I got my start in life in a hospital as a patient, sort of, if a baby in the nursery counts. And I may make my exit out of life in a hospital too. Such odd places, life and death, survival and decline mingled hauntingly in a single institution. I recall as a young pastor holding hands with an older gentleman as he breathed his last. Just as the nurse declared “He’s gone,” the violins (was it Brahms?) on the loudspeaker announced a baby had just been born. C’est la vie.
In Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom tells of the day that his friend and teacher Morrie Schwartz was told he had Lou Gehrig’s disease. “Outside, the sun was shining and people were going about their business. A woman ran to put money in the parking meter. Another carried groceries.” Morrie was stunned by the normalcy of the day around him. “Shouldn’t the world stop? Don’t they know what has happened to me?”
Not that you want others to know. In our culture, which idolizes health, progress, and quick fixes, there’s almost a sense of embarrassment that you haven’t just whipped this thing. I was in the hospital way longer than anybody anticipated, and I could feel both concern but also shock that I wasn’t home quickly. Tells us a lot about how good modern medicine is, and about how we therefore blanch over the idea of extended suffering.
I’ve always loved hospital visitation, that holy chance to represent God’s church to people under duress; I knew never to stay long (rule of thumb learned day 1 in seminary). As a patient in some misery, I found myself super honored someone would stop by. But I could muster zero hospitality energy, and I asked Lisa to hold folks at bay. I texted one visitor later to apologize for being rude. She understood. I hope. A couple of visitors just poked their heads in and waved. I felt so loved! – and relieved.
What to make of God and a long hospital stay? A lovely poem about illness by John O’Donohue speaks of “a courageous hospitality toward what is difficult, painful and unknown.” On day 1, tethered to equipment and flat on a bed, I thought, “I’ll pray a lot.” It’s embarrassingly difficult to pray when you’re fending off constant nausea and a splitting headache – and various professionals zigging and zagging in and out to run tests, poke, stick, listen, prod. I veered quite a few times toward utter despair. I do know enough to recall that the Bible is full of despair. It’s not something that mortifies Jesus. He is very close to us in our despair.
One of those professionals turned a light bulb on in my soul. A new nurse introduced himself: Martin. He asked how I was. This was at my nadir, the worst day and maybe hour ever. I said “I’m despairing that I’m not getting better. I may never get better.” He said, “You’ll get better.” I asked, “Is that a promise?” He laughed and said, “No, it’s medicine.”
Two things about that. We talk a lot about hope, or faith, as if it’s something in us we have to do, and strongly if possible. But we hope in God, we believe in God. It’s not our earnestness and positive thoughts about God, but God that saves us.
And then: medicine. We pray for cures. And God knows I might have prayed for more sick people in my lifetime than anyone you’ve ever met. God heals most often through the smart, hard-working, valiant professionals we call doctors, nurses, the IV team, the X-ray and CT scan people who are God’s handymen, delegates, worker bees, elves… so don’t go as far as you can go with medicine and then ask God to overcome what they can’t fix. God is already there when after your physical, the internist orders up an extra test. God is even in you, God’s delegate, in your body, the Temple of the Holy Spirit: when you feel pain or discomfort (as I did to start all this), it’s God saying “James! James! I wired you with these warning signals! Go see my people down there who can help!”
I have a friend who heard I was laid low, and said “God sure has a way of slowing you down.” I can’t think for a moment God thought “James is just wearing himself out being so busy! I’ll jerk this colonic volvulus thing in his gut, and then he’ll cool his jets for a while.” But there is a simplification, a cutting to the core of what really matters. O’Donohue’s poem suggests illness might become “a lantern to illuminate new qualities emerging in you,” and that this light might “release whatever has become false in you.” Once it became evident I’d be in the hospital for quite a few days, and I’d emerge sub-par whenever I got out, I cancelled a week of busy things to do in about ten minutes. Important and urgent, some of these things! But all tumbled rapidly off the table of what really matters – as did trips to Colorado and Peru planned for my sabbatical. Funny how little they mattered in the face of a health crisis!
For me, and I pray I can cling to this more zealously than I clung to my last shred of dignity being prodded in that green gown, it’s understanding what really matters – that is, what it is to be human. To be human isn’t to make mistakes. To be human isn’t to consume or maximize fun. My fellow human temporary boarders in the hospital? Not one of us wanted to be there. Yet everyone one of us very much wanted to be there. Like life on earth: it’s a pilgrimage, we’re passing through – but gosh, it’s such a cool space. And it took me a week to realize I didn’t know the political or religious affiliation of any other patient or professional. Lovely. Calming. Healing.
We are alive in these bodies. It’s precarious, always – which is what makes it such a treasure. I’m here. My wife and kids are hovering nearby. Life is good. Life is hard. Life is… life. I’m a person who matters, if only in this small space to not many people. Which is why I made it a point to ask every professional her or his name – and where are you from? No one responded with merely a city or state. Always a story. So many stories: people with jobs, but dreamers, lovers, with their own issues and gifts and glories. I might just wear this hospital wrist-band forever to remind me of just that. Being human. That’s all God asks of us. That’s all God asks us to ask of one another.