Life, Love and Loss

by Eric Bonetti

As we celebrate the holidays, we often think of those we love, those we've lost, and of the successes and failures of the past year. But how often do we think of these issues in their larger context? Do we recognize that change is an essential component of growth? That loss is an intrinsic part of love?

I've had some occasion to think about these issues over the past year. Last February, I left a job that I very much loved; I deeply mourned its passing.

The job was with a small non-profit that provides affordable housing to persons in need, with an emphasis on persons with disabilities. The position was, itself, a bit of a surprise, as I had neither sought the opportunity, nor ever paid much attention to the issues relevant to the job. Instead, the job found me.

Within days of starting at the job, I discovered that I had a passion for serving those in need. The hours were long, the work hard, and the pay adequate, at best. But the chance to serve others made the long hours not just tolerable, but very much enjoyable.

After leaving the job, I spent some time regrouping, unwinding, and catching my breath. But as I began my job search, it quickly became apparent that few non-profits were hiring, particularly for the sort of senior position that I was seeking.

My response was to begin informational interviewing. In a series of meetings with dozens of colleagues, friends, peers, and mentors, there was one consistent response: "Have you considered sales? You'd probably really like that."

As a result, I took and passed the real estate exam here in Virginia. Since then, I've joined a residential real estate brokerage, and have so far very much enjoyed selling real estate. Even prospecting -- a task many agents regard as, at best, a necessary evil -- has been tremendous fun.

At the same time, there've been the predictable moments of self doubt: "Am I going to be successful? Is this the right job for me?" Overall, those moments have been few and far between, but they've certainly been there, and times like these can rattle even the most confident among us, particularly after a painful separation from a previous job.
Things came into perspective, however, on my very first transaction. While I can't share the details, the situation involved someone at high risk of homelessness, and circumstances where my experience with related issues proved very helpful. Indeed, one person involved in the transaction indicated that most realtors had been far from helpful.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but I think not.

Of all the hundreds of transactions that occur every year in my office, many of them for high-end homes, what were the chances of stumbling on someone whose needs so closely aligned with my past experiences? Or that one of the dozens of other agents in the office wouldn't quickly snag the opportunity?

Clearly, something was at work here, and it became apparent that my change of jobs was not really a closing of one door, but the opening of another.

The Romans recognized the hand of the divine in such situations through the god Janus. Typically depicted as having both forward- and backward-looking faces, Janus was the god of change and transition, the guardian of doorways, the middle road between barbarianism and civilization. As such, some scholars assert that Janus was among the most powerful of the gods, commonly invoked along with the mighty Jupiter.

A Christians, I suspect we often give short shrift to change as an aspect of the divine. We understand God to be at work in our lives through though the Holy Spirit, but we fail to appreciate change and loss as being both signs of the divine, and in many cases of being sacred in and of themselves.

Instead, we succumb to the all too human tendency to view loss as something inherently and regrettably painful. Pain in turn in seen as something to be avoided whenever possible--as something with almost evil qualities.

In doing so, we lose sight of history as grounded in the resurrection. While we view history as linear, we often see loss and death as the end, versus as a new beginning. We forget that many of the very same qualities that the Romans venerated in the person of Janus are present in our God, our theology, and our understanding of our role in the larger world.

At the same time, our understanding of the divine is one that, through the death on the cross, looks to transform evil to good. Unlike Janus, whose temple doors were closed in those rare times of peace and opened in times of war, and for whom war and destruction was an integral part of life, our God works to transform evil into good, death into life, and loss into renewal.

As I look back over the past several years, I now see that many events in my life, seemingly random at the time, were in fact part of a larger, carefully constructed pattern. I'm also impressed by just how often I have failed to see this pattern, but just blundered along, oblivious to any larger context or meaning.

How many times have you seen the hand of the divine present in your life, but visible only after the fact? How many times have the random events of life proved, in retrospect, to have been parts of a well-ordered plan? And how many times have painful losses been the path forward to a resurrection and a new beginning?

Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.

Stress and the striving Christian

By Marshall Scott

Well, the summer is over, and with it another summer unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), as well as another year-long CPE residency. One set of students has left, and another is arriving, beginning, in this case, another year-long commitment. (Students with shorter commitments will come in their appropriate times.)

I know my colleagues, the Supervisors (teaching chaplains) of the program, are hopeful that the new students will do well. That means in part providing good care for patients, as well as interacting well with one another. It means being attentive to their learning opportunities, whether through clinical experiences or more academic activities. It also means the Supervisors hope they will have the expected work ethic.

Any of us who has had even the basic experience of chaplaincy provided by that one CPE unit required in seminary will know that chaplaincy isn't a 40-hour job. And any of us with experience in any other professional ministry will know the same thing. The work of ministry doesn't really settle down into five eight-hour days, whether in the parish or in clinical settings. We know that longer days, longer weeks, are just part of the profession; it goes with the territory.

So, I hear periodically from my colleagues, "What are we going to do with these students? They just disappear at 4:30." Granted, in some ways it's easier for our students than, say, for me. The students get most of their experience in a large hospital as part of a large staff. With lots of people around, it's easier to get the work done and to get home. Too, students don't have administrative responsibilities that many staff chaplains have. Some of the things that bring me in early and keep me late just aren't part of their job description. And I've always thought myself we need to keep in mind that they are students, here for their learning and growth, and not just cheap labor.

Still, I hear the question about work ethic, and I hear it from colleagues in both clinical and parochial ministries. "What are we going to do with these young clergy, these interns, these new folks?"

Long ago, in a church far, far away, when I was a seminarian, our faculty spoke to us of balance and managing stress. They spoke to us of setting appropriate limits, both on our time and our energy. They spoke of protecting our family life. They spoke of protecting our emotional and spiritual resources, with good support and a healthy spiritual life. They encouraged us not to work ourselves to burnout, much less to death. And they encouraged us to model such good emotional and spiritual balance for our parishioners.

Not that we took them all that seriously. We knew the score. We knew that it wasn't that simple. We knew, if only we'd been paying attention to our own clergy before we entered seminary, that this, like any other profession, called for long hours and long days. I remember asking my own rector what day of the week he found best to take off. He said, "Well, I don't have one regular day off. Enough happens in the parish that it's hard to take the same day each week. But, I do try to take one whole day each week." I knew then that he didn't get a day off each week, and that if I could manage only that I'd be making progress.

Still, we did hear what our faculty told us, and I think many of us did try to convey that to parishioners. Some of them even heard it, at least for themselves. On the other hand, many of us found that, whatever they might hear from us about their lives, their expectations for our lives were still the same: long hours and constant availability. Getting them to change their expectations of themselves, to allow for more grace in their own lives, was hard enough. Getting them to change their expectations of us--well, some days, some places, that seemed beyond us.

So what, then, can we do with these new residents, these new clergy? They seem to be setting appropriate limits, both on their time and their energy. They seem to be protecting family life, to be protecting emotional and spiritual resources, with good support and a healthy spiritual life. They seem committed to not working themselves to burnout, much less to death. And they seem to be modeling good emotional and spiritual balance.

Maybe we ought to learn from them. Perhaps I'm a bit more conscious of this these days. I'm getting ready to experience Episcopal CREDO, a retreat/renewal/vocational experience for Episcopal clergy offered by the clergy wellness folks at the Church Pension Group. Suddenly, the level of stress that seems normal to me seems a matter of concern to someone else. There are questions about stress in the health screening that's part of the process. I identified my stress level as "Moderate," thinking I was doing pretty well. Thinking I was doing pretty well, when asked whether I had any plans to address my stress, I said, "No." Lo and behold, when the results came back, stress was for me a risk factor!

And I hardly think I'm all that unique. I'm certain I'm not unique among clergy, but in fact I'm not unique among Christians. We have been encouraged to seek "the peace which passes all understanding." We have been called by Christ to "Come, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." And yet, we seem more driven by one old adage or another like, "Jesus is coming. Look busy;" or, "Pray like it all depended on God, but work like it all depended on you." In our desire to control our environment, including to "work out our own salvation," we fall again and again into works righteousness, implicitly denying God's grace and our own limitations.

So, what will we do with these new residents, these new clergy, these new people, when they set good limits, and care for themselves, and trust God to take care of those things they can't? Perhaps we should pay attention. Perhaps, as both Paul and Benedict suggested, they have something to teach, and we have something to learn. If we can learn, even at long last, that balance we in our own time were called to, we will be better persons; and those of us in orders will be better clergy. We will model for our own people and for the world healthier lives. We will lead those we serve toward a healthier community. Most important, we will demonstrate what we have long proclaimed: that all of life is God's, and that in all of life--even in those most pedestrian activities of life--we are saved, not by our own efforts, but by God's grace.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

The Overwork Ethic

By Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick

It's three-thirty in the afternoon and as I sit down to a late lunch in my favorite midtown Manhattan coffee shop the man at the next table pulls a ringing cell phone out of his jacket pocket. "Hi, Brittany," he says, staring down at his lentil soup. "Can I call you back in fifteen minutes? I really wanted to take your call but I'm in a meeting right now."

We've all done it, right?

Still, digging into my chicken avocado salad, I was struck that it isn't professional or acceptable to admit that one is engaged in the simple human act of eating a meal. Dare mention that you'd rather eat your soup while it's hot instead of talking to a colleague? You're sure to come across as a slacker.

I imagined how a caller might respond to a few other replies.

"I'm in Downward-Facing Dog."

"I'm on the other line with my child's teacher."

"I'm praying."

"I'm sipping Scotch from the flask I keep in my desk drawer."

Okay, so the last one really is unacceptable. And yet why is it that we think of all of them the same way? Nobody wants to be that person in the office who always has a sob story and never gets the job done, but we've collectively gone overboard in the other direction. With workers chained to their cubicles as they compete in the 24/7 global marketplace, no wonder solitaire is the "most-used program in the Windows universe," according to Slate's Josh Levin, pointing out an interesting correlation: "Consider that the rise of FreeCell coincided with the erosion of coffee breaks, cigarette breaks, and lunch breaks." After all, nobody can work all the time. How did it happen that every human activity except working -- or at least appearing to work -- has turned into a source of embarrassment?

Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, the authors of Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, blame it on Sludge. Sludge is their word for the outdated beliefs about time and work dating back to the Industrial Revolution -- the daily judgments, spoken or unspoken, that label us as slackers or failures if we do anything other than devote all our energy to putting in time on the job. (Isn't Sludge a vivid name for the familiar old Protestant work ethic?) When we hide our real lives from the people at work, say Ressler and Thompson, it's because we're expecting to get Sludge hurled at us.

When we shift our focus from avoiding the dreaded Sludge to producing results, the authors say, we free ourselves up for rest and recreation and family and fun. Instead of doing time, we shape our day around specific goals and make it our business to bring energy and creativity to accomplishing them. In the process we recover our dignity and allow ourselves to be human.

A grace-filled approach, if you ask me. Imagine the day when each of us stops covering up and starts mentioning now and then that we do ordinary things like meditate and rest and eat lentil soup. Sounds like a recipe for cultural change.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, sees couples and individuals in her private practice. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

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