Hope in the Hospital? or, No Escape for the Pastor-Theologian

Few places offer a challenge to the pastor-theologian like the hospital. Who knows what that family member is thinking while seated on a bench outside the ICU wing? The look on his or her face may be deceiving.

Gene, not his real name, did not look as though his wife might not live longer than another month. Greg’s eyes tracked the less than one-year old who was trying to figure out his surroundings carried in the arms of his grandpa.

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“How old is he?”

“Nine months,” replied the grandpa.

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We Were Both Waiting

The question broke the concentration I had trying to entertain Fox who knew full well I was not Momma. Our stroll through the large hallway interrupted Gene’s deep thoughts as his 31-year old wife was being attended to in the ICU wing. Maybe he recalled the days he carried his now 11-year old, or even his now 6-year old, in the same way. Could be that Gene, like many of us who have seen the inside of many a hospital, looked for something to draw him away from the reality he faced.

Gene waited to hear if there would be hope he and his wife would have more than a month to enjoy with their two young children before heart disease took her.

I waited to hear word they had moved my Dad after a heart cath procedure the doctor would later describe as a mini-bypass. The surgeon spoke with confidence that the four stents would restore good blood flow. We would need to keep a watchful eye for the next 24 hours.

Gene spoke of hospice with resignation.

We were both waiting.

Patterned Responses

Forgive me if the years as pastor has taken its toll. Certain responses to offers of empathy and sincerity often leave me thinking we pastor types have not done too well.

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“I am sorry to hear about your wife.”

“Well, God has a purpose,” replied Gene.

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Before considering this particular response, think about all the times is seems so surreal that someone could reply this way in the face of such a profound loss. Is it denial? I know many who would think it great faith. Before you wax pious, I have been re-reading Job and one may hardly blame Job for his sense of abandonment at his great loss. His friends choose not to suffer with him. Instead they find his lack of piety enough to prompt their criticism.

Why do we use piety to cauterize our feelings of loss? Is it even human when we do?

Remember, it was Jesus who faced imminent suffering and prayed, “Let this cup pass.” We too quickly follow up with, “Not my will but thine.” We love our Jesus full of Deity. We fear our Jesus full of humanity.

Nearly 30 years into pastoring and I feel it less and less helpful to offer the patterned responses that seem to ignore pain. It is almost as if these responses are little more than a rhetorical drug we use to hide the depth of our sorrow. We fear someone might think us lacking faith. What if our guttural cries actually animated faith?

Is recognizing our own humanity a lack of faith?

You may get offended at what follows. However, I ask you to stay with me, especially those of you who have often looked for safe places to think out loud about these sort of responses. If you do read on, remember I warned you.

Purpose?

One day later I ran into Gene again. Overnight the news changed. Fluid had been drawn from around his wife’s heart. If she followed instructions, they might experience a few more years together rather than just one month.

Does our deflection that our experiences of life somehow fit into a plan we cannot know betray the purpose of these events that call us to be all too human? Is our vision of an impassible God, one who does not feel, the Orthodox position, create in us aspirations to shun all feeling? Do we not see how our vision of un-feeling forms us toward a lack of empathy?

How often have you been told in the throes of great wrestling not to stay there too long? Don’t let those emotions over take you. Tell yourself the truth. What truth? God does not feel so neither should you? After all, we tell those who come to faith we should look to God’s perfections as we measure our own spiritual progress.

Some want to tell us how to handle those feelings. Generally that means we want others to handle their feelings so we can mute our own discomfort. You must know that it is always disconcerting when hearing a young man barely into his 30’s describe a situation most often heard from a man well into his 70’s. Even then, when an aged spouse describes the effects of heart disease, it still comes through the prospect of loss.

What if the purpose of our own suffering, if we must use that sort of language, is to keep us attuned to our own humanity, and the humanity of others?

I do not offer an end to talk of the future, of hope. But, as a pastor I wonder how hopeful it is when we cannot embrace the limitations of our own humanity, must cover it up with Stoic resolve, and want others to avoid expressing loss for our benefit.

Maybe this is our grasp at Deity.

Net Effect

We pastor-theologians cannot escape the call to be human even if those around us expect us to be beyond human. We cannot avoid our role to invite others to be human. If our striving is a form of the un-human, beyond human, then we are inhumane. Our fears express the attendant limitations of humanity.

If we give in to the expectation to live beyond human, above our own humanity, we cannot point to to the God become human – Jesus. Please do not immediately head for the categories of pre-existence and substance. Our minds immediately erase the import of God-with-us if our fear of what might be said encroaches on past determinations of orthodoxy. This is less about offering a new orthodoxy but laying claim to the super orthodoxy of our own humanity.

Jesus disrupts our assault on Mount Deity. 

The move down and in, the Incarnation, cannot be relegated to a hologram like appearance of the Divine in human form.

Some refer to Jesus’ coming as a show of solidarity. I like that. The God who made creation and called it good showed up in the dirt of life to liberate us from the clutches of sin, law, and death that keep our experience of life from approaching Good.

The net effect is the embrace of our humanity as God embraced becoming human and embraces us in Jesus.

Cannot Escape

We came to the hospital like many others. Our hope lay in the collective wisdom and experience of all who practice medicine that they could help my Dad with chest pains. We trusted God would work through the means available. He will be released to go home soon.

While here I could not help but think of others whose lives were altered and are altered just the same.

Tomorrow is the 10 year anniversary of my friend Lyle‘s trip to the hospital. He did not get  the chance at a mini-bypass, or a full bypass for that matter. There are others whose children and spouses I know. Each day these friends live knowing they too came to the hospital with hope only to find the limitations of humanity. Cancer. Heart Disease. Traffic Accidents. Sudden Unexplained Illness. Tragic Accidents. All reminders of our humanity. We cannot escape it.

We cannot escape that hope is tied to our humanity, at least that is what I am exploring. It is what I cannot escape. As a pastor-theologian, I cannot abide patterned responses that seem more intent to avoid our humanity than embrace it. If we avoid our humanity, we miss Jesus.

I cannot escape.

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About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.