Tuesday 20 March 2007

Being In the Right Place at the Right Time (Part 2 in a series of reflections on "Things That Really Matter”)

It’s a bit like trying to take a sip from a fire hose lately, so the fact that the "Joint Commission" survey comes this week on the heels of what I experienced last week would definitely be "par for the course!" (For readers who may not realize the significance of that statement, the JCAHO is a national hospital and health care accrediting agency which shows up unannounced for four-day top-to-bottom surveys about every three years. It puts everyone a bit on guard, working fastidiously to make sure all is running smoothly, that all documentation is up to speed, and the atmosphere is in a welcoming mode to the surveyors who will try to find anything that is not according to our own policies.)

Nevertheless, here are my reflections about some important recent experiences. I decided if I don’t take the time now to reflect on the meaning of all this, and try to integrate what’s been happening in spite of the fact that the JC has arrived, then I probably never will. (That has happened far too often before.) It’s vital for me to take the time out of a pressing schedule – as my own form of prayerful meditation and thanksgiving for God's clear leading in my life - in order to be better prepared, mentally and spiritually, for the next few days ahead. In the big scheme of things - especially for someone in my line of work - that is what really matters: to be very present, listening to what God wants to address in my own life, so that I can truly be present to the needs of others, and in the right place at the right time.

To recap just a bit, I conducted the funeral yesterday (Sunday) afternoon for the 22-year-old former National Guardsman who joined to go to college but got sent to Iraq, then spiraled down into a serious addiction as a bright young college student after coming back and having great difficulty assuage his guilt and shame and the ensuing PTSD. He had OD’d once before, at college, spent a month in an ICU near there, then some time in prison and then on probation for what he’d done, and got "clean" - or at least his parents thought so. Just as his probation was finishing up he apparently slid back down the slippery slope, and last Monday accidentally OD'd from a shot of heroin, dying in the bathroom of the home of an acquaintance he met at work.

His mother is an ICU nurse here, and a very good friend -- and I was at her side at home about 15 minutes after her husband called me from New Hampshire where he was traveling on business - in the right place at just the right time.

This young man really was not a druggie living in the streets and it was not who this bright young man really was -- that became very clear during the funeral. It was quite clear that he had no intention of taking his own life. It needs to be clearly understood that though he was not attempting to commit suicide - since he loved life and thrived on excitement - he was so bored at the job he had recently. His mistake was thinking he could handle heroin by himself and get away with it, but was severely addicted, obviously, to the incredible "high" heroin provides. And what a storm this created within his family!

First of all, his involvement in the war in Iraq (his signing up with the National Guard, though motivated for the education opportunities it would provide for him, was done over the objection of his parents) had created a storm within that could not be stilled. He made some very poor choices at points along the way, thinking he was smart enough to handle heroin himself without submitting to therapy or sticking with an inpatient 12-step program.

This young man has a wonderful highly-educated and very involved extended family that gathered from all parts of the country this past weekend. I had already spent a couple batches of time last week, including quite a stretch last Thursday evening one-on-one with his mother and father and various members of his immediate family (he was the oldest of five children all fairly close in age to each other) followed by some group time reflecting on the tone and content of the funeral service on Sunday, sketching out some plans and possibilities for the flow of the service together.

I would be getting up very early - at 5:00 am the next morning (Friday) actually - to help drive a mini-bus loaded with Goshen College students headed to Washington D.C. to attend a special worship service that evening at the National Cathedral and a subsequent march to the White House as part of the
Christian Peace Witness for Iraq.

This particular Christian public witness was timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. Planned by some thirty-five Protestant and Catholic peace organizations and denominational leaders, which have been working in partnership since last fall, these groups have all been coming together around five basic affirmations, which are, in brief: (1) End the U.S. Occupation (a prophetic word), (2) Support Our Troops (a pastoral word), (3) Fund an international effort to rebuild Iraq (a word of moral obligation), (4) Say NO to Torture, and (5) Say YES to Justice (especially concerning poverty issues in the U.S.)

I had interpreted this event's meaning and purpose to this young man's mother when with her one-to-one earlier in the week, so they could understand why I would not be available to conduct the funeral on Friday or Saturday, but I didn't know how the whole family would take it at the time I shared that. Now, as I was with the family as a whole, and several of them indicated their support of such a thing, I felt heartened by this unusual juxtaposition of events and the timing of it all. Though my plans were already set, beyond my own personal interest, I felt now I could also go as a representative of this Guardsman's grieving family with a heightened sense of personal mission in the endeavor. Once again, I was definitely going to be in the right place at the right time - and there simply is no better "place" for a chaplain to be!

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