31 August 2008

Does God Have A Sense of Humor?

Every now and then, I just have to ask the question.

Today was a fine day of contemplating Jeremiah's complaint, "You duped me, O God, and I let myself be duped." Except that "duped" isn't in the usual offender vocabulary. So at various services it was "dupped" and "du-ped." And I offered other words: You tricked me. You seduced me. You sold me a bill of goods. Put in those terms, the guys got it. And we went from there to talk about why Jeremiah complained.

Being a spokesperson for God should be a good thing, right? Except people yell at him, chase him out of town, throw rocks at him, toss him down a dry well. Where's the reward in all that?

And Peter, who has only lived with his new name for half a paragraph, hears that his Friend is going to be killed in Jerusalem and goes sideways. "God forbid anything should happen to you!" Jesus slaps on a new name, "You Satan," and goes on to talk about the suffering to come.

You thought becoming a Christian would make your life easier? WRONG Thank you for playing. Becoming a person of faith means you get to know the great secret: in good times and in bad, God is with you. You are not alone. Your suffering means something and, linked to Christ, you may be able to understand that you are linking to all people who are suffering, whom God wishes to heal.

After Communion in the R-1 dining room, a time of silence followed--except for the chatterers who just don't get it. So I offered to teach them a prayer that one of the jail chaplains uses often.
I spoke a line and they repeated it.

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still [at which point the ice machine over in the corner kicked into high gear and belched out a bucketful of ice]

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know.

Be still.


Does God have a sense of humor? You bet. Especially when we are taking ourselves far too seriously.

12 August 2008

Square Breathing

Being a chaplain requires all types of arcane knowledge. For me, having worn the crown of Queen of the Lint Trap Brain for many years, I'm often jazzed when some little thing I learned years ago becomes important in the work at hand. For instance: square breathing.

I heard square breathing described when I listened to Dr. Joy Browne on her call-in advice show. She's far more helpful and far less caustic and toxic than another Dr. I could name, but won't. At any rate, the caller was having problems with panic attacks and Dr. Joy talked about square breathing. I filed the information away, much like I have filed away in that same lint trap brain the particular Catholic feast day we might be celebrating.

Enter prison chaplaincy and the opportunity to work with all kinds of people of all sorts of faith practices and none to speak of. Many of them are first-timers and all they've really seen of prison, besides their weeks or months in county jail, is that they've seen on "Lock-Up" on MSNBC. Not the best of examples.

So a guy is in my office, his head filled with stories about prison rapes, weapons made of sharpened toothbrushes, and the memory of some tattooed guy who told him he was "going to learn a lot" at the prison. He's scared witless. He hasn't been sleeping. He may (or may not) have discovered a need for God--at this point, most of them are looking to hire a bodyguard and I'm more likely to recommend St. Michael the Archangel. But he wants something he can do or use.

So I teach him about square breathing.

I draw a square on a piece of paper. I label the upper-left corner with "Inhale 4." The next corner is labelled, "Hold 4." The next, "Exhale 4." And the last, "Do nothing for 4."

Then I make him demonstrate. "Inhale for a count of four." He looks at me as if I'm crazy, but he can count to four, and he does what I say.

"Hold it for four counts. One, two, three, four." Some have a hard time doing this.

"Exhale for four. Take your time. Not all at once. One, two, three, four." We have to practice this one a few times.

Finally, "Now do nothing for four." I tap out the count.

By this time, just trying to follow my directions has refocused the guy in front of me. Doesn't matter if he came in crying about the letter he got from his girlfriend or the bad dude who just moved into his cell. For the moment, he's concentrating on breathing and counting.

And that's all there is to it. Square breathing.

You can increase the count as you get better with the breathing, but most of my guys start with 4 and use that. They can spend 10 minutes--or even 5--doing that kind of breathing. The oxygen remembers the pathway to the brain. The heart rate slows down. The noise of prison fades away. Panic takes a back seat.

Learning not to panic in prison is a big deal, but it's not mentioned in orientation and none of the guys who have "been there, done that" think to pass it on to the new guys. I use it myself, when the days are too full of "do this NOW" moments. I stop where I am. I close my eyes. I inhale for a count of four, and hold it for four, and exhale for four, and do nothing for four.

I don't know if Dr. Joy Brown is still teaching people about square breathing, but I've hung on to the lesson and thank her every time I teach someone else the simple technique.

10 August 2008


A word about George, for all you who've been praying for him. His wife called yesterday to say that George went for surgery Tuesday, as planned, and two more times. Things were dicey and he was on a ventilator. But Friday and Saturday, he was sitting up, off the ventilator, "marching in place," and hankering for a walk. All of this is good news.

I let the men know at all the services today. We had gathered around George at two of the services last week and prayed for him, supplementing the Anointing of the Sick he'd celebrated on Saturday evening. I am always moved by how personally the men in prison take on the task of praying for others, near or far.

Today's readings about Elijah in the cave and Jesus on the water were especially fitting. In the great storms of life, what do we most need to hear? "I am with you."