Wednesday, November 26, 2008

PI/QI: Theological Reflections (1)

(This post is the first in a series on theological reflection on Performance Improvement/Quality Improvement. This material was first published in “Performance Improvement: Theological Reflections”, Chaplaincy Today, Vol. 16, Number 1 (Summer, 2000), and has been reedited for this setting. For future posts in this series or in the series on measurement for chaplains, please select the label "PI/QI" in the left hand column.)

Performance Improvement: Theological Reflections, Part 1

As a chaplain, I work in an environment of multiple (and occasionally conflicting) philosophies and value systems. As a chaplain in a church-related hospital, I take particularly seriously the call to reflect in the institution the values of the faith community in which the hospital is rooted, and for the institution to reflect those values in the community.

In that light, I am blessed. The administration, “a Pharaoh who knows Joseph” as it were, shares this concern. At the same time, my institution is like those around it, committed to good, competent business practices so as to continue to provide care. As a result, the language and philosophy of management is as much a part of the environment – sometimes more visibly a part of the environment- as the Christian tradition. In that context, I believe it is important to bring the process of theological reflection to this contemporary language and culture. This paper is written in that spirit.

A recurring and powerful concept in health care today is that of performance improvement (PI). Because of the importance of this concept in the organizational practices of my hospital and many others, I believe it calls for consideration and reflection in our capacity as the practicing theologians in our institutions.

This series is not written as a thorough and complete reflection on performance improvement. Indeed, I believe that undertaking is one of many of us in our profession, and not mine alone. At the same time, I would argue that this is an important task for us as chaplains at this time. In addition, I have shared elements from my own theological reflection process, out of my own Episcopal tradition, that I hope will provide places to start that process of reflection and discussion.

Our task: the need to reflect theologically on PI

It is important that we reflect theologically on performance improvement, as it is important to reflect on any part of our ministry. We are called to be theologians. Indeed, any person, or at least any person of faith, can be a theologian. This is because any person can have an opinion about God, and at base “opinion about God” is what “theology” means. At the same time, we people of faith, and especially we who feel called to ministry, are called to be good theologians. That is, we are called to be intentional and thoughtful about our theology and to be thinking theologically about all of our experience.

This is an ongoing process in the life of the community of faith as Owen C Thomas states:

The church has to reflect on its faith and message in every age, so that it can interpret and present it in a way that can be understood in each new period. If the church tries too hard to make its message relevant, it may lose its message and become simply a sanctification of the culture around it. But is may also be so concerned to maintain the purity of its message that it becomes unintelligible to the contemporary age. So the task of theology or the theological task of the church is to interpret its faith and message so that it can be understood and affirmed in each new age. [1]

Thus, early Christian writers used the framework of Neoplatonic philosophy to make a faith with Hebrew roots accessible to the people of the Roman Empire; this Neoplatonic framework was superseded by the Aristotelian in the High Middle Ages. As we particularize our ministry in our own time and place, we are called to reflect theologically on the language and culture within which we live. I would assert that this includes the larger culture of civil society and also the corporate culture of health care within which we function.

As chaplains, we also can feel the hazards to which Thomas refers. One common arena for that struggle is in our attitude as chaplains to administrative responsibilities. We might “maintain purity” by avoiding administration to focus on patient care. If so, we risk losing accountability and undermining our own authority in the context of our institutions. Conversely, we might become so accepting of the corporate culture in our institutions that we fail to uphold the primacy of care of persons as the purpose of health care, in principle if not in practice.

Therefore, we are called both to function fully in our institutions, and also to reflect on and sometimes confront them – to be in the world, but not of it. As an important piece of that environment, performance improvement is a process appropriate for our concern and our practice. It is the standard used by both the Center for Medicare/Medicaid Services (CMS) and by the Joint Commission for the Accreditation for Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) for evaluating the quality of care in institutions. It is a common aspect of corporate culture in our society and a growing aspect of corporate culture in health care. Certainly, it is important enough to be worth our attention as theologians.

Performance improvement also can be a valuable tool, a technique for reflecting on professional practice. Thus, it also is worthy of our attention as ministers. In our understanding of ministry in general, and of clinical pastoral ministry in particular, reflection on practice that leads to improvement in practice is fundamental. Therefore, both as a present dynamic in practice and as a valuable tool for practice, performance improvement is well worth the effort of theological reflection.

Performance Improvement: an overview

To reflect theologically on performance improvement, it is helpful to review what it is. Performance improvement is essentially a result, the consequence of management processes that result in operation or service that is better according to the standards of the organization. It is the goal both of quality management, e.g., Total Quality Management (TQM), Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI), in which improvement is the result of incremental change, and of reengineering, in which improvement is the result of radical rethinking and restructuring of processes.

At the same time, the phrase “performance improvement”, has come to represent the institutional process of which such improvement is the goal. For example, the Performance Improvement Standards of the JCAHO do not specify what procedures should be used to pursue improvement, nor do they specify which process should be improved. Rather, they speak to a sense of purpose in the organization to pursue that goal: that there will be some program for improving some of the organization’s processes in progress at all times. Thus, for the JCAHO, an organization’s commitment to continuous, ongoing improvement in significant processes is an essential measure both of the organization’s commitment toquality, and of the organizations quality in the moment.

As a result, performance improvement is a philosophy. It is the philosophy undergirding two contemporary management strategies, quality management (most often TQM or CQI) and reengineering. These strategies appear to be different, but at heart they are not.

Reengineering and TQM are merely different pews in the church of process improvement. The two share an orientation toward process, a dedication to improvement, and a dogma that one begins with the customer. [2]

If we recognize performance improvement as a set of values, Michael Hammer’s use of church imagery here is particularly appropriate.

Whether the process is incremental, as with quality management, or radical, as with reengineering, there are certain characteristics of all programs for performance improvement. While these may be described somewhat differently in different institutions, we can describe those characteristics succinctly.

The first characteristic is a review of an existing process or processes based on facts and not on the opinions of those involved in the process. To this end, the first step in performance improvement is measurement and examination of the process, frequently using statistical and scientific tools. The principle is to base the assessment, and any potential changes, on data rather than on the impressions of those involved in the process.

Based on the data gathered, the next step is to choose and implement a change, a new procedure or task. In some programs this is divided into two stages: design and implementation. The data gathered are evaluated, and an area for change is targeted. A new approach to an aspect of the problem is selected and then begun. Various analytical tools may be brought to bear in evaluating information and determining where to begin.

Once selected and begun, the process is followed and measured, again to gather evaluative data. The information is not only to determine narrow standards of “better or worse” but to establish parameters for performance. That is, there is an acceptance that different individuals and different circumstances will affect any process. Therefore, norms are developed, expectations of standards operations. Any events or measurements that fall outside those norms are analyzed individually to understand the circumstances that make them exceptional. On that basis, norms may be changed, or new problems may be identified.

Finally, based on the experiment with the new approach, a decision is made to keep or discard the new process. Again, it is important to base this on data gathered during the implementation process. If the system is improved, it is now possible to identify how and why. If it is not, there is opportunity to review the system again and decide a new area for experimentation. In either case, the intent is for this cycle to begin again with new assessment of the data and renewed effort at improvement.

In practice, this is not often the process of an individual or even of an individual department. It is common to create a committee for the purpose, involving individuals from different disciplines. In addition to bringing different perspectives to the issue at hand, this involvement of a community, as it were, aids in the breadth and accuracy of the data collected and to the understanding of the system which may be improved.

It is this process, this continuing effort at improvement, that is of interest to organizations that survey health care institutions. For those institutions who are surveyed for Medicare reimbursement, whether by the JCAHO, HCFA or some other entity, it is this process that surveyors intend to document with tracking data from the institution. As a result, this philosophy, used originally in industrial management, has become a major concern in health care.

[1] Owen C. Thomas, Introduction to Theology (Cambridge, MA: Greeno, Hadden, and Company, Ltd., 1973).
[2] Michael Hammer, Beyond Reengineering (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 81-2.

(Once again, look for future posts in this series under the "PI/QI" label in the left hand column.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Performance/Quality Improvement for Chaplains: Measurement (1)

With this post I'm beginning a series of posts on Performance/Quality Improvement and measurement for Chaplains. If this is of interest, check the "Labels" section in the left column, and choose "PI/QI."

There’s a new publication I would encourage chaplains and those who support them institutionally to read. The project, “Professional Chaplains and Health Care Quality Improvement.” is the work of The Hastings Center, a well known institution in the field of health care and bioethics, in collaboration with The HealthCare Chaplaincy, an organization providing chaplaincy and clinical pastoral education programs to institutions in New York. The project has now released two publications. One is a Summary of Activities for 2008. The second, and more important, is Can We Measure Good Chaplaincy, a collection of essays published in the current edition of The Hastings Center Report (Volume 38 No. 6, November-December 2008). You can access both reports here (and a hat tip to PlainViews for pointing to these).

The five essays in Can We Measure Good Chaplaincy focus on application of principles of Quality Improvement (QI) to the practice of professional chaplaincy. For those interested, and for the many familiar with these principles from other industries, other ways of talking about this are Total Quality Management (TQM); Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI); Performance Improvement (PI); and Reengineering (which, I suppose, needs no abbreviation). The standards of the Center for Medicare/Medicaid Services (CMS) and of such accrediting bodies as the Joint Commission for the Accreditation for Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO, or simply “The Joint”) assume an environment of PI/QI in healthcare institutions. Such institutions as the Institute of Medicine (IOM, part of the National Academies); the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ); the Institute for Healthcare Improvement; and the National Quality Forum have called for a PI/QI approach across the board in health care.

And “across the board in health care” should include pastoral care. I have long been a proponent of this. I have mentioned it here before. I’ve written at greater length elsewhere in an article I hope to serialize here soon. For all our resistance as spiritual caregivers to the corporate models that so often seem to objectify the people we seek to serve, I believe there are within our traditions models that can allow us to see value in PI/QI in ministry. These five essays speak to this meaningfully.

That said, they do not address one aspect of that process that is explicit in the title of the collection. The difficult question among chaplains is whether in fact we can measure chaplaincy at all, much less use it to tell “good” from “bad,” and offer directions for “improvement.”

So, let me think a little about that question in this way: what can we measure about our work, and how is any individual measure helpful (or not). After all, no one is arguing we should be trying to figure out how to measure quantitatively an increase a closer relationship with God, or even an increase in or loss of hope. Indeed, in the fifth essay, "The Nature of Chaplaincy and the Goals of QI: Patient-Centered Care as Professional Responsibility,” Nancy Berlinger of the Hastings Center recalls that

the Institute of Medicine gave us six ways of looking at the QI wall in its influential 2001 report, Crossing the Quality Chasm. The report described six goals, or “aims,” for QI in health care: it should aim to make health care safe, effective, patient-centered, timely, efficient, and equitable.

She recommends that chaplains focus on contributing to making care patient-centered.

There has been research on how spiritual care might make health care more effective, but even the best of such studies – including one in which I was involved – had methodological issues. Most critically, it has been hard to demonstrate a result that was actually causal, and not merely coincidental.

So, what can we measure, and how is what we can measure useful? Think about this with me.

We can measure persons contacted, a basic head count. It’s a relatively easy number to arrive at. We can track it day by day, and can measure the result against an agreed standard. We can, for example, compare it to the number of beds in the institution, or the number of patients admitted each day. It is a method that in once sense measures the various contexts in which we work. It allows for some distinction and sophistication by allowing different categories – patients, families and staff, inpatients and outpatients, etc. It can provide guidance for practice. For example, a plateau in the number of contacts, or in the proportion of patients contacted might be indication for redefining a job description, coaching a chaplain, or adding an additional position. It reflects an assumption that many of us find appealing: that many patients, if not all, benefit from the availability of spiritual care, and the more patients contacted the more patients who are benefiting. Moreover, it is a straightforward measure to explain to administrators who may not have much experience working with chaplains.

However, there are also limitations to a simple head count. To begin with, whom or what are we really counting? Do we focus on patients, or do we include others – family members, staff persons, etc. What is a contact? If I see one patient who is being visited by three friends and then consult with the nurse caring for that patient, is that one contact or five? If I speak to an orientation group or to a leadership meeting, is that one contact or 25? If I visit the patient and family, then consult with the nurse, and then return to the room is that one visit or two, five contacts or eight? A simple head count is pretty simple to pad, to exaggerate.

Moreover, a simple head count really says little or nothing about the quality of the visit. There are chaplains who, driven by their own expectations or those of their managers, try to see every patient every day, or as close as possible. Too often they provide what I call, from the Biblical literature, “a wave and a heave offering:” they stop by just long enough to wave from the door and then heave ho for the next room. Such measures are not sensitive to the various needs of patients. A meaningful patient visit may be as short as ten minutes, or as long as thirty. Providing support for a grieving family at the time of death may take hours, hours of great intensity but not that many people.

A head count also allows for a very limited purview for the chaplain. It is not terribly sensitive to a chaplain’s possible participation in education of patients, staff, or the community, in ethics issues, in policy development, or in research, writing, or continuing education.

A head count is a crude measure of productivity, without offering any real measure of the product. It is reasonable, and reasonably simple to measure. It can be mined for data, although while the data might be relevant arguably it is not sufficient. It is easy to explain to administrators, but does not give meaningful measures of either the intensity or breadth of the chaplain’s work. Still, because it is easy to explain to administrators, it is one we need to consider, and one many of us have to work with, like it or not.

Stay tuned. Future posts will look at other possibilities for measurement.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

More on Mount Calvary

There's a news story in today's New York Times about Mount Calvary and the monks of the Order of the Holy Cross. You can read it here. (And thanks to Episcopal Cafe for that.)

Please continue to pray for the Order, for the monks specifically of Mount Calvary, and for all the others around them who have lost so much in the fires.

And for my fellow Associates of the Order: there is a Yahoo Group for Associates. There aren't many of us on it, and there isn't much traffic. We'd love to have you join us on the Group. If you'd like to subscribe, email me from the link on my Profile page, and I'll be happy to send the information.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Called to Risk: Reflections on Proper 28 (RCL)

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

I’ve been pondering the lessons for Proper 28, preparing for my sermon tomorrow (it’s not unusual at all for me to be this late; indeed, it’s more the rule than the exception; but that’s a story for another post.). Central to that consideration has been that story we all know so well, the Parable of the Talents.

We all do know it, of course. The householder is leaving for an extended trip, and wants to set matters in order. He calls his three slaves and gives each of them a large amount of money, different amounts, as Matthew writes, “to each according to his ability.” At the householder’s return, each of the first two slaves had traded with their funds, and each had doubled their funds. The third had instead buried it in the back yard – literally! He lost nothing; but, having gained nothing, he suffered his master’s wrath and was thrown out.

As I looked at what others had written about this story, I found something interesting. Several wrote of the money given to each of the slaves as “gifts.” Perhaps that appeals to our use of the word “talent:” an aptitude, a skill, a capacity, something that we might indeed see as a “charism,” a spiritual gift.

The more I looked at it, though, that idea didn’t make sense. First, these were slaves. Whatever the capacity these huge sums of money might have allowed – and these were huge sums of money! – the slaves remained slaves, not simply responsible to the master but owned by him, body and soul. Second, the money was never the slaves’. It always remained the property of the master, whatever latitude the slaves might have had in using it. After all, when the third slave returned his money the master identified it as “my own,: Third, the master’s clear expectation was that the money would be used. Certainly, he was not at all pleased with the third slave, even though he as master had lost nothing.

No, the money was not, was never a gift. The money was a responsibility, a charge given by the master.

Now, the tasks were not assigned blindly, as it were. The master gave a different sum “to each according to his ability.” So, the master never expected as much of the third slave as he did of the second, much less of the first. The third slave was assessed to have the least capacity from the beginning. We could wonder, then, why the master was so disappointed, when, after all, the third slave hadn’t really failed. He didn’t lose anything, so he didn’t really fail, did he?

But we know that the answer is yes, he did fail. But his failure was not measured by how much money he made, or might have made. His failure was not his failure to profit, but his failure to try. What did the master say? “So, you knew me so well? You found me so frightening? Then you could at least have done something worthwhile, instead of simply sitting on what you had.”

The hard part for the third slave was that he lacked faith. Isn’t that what the master said? Those who succeeded were “good, with faith.” They had the faith to take some risk with their talents. Notably, they had some faith, faith in their master and faith in themselves, recognizing the faith that their master had in them. He had judged them each to have the capacity to manage those large amounts of money. They accepted his assessment, and felt they could take the risks of trading with those large amounts of somebody else’s money. When they took the risk, they had their faith confirmed. The third slave lacked faith in himself, and even in his master’s assessment of his capacity. He felt afraid, unwilling to take any risk; and so he failed in the eyes of his master.

We ourselves do talk about talents that God has given – both talents in the sense of capacities, and for many in the sense of financial resources to live out those capacities. We talk about them as gifts, and express our gratitude. At the same time, we need to remember that these are not really gifts. However great might be the capacities the God gives us, they do not make us God, or even gods. Instead, they are responsibilities. God gives them to us for God’s purposes, however much latitude we might feel in using them. We remain God’s servants, stewards of capacities and resources that remain God’s, to be used for God’s purposes.

And God expects us to take risks with those gifts, those capacities. After all, he has given them to us according to our abilities – that is, God has faith in our abilities to do something good, if we will only take the risk to try. God will certainly expect different things of different ones of us; but of each of us God expects us to take a risk and make an effort. And God will be displeased, not if we try and fail, but rather if we don’t try at all.

Zephaniah brings that home to us. He proclaims the Day of the Lord, and it looks like a difficult day for all. Yet, the target audience, if you will, is really quite specific: “those who rest complacently,… who say, ‘The Lord won’t do either good or ill.’” Those whose homes will be plundered, whose lives will be uprooted and destroyed, are those who simply try to lay low, to try nothing, believing that thus they will lose nothing.

So clearly we are called to take risks with the capacities God gives us, to make efforts to carry out God’s purposes, without knowing whether we will succeed of fail. God has faith in us that we can do it. But, of course, it’s all too easy for us to lose faith in ourselves, to believe that we’re not good enough or strong enough or wise enough or enough of something else. After all, who knows our shortcomings better than we do? And so we lose faith in ourselves, and faith in God’s assessment of us. We can lose faith, too, in God’s promise. Christ has told of us of God’s wonderful promises for us if we walk in faith before him. But there are so many places and so many voices to tell us just how frightening God can be. Like the third servant, we can become immobilized, to afraid of failure, and too afraid of God, to take the very risks God asks of us.

But Paul had a word for us on that. He reminded us, with the Thessalonians, that we are children of the light and the day, not of darkness. He reminded us, with them, that God has destined us not for destruction but for salvation.

So, let us have faith – faith in God and faith in ourselves and faith in the capacities God has given us, however great or small they might seem. God has given to each of us capacities according to our abilities. What God expects of us is that we do something with his capacities, for a while put under our stewardship. And what God expects of us is not a specific measure of success, but a willingness to risk: to take these capacities and use them for God’s purposes. We’re not certain of success if we do; we’ve seen enough history to be aware of that. But we’re certain to disappoint God if we don’t.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Mount Calvary Burned

As an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross I am among those saddened at the loss of the Mount Calvary Monastery and Retreat Center in the Tea Fire in Montecito, California. You can read an ENS reports about it here, and can see local TV news reporting here. As the TV footage shows, there was terrible destruction at the Center, and yet some things were saved. Strikingly, the garden cross still stands.

The brothers were safely evacuated, and are staying for now with the Sisters of the Holy Nativity at St. Mary's Retreat House. We're thankful that none of them was injured.

I have visited other houses of the Order, including the recently-closed Incarnation Priory in Berkeley (most of whose monks were relocated to Mount Calvary). I had hoped one day to visit Mount Calvary as well. While that hope isn't gone, it is certainly put off. With many others, I look forward to the new monastery that will be built, and pray for the continued ministry of the Order, not only in the Santa Barbara area, but also for the larger church.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

More Good Stuff for Chaplains (and Others)

It's a rich week!  I normally point to Episcopal Cafe when I've had something new posted there.  However, my friend and colleague Andrew Gerns has a new post there that I think will be valuable and encouraging reading for chaplains, and at least quite interesting to others.  Before becoming Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania, Andrew was for some time a hospital chaplain.  Take a look at his new piece.  And, if you're interested, you can see other things he's written at his own blog, Andrew Plus.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Another Voice on CPE

Because each summer I look for and point to blogs discussing the experience of clinical pastoral education (CPE), folks periodically look here for information on the CPE experience. With that in mind, I encourage folks to check out this article at PlainViews, the online journal about chaplaincy. The author, DonnaLee Dougherty, is reflecting on her experience of her recent unit of CPE.

While there, take some time to look at current and past articles at PlainViews. For those of us in the business, and for those interested in chaplaincy, PlainViews is worth visiting regularly.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What General Convention (Hasn't) Said: Veterans and Health

This morning I happened to catch the repeat of “The News Hour” on PBS (in my market they run it the following morning). What caught my attention was this report: “Military, VA Confront Rising Suicide Rates Among Troops.” I encourage you to watch it. The information in it, and the concern for high rates of suicide and emotional trauma among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, are not new to me. This report suggested the Army is working hard to improve the response to these needs, while the Veterans Administration may be lagging behind.

That brought me to wonder what the General Convention had said about care, and especially health care, for veterans. When I searched actions of General Convention since 1976, I discovered that there was, sadly, very little. Indeed, there was only one resolution, dating all the way back to 1976. That year the General Convention passed resolution 1976-B182, titled “Affirm Bicentennial by Resolving Issues Relating to the Vietnam War.” While it did not speak specifically of health care, it did say in part,

1. Commend the leaders of the United States Government for the efforts and programs aimed at restoring to productive lives those who served the nation in the Indochina conflict as well as those who chose not to serve;

2. Urge the furtherance of those efforts by granting to Vietnam veterans benefits fully equivalent to those granted to veterans who served the nation in World War II and in the Korean conflict; ...

On this Veterans Day I would hope that all of us, without waiting for a resolution from General Convention, could support the same efforts for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan; and, for that matter, of Panama, Grenada, Bosnia, Somalia, and elsewhere. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder isn’t really new. It’s just a medical diagnostic term for how emotional traumas have affected some veterans in any conflict. Thank God that more veterans have not been so seriously affected; but we are still called, both in national responsibility and in Christian compassion, to support appropriate services for those veterans who have been.

Again, I regret that General Convention has not had more to say on this over the last generation. On the other hand, we’ll soon be in Anaheim....

Monday, November 10, 2008

Of Justice and Long Nights: Reflections on Proper 27, Year A

Amos 5:18-24; Matthew 25:1-13. Preached (well, something like this was preached) 11/9/08.

"I hate, I despise your solemn assemblies" - what a passage to get when coming to an Episcopal Church! But, it is all too easy to become impressed with our own solemn assemblies, both religious and civil. We have been through a season especially heavy with the latter. And that season isn't really over. We're coming to Thanksgiving, a holiday both civil and religious. We'll soon enough experience the religious seasons of Advent and Christmas; and we'll hardly be past Epiphany and the Feast of the Baptism when we come to the civil assembly of the Inauguration.

"I take no pleasure in your burnt offerings...
But let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream."

For many of us this Inauguration will be special, and special in a way that speaks particularly of justice. Legal slavery ended perhaps 150 years ago; but the legal vestiges - economic and literacy requirements that prevented African-Americans from participating with anything approaching equality in the political, economic, and cultural life of the nation - were only successfully challenqed in living memory. And they didn't happen all at once by any means! Step by step, from Truman's integration of the military, to Brown vs. the Board of Education, to the Voting Rights Act, things changed. Step by step, from the brave children of Topeka and Little Rock, to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, to the summer of the Freedom Riders and the bridge at Selma, old ways were challenged. Not all at once, but step by step; and if, contrasted with 300 years of legal or economic slavery it appeared short, for those who lived through it, it seemed - indeed, it was - a lifetime. Is it any wonder we have heard so many say, "I hoped it would happen someday, but I never thought it would happen in my lifetime."

And so we look to this Inauguration, and it speaks to us of justice, doesn't it? Well, yes and no.

"Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

Of course there is something of justice about this election and this inauguration, something we can and should celebrate. On the other hand, this is not justice accomplished; it is only one step forward. There is much to celebrate; but if we imagine that this means things are now just, that our work is over, this Inauguration will be just one more solemn assembly - self-satisfying, but insufficient. That’s especially true for us in the Church. If we come to this Eucharistic celebration, as the Eucharistic Prayer says, “for solace only, and not for strength,” this too will be just one more solemn assembly – self-satisfying, but not sufficient. It is important that we recognize that, while we have seen an important landmark, we haven’t experienced a sea change. We celebrate this moment that speaks of justice, but we also recognize that the world hasn’t really changed.

And that can be distressing. It’s all too easy to hope, to imagine that we’ve achieved justice, and to become depressed when it turns out this was only another step forward. And in our distress it is all too easy to become dejected and immobilized.

In a way I think that’s what happened with the wise and foolish virgins. Think about it. There wasn’t any real difference between the lamps of the wise and the foolish virgins. They worked: when lit, they shed bright light. There wasn’t any real difference between the virgins as virgins. All were looking forward to the party, waiting for the bridegroom. However, the foolish virgins weren’t prepared for a long night. They were just as enthusiastic as the wise virgins, and their lights were just as bright; but they weren’t prepared for the long haul.

By the same token, we need to be prepared for the long haul. We can celebrate this step forward, but we also need to be prepared for the fact that the world hasn’t really changed. We are. after all, the people called to proclaim God’s presence in the world. We are called to participate in God’s efforts for justice, to help make the presence of the Kingdom present even in our own time and place. That means proclaiming the presence of God, not just in our celebrations, but also in the long, often dark times between them. That means being prepared not just for the party, but also for the long night.

If we fail in that, our solemn assemblies, however wonderful they are, will indeed be empty show, perhaps satisfying to us, but certainly not to God. However, if we work for justice, if we work to demonstrate the presence of the Kingdom even in our own time, our assemblies will be more than empty parties. They will be landmarks, signs of hope as we wait for God to bring the Kingdom in fullness.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

More on Personal Warmth

In my most recent post at Episcopal Cafe I described research on how individuals react to feeling warm or cold, or to thinking about feeling warm or cold, and how it affects the sense of being included. (If you haven't read that, take minute to do so; and while you're there, take some time for other good stuff published there.) Since posting that, I learned about some additional research. I learned about it in this item from NPR's "All Things Considered." The research it's based on was published in the 10/24/08 edition of the journal Science. You can read the abstract on line here.

This research also had to do with holding something warm. Subjects were students at Yale University. In one experiment, subjects were riding an elevator with another student, who would alternately ask the subjects to hold a cup of either warm or iced coffee while riding up. Once upstairs, they were asked to read a description of a hypothetical person and describe that person's personality. Those who held warm coffee generally had a more positive impression of the hypothetical person than those who held the iced coffee.

In another experiment, subjects were asked to hold and assess either a medical hot pack or a medical cold pack. They were then asked to choose a reward for participating. Those who held the hot pack were more likely to choose a reward as a gift for someone else instead of for themselves, as opposed to those who held the cold packs.

Again, I think perhaps we need to take this seriously for evangelism and for incorporating visitors. Certainly, greet them with a warm handshake. But perhaps it's also worthwhile to greet them with a hot cup of coffee as well. Perhaps it's worthwhile to turn up the thermostat, or develop our own sorts of "prayer shawls," to help people feel comfy in the pews. Being warm to people - literally physically warm - appears to have some good results, at least in terms of people feeling welcome. We are an incarnational, sacramental people. It shouldn't be a stretch to take steps to take our spiritual warmth and make it physically manifest.