators


We do have Mental Illness Navigators for our area. It has taken me over a year to find this out but they may not have been in operation when I first asked. What I did first was look on the internet for Mental Health navigators. If you do. search you will find them in various locations.

My introduction to navigators came when I needed an oncology navigation and found one at Genesis West in Davenport. She, a nurse, was most helpful in guiding my wife and I through the maze of doctors, appointments, treatments, tests, and side effects the last year of Bobbie's life. She helped us know what was happening to insure smooth transitions between appointments and outcomes.

Now I find the Mental Health Crisis Center located in the Davenport County Health office building provides navigator services. The main hurdle comes from not publicizing themselves with that language. I hope that changes. That brings up the whole topic of communication and collaboration.

At the last meeting of the Mental Health Board in August I gave a short background to what I have experienced this last year with two adult children now in long term mental illness treatment centers. One is at Bellevue Iowa and the other is at Dubuque. When I suggested the need for navigators one person said we have them and he gave the name of the person in charge of the crisis center. That was a note I wrote down as another location as I connect the dots for mental health care. Later this person and I had coffee to talk evermore about the current situation with professional caregivers.

A week laster I went to the first person I had contact with at the crisis center. She drew a diagram of how they services connect and who does what. I then knew that six months was the usual time for people to be in a long term facility before release to another agency in the system.

That is where I am at present. I will continue to wait out the six months until one of my family is moved to another dot in the system. Residential homes are in high demand. That would be the next step for both and in the meantime Social Security disability become a primary need. Both have started the process, been rejected, and continue to proceed.

Stay tuned, the story is open ended, and navigators are now tracking the journey.


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

A Huge Aha! From a Patient Visit.

Greetings One and All,
In 1964 I completed my third quarter of Clinical Pastoral Education at Bellevue Hospital, New York City. I now had enough quarters to become a certified Hospital Chaplain with the College of Chaplains. This became official in February of 1965, the year I became the first full time chaplain at St. Luke’s Hospital in Davenport, Iowa.
On my evening rounds making pastoral visits with patients before surgery I met an elderly man from Sugar Creek Township, Cedar County. That was where I grew up on a farm my first 8 ½ years. I lost my concentration in staying with his medical story when I learned he knew my Dad. My Dad as a young man played the fiddle for barn dances. He had died 18 years before so I was anxious to learn something about my father and my story source was now in front of me. I negotiated to return after surgery to tape record our conversation. He agreed. I offered my blessings and left anticipating my return to learn more about my father. 
My return visit with Mr Geibelstein turned out to be more than I anticipated. Being older he knew about the farms and families where I grew up. Farms were named after the families who lived there. There was the Hinkhouse place, Kaisers, Laucamp, Schroeder, etc., and then more than one Whitmer farm.  He again attested to knowing my father as a young man when he played the fiddle for barn dances. I said, “The violin I have may not be the exact one, but the strings on the bow are worn out.” He said, "Oh yes, we all wear out." He told of his friend visiting before surgery and saying, "You have to stay with the boat." I found this amusing since we read a portion of the Noah story in the chapel before my visit. I asked, "You have to stay with the boat? Cedar County doesn't have any large body of water. There isn't any ocean or sea out there." He said, "You have to stay with the boat in order to survive." Helped by his friend he moved the Noah story to himself. It is one thing to move "worn out" but now we have "stay with the Boat to survive?" I decided to drop my agenda and go with what was happening as he moved my words and others to explain his situation. He confided that he didn't think he would survive the surgery. There's a real flood.
He said my presence before surgery had been a comfort. And the words of his friend, “stay with the boat,” had stayed with him. Now he was alive when he didn't think he was going to be. What does he do? The recording session turned into a pastoral visit. Instead of the stories of my father I had a demonstration of how metaphors work in story listening and pastoral care for health care. The communication process became the greater gift. My father was innovative having patented an automatic calf feeder for young calves whose mother refused to feed them. Now innovation came in seeing metaphors move meaning in a story.  A new insight in how language functions had been recorded. Renewed life was generated in both of us.
Connecting with Philosophy in a New Key 
The recorded visit opened the door for understanding story and language in a more profound way. Aha! Even more amazing, I had this vague feeling that I had connected with this insight in my past. I went to a book on my shelf, Philosophy in a New Key by Susan Langer. She had a chapter on language with a page I had marked and sentences underlined 23 years before. 
Her chapter on “Language” was read my senior year at Hamline University, St. Paul, MN, where I was a philosophy major, graduating cum laud in 1952. My last year allowed for an independent study with Alfred North Whitehead as my major focus. Susan Langer was a student of Whitehead when he taught at Harvard. Whitehead began as a mathematician in England before coming to philosophy through the development of a symbolic logic. Langer picks up on the symbolic, moving the symbolic to all forms of human communication including language. The philosophical issue involved is known as “epistemology” where the question of how we know becomes central. For Langer our knowing is built into us by nature, we are symbolic beings. As the Book of Genesis says we were created to make images being created in the Image of God.
I had even turned the corner of one page as a marker in her book and significant sentences about metaphor were underlined. The seed germinated slowly while saving remembered stories to illustrate at the same time.  A future harvest was about to be reaped in the way words and expressions move to a new context for meaning in that context.
She gives examples in her book. 
Rereading pages 112-116 provides a refreshing reminder of what I was to discover in everyday conversations in a hospital setting. The fire of a stressful situation makes poets of us all. I am told the source for that idea is Shakespeare, another endorsement for metaphor, moving words from one place to another for meaning.
What caught my eye in 1952 for my first reading of Langer was her interest in meaning. “Langer's philosophy explored the human mind's continuous process of meaning-making through the power of “seeing” one thing in terms of another.” (Wippecyclopiedia).
I started college to become a chemical engineer. Out of money I spent fifteen months in an implement factory as a steel checker rubbing elbows with a lot of unhappy workers. I began asking questions chemistry was not equipped to answer. What is the meaning of this unhappiness? What are the deeper questions in life? I went back to college to major in philosophy. Susan Langer’s chapter on Language connected with my questions about meaning. “Meaning-making” had caused me to change my college major.    
What came from the rereading in 1975 after my visit with Mr. Geibelstein was how metaphor functions in communicating meaning. I had missed the full importance the first time even though I underlined the right sentences.
What I am about today and why I write is another Aha! This is about all of us, everyday, in whatever context we find ourselves. We relate metaphorically as we tell our stories, moving whatever word provides meaning, disguises, hides, or keeps us oblivious to what we have actually said at a deeper level.
Marlin Whitmer

Monday, August 20, 2018

Aha's! Open the Door: part 1

Greetings One and All,
I am starting a thread with the word Aha! My journey has been a continuing series of Aha! Even in the midst of pain, suffering, confussion, stress, being overwhelmed, there has been the Aha's! Gifts! Insights! New understandings! A new birth! Even a paradigm shift!

Death and Resurrection? Good Friday/Easter?
I begin with two stories from Bellevue Hospital, New York City. 
After my first Clinical Pastoral Education experience in the summer of 1953 I went back to serve for the vacationing night chaplain during the summers of 1960 and 1961. I was testing myself to see if chaplaincy could be my future vocation. My experience in several congregations after being ordained priest in the Episcopal Church in 1955 did not seem like like I was in the right place even though I seemed to be doing acceptable work. 
My goal from before, during, and after Seminary was, this seems rather audacious now, to develop the ministry of the whole Church (parish). My mentor and I had many conversations on this topic. I wrote a paper my senior year in Seminary on the subject. Now in the reality of parish life I wasn't making much progress. The ordained as the Minister was deeply ingrained and moving to the concept of all have a ministry, laity and ordained together, was resisted back in 1955 to 1965. I was paid and ordained to be "The Minister." Some changes have taken place since. We still have more to accomplish.
A necessary foundation for the Aha! was Story listening, an outcome from the ‘53 experience with Fred Kuether as Chaplain Supervisor at Bellevue Hospital. There a few of my pastoral visits began to net an Aha! Experience. A surprising outcome for both speaker and listener caught my attention, especially the listener in my case.
I will share two stories, one from my visits as night chaplain and another as a Clinical Pastoral Education student. 
Before surgery at Bellevue, a hospital requirement, all patients were seen by either a Roman Catholic Priest, a Rabbi, or a Protestant Chaplain. After the visit you signed your name on the temperature page in the chart. Patients with no preference or from another tradition were seen by all three clergy. If this was not signed you could be called to the operating room to see the patient before going to surgery. They followed the rule. I am sure it is different now.
I visited a young black lady from the south. From the beginning of our conversation I could tell she was extremely nervous. I Proceeded slowly as I learned she was to have surgery on her heavy bandaged infected elbow. The operating schedule informed me ahead of time but I wanted to hear from her what was about to happen. Surprise, as she told her story she suddenly bent over putting her hand to her face. When she raised up there was a glass eye in the palm of her hand and an opening in one eye. Aha! Her last experience in surgery was the loss of an eye. Was she about to lose an arm? As our conversation continued she asked me to read Psalm 31. I carried a small Book of Psalms with me since such requests was not out of the ordinary from some patients. Reading the long Psalm was like reading her autobiography with suffering. Like many laments the turn around came at the end. I repeated it twice, the second time as a prayer. The next day I returned to see what happened. Some distance from her bed I knew from the big smile on her face. She still had both arms.
Bellevue was a training hospital for four medical schools in the 50's and 60’s. Researchers and Specialists were present and available for conversation in the Dinning Room. This story comes from my chaplaincy intern days and involves a patient from Thailand who was scheduled for both a goider and heart surgery. Six times the surgery was canceled because of risk with her rapid heart rate. That made for a number of visits. We were getting acquainted in spite of her broken English and he was meeting with all three chaplains from their traditions since she was a Buddhist.  Another day she was scheduled and I was visiting again. This time the surgery was performed successfully. The day after I made a follow up call and out of her mouth came these excited words in broken English, “I feel like new born!” Aha! I have never forgotten her metaphor for new life. Since her sister was married to a naval officer at the Thai Embassy in Washington DC, I made a visit to her sister's home while she continued to convalesce.  My seminary was in Alexandria across the Potomac. 
In both of these stories I was on my way to discoveries that would net greater Aha's! The seeds had been sown but germination takes time. And different seeds germinate at a different rate. How about 25 and 26 years. Slow learner.

Listening as Self Emptying

Greetings One and All,

There is a biblical principle for becoming more skilled as a story listener. There are different ways of talking about this principle but what is most surprising is the agreement from more than one source. I am going to show how Scripture (Philippians 2), a medical doctor, and a pastoral care researcher all emphasize the same principle. 

My way of talking about this principle is to drop our own agendas while listening to the other person's story. We are to have nothing up our sleeve. We are to be as non-manipulative as possible while attending to what the other person is saying. 

On occasion I have called listening "Christmas," a present Incarnation,  where you make room in the inn of your consciousness for the new that is unfolding in the story. Rachel Stanworth uses the term "spacious listener" where we give the other person space to tell their story.

Getting back to Philippians 2 and the line, "Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus." (Phil. 2:5) There are a few lines before it.  "2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.   3 Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.   4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.   5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,"  

The word Mind is used three times. The Greek word for mind here is a very specific word, forms of phronesis, meaning a down to earth and practical mind. You might think the Greek word sophis would be used here for Christ. Sophis refers more to wisdom or ultimate realities. The word says a lot about the mind of Jesus from a practical standpoint. There are other passages to support this down to earth approach but lets start here. Being down to earth and practical may not be the easiest thing to do at times. I find it down right difficult. A real disciplined perspective may be needed as we proceed. We are talking about our preparation to listen. Paul continues in talking about Jesus preparation in being along side us.

"6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,   7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men."   

Emptied himself becomes the crux of the message. Kenosis in Greek. The word will be moved by folks who talk about listening to convey our own preparation.

Dr. Rita Charon in her book Narrative Medicine has this to say about listening.

"Attention connotes the emptying of self so as to become an instrument for receiving the meaning of another." (Charon, p. 132)

Rachel Stanworth did a research project at St. Christophers Hospital in London. She interviewed 25 people who were dying. She heard their stories, their concerns, and especially the words they used to convey what has happening to them. She transcribed all the interviews and came up with 9 metaphors for expressing the commonality in their stories. What may come as a surprise is the early section of her book is given to her own preparation for the task of listening. She too writes about self emptying in this way.

"Slowly, I began to learn that to really hear another is akin to an active divestment of self." (Stanworth, p. 39)

The footnotes of both books indicate neither has read the other. Without any collaboration they both join with St. Paul, the down to earth and practical mind to hear the significant story of another begins with the discipline of self emptying. 

By the way, St. Paul advocates this kind of mind for every day folk like you and I. He says this mind is ours in Christ. Don't let professionals become an excuse because they advocate the same.   

As Christ is the Incarnate one, the word was made flesh who dwelt among us, our listening at its best participates in that same Incarnation mode as the word of another takes on reality in our understanding.

Marlin Whitmer

Saturday, August 18, 2018

A Letter to the Editor, August 18, 2018

This letter appeared in the Quad-City Times on the Opinion page. I also have the opportunity to write a longer article for the RiverCity Reader.

Mental Health Care is Inadequate

I have been over my head in family mental health issues this past year. I gained a frontline view.

Iowa legislature moved forward with the Eastern Iowa Region Crisis Center. The people at the center were helpful. But ultimately, Iowa continues to go backwards:

Reduced the budgets of the judicial system and the Department of Corrections two years in a row when 40% of the inmates in the Scott County Jail have mental health problems.  

Removed the court from the hearing decision after a 72 hour committal. Because of the new rule on July 1, the hearing never happened, no judge was present, and I wasn’t even present. They sent the patient home in a taxi. The result: We had to go through the committal process all over again.

State officials refused to address the shortage of long term beds for the mentally ill. According to the NAMI of Iowa (National Association of Mental Illness) “ … in 2016, Iowa ranked last of all states in terms of psychiatric bed availability, with only 1.2 beds per 100,000 adults: this is a far cry from the national average of about 12 beds per 100,000 adults.”

And locally, an advisory group for Genesis Hospital was recently disbanded.

I invite all to make a difference: increase your awareness and become informed.

Three cheers for Mr. Hubbel who is running for Governor. He has a comprehensive plan. He had a person call to record my story.

Marlin Whitmer, retired hospital chaplain

Monday, July 30, 2018

Mental Health/Politics in Iowa: 2018

Senator Grassley was quoted in the Quad City Times article on Thursday, July 25th, “I always stick to policy when I’m campaigning, and I would advise other people to stick to policy.” I agree with Senator Grassley and I want to address mental health issues in this state.

If Governor Kim Reynolds and the Republican legislature think they have corrected the mental health issues in this state they have their heads in the sand.

I have been over my head in family mental health issues this past year and as a professional hospital chaplain the experience gave me a frontline window.

First, there are dedicated people on the frontlines. They can’t always do what needs to be done. They live with constraints like everyone else. I have heard them first hand.

The mental health terrain is more like a countryside with a number of silos that don’t speak to each other. More collaboration between these institutional entities would be a start. The issue is not new, Dr. Vera French knew about this first hand. Years ago she brought Dr. Brotman to lead a workshop on this very subject. I was there. Instead of silos he called the separate entities grids. They have different training, certification, financing, language, policies, TURF, etc., that doesn’t make for the best cooperation and understanding. 

Second, Governor Reynolds and the Republican legislature may have gone forward with some items but they went backwards with others. You can’t reduce the budgets of the judicial system and the Department of Correction two years in a row and say you have done something for mental health when 40% of the inmates in the Scott County Jail have mental health problems. The Mental Health Court relies on people from the Department of Correction to keep in touch with clients. No state money has been allocated for the Mental Health Court which demonstrates they can save money: less jail time, less recidivism. 

Another place they went backward was to remove the court from the hearing decision after a 72 hour committal. I experienced this when I was told there would be a hearing the next day, three days after the new rule went into effect. The hearing never happened, no judge was present, and I wasn’t even present when the decision for discharge was made. The result: We had to go through the committal process all over again, leg work, paper work, discussion with various locations, while the bizarre behavior continued with the discharged patient. I am told the medical lobby won the day by removing a judge from the hearing. Strange to remove them when judges are present to approve the committal. You can draw your own conclusions as to who had the most money for that decision.

Third, Iowa is short long term beds for the mentally ill. The legislation is lacking. 

According to the NAMI of Iowa (National Association of Mental Illness) “A 2017 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center gave Iowa a D- grade for its mental health bed shortage. … The report said in 2016, Iowa ranked last of all states in terms of psychiatric bed availability, with only 1.2 beds per 100,000 adults: this is a far cry from the national average of about 12 beds per 100,000 adults.”

These articles, important as they are, don’t come close to the emotional impact you experience from all the complex realities at grand zero. We are most fortunate to have a supportive Church community for worship and conversation. They are also doing their part to support the Mental Health Court.

Three cheers for Mr. Hubbel who is hoping to elected Governor, a Democrat. He came to listen to the Mental Health Court Board and some of the clients. I saw him in action at a home gathering. He is a listener. In my management training and from my oldest son working for Hewlet Parkard when the two men were still present, I know about Management by Walking Around, MBWA. The book is called the HP Way. Mr. Hubbel has that style of leadership. He has listened to the mental health needs and he has a plan. He sent a person to hear my story. I will vote for him.

The Rev. Canon Marlin Whitmer, retired hospital chaplain
Now serving at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral as a community facilitator.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Grazing Principle

The Grazing Principle

I grew up on a farm in Iowa, Cedar County, Sugar Creek Township, nine miles north of Wilton. It was 160 acres, a quarter section, with the north side of the farm bordering the Bennet Sunbury road. The Sugar Creek Presbyterian Church is on the north west corner of the farm. My great grandparents gave the land for the church.
 don’t know the longitude or latitude to locate more precisely.

The farm, the animals, the vegetation, and climate and environment all become my teachers. There are yearly patterns to be studied in this changing scene. No two years are ever alike.

Today I want to say something about horses and the grazing principle.

I became aware of this early since the horse pasture was on the other side of the lane off our front porch. I had watched the horses many times as their long necks bent over to eat the grass with their front legs apart as if to take the next step. It wasn’t until a number of years later in New York City of all places, in an Adlerian therapy session, that my New Hampshire therapist named the action more precisely: The Grazing Principle. That was it.

The horse starts at one end of the field, one clump of grass at a time, one step at a time, gradually making their way to the other end of the pasture. There is no rush to get to the other end of the field. To start with you have no idea the horse knows that is where they are going. Each clump is chewed before the next is found for the same process. It must come as a surprise to the horse to realize they are at the other end of the pasture. It is at that point that I lose track. I don’t know if they turned around and did the same thing coming back.

The point the therapist made was to concentrate on the present and do the task at hand. Thinking you have to devour all the clumps of grass In a day only generates an overwhelming anxiety you don’t need. You contaminate and jeopardies what you are doing in the present.

This truth about horses is true for farm work horses and saddle horses alike. My early observation was with farm work horses since we farmed with horses. This was before tractors became the power source.  And believe it or not, there are more horses in American today than when we farmed with horses, the saddle horses are more plentiful. You see horse trailers parked in many a farm lot ready to transport them to a trail some place. But when they are out to pasture they will be following the grazing principle. The outcome: the grazing principles is being followed more than ever before, at least by horses.

I suggest we apply some beneficial horse sense to our daily routine.

Marlin Whitmer
You can take the boy off the farm but you can’t get the farm out of the boy.