From the Pastor's Study - Rev. Eric Kirkegaard - October 2019

It’s fall and I’m once again on stage with my daughter singing and dancing with our community theatre group. Since 2010 I have been grateful for the opportunity and for the encouragement that many of you have offered to spend these opportunities with my children while I can. I hope that I’m as convincing in encouraging others. This year we are performing a musical setting of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. When rehearsals began, I don’t know that I ever would have imagined that I would be hearing the gospel proclaimed through Mel Brooks’ comedy - but that’s what I’ve been experiencing for the last month and a half. Oh, I’m not talking about the heavily laden innuendos, or the outrageous sense of foolish humor that one would assume that Mel Brooks would add to the reframing of a classic Frankenstein story. No, what I’m talking about is how his story takes a frightful monster and through the love of the creator not only tames him but fills him with humanity. It’s sort of a fun twist, and a delightful musical as well. The monstrous metaphor of transformation from fear to love keeps tugging at my soul. In song and dance I witness how fear destroys while love heals. I keep thinking about the text from 1 John 4: “God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. […] There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us.”

Our world has learned that fear is an incredibly powerful motivator, whether it’s robo-call scams, politicians, or news cycles. We hear often that fear connects to that most basic part of our brains, and while there are moments when the fight or flight response associated with fear is appropriate, what I observe in my own life is that most of the things I fear will never come to pass. Mark Twain wrote: “I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” Or, in a more sobering assessment of five hundred years ago, Michel de Montaigne said: "My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened." Our faith invites us to live life in a different way, governed not by all that paralyzes us with fear and worry, but rather by all the ways we experience God’s love and are given the chance to share that love. How often do we stop and wrap ourselves in the promise that God first loved us?

This last week I was inspired by a construction worker who was talking about how he loves to share his faith simply by sharing God’s love with all those around him. I listened to him describe how he made sure that he greeted everyone with a smile and a warm hello, regardless of how grumpy his fellow workers were. I heard him talk about how he didn’t worry about the differences in people or their expressions of faith or perspectives in life, even when they were confrontational or negative toward him. He shared how hard it was sometimes to dig deep into that love of God and stay grounded when people were hurling insults at him and how gratifying it was when those angry and sometimes bigoted hearts softened ever so slightly. I was inspired to hear how people were drawn over time to that gracious, non-judgmental faithfulness.  Here was someone who quietly lived the power of love instead of the power of fear.

As Christians, we have the chance to offer a little leaven to the world, to live that love with which God first claimed us. Through loving “the other” we fundamentally change our relationship with “the other” and create the possibility of a deeper encounter with the reflection of God's love before us. Our heart expands when we greet another in love, especially if it’s difficult.

            To live in love, knowing that the ultimate source of that love is God, is to trust in our capacity to love extravagantly without worrying if we’re getting it right. I have said for years that I’d rather be judged guilty of loving the wrong people instead of guilty of not loving the right ones.

On Oct. 20th, our annual meeting will look at an Open and Affirming statement that the Inclusive Church Initiative has developed for our congregation. We will vote on whether we can affirm that statement. I hope that in this context as well, we can consider what we’re afraid of, and how the power of love might cast out fear. Indeed, I would pray that we would pay more attention through each day to the messages of fear that bombard us and consider how different it would be for us to respond to them with God's love.

A Message from our Covenanted Partner in Ministry, Rev. Gretchen Martin

How to Serve Those Who are Caregivers

This month we are going to switch gears a bit and explore the emotions that caregivers have and how we, as a congregation and members of a faith community, can help serve those who are caregivers. “A caregiver—sometimes called an informal caregiver—is an unpaid individual (for example, a spouse, partner, family member, friend, or neighbor) involved in assisting others with activities of daily living and/or medical tasks.”[1] The numbers vary, but most studies show that 35-45 million Americans are currently unpaid caregivers. Most of these caregivers are over the age of 60 and are female. These unpaid caregivers are helping care for someone in addition to having a full-time job, other civic and religious responsibilities, and/or caring for children. Tasks of a caregiver can include shopping, food preparation, housekeeping, laundry, transportation, giving medication, feeding, dressing, grooming, bathing, assistance in toileting, transfers in and out of bed, researching care services, coordinating physician visits and managing financial matters.

With the normal business of life on top of the demands of caregiving, it should not surprise us that caregiving can lead to stress and burnout. “Caregiver burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by the prolonged and overwhelming stress of caregiving. While caring for a loved one can be very rewarding, it also involves many stressors.”[2] Caring for someone can be unpredictable as it is unclear how long someone will need care or how long it will take for a disease to progress. Caregiving can be physically demanding as these informal and unpaid caregivers are not trained on lifting, turning, or how to handle serious illnesses. Caregiving can be financially demanding as caregivers often use their own money for the needs of the person they are caring for. Caregiving can also lead to emotional fatigue and frustrations. Emotions associated with caregiver stress include[3]:

·        Denial about the disease and its effect on the person who has the illness. I know Mom will get better.

·        Anger at the person living with the disease or frustration that he or she can’t do things that once came naturally. He knows how to get dressed… he is just being stubborn.

·        Social withdrawal from friends or activities. I don’t have the energy to visit friends anymore.

·        Anxiety about the future. What happens when he needs more care than I can provide?

·        Depression that affects the caregiver’s ability to cope. I just don’t care anymore.

·        Exhaustion that interferes with daily tasks. I’m too tired to do my own cooking/cleaning.

·        Sleeplessness caused by worrying. What if she wanders out of the house?

·        Irritability that triggers negative responses. I’m fine, leave me alone.

·        Lack of concentration that disrupts familiar tasks. I was so busy I forgot about my meeting today.

·        Health problems that begin to take a mental and physical toll. I can’t remember the last time I felt good or went to my own medical appointment.

As you read this, I want you to think about where you are in relation to a caregiver. If you are a caregiver and are feeling some of the stress and burnout associated with caregiving please reach out to leaders at Peace UCC and ask for help; this faith community loves and supports you and is ready to help. If you know a caregiver, reach out and see how you can help. Maybe you could cook or drive for a caregiver. Maybe you could sit with someone so the caregiver could do a bit of self-care. Maybe you could simply listen to a caregiver’s stress and acknowledge that they have a lot on their plate. Finally, if you know of respite care services (adult day care/in home services) please share this with the church office so resources are available when needed.

 [1] Family Caregiver Alliance, National Center on Caregiving. https://www.caregiver.org/caregiver-statistics-demographics

[2] Caregiver Stress and Burnout: Tips for Regaining Your Energy, Optimism and Hope https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/caregiver-stress-and-burnout.htm

[3] 10 Common Signs of Caregiver Stress from Take Care of Yourself: How to Recognize and Manage Caregiver Stress;  https://www.alz.org/media/Documents/alzheimers-dementia-manage-caregiver-stress-b.pdf

Infertility and Miscarriages

 I’m not sure how many of you know that this topic is what I studied for my thesis for my divinity and public health degrees. For my thesis I interviewed 30 women from a variety of Christian denominations with the goal to learn how women use their personal faith, scripture and the church when struggling with infertility and pregnancy loss. When I think about this research, there are unique aspects of grief associated with infertility and pregnancy loss. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of what these women and families are feeling but hopefully a few things for all of us to think about when we hear that someone has lost a baby or that a couple is having a hard time getting or staying pregnant.

 Be careful with assumptions. In my research almost all of the women wished people would be careful with their assumptions. Such as “You have been married five years now, don’t you want to have kids?” or asking a couple “Are you guys trying?” While our questions may be innocent and not intentionally trying to hurt a couple, in these comments we are making an assumption that they aren’t trying or that they are purposefully waiting to have kids. Maybe they are desperately praying and doing a myriad of medical interventions to try to have children.

 Each person’s faith journey is unique. Each woman and family that is experiencing infertility and miscarriages has a unique perspective of how God is working in and through this journey. Just like any other death or loss, we need to be respectful of how people make meaning of their situation. Remember the Not Top 10 and the Top 10 that we talked about months ago? We can use these for women/families experiencing infertility and pregnancy loss. Let them share how they find God in the midst of this, because they may find comfort from God but they may also be questioning God’s presence or be angry with God that making a baby has been so difficult and heart wrenching.

 

Silence surrounds infertility Did you know that 1 in 8 couples experience infertility and about one third of women over 35 will experience fertility problems? Tracking menstrual cycles, monitoring vaginal temperatures and researching methods for artificial insemination are frankly not things we talk about outside of a doctor’s office. But these are the very real topics that can take over a woman’s/couple’s life as they try to have a baby. “Most couples choose to be private about their struggle, but keeping their feelings to themselves increases the isolation, so that even friends who see them every day are shut off from the world in which the infertile couple lives.”[1]

 Grief is often silent too Because the struggle with infertility is often kept private, the grief associated with infertility and pregnancy loss is often silent too. For women and couples there is grief around the fact that they can’t do what is “natural or what every other couple is able to do.” There is grief around the mechanical nature of sex, as it becomes calculated and precise. There is grief when expensive, invasive and desperate attempts to have a child don’t work. When a baby is lost in the first trimester people outside of immediate family may not even know the woman was pregnant, perpetuating the silence that shrouds this journey. And when a family chooses to no longer pursue medical treatment there is grief in the finality and reality that biological children will never happen. In all of these aspects of infertility and miscarriage, women need to grieve the loss of the almost, the loss of what could have been and the loss of what may never be.

 For people of faith, the walk of women and couples experiencing infertility and miscarriage can be complex. We have the opportunity to listen with compassion and walk alongside them in loving support.

 

[1] Johnson, F.A. (1997) “Infertility” Journal of Family Ministry 11(1): 16-34.

What it Means to Live in Community

Last week I had the rich blessing of canoeing in Canada with a wonderful group of people. Thirteen of us, mostly from our church, spent the week in the wilderness, canoeing some 60 miles and learning a lesson that is always highlighted on our retreat: what it means to live in community. One night during vespers we turned to a familiar and beloved Psalm (133):

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron,         

        running down over the collar of his robes.

It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.

For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

The image of living together in unity as a blessing is powerful. The words describing the abundant blessed oil anointing Aaron the priest and servant of God, or the image of dew falling on Mt. Hermon bearing the only moisture that a desert climate may know, speak of how precious that blessing is. Well, certainly living in community in unity reflects the beauty of that blessing. But unity doesn’t mean homogeneity – unity isn’t about all being the same. Rather, it is about each of us sharing our unique and diverse gifts in the service of God, and of a vision that transcends ourselves. That vision appears throughout scripture, whether in an Old Testament Psalm, or in the image of Jesus’ diverse band of followers. Unity in God is a celebration of each person in their unique ways being celebrated as equally loved and valued in the eyes of God. It certainly was a constant part of our trip – but then it was a part of each of the experiences of ministry at Peace UCC over the summer from Habitat trips and VBS to the day-to-day workings and worship of the congregation.

There are lots of times when we think that unity looks like uniformity – but I don’t experience that as the vision God offers. Rather, our conversations and gifts are enhanced by our differences.

At our annual meeting this fall, we will be taking a vote on whether or not to declare our church Open and Affirming – a designation within the UCC that speaks to our welcome and inclusion of all people. There is a particular requirement that this include people of diverse expressions of human sexuality, because in this moment in time these individuals are particularly singled out by much of the church as being welcome only if they change. For someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer or questioning (LGBTQ+) they know that the three largest denominations within the United States and many others welcome them with the caveat that their fundamental understanding of who they are is sinful and therefore must change in order to be acceptable. The issue is at the heart of culture wars that have been dividing many within the church. In the division, I hear positions of fear trumping those of compassion.

This week I saw a cartoon that spoke to the challenge of our being faithful: it showed a man and a woman standing in front of laden bookshelves with the caption “We may have the same books, but we highlight entirely different passages.” This is the struggle for us as the church as we decide which “sins” to highlight and which to ignore… when we believe we can decide how abundantly God’s grace is offered, to whom, or under what circumstances.

We have the opportunity to affirm our openness to seeing God’s blessing in the rich diversity of humanity. And to move our conversations more closely toward the celebration of how good it is when kindred dwell in unity… even when their highlighting is different.

Some speak of the unity that we embrace as our equality at the foot of the cross of the one who offered self-sacrificing love rather than self-serving judgement. May God continue to bless us with the gifts of discernment as we journey together with one another and with God! Pastor Eric

A Message from our Covenanted Partner in Ministry, Rev. Gretchen Martin

Complex Grief Associated with Death by Addiction

 

I know this is a heavy title, but I want to spend this article talking about the very real and unfortunately, very common type of grief. In my line of work, in hospitals working with families whose loved one is at the end of life, death by overdose or addiction happens every day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 1,177 overdose deaths in Wisconsin in 2017; that’s over 3 deaths every day. These deaths are from synthetic opioids, heroin and prescription opioids like pain pills.[1] Grief associated with death by overdose is unique, given the complexity of the grief and the seemingly inconsistent emotions families hold all at once. There is added complexity to this grief when people feel the death was somehow preventable. I want to take some time and walk through the variety of emotions people may feel when they are grieving death by overdose.[2]

 

Guilt is the feeling of having committed an offense or failed in an obligation. Guilt can arise for folks grieving death by overdose when they feel they could have or should have done something to prevent the death. For example, family members might say “Should I have given him gas money when I knew he would spend it on drugs? Did I somehow cause his death?” Or “I showed her tough love by kicking her out; if I had let her say, I could have helped her when she overdosed.” If you are talking with someone struggling with this, reassure the one grieving that the death is not their fault.

 

Relief is the feeling of reassurance or relaxation following release form anxiety or distress. It is natural to feel a sense of relief when pain or suffering ends. Think about it for yourself – the sense of relief you feel when that headache goes away, or when exams or the big presentation for work is over. No one who has an addict in their family wants their loved one to die. They have always hoped for the addiction to end, praying it would be through recovery, not in death. But, in the face of death by overdose, the addict’s and the family’s suffering has ended. A mother won’t have to worry any longer when the phone rings late at night. A spouse won’t have to worry about shielding the children from the addict’s behaviors. This feeling of relief in no way diminishes the love for the addict or the sense of loss and grief.

 

Shame is the feeling of bringing disgrace or regret, and it is an emotion that is based on what others think of you. Shame around death by overdose comes with the thought that you believe others think it is your fault for having a family member who is an addict. The feeling of shame can also arise if there is a perception that you enabled the addict. Those grieving may think others will judge them for not doing enough to help the addict get clean and sober. Because of this shame, family members may be reluctant to share the circumstances of the death or feel less worthy of mourning. Addiction likely touches every family in some form; don’t let the one grieving feel shame. Reassure the surviving family that you love them, support them and that you can only imagine how hard this death and grief must be.

 

Fear is to be afraid of someone or something as likely to be dangerous, painful or threatening. Those grieving death by overdose will likely have a sense of fear and anxiety in the wake of the death. They may wonder “Will others start using, relapse or die of an overdose?” Surviving family members may find themselves trying to control every situation as to not allow anyone else to die or be hurt. You can imagine how fixated someone could get trying to protect others and not address their own grief.

 


 

Stigma and Isolation Stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. There may be a reluctance for those grieving to openly discuss the cause of death due to stigma around drug abuse and addiction. Surviving family members may be hesitant to share out of fear of what others may think, or they may want people to remember the deceased as happy, loving, athletic, smart… not as an addict. Unfortunately, this often leads to isolation, as those grieving don’t fully disclose the cause of death, don’t open up about the variety of grief they are feeling, and often limit their grieving.

 

If you find yourself in a situation where someone opens up about their grief surrounding death by overdose, please recognize it as a sacred moment. Remember the Not Top 10 and the Top 10… they apply for this type of grief too. If the person grieving begins to share the variety of emotions they are feeling, reassure them that one emotion does not detract from the others. You can be sad about the death and, at the same time, feel relief that the pain and stress associated with addiction has ended. You can feel relief and, at the same time, wonder if there were things you could have done to prevent the death. Emotions around death by overdose aren’t mutually exclusive.

 

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On a totally different note… I would like to ask for prayers as I prepare for a mission trip in June. I will be joining Ardmore Baptist Church and my husband, Rev. Dane Martin on a week-long mission trip serving a community of Haitian refugees in the Bahamas. Haiti holds a special place in my heart, as that is where I first heard (or first listened to) God’s calling on my life. I am excited to minister to the Haitian people in this new context. Thank you for your prayers.


[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Overview of the Drug Overdose Epidemic, www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data

[2] What’s Your Grief; The Grief of an Overdose Death: Part 1, https://whatsyourgrief.com/the-grief-of-an-overdose-death