Friday, March 27, 2009

Update on Death and Dying, Session 4: hospice, wills, planned giving.

Our session on Wed was sort of a whirlwind tour of practical ways to prepare for death.

Monica from Montgomery Hospice started us out with a presentation on hospice care. I was, again, impressed with hospice workers' caring attitude. Listening is a key part of their work, as are pain management and comfort care. The medical profession often gets a bad rep but hospice is a shining star. Monica cited new research about the amount of money hospice saves the health care system. By attending to the critically ill in their homes with consistency and care, hospice helps patients avoid expensive trips to the emergency room and long hospital stays. Medicare and insurance often cover hospice. Regardless of ability to pay, they never turn down a patient. I found myself wishing that more elements of our health care system functioned with the hospice's patient-centered attitude. It seems humane, dignified, and healing in more aspects than just the physical.

One of Monica's mantras is "meet people where they are." She described her work like being on an elevator: the patient and family push the buttons, the hospice worker is a caring presence on the ride.

We then shifted to hearing from Kurt, an estate lawyer. Now I admit, I kind of tune out when legal terms get thrown around. It's surprising how stupid I am about legal matters considering my father is a Law Professor. Maybe I just knew I don't have to worry about it because I think that he, or my lawyer brother, or my lawyer sister-in-law will always be there to advise me.

But, Kurt did a remarkble job breaking down the basics of legal planning for death. Most people think first of a will (which I don't have...) but there are some aspects to planning that aren't so obvious. A big element is getting a team of people in place. Kurt highlighted the need for:
- A Durable Power of Attorney - to take care of legal matters if you can't.
- A Health Care Agent - to make health care decisions if you can't.
- A Personal Representative - named in your will.

If you have children under the age of 18, you'll likely want to set up a trust. To do so you'll need:
- A Trustee and
- A Guardian

Kurt highlighted that you also want alternates for all these roles and above all else, the people you choose should be people you trust completely.

If all this makes your head swim (as it does me), contacting a lawyer is a good place to start.

Last, we heard too briefly from Alice Benson of Lutheran Planned Giving. She stressed that wise financial planning can ensure the charities and church that you care about now receive your support after your death. She especially encouraged considering Lutheran ministries in your will (if Lutherans don't support Lutheran ministries, who will?)

Some of her suggestions:
- Consider tithing your estate;
- Rather than leaving a big one time gift, leave an endowment that can be drawn out over time;
- If you have 2 children, consider a 3rd "ministry child" and split your legacy between all three;
- In your will, include a statement of your faith so that your children inherit that as well.

Alice has wise, creative ideas and loves to talk about them. She can be contacted through the Lutheran Planned Giving Website.

That's a thumbnail of the session. Our last session is Wed, April 1 from 8:00-9:15. We will review what happens at a funeral and give people a chance to plan their own funerals. That might sound daunting, but it's a wonderful way to reflect on the meaning of your life and death.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Car Fast Day 3 (oops, I did it again) and Day 4 (You Go Girl)

Well, as predicted, I broke a car fast rule again last night. I got a ride home. Not as carbon neutral as I'd like, but I'm no hero and it's just nice to take people up on offers like that. Plus it felt kind of snooty to turn them down.

The closest comparison is that awkward moment when a host who has cooked up a great pot roast discovers that one of the guests is a vegetarian. I respect the vegetarian, but it can affect the overall dinner party mood. Most vegetarians are artful in navigating such scenarios gracefully. I'm not so skilled. I prefer avoiding the scene altogether.

When I do a fast from food, I'm relatively quiet about it and it avoids the awkwardness. I arrange my schedule to avoid dinner parties and other moments where my fasting will affect the community at large. With the car fast, I've been much more vocal and public. (You didn't see me blogging about my food fast, now did you?). Maybe that was dooming the fast from the start. Jesus commands our fasts to be in secret and I can see why. It makes people feel weird to find out you are fasting. Also, it makes them feel secretly judged. The holier than thou feeling creeps in.

I was vocal about my car fast because part of its purpose is to draw attention to our carbon footprints. It would be counterproductive to be silent about it. But once I've spoken about it, I need to accept the consequences.

One of the consequences is that people care. I don't think this congregation has it in them to be comfortable with me standing out in the dark cold night to wait for a bus. And frankly, I think that speaks volumes about their kindness. And it's not just for me - they'd do it for anyone in the church. So, rule #2 has been canned. I'm accepting rides.

But I was glad that last night the people who gave me a ride home humored me. They stopped 50 feet from my front door so that I could walk home. I loved that they did that. And even after I'd called the woman a temptress.

Well, today was day 4.

It's the kind of drizzly day that you don't really need an umbrella, but if you're out, say, biking for an hour, you will get wet. My socks and gloves are drying on my heating unit. Despite the cold and rain, I enjoyed the ride. I noticed people I don't normally notice, saw the way the neighborhoods change fairly dramatically, and discovered that the roads in Rockville are in much better condition than the roads in Wheaton.

I wasn't biking fast, but I basically kept pace with the bus. Tried to ride on the side roads when possible and I rode on quite a few sidewalks. I usually frown on sidewalk riding (the bike's proper place is the road) but I like my life and want to stay alive for a while. There were too many cars out there today who didn't have the same set of priorities.

I had flashes of road rage when people got waay too close for comfort. I designed an invention in my head much like those fancy spokes that stick out from car hubcaps to let them know if they've hit the curb. These would stick out from a bike and brush against cars that got too close, making some horrendous noise and getting the cars to move over. If that comes out in the next few years, you read it here first.

By and large though, drivers noticed me and kept their distance (the blinking light on back and the bright headlight on the front, not to mention the neon vest, all certainly help). I was flagging on the ride back to church when someone called out from the sidewalk in downtown Rockville "You go girl." Ya. I'm going to pull on those toasty socks and ride to the next destination. You go.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Preparing to Die Well - Death and Dying, March 25

Hi - quick overview of what we'll cover tonight in the 4th of our 5 death and dying sessions, Preparing to Die Well.

A representative of Montgomery Hospice will come and do Hospice 101. They are real experts at helping people die with dignity and peace.

A lawyer from our congregation, Kurt, will tell us about the legal aspects of death, from wills and DNRs to the legal issues after a death has occurred.

And the director of the Lutheran Planned Giving Consortium in DC, Alice Benson, will tell us about preparing financially for your death, making sure that you are leaving money where you want it to go.

Will give an update and resources tomorrow.

Car fast, day 2 - broken again!

Despite Monday night's experiment in being left behind (pun intended), I'm becoming a fan of the bus. True, the timetable is only 25% accurate. (According to my data set: 3 out of 4 of the buses I've taken have had no correlation to the schedule. When I asked this morning if the bus that came at 10:35 was the 10:23 or the 10:50, the driver didn't seem to know what I was talking about.) But I haven't given the bus a fighting chance.

Up till now I've had bus prejudice. I've favored the metro. But the metro isn't everywhere and it doesn't run on a schedule either. It takes a lot more infrastructure to move people on a metro than a bus. I'm still glad they're putting in a metro line to Dulles, but let's not underestimate the bus.

The bus is fairly straightforward. It's clean, easy, and flexible. Plus, it reminds me that for three years in high school, I formed some of my best friendships on a bus. (The exception was our Jr year when my friend Chriss gave me a ride to school in his legendary Monte Carlo. Our senior year it was back on the bus. Something about his car needing oil to run properly...)

The bus was my preferred mode yesterday. I bussed to church, and planned to bus home. Foiled again!

Last night the evening church meetings were over with plenty of time for me to catch a bus, no problem. No problem except that the people in my congregation are so kind that before I even started to leave, 3 of them cornered me (kindly!) and made the case for why they each could give me a ride. I had a feeling I wouldn't wiggle out of their concerned, generous grips without a fight, and frankly, the thought of a ride seemed delightful. So I accepted. I chose the person I thought lived closest to me. We chatted away and I was home in a jiffy. Yes, I broke a rule, but I also experienced one of the benefits of any kind of fast - awareness of my dependence on others.

Today though, I'm determined not to break it. I bussed in (it got too late to bike) and will bus home. I'll have to fight off the kindness of the congregation offering rides (people here are seriously nice.) But I think I can do it. And if not - I'll beg forgiveness.

A check in on how the car fast is going? So far, it's been surprisingly inconvenient. I thought I'd hardly notice, but I do. It's a pain. I didn't know how much I depended on the freedom of being able to run out to a store, restaurant or gym whenever I wanted.

Working out has been the biggest challenge. I'm used to hitting the pool or yoga studio at least 4 times a week, but it is hard to get there without a car. I could bike to the gym, but doesn't that defeat the purpose? ...ding ding ding...that's my answer. I won't get to the pool this week, but I will bike a lot. Also, you don't need a gym to go jogging, and that's what I did this morning.

Tomorrow I have about 30 miles of riding in order to make a couple of meetings. No sweat! And I mean that - it's supposed to be chilly. Here's hoping it doesn't rain.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Car fast, day 1

My car fast technically began yesterday, but my preparations began Saturday when I test drove new cars. My truck isn't long for this world (yes, let the weeping begin) and I am on the verge of falling in love with a bright red VW Golf diesel, circa 2005. But now I'm fantasizing about owning a new car instead of thinking about having no car...

(I also fantasize about big Italian dinners when I'm doing a fast from food, and I couldn't resist bacon when I was a vegetarian. Not helpful.)

Back to the Car Fast. To prepare I juiced up my SmartTrip card, downloaded bus schedules, plotted out my week and developed a short set of rules:

1) I can't drive a car (nor a purple truck, for all you legalists).
2) I can't ride in someone else's car unless it in no way makes them alter their route. (No rides all the way home, but I can get closer.)
3) I will break the rules in case of a pastoral emergency.

Yesterday, was my first day. Monday is my rest day and I didn't even leave the house until 3. I normally would have run errands, but no truck, no Target run. I was a bit anxious until I realized I didn't need anything, I just sometimes like to go to Target and buy new lipgloss or a picture frame. I decided to relax (didn't someone recently preach about the Sabbath?) and enjoy the day in my home.

In the evening, I had to venture out because I had a class in Glen Echo, Maryland. Car fast challenge #1.

I caught the bus to downtown Rockville easily, except that it was 6 minutes early which seems like a problem. When the bus is running early, shouldn't it wait? The bus was early but I was earlier. No problem.

In downtown Rockville I returned a library book, window shopped, and meandered to the metro station. I took the metro to Bethesda and walked up the long stairs out of the metro station, right past the bus loading area. I looked around downtown Bethesda, forelorn for a minute until I heard the screeching of breaks below me and found my way down to the underground bus station. I joined the line-up of commuters, hopped on my bus and was to my destination with time to spare.

It was liberating and fun. I felt independent and city-wise. I don't need a Golf. I don't even need a truck! All was going well until the return trip.

I had figured out exactly what time I needed to leave in order to catch the last bus to Rockville (Isn't there a REM song about that? Or is it Elvis?). I thought about giving myself wiggle room and leaving on an earlier bus, but I was already leaving class earlier than I'd wanted. I decided to trust the system.

I stood out under the RideOn sign for about 10 minutes and was starting to fret when, at exactly 8:59 pm, the bus came around the corner. I was relieved and had a little thrill that my experiment in public transportation was going to work. I waved down the bus and stepped out to the curb. The bus slowed down I walked right up to it...sped up again. It didn't see me. I was even wearing a reflective white jacket and it passed right on by.

I banged my fist on the door, the side, the back as it drove away. I ran across the street to catch it...yelling like a madwoman, of course. Damn bus! There I was, alone in the dark with a bruising knuckle and no way to get home on public transportation.

I weighed my options.
#1 - Take a taxi. (I thought I'd get RideOn to pay for it. When I called RideOn this morning to register my complaint, I discovered they don't reimburse for such things.)
#2 - Go back into my class and ask someone there for a ride. A fine option, but no one lives anywhere near me, the class wouldn't be over for an hour, and I don't know anyone that well.
#3 - Phone a friend.

I phoned a faithful friend who picked me up and delivered me home, all the while trying to lift my defeated spirits. I was bummed. My carbon footprint ended up far bigger than if I had just driven myself. I broke my rules on day one.

This morning I considered bagging the whole thing in light of last night's defeat, but I rallied. I thought of biking, but it's cold and it will be late when I leave. So back to the bus.

I was walking to the bus stop when the driver who'd already passed the stop (again, early!) saw me coming, pulled over and waited for me. I got to church in good time. A bit of redemption.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

One question to God about death.

In the class on death and dying last night, we each wrote one question to God about death. Here's the list we came up with. We didn't really answer them, (many of them have no real answer), but we did talk about how faith helps us respond to the mystery of death and the afterlife. It was interesting to me that many of the questions centered on the nature of heaven but only one of them asked what we need to do to get there. We assumed (rightly!) that our future with God is secure, but it is still a frightening prospect.

Here are the questions. Feel free to add your own in the comments.
  • Do you promise absolutely to hold my hand while I die? I am afraid it’s going to be way too intense and painful.
  • Will my death be quick or slow as I am – NOW anxious for our meeting.
  • Dear God, will you be there with me or close to me?
  • Do you know ahead when/how I will die? How far ahead?
  • Could you describe in simple terms, that man, could understand, what does eternity look/feel like??
  • Will I be able to be with my loved ones (human and animals); explain :)
  • What is the afterlife like?
  • What is heaven like and will we be reunited with loved ones from this life?
  • Is it like going to sleep?
  • What does it feel like to get to heaven and what can I do to get there?
  • What should I be trying to improve?
  • Will I know people, communicate with them, feel as if we’re all alive as we “talk?”
  • In the afterlife, can I look over my family?
  • How do you decide whether a person’s death will be quick or long (sudden or lingering)?
  • Why can’t people who die talk/communicate etc. with us afterwards?
  • Will I be able to talk to people I love?
  • What can I expect after death? Will I meet my Mom and Dad again and will we know each other?
  • Will all ill feelings be gone/erased without memory?
  • Does it make any difference concerning the kind of life someone has led – to the suffering or lack of suffering of their death?
  • When dead, can we comfort those we leave behind?
  • Why is the idea of death so scary? Why is it so hard to overcome the pain of losing someone?
  • Will I feel your presence and be reunited with those I’ve loved and lost to death?
  • How is my denial of death keeping me from you?
  • Are there hierarchical levels on the other side? If so, what does one have to do to go from one level to the next?
  • Why did he have to die so soon?
  • Why do you allow us to die?
  • Do I get to meet all of my family and friends who have gone before me? And will I be educated on all the Secrets of the Universe?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

God and Death

Last week at the Death and Dying class we covered grief and grieving. It was a wonderful session, but we only scratched the surface.

Tonight we're going to be similiarly heroic (or ridiculous) in trying to cover a huge topic in 1 hr and fifteen minutes. Tonight's topic?

God and death. We'll look at our faith tradition and Scripture to draw out what we believe about death as a church. Pastor Steve will present on how what we know about God in our lives can influence how we view God in our deaths.

The class will begin with us each writing a question re:

If you could talk with God face to face and ask 1 question about death, what would it be?

More resources etc to come.
Peace - Pastor Sarah

Saturday, March 14, 2009

In the Post!

Not much time to write because I'm finishing a sermon for this afternoon's service, but I want to let you all know that Prince of Peace's creation care team got in the Post today. The article highlights churches who are carbon fasting for lent. Very cool. Our carbon fast calendar (thanks Joyce) has great, easy suggestions for being more conscious of your impact on the environment. Most are quite simple ways to start paying attention. Yesterdays suggestion:

When boiling or heating water on the stove, use a pan with a lid. Only use as much water as you need.

That's pretty simple, right?

Before I came in the church to finish up writing, I went to check on our garden - a faithful gardener was out there hard at work. "The pressure's on!" he said, noting the Post article says we're rolling out the garden on April 19th. Kids have seeds that they are watering, the fence is being constructed right now. We're right on time. Back to the 10 commandments - the subject of today's sermon.
Peace all -

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Grief, ps..

Just finished the session on grief and grieving. I'd worked up a powerpoint presentation complete with audio clips etc but didn't get to it at all because people's stories carried the evening, as I should have trusted they would. I learned so much. People told their stories of grief with such wisdom, honesty and care. It felt to me like the kind of space that opens up healing. Thank you all who were here. It was preceded by evening prayer, soup and another one of our members giving a faith testimony which was a beautifully wrought reminder that each faith journey is unique. I feel blessed by the evening and tired at the anticipation of the day ahead. Peace and good night.

Grief piles on Grief

Grief is tonight's topic in the 2nd of 5 sessions on death and dying.

One session can't possibly cover it all. We'll hear from 2 people in the congregation who are experienced grievers and a grief counselor will come to facilitate our conversation. We'll get a taste of what grief is like from people who can talk about it honestly and graciously. We'll be educated on how to be with a grieving person (hint: when in doubt, be quiet. Your presence is enough).

A grief counselor from our local hospital, Shady Grove, met with me this morning and gave me great handouts. She spoke of the varities of grief, not only from death but also divorce, moving, unemployment.

I remembered that once I wrote a poem about grief , so I searched my email out-box to see if I could find it. I found it and I also found 86 other messages where I had written about grief. Glancing through the emails was a reminder of the losses of the past 3 years: homes, jobs, churches, friends I've left. My grandmother died 2 years ago on the dot. I was in Namibia and couldn't make it home. I wrote something to be read at her funeral. I'd forgotten about it till today. I'd also forgotten that my sister and I had the exact same reaction to my grandma's death: we both told my mother she wasn't allowed to die.

The poem. I wrote it when I was an intern at Luther Place Memorial Church. My window looked down on the sidewalk of N Street Village, a center to help women break the cycle of homelessness. In my time there, I worked with the women and was struck by how much grief they all carried - abuse, illnesses, addictions, loss of family, dignity, mental acuity. A group sat on the sidewalk every day. The day I wrote this was an unusual day of snow. I'd gone out skiing in the afternoon. I returned to my office to see the women undaunted by the cold, still sitting, waiting for something.

Snow melts

Grief piles on grief, like
snowflakes accumulating on an overhead branch,

or the stack of crusty dishes in the sink that
I might throw away.

What amount of scouring will make them clean?

From this second story window I see
women working out their sorrow in

cigarettes and schizophrenia,
mindless chatter and simply sitting still, waiting

for some kind of scouring to make them clean.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Stealing past watchful dragons - from death to kids

Thirty people attended last night's class on death and dying. That's a lot for our church. This topic has hit a nerve in people, including me. In preparing for this class on death, it's become clear how completely unprepared I am for my death. I think of myself as just leaving the "formation" phase of life. I assume I'm about one third of the way done with life (I'm 34). I'm satisfied professionally, have had a basically amazing life till now, love my family, and have had enough adventure and fun to last a good long time.

I am content in a way I haven't been before, but there are major life milestones I hope are ahead of me: marriage, children, owning a home etc. If I were diagnosed with a terminal illness right now, I would have a hard time trusting God that my life was complete. hmmmm. Perhaps I need this class as much as anyone.

Well...not too much time to get stuck in those reflections because we've got Faithful Families tonight and I'm switching gears to children. Our children and family program is focused on equipping parents to raise faithful children. For most children, home (not church) is where they explore faith. We know that it's a challenge for parents to address this aspect of parenting. That's one reason we have Faithful Families. Every church season, we do activities and model faithful conversation for the whole family. In planning for tonight's event on Lent, I was surfing the web and came across a great website I recommend to parents of young children.

Faith at is written by an episcopalian mom. It's theologically in keeping with the kinds of things we Lutherans teach our kids (grace first, baptism as pure gift, the gospel as your story too) and the writer has assembled a top-notch set of resources. One resource she mentions is "godly play." So I went there.

On the Godly Play website, there's a quote from C.S. Lewis that brought this all full circle. From their website:

C. S. Lewis was often asked why he, an Oxford scholar and lay theologian, wrote The Chronicles of Narnia.

Once, he responded by writing: "I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past certain inhibitions which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices, almost as if it were something medical.

But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, One could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could."

©CS Lewis Company and Harper Collins Publishers

This quote makes me think that the Death and Dying class and Faithful Families are quite related. Both have to do with trying to unfreeze feelings and get rid of the oughts of faith. A sense of religious obligation can place such restrictions on feelings - especially surrounding death - that a good Christian thinks she needs to stifle reactions such as fear, anger, doubt, emptiness, pain because they aren't godly. As far as I can tell, this stifling is always counter-productive to a joy-filled life of faith. But we religious people almost can't help passing that stifling atmosphere onto our children.

Thank God our children also pass something on to us. Their playfulness teaches us. Their imaginations free us up. Learning from then, we remember that we are just children too. Full of fear but also sparkling with hope, we grab for each other's hands to steal past the watchful dragons all around.

Peace - Pr. Sarah
photo from the movie Narnia.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Befriending Death

Befriending Death is a phrase from Henri Nouwen's "The Greatest Gift." I read it as part of my planning for the church's class on death and dying, to occur the next 5 Wednesday evenings after a prayer service. (Soup at 6:15, prayer at 7:15, class at 8:00).

"The Greatest Gift" came to me from a bookstore owner who told me it's the book his faith community gives people who've recently experienced a death. I can see why. It is a beautiful faith perspective on death and dying. Honest and hopeful.

Much of my planning has been reading such books on death (more hopeful reading than you might think). I've also been watching videos, websites, and conversations with death experts. This class has piqued lots of interest, both within the congregation and outside. Death is everywhere, but it doesn't exactly come up in common conversation. I'm finding that people welcome the opportunity to talk about it. is currently running a series called "What Grief is Really Like" that I recommend. I also recommend the PBS website "On our own terms". It's based on a special that Bill Moyers special on 2000. I'll try to keep the resources updated on here, but if you are in the congregation or the area, please come.

Ten for Ten. Ten reasons it's great to be a pastor, in celebration of my 10 year anniversary of ordination.

I'm in there somewhere. I was ordained at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington DC on November 10, 2007, ten years ago today. ...