Waiting for Test Results (and Marshmallows)

You know that feeling of waiting for something?  Think about when you or a loved one was waiting to find out how someone did on an SAT, a blood test or the Bar Exam. It can be awful, can’t it?  In that strange time span of hours, weeks or months, you wonder what has happened. The funny thing is that the facts and reality are already there and have been in place for some amount of time. The test is over, finito, done.  It is like celebrating your 50th birthday. Friend, at your 50th birthday party, you’ve already just spent a year working toward being 50!

49 year olds may want to take a short break here while they realize they are already in their 50th year.

In the case of waiting to hear the results of something, what you are waiting for is the information to be interpreted and shared with you. In the case of medical test results, The Funny Business is already at work, networking, getting business cards and making itself known (to your cells, organs, bloodstream or what have you). Or, maybe The Funny Business is chilling and laying or low or maybe has “left the building” altogether. You are among the last to know as the lab techs who tested it, P.A. who interpreted it and nurse who calls you all know these facts before you do. If they get them too close to 4:55pm and traffic can be nuts outside their building, forget about it, you’re not finding out until tomorrow.

Waiting in times like this can be hard, even for people of faith. When we claim to be people of faith, we like to toss about keywords like trust and hope.  We can whip out a ttgreeting card to a troubled friend quicker than you can say “where are the stamps, honey?” We can post memes on Facebook with the cheesiest platitudes that we wouldn’t dare use in real life but there’s a kitten and it sounds positive and our friend (or facebook friend) is hurting so we go for it. The hard part about being a person of faith is when you actually have to live it out and the rubber meets the road. The hardest part of chastity is when you encounter someone and have actually fallen head over heels in love with them. The hardest part of serving the poor is when there’s one right in front of you and she annoys you, makes bad decisions, approaches you the wrong way or is rude to you. These ideas of trust and hope (and everything else we claim to hold dear) have to be real to us in these absolutely real moments of our lives otherwise, we are just poking our sticks in the fire without taking the risk of putting a marshmallow on one. Yeah, most marshmallows come ttout burnt and taste utterly disgusting but if we’re too afraid of how they might come out to risk it, we will just spend the evening fruitlessly poking at coals and yes, maybe accepting a square off the Hershey’s bar and a few squares of Graham crackers but WHO ARE YOU KIDDING? Those cold, timid things (cold squares of chocolate and graham crackerness) are no match for the sugary goodness of a hot, dangerous, messy s’more. Let’s back up here. The point is that real life happens sometimes, even when it seems like we are doing all the right things and living the right way and when these moments hit us, we get to see for ourselves how much we believe in these otherwise transcendent, elusive concepts like faith and trust and hope. If you failed the driver’s test, then what? You’ll schedule another 4 hour day at the DMV to go again. If you find out you failed the Bar Exam, then what? You’ll sell all your law school books on ebay and do what you always wanted to do-go on walkabout for a year ( I’m guessing here). If you fail the blood test, then what? Well, first come the stages of grief, each coupled with a microbrew of your choice, and with the awesome part where you find out what faith, hope and trust mean when its time for you to actually rely on them.

What does this have to do with St. Clare of Assisi?

St. Clare’s big thing is that she insisted on living in a way that meant her monastery did not have the usual failsafe measures in place. She insisted on living out poverty not for its own sake but because it meant relying on God to see them through. Of course, one of the ways God works is by moving the hearts of regular people like you and me to give people like St. Clare and her sisters food, blankets and elbow grease when the roof starts to leak. She didn’t set up a fund with a cool logo, she didn’t accept dowries from those who joined her and she insisted that the monastery have only enough land to grow food for themselves rather than owning lots of land and becoming landladies to the local people who would then farm the land. Her mettle was tested every day and she wanted it that way. Oh, mettle, that’s a cool word. Here are some synonyms: spirit, fortitude, strength of character, moral fiber, steel, determination, resolve, resolution, backbone, grit, true grit, courage, courageousness, bravery, valor, fearlessness, daring and spunk. If you’re afraid of your marshmallow turning out bad and that keeps you from roasting one, you’re missing your spunk, kid. Get it back.

Interview with Julie McElmurry

Hi. I got to talk about my commitment to promoting year of service/gap year programs in a recent interview with Catholic Volunteer Network.

A conversation with Julie McElmurry

Living & Serving in the Way of St. Francis, is a new collection of stories and reflections from volunteers who have served with Franciscan Volunteer Network programs. Julie McElmurry, Director of Franciscan Passages (and former volunteer) served as the editor for this book. We had a conversation with her about the project. 
Photo courtesy Anna Golladay
CVN: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Julie: The Franciscan Service Network came up with the idea to collect reflections from volunteers of their member programs.
CVN: What is the format for the book?
Julie: The “outline” for the book is the writing of St. Francis called his Testament. Franciscan scholar Jean-Francois Godet-Calogeras, PhD generously lent his support to the book by allowing use of his never before published translation of the Testament. Forty themes were found in the Testament (by me, for this project) and assigned to forty volunteers and alumni of FSN programs, selected by FSN Directors…

A Good Friend is Dying

A good friend is dying.
She has been in the hospitals and rehabs for seven months.
I went to see her about a month into this journey. She was coming out of what I will call a coma but I have advanced degrees in things like history and a high school education in biology so what do I know. My brother took me to see her. She’s 7 hours from where I live and I knew I’d need some help getting to her. I prayed and asked God to provide a way for me. Quickly, a friendtr from our Wake Forest days contacted me and invited me to stay with her and her awesome husband and daughter in MD for the night. My brother equally quickly offered to help me get up there. He drove 2 hours from his home to pick me up then the rest of the way so I could see her. I’m so grateful for him and his fiancé and enjoyed our conversations on the way up and back home. My friend was not able to speak when I saw her in September but I could see that she was there. I could see it in her eyes. It was a relatively short visit. I think I went in two or three times over the course of an afternoon and got to visit with the family in the waiting room in the meantime.
Since that time, the family has given regular updates through CaringBridge.com which is a great service to those with ill loved ones. Updates are posted there and readers can respond with messages for all to see. It saves a family from having the same conversation 10 times and the message getting lost as it is translated from one person to the next. Of course, I read these as soon as I see that there’s an update (my phone tells me). Each one since September has been in the same, steady (though slow) direction of continuous improvement for her. There’s a photo of her outside amid the flowers in the hospital garden, there’s a tale of a birthday party in the room and a Christmas party in the room (with smuggled-in food) and photos of her with a walker, a breathing apparatus, scissors, and smiles. Her husband, son and daughter wrote the various updates. I tried to do my part by sending cards (once a week when I was on a roll). I wrote a five page letter at Christmas time explaining my disdain for two great blasphemers: Michelangelo and Norman Rockwell, both of whom have done a major disservice to humanity by trying to capture the uncapturable. I followed up with a report of our Christmas which was a wonderful event filled with good food and good friends around long tables outside in the backyard (the temperature was in the 80s), puzzles for the introverts and cute comments from our 4 year old little buddy.
I saw my friend again last week. I had to go to DC for a morning which involved a peacemaking and reconciliation experience with some people I’d gone through mediation with about 10 months ago. I left there relieved that our conflict could be put to rest and that there is a future for some of us to do good together in the future. The timing worked out and the location of this meeting worked out so that Fr. J, my colleague of 11 years at Wake Forest, picked me up on his way out to see our mutual friend in the hospital. I got to spend time in the waiting room with the family and got to know one particular person whom I hadn’t met yet. I enjoyed seeing photos of my friend’s grandson who, it turns out, is super cute. I was able to watch a few videos as well and see that he is a smiley, happy kid with great parents. That was lovely. When it was time to go in to see my friend, a family member told me that at the Christmas party, they skyped in another family member who trwas on the other side of the world. He surprised them all by donning the same blue smock and gloves required of ICU visitors. He was in a hotel room on the other side of the world wearing that outfit while skyping into the party in her room where everyone there was wearing the same outfit. Say what you will, I think the internet is a real force for good in this world.After some time in the waiting room, it was okay to go visit her.  I was in the room with two family members and Fr. J. Nobody sat in the chair next to her bed so I sat there. I was able to place my hand atop hers with the sheet separating it. On the way up, I’d read a hospice website about visiting a dying loved one. Sure, as a campus minister, I’ve made plenty of hospital visits & coached plenty of students on decorum and customs in these settings but it was helpful to read stuff that assured me it was fine to touch her as I did. Also, my mom reminded me on the phone that the hearing is the last to go so I spent our time rehashing some funny stories and telling her about the peacemaking meeting I had just come from. My friend and I always parted with a promise of owing the other a red hot dog from a gas station (origin unknown) so I mentioned that to her and to the people in the room with me. She was unconscious and machines were doing the kind of work for her body that my own organs do in my own body. I teared up but did not get hysterical. I had a good cry a few days before when I learned she was actively dying. I know there are many more cries in the queue. I didn’t give some grandiose goodbye (the hospice website suggested not to do that) but I did promise her a red hot dog. We took off our blue smocks and gloves and said goodbye to her family members who stayed inside with her (and to trher). I spent way too long at the ICU exit trying to figure out where the “red button” was that I was supposed to push to get the door to release. I asked them through the curtain and they told me where it was.
Now, I am back at home. Reading CaringBridge.com updates and well wishes from friends. I just wrote a 5 page letter to one of the family members and stuck in in my mailbox before coming to my office. I called a mutual friend yesterday and told her a little about my visit there. My friend who is dying is someone who has dedicated HER ENTIRE LIFE to serving the poor. In the town where she is from, there are 1000s of people with AIDS, poor people, immigrant people and others who have a better life b/c of what she has done to serve them and look out for them. She worked her tukus off finding donors and making sure money got to recipients. She led the way when it came to the church welcoming wave after wave of immigrants. She took great delight as an earlier wave of immigrants (Spanish speaking) came forward to reach out to the newest wave (Kareni-speaking). I can’t even list here all the things I KNOW she has done for other people. And I only met her in 1999. In fact, when I first moved to that town, Fr. J introduced me to her that very same day. She took me around to all the poor areas (housing projects, soup kitchens, etc.) as I had just come from working at a homeless shelter and was about to start as a campus minister at Wake Forest (a pretty well-off school) and she wanted me to feel “at home” there. It is immature but I look around and hear about people who are hateful and nasty and I wonder why we have to be stuck with those fools around while someone like this person has to go too soon. It is the timeless question of why bad things happen to good people. As Christians, we celebrate what death means to us and what comes next for us. I’ll be ready to revel in that soon enough but for now I’m thinking all of this just kind of stinks. As someone who is left here on this earth for another 1-60 years or so, I’m going to miss her a lot. I’m editing a documentary I’ve put together about women religious (nuns) who have served the poor and I’m planning to dedicate my work on this project to my dying friend

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Pray for Her

and her husband, lay people who have shown me and many others what it means to serve the poor. Please wait with me as my friend is dying. Pray for her and for her family and friends.