Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Jonah brings healing

A man after open heart surgery is not following instructions. He is staying in bed not wanting to move. His wife is feeding him instead of him feeding himself. He is headed in the direction of becoming a cardiac cripple. I get a referral to visit. We get along very well in that first and initial visit. He is open and friendly. He complains about various things including the food. Not eating is not like him. He has always been an good eater. But his appetite is gone. Hunger has vanished. Discovering he is complaining he says, "I don't know why I am complaining to you." I say, "You can complain about anything you want." Now that is giving a person permission and he runs with it. "Why is there so much pain in the world anyway?" "You must have had a lot of pain?" says I, going with his lead. "I didn't know there was so much pain. When I woke up from the surgery I was one ball of pain. And the only word that came to my mind was Jonah." Now there is an interesting remark. I have only heard it once in this context. Every story is unique.


What do you know about Jonah? He gives me a Sunday School answer. Fish, swallowed, etc. Then I ask if I can tell him something about Jonah. Jonah is the symbol of coming back to life. Jesus uses the expression, "Sign of Jonah". It has reference to death and resurrection. His eyes are wide open now and he is attentive. This time the call to new life and mission included "a ball of pain" and the word "Jonah."


I leave the room shortly afterwards. Later in the day I pass the nursing station and they want to know what we talked about. I said, "Jonah." They are not interested. They are interested in the fact that afterwards he decided to get up and start walking. He started feeding himself. A friend of his wife who knows me said the next day the wife was appreciative of my stopping by. Since he had a Church and a Pastor I did not stop in again 


The patient needed an interpreter, a translator, for connecting Scripture with his life experience of ball of pain and the word Jonah. He was not aware of having received the word of hope already. Like Jonah he didn’t like the assignment. But going with the assignment he discovered a way out.


Seventeen years later a Lutheran Pastor tells me about an Alban Institute Conference where Roy Oswald has said that Mutual of Omaha is paying heart patients $3500 to participate in the Dean Ornish Heart Program. The Dean Ornish approach is low fat, exercise, support group, and stress management with meditation. At the time I was part of heart rehab phase 3 for my high blood pressure. I asked the nurse if anyone in Phase 3 was doing the Dean Ornish Approach. She said one person. I said, "introduce me." Guess what? It was "Jonah!" He had no remembrance of my being present 17 years before. That is not unusual. But he knew I knew what no one else knew. He was trying the Dean Ornish program on his own. It was hard. We negotiated to organize a support group with meditation. And we did. He said he brought up the Dean Ornish approach to his doctor who said, "That is what they do in the lab, this is the real world." I said on the spot, "The real world is also a lab!" 


The real world is the lab from bringing Scripture stories, the stories of others, and our own stories together.



Tuesday, November 8, 2022

The Beginners Mind - Asking Questions

Listening and Questions often go together. One of the places we find this is in Luke’s Gospel (2:46-50 ) when Jesus was 12 years old with his parents in Jerusalem celebrating the Passover. His parents missed him when he was not present on the trip home from Jerusalem. Returning they found him in the Temple. The passage reads.

After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. [47] Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. [48] When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you."

[49] "Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" [50] But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

The emphasis on questions here is readily apparent. Jesus is listening to the scholars and asking them questions. The exchange between his mother and Jesus involves three questions. The questions raised by Jesus seems to put his mother to the test. His family relationships have been moved to his relationship with God as Father by way of a question. He has the rabbinical mind already where questions are a central feature.

Questions have always been important for my learning. I have been accused of asking too many questions.

There is more to the word question than meets the eye. A distraught grandfather came to the pastoral care office some weeks after his granddaughter had died of cancer. He wanted to talk about this. His first words after our introductions were, “I am not the religious one in our family. I always had too many questions.” I responded with a question, “And what do the first five letters of question spell?” He answer, “Quest.” I said, “That sounds like a very religious activity to me.” ... We then moved to the heart of his pain and sadness in the loss of his granddaughter.

I have a story about questions that illustrates the beginners mind. This is the story of Dr. Hans Selye who is known as the father of stress research. He gave us the name and he wrote the book Stress which explores this phenomenon from a biological perspective. The exception is chapter 5 entitled “An Attitude of Gratitude.” Gratitude generates an optimal amount of ACTH from the adrenal pituitary glands providing us with a sense of well being.

How did this come to be? It started with a question. The day the professor had four different patients in the ampitheater he came up with four different diagnosis. Selye watched. He talked to the professor later asking, “What was going on in the body that made them all look sick?” The professor told Selye if he wanted to get through medical school he would stop asking questions like that. He was still curious. He talked to his peers. They echoed the professors answer. 

Ten years later Selye was now in Montreal, Canada, working on some hormone research. His task was to go to the slaughter house and get pig nuts in the stainless steel bucket. Ever observant he noticed they were not all the same size. What is going on in the pigs that produce the smaller size? As a farm boy I knew he was talking about the runt of the liter. They were pushed out from getting food by their bigger brothers and sisters. The stress effected five glands of the pig. Stress has the same effects on the glands of humans.

Selye’s conclusion about questions, “Always ask the question no one else is asking.”

I had the privilege of being present with a small group who had lunch with Dr. Selye. I had a question for him. “I heard a former Dominican monk give a talk a few weeks ago, and he told stories just like you did this morning about your stress research.” He gave me the answer. “The Dominicans were my first teachers but I didn’t think they had any influence on my life.”

My question netted a copy of the prayer he wrote while facing the loneliness in doing stress research. His findings caused a change in medical thinking. The new findings were not readily accepted. 

His prayer was written in the form of a Lament Psalm. The Dominicans had more influence than he realized. My question led to a new insight for both of us.


Fr. Whitmer


Thursday, July 14, 2022

Called to be Story Listeners


Today we have the opportunity to live chapter 10 in Luke’s Gospel. I am sending you out to be story listeners.  From St. Paul’s letters we learn experience centered is where we live the Gospel. Luke 9 and 10 provides the Gospel experience of Being sent out.


In chapter 9 we learn it’s imperative to train the disciples to continue the ministry of Jesus. Jesus trains by sending them out to do healing. Therapeutic is the Greek word for healing. The word has been brought in to English as therapy.  


Strongs concordance

the root of "therapy" and "therapeutic," usually involves natural elements in the process of healing.] story listening is about as natural as you can get. I could document from various research findings the healing dimension of story listening,  another time and another place. 


What is clear to me, Luke the physician sees their mission as therapeutic beginning in the 9thchapter. The Greek word for healing appears 43 times in various forms in the New Testament. Updating to our time, Story listening is documented as a mode of healing.  As story listeners and disciples of Christ we will continue the reality of healing as the Kingdom of God continues to break into our experience. After sharing their story some may be in a new place with different feelings, meta noia in the Greek, new mind.


The Context for the Gospel readings the last three Sundays is from what some call a Farewell address as Jesus begins his Journey from Galilee to Jerusalem in be crucified and on the third day rise again. The first of his three announcements to the disciples appear at the end of chapter 9. Luke makes specific the conversation with Moses and Elijah in the story of the Transfiguration also in chapter 9, where they discuss his departure. His leaving makes their being sent out to continue his ministry imperative. His leaving also gives meaning to the affirmation of Mary as having the better part in the Mary Martha story.


The sending out of the 70 in chapter 10 begins with a briefing as in a military mission. My sermon today is a short briefing for your story listening mission. I have been training folks in various ways for story listening beginning in 1966.   


In the briefing Jesus sends us out as innocent and vulnerable. Lambs among wolves. We have no idea ahead of time what we will find. And we are to shed our familiar supports in order to be more open to what we will hear. But the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few.


The two stories that come next in chapter 10 can be linked together as the masculine and feminine models of caring, compassion, and listening. Listening continuously in the present is the main verb to describe how Mary listens. The Greek verb is in the present imperative.


The Good Samaritan story has an introduction that is essential to both readings, last Sunday The dialogue between the lawyer and Jesus has a central message. Relational is where life is centered. That is crucial. 


“Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” That is what is being lost and damaged in our present culture. How this came to be I don’t fully understand. The New York Columnist who has studied this and who writes about this doesn’t have the answer either. What he has been pursuing is how we recover the relational. Story listening is part of the recovery.


Recovery will be through the relational. Christ affirms this. Who is my neighbor? Jesus tells a story of a person wounded and in a ditch. Those who represent the authorities pass by. It is this rejected stranger who is the compassionate one. He goes further by involving the inn keeper. WE are witnesses to healing as well as collaboration. The story ends with Go and Do in the present imperative, Go and Do likewise continuously.   This is a fixit story which we can say is more masculine although we all have both characteristics within us.  


There were more women in the Befriender training and story listening group. More men came later And the training was more of a challenge. The Mary model of listening, staying with the story without fixing, was a transformation for both men and women. A doctor who became a Befriender probably said it best. “When I was a doctor I knew what I would say when I walked into the room, As a befriender I would find out what I would say.”


Let’s talk a little bit about Mary and Martha in todays Gospel. What did Jesus and Mary talk about.? Luke the physician doesn’t tell us what he wrote in the physician’s chart. I have a guess after being a hospital chaplain. He shared his preparing to die. Mary Listened and That was the better part. Mary by listening without trying to fix anything gave Jesus a healing experience as in the Transfiguration. And Martha’s part is affirmed for fixing the food in the midst of her distractions. Jesus makes it clear as to what he needed…. Someone to just listen.

How often have you heard, "thanks for listening." I heard it this week. It helps to tell the story. 


I like to say I help folks know what they already know but didn’t know they knew. What is unconscious is being made conscious. We were once deaf in our understanding but now we can talk about a life-giving experience through story listening. 


Heart to heart conversations have been documented in the scientific studies by James Lynch. The counselor and counselee were recorded with attached heart monitors. After transcribing the conversation and marking where they were really communicating Their heart rhythms fell In sync with each other at the places marked.


I will close with a story form a workshop on Luke 10 that involved two Sunday afternoon sessions. The story comes from the second session.


A man had taken his friend to the doctor’s office. On the way home the friend said, “I don’t think I have long to live.” The man said in response, “Don’t talk that way.” And then after some reflection remembering the workshop of Luke Gospel, chapter 10,  “I think I walked by on the other side.” He moved the Samaritan story to his own story. I said “you have made a good beginning. You can go back to your friend and say,  ‘the other day when you said you didn’t have long to live, can you tell me what you meant?’ Then you can move to the Mary model to stay with the story. No fixing. Listening in the present.”













Wednesday, February 9, 2022

The Psychological Autopsy and the Unvaccinated

Psychological Autopsy is the title of number 4 of a monogram series. Written by Avery Wieseman and Robert Kastenbaum and published in 1963, we are going back a few years. Both are remembered for their work in researching grief. I heard both years ago at grief seminars. 

I was nine years into my experience as a full-time chaplain and I had already begun to train lay people as story listeners in the hospital. We were to find that grief stories in some form provided the main category of stories heard by the Befrienders. We started a grief resource group in January 1975 to study grief in its many aspects. Then in 1976 we started a grief recovery group which went through many different phases before I retired in 1992. Genesis Hospital has since closed the grief recovery program. 


I came across this book in 1971 on a Clinical Pastoral Education sabbatical at the Alcohol Treatment Unit, the University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa. This was a very helpful learning experience providing deep insights into the issue of both addiction and idolatry in Scripture. Also how alcohol is used as a pain reliever in handling grief and losses of all kinds in the craving of being better, even perfect. 


The counselors at the Alcohol Treatment Unity talked about fractional suicide. Addictions take their toll on our life expectancy, lowering the years we live. And with Alcohol Addiction, the terminal face is either DT’s or Kidney failure. The terminal phase would be different for others. Smokers often have pulmonary obstructive lung disease and obese often have a diabetic condition with complications. The sources of the health problem are part of the psychological autopsy in answer to the question: when did they start to die.


Sometime after my reading of the Psychological Autopsy I had a situation in the hospital emergency room which was a classic example. A man working at the Rock Island Arsenal had a cardiac arrest. A young medical intern who was assigned to the Arsenal began procedures to resuscitate. He worked during the ambulance ride to the hospital and continued in the emergency room. The wife arrived and I spend some time hearing her side of the story. Her husband removed himself from relating to his family, even his wife, although they lived in the same house, eating and work was his only activity. 


I had a chance to visit with the young doctor after the wife left the hospital. I heard his lament about not being able to save this man’s life. I then shared with him the story I heard from the wife and the monogram on the psychological autopsy. The question was evident, when did this man begin to pull away from life and relationships. I do not have that story. What I have is the story of his dying process which began long before his cardiac arrest. Was his cardiac arrest part of a broken heart experience, loss of purpose and meaning, etc. We have questions without answers other than there is an in-depth way of studying our dying process: the psychological autopsy.


I know about this first hand. When the family farm was lost in 1938 under questionable legal circumstances followed by my father’s inability to get an automatic calf feeder on the market, he began to register a depression that became chronic and next, manifesting itself in a heart attack leading to an early death. There is a parallel in the broken heart syndrome. His unresolved grief did encourage me to facilitate a grief recovery group for 17 years to provide for others what he didn’t have himself. And this week the newspaper carried a large article on the broken heart syndrome listing various causative factors.


Moving fast forward to the pandemic and 2000-2002 with various mutations of the covid virus we have misinformation, excuses for resisting being vaccinate, anti science, no mandates, etc. all potential behaviors that can lead to death from the virus and can be registered under the psychological autopsy. 


An unvaccinated person may carry a hidden weapon, the virus, which can be he the cause of their death or others. And those who distort the best information we have at a given time as we continue learn more, this is a process, they may unintentionally or even intentionally contribute to a persons death. Example: my brother in law had a person he worked with buy into misinformation. He refused to be vaccinated He came down with the virus and went to the hospital where he died. I doubt if misinformation will be found on the death certificate. I doubt if the name of an unvaccinated person who spread the virus will be found on the death certificate. If you ask the question, when did this person start to die as posed by my understanding of the psychological autopsy, you have many contributing factors not identified. The reality of this dynamic requires a serious look in how you define freedom.


There is a forensic psychological autopsy professional for suicide. My niece is giving some consideration to studying for that profession.



Marlin Whitmer


Sunday, February 6, 2022

Correction: No light at the end of the tunnel

 Way back when the expression "light at the end of the tunnel" was actually read in more than one place to describe what was happening we were hopeful the worst was over. Now how long has it been. I have lost track of time in this timeless journey with the pandemic.

I have lost interest in tracking the metaphors. What has taken over as the virus has gone through various mutations is polarized society almost along political lines with other variations. Misinformation has been rampant. Anti-science has even evident. Court fights of mandates, masks, vaccinations, etc. have been evident. 

For myself at 91 years of age the last few years have been a self confinement. I haven't been out to California to see my family for three years and they haven't been here. Because my grandchildren here didn't want to be vaccinated we didn't meet.  Now they have had the virus so that is their excuse for no vaccination. They have all kinds of excuses.  I haven't seen them for some time. Texting and email and phone conversations have replaced face to face. The family did try Zoom a couple of times. I don't feel like much a grandparent when I look back on the relationship I had with my grandparents. 

The pandemic has made the grieving process different. The accumulation of loss and the various losses have generated the biblical laments for naming the pain. This is where metaphors come in now. They name the pain.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

The Emergence of Story Listening

My introduction to story listening came in the summer of 1953 in a Clinical Pastoral Training session at Bellevue Hospital, New York City. Fred Kuether was our supervisor. He gave us the experience of story listening by listening to  our stories and seeking to see how we were staying with the stories we were writing down in the verbatim of remembered conversations, one a week for 11 weeks.  

The dialogical approach was reinforced at the Virginia Theological Seminary where Ruel Howe introduced us to Martin Buber's I Thou approach. He lectured in a dialogical manner as the content of the class was a shared experience between professor and students. He later wrote a book on the Miracle of Dialogue.

After ordination I began practicing story listening in difference parishes. I finished my needed quarter of Clinical Pastoral Education in 1964 at Bellevue in order to be certified as a Hospital Chaplain. A couple summers before that I service as night chaplain at Bellevue to test my calling. 

In 1965 I became a full time chaplain at St. Luke's Hospital in Davenport, Iowa. Story listening was my focus as I made visits with hospital patients and staff.

I came across a book by Chad Sarah, The Samaritans, during those first years. The book is about his beginning a suicide prevention group in London. As they began to see people in emotional distress, the people would gather in the undercroth of the church waiting to visit a counselor. Lay people began serving tea and engaging in conversation. Then the professionals discovered they only needed to see half of those coming. As a result the lay people became a part of the program. Half the book was the story of their beginning and the second half was about the different emotions of the people who came. They were the same emotional dynamics of many of the hospital patients.

With the book as background a person came to my office with a request. Mavoreen said, "The Auxiliary rule is we are not to visit with patients when we take the notions cart around. I think patients want to visit, how can we change the rule." The change didn't happen over night. When I proposed to the Administrator training lay visitors I encounter resistance, "we're only concerned with what takes place within these four walls." Getting involved with folks not part of the medical community was overstepping.  At a later visit as I persisted he made a proposal. I would have to get permission from the Auxiliary, nursing service, and the medical staff. The Auxiliary said yes, nursing service said we will go with the doctors decision, and the medical staff of the doctors took over an hour to decide and then they made a decision not directly related to what we were about to do. The Sisters of Mercy visit patients and they aren't ordained. I know this since the secretary of the meeting told me some time later. After retiring he took the Befriender training.  He said later, "As a doctor I knew what I would say when I entered the room, as a Befriender I would find out."

To be continued.