more vulnerable

I hate hospitals, but I’ve learned to appreciate what happens in them. Most people spend some time in a hospital room over the course of their life. Some of us end up there more than others, of course, and the probable percentage grows as we age. But I’ve learned, in these years as a pastor, not to assume anything about who needs healing, and how.

When I started out as a youth pastor, my job description included “pastoral care for youth,” and since my seminary education had led me to believe that “pastoral care” mostly involved visiting old people in the hospital and offering subdued sympathy for grieving people, I was baffled as to what pastoral care for YOUTH might entail. I learned pretty quickly, though, that teenagers’ bodies and souls are just as prone to pain and just as much in need of healing as anyone else. Bones break, parents get sick and die, anxiety and depression run rampant.

I found myself in hospital rooms, funeral homes, doctors’ offices and mental health facilities regularly in that job. And when I got to my current church, tasked with pastoral care for all ages, not much changed. My congregation is tiny – not small, tiny – and I still make several hospital visits each year. We live in a place with world class hospital systems, and I think I’ve been in them all over the last 7 years. One precious older woman, whose health required her to visit several different hospitals toward the end of her life, took up the habit of ranking the attractiveness of the doctors at each facility. I loved visiting her, hearing how the latest crop of MDs ranked.

There are rhythms and etiquettes to visiting someone in the hospital. People are vulnerable as patients, and part of my job is to honor that vulnerability. They’re usually naked under the thin hospital gown. Sometimes they’re tethered to a bed by cords and tubes, sometimes they’re just too weak to sit up by themselves. Most of the time, some kind of drug or another is altering their ability to process or make decisions. Usually, if you’re in the hospital for some kind of treatment, you are not in your strongest frame of mind to begin with. Pain messes with us, and the processes of healing do, too.

A medical student visited worship last week, and told me that her professors are trying to teach them motivational interviewing, how to really *listen* to their patients. I’ve encountered doctors who are great at listening and doctors who are really, really bad at it. And, I know that a doctor’s job – like a nurse’s or a medical technician’s – has long checklists and limited time. Listening is hard to do when your job description entails finding and fixing a problem – finding and fixing dozens of problems for dozens of people every single day. Honoring vulnerability is hard to do when everyone is expecting you to figure out a way to stop this person from being forced to be vulnerable.

My job, on the other hand, has no time constraints other than my lunch plans. I will probably not get called away to another emergency, since this visit with this person IS the day’s urgent matter. I know that not all pastors have that luxury, but my job – part-time pastor of a tiny church – does. Which is an incalculable blessing. Some people, of course, are too uncomfortable in body or brain to want a long visit with their pastor. But other people relish it. I do, too. Dedicated one-on-one time with someone is rare, and even a meeting over coffee or lunch doesn’t provide the kind of intimacy and vulnerability of a hospital. People are willing to go deep, to be honest, to offer up truths about themselves and the world that just don’t see the light of day during a crowded restaurant lunch hour. I know it’s true, because I have received confessions and heard stories and shared prayers against the backdrop of beeping monitors and rumbling oxygen machines that I never would have dreamed of in the outside world.

Which is what I mean when I say that I’ve learned to appreciate what happens in hospitals: not the physical healing and awe-inducing miracles of modern medicine, though that is certainly worth pondering – and I have. What I mean is the way that being in a hospital, facing the limitations of our bodies and brains forces us to be honest with ourselves and with one another. I have been surprised, infuriated, delighted and crushed inside hospitals, and very little of that has had to do with diagnoses or treatment plans. Maybe it’s callous to say that visiting people in the hospital helps me be a better pastor; but that is true. It’s also true that spending time with people in pain has made me more of a person: softer, gentler, more curious, more convinced of each one’s intrinsic value and belovedness.

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