Ornery Is In Our DNA

Hospice ADLs:  My Adventures of Daily Learning.91

In Joan Halifax’s Being With Dying, she wrote* . . .

World religions scholar Huston Smith once told the story of a well-known psychologist, an ornery old man close to death. One morning, as he was struggling to get to the toilet, a nurse tried to help him. He snapped back at her, “I can do it myself!” Then he dropped to the floor dead.

Smith used this story to illustrate just how defensive about needing help we are often are. He called this reaction ‘the porcupine effect.’

Stubborn starts early. Do humans have an ornery gene in the DNA?

Stubborn starts early. Do humans have an ornery gene in the DNA?

I agree with Smith’s “porcupine effect,” or . . . don’t touch me! Over the years of working with those close to death (and those caring for them) I have frequently heard a variation of the phrase: how you live is how you die. That may not be as true when death happens because of a car accident or an earthquake, but still . . .

During life, some are ornery like Smith’s “well-known psychologist,” and that’s exactly what they are like as they approach death. All humans are many things. Gentle. Crude. Fearful. Talkative. Stoic. Finger-pointers. Self-deprecating. Calm. Anxious. Generous. Miserly. The list of the ways we describe ourselves, or others describe us, is lengthy. But we’re never one thing. We are a stew of emotions, a tossed salad of reactions, a buffet overflowing with contradictions.

But I think most are stubborn. (Or call it ornery.) We are gentle, kind, and stubborn. We are fearful, secretive, and stubborn. We are self-deprecating, touchy-feely, and, yes, stubborn.

  • Don’t help me.
  • I don’t want your assistance.
  • I can do it on my own.
  • Leave me alone.
  • Add your own human warning label: _____________________

Continue reading


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Did God Weep?

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 – The 20th Sunday of Ordinary time – for Sunday, October 26, 2014

“Then Moses hiked up from the Moabite plains to Mount Nebo, the peak of the Pisgah slope…” (Deuteronomy 34:1)

Aerial view of Mt. Nebo and surrounding area...

Aerial view of Mt. Nebo and surrounding area…

Did God weep when Moses died? The Book of Deuteronomy never mentioned divine tears.

But I wonder.

Of course, it could be claimed that Deuteronomy only passed along an exaggerated tale, one written by enthusiastic but anonymous scribes, penned to create heroics and a hero, inexplicable miracles and enduring memories. Moses, as unique as he was, and as unique as his relationship with God had been depicted, was still only another human. Somewhere, somehow, Moses died.

In Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day, her final lines asked,

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

What about when Moses’ “wild and precious life” arrived at its last day? And what about God . . . Continue reading


Filed under Lectionary - Year A, or Pentecost, Ordinary Time

I Don’t Want To Visit Dad

Hospice ADLs:  My Adventures of Daily Learning.90

Before and after the death of a friend or family member, we can feel alone, misunderstood.

Before and after the death of a friend or family member, we can feel alone, misunderstood.

“I don’t want to visit Dad because I want to remember how he was.”

One of our hospice’s social workers relayed this comment from a member of a patient’s family. A child, now an adult, struggled to spend any time with a father. He no longer resembled—or acted like or reacted like—the father of the “past.”

Dying can literally change us. Even if we remain relatively healthy as the birthdays accumulate, there are inevitable and predictable transformations in hair color, skin texture, and a hundred other physical clues. But add a form of dementia, and often there’s no chance for the remember-whens as an adult child tries to support a parent. Add a form of cancer and either the disease, or the treatments for the disease, will wound and warp the body. Add the terminal stages of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and the “normal” act of breathing can appear as frightening as watching a gasping fish out of water.

Anger stirred when I overheard the social worker’s quote from the non-visiting adult child. Continue reading



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God’s Go-To Guy

Exodus 33:12-23 – The 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, October 19, 2014

“Moses said, ‘Please show me your glorious presence.’” (Exodus 33:18)

There's a new sheriff, er Moses, in town . . . Christian Bale will soon play Moses in the movies.

There’s a new sheriff, er Moses, in town . . . Christian Bale will soon play Moses in the movies.

Near the end of the conversation with God at the burning bush, Moses moped about not being eloquent. “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue,” claimed the guy (in Exodus 4:10) who’d soon lead the Children of Israel to freedom.

Really? (I can’t image Moses/Christian Bale, in the upcoming Ridley Scott film “Gods and Kings” being slow of speech! Charlton Heston’s Moses didn’t have a “slow tongue!”)

Much of Exodus depicted a whining, wondering, and willfull Moses. He cajoles, he vents, and he seethes. The precious child once plucked from a river’s bulrushes becomes the pushy man who persuades THE CREATOR OF THE WHOLE DARN UNIVERSE WHO IS CONTINUING TO CREATE AND ACCOMPLISH A WHOLE LOT MORE WHICH IS FAR BEYOND THE UNDERSTANDING OF MERE MORTALS to reveal the Holy name (which, in Hebrew, was gratefully shortened to Y-H-W-H instead of T-C-O-T-W-D-U-W-I-C-T-C-A-A-A-W-L-M-W-I-F-B-T-U-O-M-M.) Moses alone first received the radical and community-building commandments from God (and then the commandments again after some nasty idol business). Moses continually convinced God that the escaping, fake-deity-making, heartbreaking, and bellyaching Chosen People were worth saving.

Moses talked.

God listened.

God talked.

Moses listened. (Well, most of the time.)

Based on the various accounts of Exodus (including the chatty Exodus 33:12-23 example of the God and Moses dialogs) Y-H-W-H and Mister Moses were the Abbott and Costello (or Key and Peele for you moderns) of the Old Testament.

Moses, forever with one more request, requested in the thirty-third chapter of Exodus that God show God’s presence. Continue reading


Filed under Lectionary - Year A, or Pentecost, Ordinary Time


In her first days with us, and Jeanie's favorite pic of Hannah and me.

In her first days with us, and Jeanie’s favorite pic of Hannah and me.

On October 4, 2014, we entered the vet’s office to help our fourteen-year-old dog Hannah peacefully take her final breath. On a cold linoleum floor, nestled between my wife and me, the vet injected her with the medication. Hannah died on my wife’s lap in the blink of a teary eye.

I have regrets.

Several years after Hannah entered our lives, a person shook my hand while leaving worship—I am a United Methodist pastor and served a congregation then—and told me that she was tired of the Hannah stories in my sermons. Like too many weak-willed preachers, desirous of pleasing every church member, I tried to reduce my dog tales. Continue reading


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