Tag Archives: Episcopal church

The Sacrament of the Smile….Making it Real

In Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mystery “The Archbishop in Andalusia” the character Bishop Blackie makes a comment after celebrating Mass in the cathedral at Seville. He said “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

I’m the kind of person that if I’m angry or not doing well my face can show it even if I don’t want it to.  It’s sometimes hard to hide emotions even though I try, but I have gotten pretty good at hiding them by putting on a poker face and smiling, even if it hurts to do so.   This works most of the time, but sometimes with people who know me pretty well it catch me.  They ask me if I’m doing okay and they are pretty good at taking care of me in those moments, which unfortunately are a lot more common after Iraq than before it but occasionally happen.

However on the whole I remain a pretty upbeat person.  I think my most common greeting with people that I work with or see relatively often is “Hey, what’s up, what’s new, what’s happening in the world?” Most of the time I’m a pretty laid back kind of person. I think that this is due a blend of genetics from a recessive gene in my family as well as having grown up on the West Coast and spending a lot of my adult life somewhere in the former Confederate States of America.   The genetic factor has to be a recessive gene as a lot of folks in my family can get spun up and pretty serious pretty fast.

Since being upbeat unless I am downcast is the baseline for me, even with my PTSD I find a lot of humor in life and still manage to have fun.  I love the folks that I work with in my ICUs and being in those places with those colleagues does me an incredible amount of good.

One thing that I have noticed is that it is important for me to smile; in fact I generally like smiling except when I don’t.   I admit that there are some times and some people that I am like the scene in the movie Patton where Patton is forced to make conversation with a Soviet General after the war.  In those kinds of times the smile is definitely faked and thankfully most people don’t realize it.

However what I find is that many people respond positively to a genuine and caring smile and greeting.  Let’s face it times are not the best, all the economic problems and political conflict coupled with ongoing wars and wondering what is going to happen stress a lot of people out.  A lot of this is the news media’s fault as they heap one negative story after another on their viewers, particularly those who are addicted to 24 hour non-stop cable news and talk radio.  As a result it is amazing to see the number of people out in town who don’t smile.  Since I work in a pretty good sized teaching medical center I see people going through a lot of health and life crisis, but even here I don’t quite see the level of disgruntledness that I see out in town.  Frankly I’d like to see a lot more gruntled than disgruntled people.

In the past year that I have been here I have endeavored to be as positive and cheerful as possible and with some exceptions I have managed pretty well.  In fact I have made it my crusade to honestly try to greet everyone that I contact with a kind word or smile and often a God bless you or simply “blessings on your head.” What I love to see is someone who has been obviously beaten down; do a double take when they realize that someone; that being me, is taking the time to say something nice to them.  I love the sheepish smiles, the surprised thank you and God bless you responses that I get in return.

No place is this more important than church or chapel service when I or for that matter any Priest or minister serves God’s people.  Grumpy pastors, who are too bothered to care, perform their duties in a perfunctory manner or worse are rude and disrespectful to the people that God entrusts to their care  do damage.  It’s like Archbishop Blackie said, the encounters that we have are occasions to share the grace and love of God, to be with them, care for them and are in a very real sense both evangelical and sacramental occasions.  When I was in Jacksonville Florida as a Navy Chaplain I would occasionally serve at the altar of our cathedral church.  People would almost always comment on how joyful I looked while celebrating Eucharist and serving communion.  How can I not be when I am entrusted with such a great gift for God’s people?

Judy and my college room-mate Kendra is in town this week.  We had kind of a three’s company situation.  I had my men’s bedroom which was a total college guy mess and Judy and Kendra shared the other bedroom.  At the time Kendra was an Atheist being bombarded by many of our well meaning but hyper aggressive Christian friends.  We had a blast.  Kendra is like super duper deaf, lost all of her hearing at the age of four after she had learned to speak and read. She’s incredibly intelligent and as a 15 year old scored in the upper one percentile of the SAT where I not to be too flashy scored somewhere around the upper thirty-fifth percentile due to my abysmal math score. It was due to Kendra that I learned sign language.  All of Judy’s friends were deaf at Cal State Northridge and I needed it, but Kendra and her sense of humor helped make me do it.  When I first met her Judy had to run out and when Judy came back to her dorm room, this was before the three’s company” set up she found Kendra and I reading the “Official Sick Joke Book” and since I couldn’t sign just yet pointing to the jokes and laughing.  Anyway, Kendra eventually came to faith and joined the Episcopal Church in Pasadena just a few years back.  In her spiritual biography she mentions us not trying to convert her, even going to church with us without feeling pressure. She knew that we cared for her and our continued friendship was a part of how she came to faith.  I thought that was so cool.  My sign language is in the crapper now but I am going to do my best to have fun.  I picked up a copy of “Mommy Dearest” so we could watch it and relive great memories of chasing each other around the apartment with wire coat hangers saying “no more wire hangers.” Trust me you have to see the movie to get this one.

Of course I try to ensure that I don’t appear to be a total idiot when I do this, with some mindless smile or joke that is inappropriate to the occasion.  Let’s look at a unlikely scenario: With me in the room the Doctor says to the patient “Sir, I have good and bad news.”   The patient says “What’s the good news?” The doctor replies “the good news is pretty soon you will feel no pain.”  The patient says “Doctor that’s wonderful news, you know I’ve been in so much pain for so long.  So what’s the bad news?” The doctor replies “Son you’re going to die.” Then I as the chaplain with a mindless big grin on my face chime in, “Let’s focus on the positive now…have you seen The Bucket list? Gotta love Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman huh? They are such good actors.  Hey, I have an idea, you want to pray?”  As the nurses and doctors struggle to pull the man’s hands from around my throat I gasp out “so do you want me to come back later?”  That of course is extremely unlikely in my case; in fact I usually am the glass half-full kind of guy when it comes to dealing with sick people since I am neither a physician nor God.

I have a sense of gallows humor but am very careful how and when to use it and thankfully I am able to not smile like an idiot when bad news gets delivered.   It’s a gift.  Let’s face it there is that stuff about those Chinese kids Yin and Yang, everything has to be in balance.

All this being said there are times where the foot is in the other shoe. These are the times that the person who is afflicted with a life threatening condition or knows that they are dying is the one who smiles and comforts others, even throwing in a joke or poking fun at someone in the room.  Having experienced this even very recently I have to say that these kinds of folks do more for me than I think that I can ever do for them.   Often there is a time of interaction where the person allows me into their world, to share a story, a laugh and a blessing.  For a Priest it doesn’t get any better than that.  These are holy times where God shows up and tonight I have the honor of spending time with such a man and his family.  I am reminded at these times how precious the time is and just how in the midst of pain, suffering and even death, that the God who says “I will never leave you or forsake you” is truly with us as we walk through the “valley of the shadow of death.”

I’ll be smiling tonight in every ward that I visit and hopefully with every staff member, patient and family member that I encounter, knowing that in their lives, that smile might be the only good thing that happens to them all day, or maybe even all week.

Make sure that you smile and give a kind word to someone soon.


Padre Steve+


Filed under healthcare, Pastoral Care, philosophy

Lenten Journal: Passion Sunday

Lent has been interesting this year.  I did a number of things different. First off I decided that I would try to be happy and not morose.  It seemed to have worked, with few exceptions my mood has definitely been better.

This year I decided to be less concerned with the physical and dietary aspects of Lent.  I actually needed to do this this year. Physically and emotionally I was not as good off as I have been in years past.  As far as Lent was concerned, I had become a slave to the season. Lent had become something to be endured, not enjoyed. Where in the past I would have done things out of a legalistic mindset and obeyed simply because it was written, I did not this year.  This meant I occasionally got a bit of meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. But again, this was not because I was simply defying the rules, I can do that well if I need to, after all I’m a Myers Briggs INTJ, rules need not always apply if they are not helpful.   But I had to do this now, because I had, like the Pharisees before me put the observance of the rules higher than my relationship with Jesus.

Spiritually, because of my emotional state I decided to let go of the daily office for Lent, and Lent only. I will be going back to it on Easter Sunday.  What had happened was that in my rigid adherence to doing it I was grinding myself down to spiritual dust.  I was not reflecting on the Gospels or other readings, I was just doing them.  I was spiritually exhausted. Prayer was becoming forced and rote. I knew that if I continued in this manner I would not be any good for anyone.  Instead of this I simply began to pray on my way to work, and my way home and when I went to bed.  I never prayed for me except in regard to being able to care for others. Sometimes an Our Father, or a Hail Mary, maybe a recitation of a couple of decades of the Rosary, maybe extemporaneous intercessions for people that I know.  Sometimes just a simple thank you to God, after all She does deserve to be thanked at least once in a while.

As far as prayer goes and seeing answers, I guess I am a bad fit in a “Charismatic” church.  I believe that God can heal people. But there were many times early in my hospital ministry that most of the people that I prayed for died.  Talk about having a complex….When I was asked if I would pray for someone I would hesitate.  I would sometimes want to ask  “Are you really sure that you want me to do this?”  Today, working in ICUs and critical care I approach prayer from a glass half-empty or there is something wrong with the glass point of view.  I am not a Pollyanna type of person.  Somewhat jaded, I can be like the Chaplain version of House MD. Yet at the same time I’ve been surprised by Her grace during this Lent.  Things that jaded ICU attending physicians and I but can only chalk up to something really unusual. Possibly even miraculous and maybe even done by the Deity Herself.  Thus this Lenten season has been marked with spiritual surprises.

Instead of beating myself to death to observe rules that were forced on us when it became easy to be a Christian following Constantine (See an earlier Lenten post here), this Lent I decided the Lent let the Deity work Her grace in me.  I decided to get out more and take part more in the life of a local parish. This has been hard since we moved here. I travelled a lot in connection with my assignments and after Iraq I got really wierd about being in crowds of people and really sensitive to noise and light. My wife belongs to a really cool Roman Catholic parish near us, but since Iraq it is just too much for me.  It is big and like I said,  large crowds of people that I don’t know, often unfamiliar worship music and too much exposure to noise and light really get to me. That’s the damned thing about PTSD, it makes simple stuff hard. I used to go to mega-churches, and now the bigger the church the scarier for me.  So I met a wonderful Episcopal Priest, Fr John,  over at the hospital who is the Rector of Saint James Church in Portsmouth.  We became friends. He invited me and I decided to to crawl out of my protective shell that I have lived inside spiritually since Iraq.  The Church is historic, it is the African American church, many of the parishioners had ancestors that were slaves, or who were themselves part of the civil rights movement. Many are prominent in the life of the city. These folks love Jesus and a lot are connected in some way with the military.  The church itself is not large, but is caring and involved in the life of the community.  The Gospel is proclaimed in word and deed.    Since my small denomination has nothing anywhere near me, this has become my local home and I hope to grow in community with these wonderful people of God over the coming years.

Today of course was Passion Sunday. We began with the Liturgy of the Palms outside the church and moved inside singing as we went.  There is nothing like a “high church” primarily African American Episcopal choir that can do both traditional and majestic hymns as well as spirituals and Gospel.  We followed with the Liturgy of the Passion followed by Eucharist.  The service cemented some things that God has been doing in me since I came back from Iraq, and what God has been working in me this season.

I hope that as I celebrate Maunday Thursday and Good Friday services at the Medical Center that God will continue that work in me, and hopefully in some way touch others with Her grace.  For once I am really looking forward with anticipation to Holy Week, for I am not alone.

Peace, Steve+

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Filed under PTSD, Religion