To believe

January 23rd, 2007 by Michael Davis

This message was given at the Christmas service at the hospital where I am chaplain on the Thursday and Friday before Christmas.

Recently, I have been reading a book by Jewish theologian Carol Ochs. In this book she writes about the idea that we all learn much about God from the threads and meanderings of our life stories. I think her point is true. Many who come into this building day in and day out enter in fear and apprehension, and leave feeling like people really cared for them and that they have a new chance at living life.

In several traditions, worshipers prepare to make pilgrimages throughout their lives to holy places. From the time they are small children they plan their lives around this pilgrimage, this experience. Though they may have other concerns throughout life, the thought of making such a trip fills their thoughts and life. It is in this preparation that they come to understand that their lives have a deeper and greater purpose. It is in this preparation that they and their children feel the intervention of God into the world.

Similarly, in the Jewish tradition, Chanukah or the Festival of Lights, we are reminded of the miracle of God’s presence. Powerful king Antiochus Epiphanes sent out 40,000 of his soldiers to destroy the Jewish people, the Maccabees. The Maccabees, willing to lose their lives to preserve themselves and their Temple, won a mighty battle against Antiochus’ armies. After retaking the Temple in Jerusalem and fashioning a new altar, the Maccabees made a new Menorah. Unfortunately, there was only enough oil for one night – and only one night. But, the second night, beyond comprehension, they were able to light the candle again… and again the next night…and the following night – until eight nights were past – a miracle! And so it was that the Festival of Lights was born. It was a reminder that God was with His People. In Chanukah, God breaks in through history, when life is hard, when it is troubling, when His people need a sign, and He gives them just what they need. He reminds them that He has not forsaken them.

In the Nativity Story, there appears in the most unexpected of places the Son of God. He adorns, of all places a manger. It’s with a brilliant light that the angel announces the birth of Christ to the shepherds. Marcilio Ficino spoke of the bright star that stood out over Bethlehem as an angel so consumed by the need to direct the Magi to the place of Jesus’ birth, that the angel forcibly coalesced itself into the form of a bright star. The name of the child born that day is “Immanuel” or “God with us.” God breaks through the human story in the most unanticipated way to show us that He is present and cares. The Christ Child, the Son of God, draws the attention of kings, shepherds, carpenters - every kind, and class, and gender of person there is - to worship.

So in our own lives, we have experienced moments where God has broken into our story - taking the rawness of everyday humanity, with its doubts, confusions and fears - and making them the curriculum of healing, growth and change. And, as it did so many years ago, God’s ability to make our brokenness an experience of utter wonder, healing, and surprise brings forth the only response that it can – worship and amazement. So often, those transformational experiences arise from two sources: Occasions and Others.

There have been many experiences that have utterly changed me, as I’m sure there have been that have changed you. The birth of a child forever changes us. Changes that occur in our families alter us in ways that may shake us to our very core. Some of those changes remind us that God is with us. Others cause us to wonder where God is? Hardly a day goes by that some patient doesn’t tearfully speak of God’s faithfulness to them in the past and their trust in Him for the procedure that day. Hardly a day goes by that a patient doesn’t confess their wonder about God’s caring for them. The very act of wondering where God is in their situation says that they believe but they’re just trying to make sense of their confusion.

Many of us learned about comfort and nurture from a mom who put Vick’s Vap-O-Rub on our chest when we had a cold. We learned that even a hard and cold dad, who seemed far away from us, would have moments when he would find some place in his heart for fathering and would take us to the zoo and buy us popcorn. We learned awe and wonder when we saw a shooting star in a winter’s cold in the midst of a deeply dark night. We learned that there were things that were ever so much bigger than us when we saw Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. Mentally, I collapsed in amazement the first time I saw our Electrophysiology Labs do a cardiac ablation. I still get tears in my eyes when I see the folks in our Cath Lab open up a patient’s clogged vessels and bring relief to him or her.

And then there are the people, the Others that I spoke of, who make a difference in our lives, who speak to us of realities greater than ourselves. I had spent twelve years in hospice and was perfectly prepared to spend the rest of my career working there. When I came here, it felt like a humongous risk. But, there were moments that said, “You’re in the right place, Mike.” One of those moments was when I saw one of our techs place his hands gently on a patient’s shoulders and reassure the patient prior to his surgery. So many other individuals in my life have taught me about God, have brought me to a personal manger where I found myself worshipping. One is my son. One is my wife. My parents and their sacrifices made my work, life and ministry possible. There are many, many others, some of whom were a direct cause for my presence here today as a chaplain. I wonder who it is in your life that taught you about God, about grace, about love, about goodness? Can you thank them now, as you, yourself kneel in a spiritual sense, at the brink of Christmas?

During this time of year, it’s easy to confuse the symbols for the meaning. We’re tempted to abandon the symbols. I think that would be a mistake. The call is to use the symbols of this Season as an arrow to Heaven, as the Star of Bethlehem as it were, to give thanks and gratitude for all that we have been given.

Are we there yet…?

November 4th, 2006 by Michael Davis

As a youngster, our family traveled often and occasionally for long periods of time. My dad worked in the Federal government and he got immense amounts of time off (or so it seemed). He would save up a lot of that time and every three years we’d take an extended vacation. I remember while traveling as a kid that I was continually asking, “Are we there yet?” I suffered for asking that question. By the fifth hour of the trip my parents were ready to drop me off at the nearest Stuckees (remember Stuckees?). “Yeah , Mike, this is where we we’re going (winking at each other). Now you run in to the boy’s room and we’ll be right here when you get out.”

They didn’t really do that. They were good parents. But, I’m sure they felt like it. It’s funny how the gifts that we give to our folks are given back to us, years later. Now, when we’re all watching a movie, Justin frequently asks what amounts to, “How’s the movie end, Dad?” It’s really the same question I asked years ago: “Are we there yet?”

It’s human nature to define our lives as though it is a story: Beginning, Middle, and End. It’s a human need to try to make sense of where we are in the process of life, how far we are away from the terminus, and how it will all work out. As I give my son a hard time for asking how the movie ends, I realize that even now, at my age, I often ask, “Are we there yet?”

I see my son growing up, and myself growing older. I see my Dear Dad saying Goodbye in some significant ways. It brings tears to my eyes. I wonder how the story will end. “Are we there yet?”

I wonder if I will live to see my son graduate from High School? From college? Get married? Have a child or two? Will he pilot a plane in some future war? Will he serve in our country’s military (actually, he’s already in Jr. ROTC and in the Civil Air Patrol at age fifteen). I’m very proud of all he’s doing. But I’m also wary of it. Scared, in my own way.

I spent the last several months awaiting a recent trip to my parents. When we planned it, it seemed so far away. But, as is common within the slippery walls of time, the trip was here and over before I knew it. Somewhere during our time there, it occurred to me that at the rate we are able to see my folks, and at the rate that things are changing for my dad, the time I have with him is very limited.

Suddenly, Are we there yet is no longer being four hundred and eighty miles away from my grandfather’s home at eight years of age. It’s driving down Indiana Avenue in Salt Lake and nearing his front door. Suddenly, we’re ringing his bell.
And, suddenly, we are all older. We take a deep breath, we sleep a little longer, and the childhood vacation is over, school is starting up again, we have new teachers, we’re saying goodbye.

Fall induces some sorrow in me. It is, very existentially, a way of saying, “There’s no more point in asking are we there yet?” Summer’s already come and gone. Some important part of life is over.

I arise early in the mornings to go to the hospital - about four. At that hour, the stars are often breathtaking. I’m picking out more constellations these days. I never had the time to do that as a child. I let Jeffie and Jillie do their business. I tell Jillie to hurry it up. She continues to walk around in circles, telling me in her own way that “We’re not there yet - and I’m going to take my time getting there.” I observe their positioning and make sure they get they’re work done. I rub their heads and they nuzzle me back affectionately. The stars don’t care about me being there. I’m nothing really, in the world. This mystery - that we all feel ourselves to be so much a part of the story - yet we are a less than a drop in the proverbial bucket - amazes me and captures my fascination. All around me, new stars are being born, old stars are collapsing in on themselves. I can look above and not even begin to count the stars. How can I complain about the passing of time and life? It is the way of all things. Who am I to complain? Maybe the baleful cry of whales is an appropriate anthem for such mysteries?

As a new hospital chaplain some fifteen years ago, I covered the hospital deep nights on the weekends. I remember the fall nights then, as well. Some nights I would care for three or four families who had a loved one dying. The heart was heavy. When it came time to leave, I had to pass over a skywalk. But before I did, on those nights when I had a lot of deaths, I would pass the nursery and see all the newborns. Then I’d walk over the skywalk. The sun was just coming up with it’s beautiful copper and azure tints just popping over the curvature of earth. Somehow, it brought peace, and a short half-hour later, gentle sleep, knowing that as some folks were leaving, others were joining us. I hoped that in the coming and going, both would find peace and happiness.

“Are we there yet?” We’re always there - we often just don’t realize it, or take advantage of it.

On my son’s first flight

September 16th, 2006 by Michael Davis

Today, my fifteen year old son who is in the Civil Air Patrol, Black Sheep Squadron, rode in a small plane for the first time. He even flew the plane for a good while on each flight (he took two flights). He has learned so much since he started in the Civil Air Patrol, just about three months ago. He has grown as a person amazingly in the past three months since he started. I almost thought I would burst with pride when I saw him take off today. I thought I would share with each of you my joy at what he is turning into. And, maybe, it will be of some small help to you, dear reader. Learn more here about the incredible work of the Civil Air Patrol. There follows a letter to my son on this very special occasion.

Dear Justin:

I wanted to write you to congratulate you on your flights today.

Seeing you get in the plane, taxi away, and take off was one of the most exciting times in my adult life . Then to see you landing was awesome. That you were able to fly a plane at fifteen years of age was amazing, simply amazing. Sometimes, it seems while we’re growing up that we’re just marking time, waiting for something fun and exciting to do. And, the things that so many folks find fun and exciting only lead to sorrow and emptiness at the end.

But, in choosing to go in the path you are taking, you are choosing a better way, one that will open untold possibilities to you for your entire future, your entire life. Yes, even the choices you made today will have consequences in thought and in well-being. And, I believe you will have more fun - good fun - than you possibly could have imagined.

Today, you learned that by thinking about things in the right way, you can overcome obstacles that others might consider impossible. For thousands of years, people have watched birds fly and have longed to do the same themselves. What they failed to understand was that flight was logical, and indeed, easy, if only one knew the laws of flight and how to use them. Today, you did what humans for thousands of years felt was impossible. It is sometimes possible to do what we think is impossible.

You can take that principle far into your life - most of life is finding the way to think about something and then acting upon what you learn.

But, more importantly, life asks of all of us to give it our best try, to enjoy it, to learn each day, and to have good, clean fun. You’ve done al lot of that and more in the past several months. You’ve always made me proud but sometimes in the past months I’ve felt so happy with you that I thought I was going to bust.

As I see you embrace life, as I see you fly in your way, a very good way, I feel very, very proud of you.

I hope you know that this is true.

Good job, Justin! Good job!

Walking into the dark

July 2nd, 2006 by Michael Davis

Sometimes, you just have to move forward. When you’ve gotten all the information you can reasonably get and have chosen the most moral path you can, you may have no choice other than to move forward. Those were similar to the words of my father, who, when I brought home my first report card in private school - three F’s, two D’s and a C - asked me a simple question, “Did you try as hard as you could? If you did I don’t have a problem.” That semester I did try as best I could - thereafter my efforts might have been more debatable - but that semester they were wholehearted. His words have stayed with me since that day. I still, though, have lots of guilt about decisions. That guilt sometimes paralyzes my ability to make decisions.

Last fall, after nearly twelve years of working for Vitas Healthcare Corporation, the United States’ largest hospice provider, I began to get tired. Too many losses. It was taking longer and longer to recover after each loss. Still, I loved hospice care deeply. I felt that as long as I took care of myself and kept a clear eye on the things I value in life (my wife and son, and all of my family), I would be okay and could keep going in that career until I chose to draw my working life to a close.

Along the way, a dear friend told me about a job at the hospital where I did my clinical training as a chaplain. I thought it was a long shot, but threw my hat in the ring via my resume. I didn’t hear anything for the longest time. Then, around this time last year, I got the opportunity to interview. As I interviewed and the doors began to open, I became more and more fearful. I loved what I was doing. And the hospital I was going to was very different from anything I had done in nearly twelve years. Did I give up nearly six weeks of vacation, over a month off, for something that would require a great deal more work and would be something I hadn’t done for some years? “Life is really good now. I could die happily doing what I do. Why should I do something else? Why, indeed. Maybe it’s time to step out of that circle that you’ve made for yourself and grow a little bit.” Like Smeagol/Gollum in The Lord of the Rings I had those kinds of conversations and counter-conversations going through my head. The thought of leaving the team, job, hospice patients and people I had come to love paralyzed me.

You know how sometimes the smallest thing will reboot your mind into doing better thinking? Well, I had just such an occurrence. I was taking the trash into the garage very late in the evening. To save energy, having left the interior garage light on repeatedly through the nights, I had installed an infrared light sensor that automatically turned the light on and off when it sensed someone entering. At that time it was pretty new. As I walked into the garage, the light was off. Because of the position of the switch, I knew that I needed to walk forward in order to turn it on. It would take a couple of steps into the dark in order to be able to see the light come on.

How often is that true in our lives? I had every reason to believe it would be alright - I had installed a light that would do exactly what that light did. But, I had to trust and to move forward, until it came clear. So many of us teeter on the brink of making decisions that we know will take us in good directions but we don’t simply because we’re entering into someplace that’s dark. It’s been that way for me a few times in my life. Sometimes, either decision I would have made would have been right. But, I needed to move forward just to see what lay ahead.

Having been at my new hospital for half a year now, I’m grateful for that simple lesson in that dark garage - sometimes, you just have to walk forward into the dark before the light comes on. My decision to make my move has served me well and helped me find a renewed vision for my life. As I think back to that late evening epiphany, I feel that I need to share that simple truth - having the best information you can gather, having collected wise counsel, having taken a moral heart, if you feel the tug of a direction in which you ought to go, trust yourself and God to lead you in good directions. You have done the best you can.

Of faith and feathers…

February 26th, 2006 by Michael Davis
Tonight, Barb and I saw once again the movie, “Forrest Gump.” I have used it for years in the grief and loss seminars that I have done for long term care workers. It always leaves me in tears much as it did the first time I saw it, shortly after it came out. Indeed, I remember the day I saw it as though it was yesterday. As soon as I got in my car, I began to cry heaving sobs. Many major life changes occurred after that day, some of the hardest in my life.I have tried to understand all that those tears meant. I don’t think I have yet plumbed them. But, I think I have some idea. I feel under no illusion that I am anything othe than the most simple and basic person. When Forrest, simpleton Forrest, sees his son for the first time, he is overcome with fear that his son is “not smart” like him. All through the movie, he wants and gives only simple love: “Stupid is as stupid does.”Most importantly, he wants only true love, loving Jenny, through her childhood abuse, her painful betrayals of his love, and ultimately her death. He loves Leutenant Dan and his fallen soldier friend, Bubba, another simpleton who also is a shrimper.The thread winding it’s way through the movie is the idea that chance and purpose are the handiwork of God. The movie begins and ends with an ‘errant
feather’ floating on the breeze. The tears that ran down my face the first time I saw Forrest Gump and again last night were, I imagine, a prayer that love would find it’s place in this simpleton’s life,too.

Note to son: if you want to know what I think of you, watch Forrest when he meets his son.

Note to wife: You ARE the feather…

Things of Value

February 4th, 2006 by Michael Davis

Some things, you just love. When Barb and I were doing more seminars on death and dying, we had an exercise that we did with the participants in which they were asked to list five things in each of the following categories: Activities that they valued; Material possessions they valued; Relationships they valued; and, hmm, I forget the last category. At any rate, I’ve generally had very few material things that I could say that I deeply valued. There was my Apple Newton that I dropped at a hospital. I loved it.

I loved my Saturn SL1 which got 235,000 miles on it before it said goodbye. It didn’t even make it onto vehicle hospice - just died. I’ve loved some things my son got me, if for no other reason than he got them for me. Certainly some things Barb has gotten for me I have deeply cherished. But, few things have I really loved.

But, this past Fall, in celebration of my new job as chaplain at Baylor Jack and Jane Hamilton Heart and Vascular Hospital, Barb and I got a grandfather clock. Now when I was a small child, we would go to visit my Aunt Blanche and Uncle Seldon in New Haven, Connecticut. I was always struck by their grandfather clock. In some odd way, rather than keeping me up through the night, it aided my sleep. I admired the wide swath it’s figure cut in the dining room. It had a commanding presence.

When we saw Benjamin, as we named him, we knew there could be no other clock. I knew him, practically recognized him. For Barb, Benjamin brought remembrances of her dear woodworking father. Both of us were in tears the first tim we heard him chime.

I’m amazed by the solidness and the tenor, the deep earthiness of grandfather clocks. I know that I am anthropomorphizing here, but Benjamin seems to have an almost human quality to him. I am charmed by the idea that part of our life story abides in things: they are sometimes the who in who we are. In some very real sense, the grandfather clock stands watch over all the family events. It is the keeper of the tales, the inner lighthouse. It watches our Christmas dinner, our Valentines, the family engagements (Jennie and Joel!). Occasionally, it even closes its eyes when I snuggle with Barb.

Hopefully, it is gathering all the celebrations of our lives together somewhere in its rich wood. Indeed, it times them, alerting us to the passing of every quarter hour. It reminds us all through the night and all through the day that time is passing. It is a constant in what sometimes seems ever too turbulent. The pain we feel will pass. The love we feel must be savored, for it too will pass.

Every four days or so, it’s weights must be cranked up and reset for it to run another four days. It’s a lot like love in that respect. It demands attention - perhaps the better word is that it pleads for attention.

When we have long past, hopefully one of our kids or grandkids will have an interest in having it. Perhaps they will look at it and be reminded of a birthday many years ago. In truth, these item are the only real material items of value - the ones that carry a little piece of ourselves, a reminder of some day when life was good, when everyone we love was all gathered around, when all were happy. A day that was heaven - as much as can be on earth.

Is it wrong to love things in this way? Last weekend, Justin, Joel, Barb, Jennie and myself went to see the new movie, Roving Mars. It was a spectacular motion picture in the marvelous IMAX format. What was so amazing about the movie was that it humanized these rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Spirit, aptly named, is the rebellious little youngster always getting into trouble. The other, Opportunity, is Miss Perfect. Both of them are extensions of their creators. These creatures become images of their Creators.

Like the rovers, I take comfort in the things that extend the story that I have been part of. Perhaps the same is true for you? Maybe you take comfort in cooking pancakes and sausage when the kids come in from out of town. You drag out that old cast iron skillet, the same one your mom used, and in some way, though she is gone for some time now, she stands close beside you. She puts her hand on your shoulder and tells you, All is well. Moments later, as sleepy eyed grandkids make their way into the dining room, the grandfather clock, Benjamin, chimes eight times, and you know the day has begun and that your mom is right.