Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Book 8 of 2016 -- Caring for Yourself While Caring for Your Aging Parents

Caring for Yourself While Caring for Your Aging Parents: How to Help, How to Survive
Claire Berman (New York: Henry Holt Publishers) 255 pages.

Statisticians and demographers keep telling us that we are going to have a massive number of frail elderly in a few years. The oldest of the Baby Boomers are now 70. What does this mean for us as a society? What might it mean for the church?

It means that there are going to be more and more people developing diseases and conditions of old age. It means that there are going to be more and more family and friends challenged with the task of helping to care for someone who was, once, a caregiver him or herself.

This book (published in 1996) was given to me some years ago. Insides there is a note that reminds me it came from one of my “more mature” moms. [One of the benefits of having grown up in one congregation is that I have a number of surrogate parents, and as we were the youngest family in that particular circle (mainly choir families) all the surrogate parents are “more mature”]. I had never made myself read it. My official reason is that I have never gotten around to it. Unofficially I suspect it is because it is always challenging to think of one's parents (surrogate and actual) as getting to that point of needing care.

The beauty of this book is that it does not grow out of some “expert” deciding to tell people what they need to know. Instead it grows out of the author's own experience, buttressed by research and interview both with caregivers and with professionals in the field. It is inherently practical and down to earth and honest. It names tasks but also talks about the emotional and mental toll that comes with this new way of being with your parent.

In these pages we find tips and resources, a “where to look” sort of thing (though as a US publication these “where to look” type tips are of less direct use for us in Canada). We find stories that show us where some of the greatest rewards and challenges come from. We find warnings about what could go “wrong”. We find reassurance that there is no right way to do this caregiving. And at the end of each chapter we find a bulleted summary of what was just discussed.

In the future the church is going to be filled with both the “frail elderly” and the family and friends who are helping them. As leaders in the church we need to develop tools to help support these people. Or maybe redevelop/reawaken those tools and skills because I think once upon a time we (as a community) had them. With each new generation there are new wrinkles – distance between family members in a much more mobile culture being a big one. But we have the tools within our communities to do it.

My biggest quibble with the book was that, being 20 years old, it was missing a big piece of the resource side – the online world. Then today I was looking at the Chapters website and found that the bookhas been reissued in 2005 with that piece added in.

Our parents will age. (So will we). Most of them (and us) will lose functioning to one degree or another for one reason or another. Some faster, some slower, some sooner, some later. We (and those who will care for us) will all have to adapt to a new reality. It is good to have resources that will help us make the shift.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Book 7 of 2016 -- The Abundant Community

John McKnight and Peter Brock (San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler Publishers) 170 pages

What does it take to build a strong community? What gets in the way of that happening?

It occurs to me that these are two key questions that we, as churches and as communities in general, need to take seriously as we try to imagine what sort of a society we want to live in. Because, to be brutally honest, I am feeling more and more that the idea of community is falling more and more by the wayside with each passing decade. Maybe it is because of the drive to be “productive”. Maybe it is because we have decided to over-schedule ourselves. Maybe it is because we don't trust the people around us anymore (although arguably that is also a result of not having strong community-mindedness – bit of a chicken/egg spiral there) and so often believe that we are to live in a level of fear all the time. Maybe it is because we are so much more of a mobile (or even transient) society – building strong community often takes time and rootedness. Maybe it is because, as McKnight and Brock claim, we have moved from being 'citizens' to being 'consumers'.

At any rate, it is harder and harder to find people who live in a truly encompassing and supportive community. 20 years ago when I was working in a crisis nursery I quickly learned some of the costs of that lack of community. When I was growing up there were a number of people (largely from the church congregation in our case) who could care for my sister and I in case of emergency (or in the case of a planned trip) or people who could share each others' struggles and offer wisdom and support. The people I was talking to on a crisis line had no-one. The lack of community put them into an even deeper crisis. And even then, in the 1970's and 80's I think we could see that community was different than it had been for my grandparents' generation.

In this volume McKnight and Brock begin by outlining the difference between living as 'citizens' where we take ownership for issues, where we live in a more community-building mindset and living as 'consumers' where we go out to buy goods and services to resolve our issues (or possibly to hide from them), where we rely on professionals rather than the community. They suggest that in following the path into consumers we have put much of the strength and wisdom of the community behind us, that maybe we have even lost much that used to come naturally to us as people. They then lay out an alternative way of life, and start to give the readers a map that would take us back to living in the “abundant [and competent] community” where we re-learn that we have the gifts and tools and skills within our communities and associations to live healthy productive lives.

Over and over as I was reading this book two thoughts occurred to me. One was that this is the sort of book that municipal politicians need to read. If we want our communities to be stronger than our leaders need to see a different way of building them. The other is that these are the sorts of things that communities of faith should be doing almost automatically. The church can be a force for modelling a different for of interaction. Much of it we still do just because that is how we are. I fear that we are, even in the church, starting to lose the full sense of what community can be and accomplish.

One of the challenges of following this approach in this century, I think, is going to lie in how we define community. Is it the neighborhood in which we live? Yes, and much of what McNight and Brock talk about works well in that milieu. Is it the groups of which we are a part? Yes (they talk of these as our associations). BUT community today is also something different and broader when we consider the on-line world. In many ways the whole on-line phenomenon is a product of the consumer mindset. But can it also be placed into the paradigm of the abundant, caring community? And how? It would be interesting to ask the authors that question....

Monday, May 16, 2016

Book 6 of 2016 -- Volume 4 of Les Miserables

Is this a love story with an uprising along side? OR is it a treatise on socio-economic-political realities? Or maybe the story of a doomed revolution with a love story as a sub-plot?  OR maybe a study of varying characters and how they deal with the vagaries of life?

Or maybe it is all four and more....

In this (long -- 15 books of varying lengths) volume both the revolution and the love story get to the boil, though the outcome of both is left hanging as we move into Volume 5 (the final volume).

And actually, while they are sometimes aggravating and seem less than germane to the furthering of the actual plot, I am quite enjoying some of the diversions. For example, the discussion about the roots of Parisian slang was intriguing. And there is a great deal of political comment hidden in the text. It has made me ponder doing some looking into a biography of Victor Hugo to see where he was coming from as he wrote.

By now the barricade has repulsed one attack but the defenders seem to expect that their cause is doomed. Marius is despondent, thinking his love is lost forever, and Jean Valjean is wrestling with his own demons and fears.  The one character I whose inner life I would like to learn more about is Cosette.  WE see some but not nearly as much as the others.

Book 5 of 2016 -- Already Missional

Note: I have also written a piece for the church newsletter based on my reading of this book, you can find it here.

Bradley T. Morison (Eugene: Resource Publication, 2016) Pp.123.

One of the key ideas in the world of the church these days is that we need to be missional. Rather than sit and wait for people to come and find out what wonderful people we are we need to be out there actively engaging the community around us, Then people will know who we are and have an incentive to find out more about us.

Which is great. And to be honest I am unsure when this was not the case. Certainly my lived experience of the church has been more of sitting and waiting and assuming that our mere presence is enough to draw folks in. I have not noticed that this approach has been all that effective in my life time – maybe we were always supposed to be missional.

There is a question of how we engage the community. Are we talking about being evangelists and proselytizers, knocking on doors asking folk if they have found the meaning of life? That is certainly one way of being missional and engaging the community. I suggest it is not a way that fits well with most United Church folk. I would also suggest that it is not, in the end, exceptionally effective.

There is another way to engage. This is for the church to become active in the community, to become an active part of trying to make the community around it a better place. This is an approach that is much more attuned to the ethos of the United Church as I understand it. But it raises a whole new set of questions.

Traditionally the missional discussion involves trying to decide what new programs the congregation will offer to the community. Or maybe what formal partnerships the congregation will make with existing organizations. And those are fine ideas. But all too often this approach to being missional leads to the congregational leadership saying to the (already busy) members of the congregation “if we want people to know about us we all have to commit X hours and Y dollars to making this new project work”. And there is the biggest hurdle. How many good ideas have fallen by the wayside because of a lack of resources? The other common problem with these discussions is that there is a tendency for them to involve the repeated use of phrases like “well in they ...” or “Years ago we used to...”. Great. Good for them. But is that something that meets the needs of community where and where you are now?

In this book Brad offers a third alternative. Put simply it starts with asking folk what they are already doing. Church folk in general and United Church folk in particular tend to be very active in the community already. Some of that activity is going to grow out of their faith, to grow out of their understanding of how God would have us live. Normally we fail to recognize that as ministry (both as those doing it and as the church). Having offered that understanding of what it means to be missional, Brad asks the reader to explore a series of questions about how we encourage people to live out the ministries in which they already participate, how the church can recognize those ministries as part of the larger ministry of the congregation, and how the church can support people in their ministry.

This is a book the cries to be read and discussed in a group setting. It is an interesting read for an individual but its power is when a group, say a congregational governing body (and/or the power-brokers—who may or may not be the same people), reads it together and talks about how that congregation might put these ideas into practice.

I have known many people in different places who are active participants in the missio Dei. Sometimes this work is through the church, often it is just because they have a passion for it. Maybe it is time we as the church started to embrace what is already happening rather than think ministry only counts when we can guide and measure and contain it?

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


AS part of the Sabbatical process one is expected to do some form of reporting back at the end. It seems to me that this is actually easiest done if the report is built all along.  Some people start a blog specifically for their sabbatical, but I see no reason to do that when this blog already exists and we have the chance to use the label function.  SO for the period of my sabbatical anything I post that is sabbatical specific will be tagged #Sabbatical.  Most of it will be the annotated bibliography as I work my way through the collection of books I have set aside, but there may also be other reflections, either on the books as they are being read or on other aspects of the rest and recharge period.