Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:32-35
When Rachel Held Evans, author of Searching for Sunday, sought to take a break from the world for solitude, reflection and focus on God, she retreated to St. Bernard’s Monastery in Cullman, Alabama. When I needed some time away, I had double knee replacement surgery and retreated to the hospital and rehab center. I was surprised to find that a byproduct of my stay was the opportunity to do some soul searching and contemplation. I went seeking pain relief and found church as well.
Not that I had lost church because the church that I call home was still on its downtown corner where it has been for over 100 years. But, in recent months, I have felt at odds with the corporate church in America as its leaders made political statements and supported candidates I did not agree with. Their stands on relationships and human rights made me cringe. They ostracized people who dared to question their beliefs which were stated as though all Christians should feel the same way.
On the contrary, in response to world affairs, I was becoming more and more liberal. Mission trips opened my eyes to how the great majority of the world lives, particularly women and children. As a historian, I recalled the struggles women before me endured for the rights I enjoy today. Why should other women suffer simply because of their birthplace? Our country’s new stance on immigration propels me to speak up.
What does it mean to be a part of church? For that matter, what does it mean to be a Christian? All of this was playing out in my heart before I rolled into the operating room, my legs were placed into position and a needle in my arm forced me asleep. When voices urged me awake, with bandages around both knees, groggy and nauseous from pain medicines, a gurney transported me to the orthopedic ward which would be my home for four days. My journey to rediscovering the true meaning of church began there. If you want to know more about being a Christ follower, you need to study Christ. But, if you want to know more about being a part of the church, there is no better place to begin than a hospital. Because as the cliché says, church should be more like a hospital for the broken. And I was definitely broken. Here is what I learned:
Nurse D: My surgery was at 7 AM. I was in a room by 10 and up and walking, staggering really, by 1:30, but it was not until around midnight when the nerve block wore off that I was fully conscious. In pain and desperate to go to the bathroom, I rang for help and Nurse D came to my rescue. I was raised in the south in the 1950s and 60s before desegregation and women’s rights turned the world upside down (or right side up in this case). Women were nurses, not men and certainly not African American men. But, the angel who came to save me was about six foot tall and bald. He looked like Damon Wynans (Major Payne) and acted like the retired military man that he was. Twenty-one years in Panama, Somalia and Afghanistan left their mark on his bearing and demeanor. Yet, he called me “my lady” and acted as though inserting a bed pan under a fifty something white woman’s butt was all in a day’s work. He was gentle in his ministrations, made sure I got relief and my pain meds. I was too sick to care. The next night, he asked to check my back where the epidural had been inserted and offered to put lotion on it. I set aside any lingering reserve and told him I appreciated it. Over the coming days, my modesty returned though Nurse D was always professional and kind. I worked hard to graduate to the bedside commode and then, the regular toilet. Nurse D’s military training helped me assimilate to the walker. “Head up, back straight,” he commanded. “There’s no money down there. I would have already gotten it if there was. No need to look at the floor.” Every time, I took up my walker, even days later, Nurse D’s voice echoed in my head. I have told so many people about his encouragement and optimistic attitude. That is what I remember about Nurse D. That and my initial bias which quickly dissipated in the face of his professionalism and servanthood. Nurse D’s ministrations were the first clue that I would be learning about true church. In true church, as Paul said, there is no slave or free, man or woman, or in this case, black or white. Just someone willing to answer the call and help. And someone willing, in humility, to accept the assistance.
Nurse J: While Nurse D cared for me at night, a variety of nurses took the day shifts. One, Nurse J, seemed to be the opposite of Nurse D. White, solemn and strict, a few hours after I met her, I whispered to Glen, “She doesn’t like me.” That day, tired of everything being so hard and painful and disappointed with my slow progress, I had a meltdown trying to move from the bed to the chair. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I cried. “I didn’t want to be a baby, but I am being a baby.” Nurse J just looked at me with a solemn expression. Like a preschool teacher waiting out a toddler’s tantrum, she stood quietly until I bent my knees enough to lower myself into the chair. Then, she smiled, nodded and left the room. Later, when I refused to take my pain meds because I didn’t like how they made me feel, she calmly stated, “You must make that decision for yourself; I can’t make it for you. But, I will help you if you let me.” I will help you if you let me. Another aspect of church. Helping people who don’t want to be helped by being patient in the face of temper and insolence. Whether or not we like people, whether or not they deserve it or whether or not we approve of them, should not matter in our decision to be servants. There are a lot of unlikeable people in this world and even, in the church. A lot who in our opinions do not deserve grace, but Christ came to give grace and mercy to all. If we follow Him, we set aside our own opinions and do the same.
Therapist D: While still in the hospital, physical therapists came to my room twice a day to get me up and moving. Before I moved to the rehabilitation wing, I had to prove that I could endure the therapy there. The second day after surgery, when my blood pressure dropped so low every time I stood up, there was some question about my abilities. Not that I could control my blood pressure, but spending the whole day in bed does not endear you to the physical therapists. But Therapist D, believed in me. She pushed me to my limits and then, a little farther, cajoling, teasing, threatening. Finally, I could walk out of my room and into the hall. D knew what a difference the rehab wing would make to me instead of a regular nursing home and she was determined to make that transition happen. Her belief in my abilities was a reminder of how much encouragers are needed in the church. People willing to stand up and cheer for us when things look bleak. Who remind us that we can do it. I could not have done it without Therapist D’s support.
Rehab: After four days in the hospital, I moved to the rehab center with the goal of becoming able to live “independently”. I joked that rehab was like going to a fancy hotel without a pool and drinks with little umbrellas in them. I had a private room with my own large bathroom. A flat screen television. A window with a view of downtown Sarasota. Three meals delivered every day. Housekeeping to clean my room and make my bed. Though I was by the nurse’s station, when the door was shut, my room was quiet. Who needs a monastery when you can go to rehab? Except of course, one slightly large difference. Occupational or physical therapy three hours a day. More like a boot camp than a luxury vacation. When I wasn’t working out with the therapists, I read, napped, listened to music or just sat in a chair with my eyes closed enjoying the peace. I had a week to think and contemplate life. And to reflect on the servants around me. Nurses who worked twelve hour shifts taking care of patients, some of whom were angry and depressed. Yet, they gave them the same care as they did cheerful patients like me (I was really only grumpy that one day with Nurse J, I promise) who kept a bag of chocolate candy in her room. (Not a bribe, just a thank you, I swear). We were all served equally despite power, prestige or chocolate. It’s a true mark of a servant to look beyond the outside and see the needs of people. The nurses were more concerned about my bowels than my hair, my temperature than my bad breath. They cared for me regardless of my condition because they knew I was broken. No matter how much I tried to cover it up, I was there because I was broken. In the church, we often care more about what people can offer us, money, talent, time or what’s on the outside, beauty, prestige, fame. Or we spend a lot of time pretending to be perfect. But, inside, we are all broken. Eventually, we all need healing. Like rehab, that’s why we are there, isn’t it?
Nurse M: Another night nurse, Nurse M served me for five of the seven nights I was in Rehab. Kind, quiet and unassuming, Nurse M did her job thoroughly and with compassion. I most appreciated Nurse M’s willingness to answer my questions. Why was I being given this medicine? What was significant about the order and time that they were given? Why did I have to wear the compression socks? Why couldn’t I take a shower? Why, why, why? Questions were always answered honestly and kindly unless she didn’t know, then, she would find out or tell me who to ask. Nurse M was one of my favorite caregivers, and I think it is because she recognized my need to know why and was willing to help me understand. So many times, in the church, we think our questions will label us a troublemaker or a heretic. We are afraid to voice our doubts and fears. But, asking questions is normal human behavior, even evident in the Bible, and church should be the place to ask those questions
Therapist A: Many of the people who helped me during my stay “just happened” to be assigned to me. They were not “supposed” to be on duty that day or in that area, but because of scheduling or shortages, they were. And those people were the ones who most helped me. Therapist A was one of those. The children of the physical therapist assigned to my case were sick, so he could not come to work one day. Therapist A was sent from the hospital to help with the case load. As we were working, she noted that when I was first given an exercise, it was very hard for me to accomplish, but on the second round, I could do it almost effortlessly. She said that fear was making the work more difficult, but that once I learned I could do the work, I no longer had that fear. She said, “You have to trust me that I will not give you anything that will hurt you. I will only ask you to do what you are capable of doing.” Recognizing my fear was very helpful in overcoming it. Her support was also empowering. I think the church as individuals and corporately, often acts out of fear. Fear that we will fail. Fear that we will lose membership or contributions. Fear that we will be humiliated. Yet, Jesus spoke most often about fear and commanded us not to be afraid. Fear is paralyzing and keeps us from being different, from being Christlike.
Tattoo: When I got my ankle tattoo, one of the reasons was so that someday “when I was old and in a nursing home,” the people who cared for me would realize I was once young and passionate. I didn’t expect it to happen so soon, but my tattoo was a big hit in rehab. So many young people are entering medical professions through being nursing assistants. Many eventually want to be nurses and this is a foot in the door. I enjoyed being around them, hearing their dreams and struggles to achieve their goals. It was fun to encourage them and to watch them work, learning new skills and putting their gifts of being helpful and kind to work. I did not meet one young person who was a slacker or just putting in their time at a job. To all of them, whether the day shift or working through the night, their job was something important that they were passionate about. My tattoo was often the ice breaker, giving us something to talk about. It was admired, and I was asked about its meaning which also gave me a chance to talk about suicide and “walking in faith”. It was a reminder to me (and I hope to them) not to judge by first impressions, but to look deeper into a person’s life and desires. We all have something in common if we just dig deep enough to find it.
Physical and Occupational Therapy: Before I went to rehab, I could not have differentiated between Occupational and Physical Therapy. They both have their purposes. Occupational Therapy or OT helps people to accomplish or regain the skills of everyday living. In one hour of OT a day, I learned to put on my own shoes and socks, take a shower, get in and out of bed, maneuver in the kitchen and make a bed. All while holding onto a walker or other means of support. OT wasn’t too taxing after the first day I learned to put my shoes on, but Physical Therapy was a different story. In Physical Therapy or PT, I learned to walk again, strengthened my legs and arms, stretched my muscles, climbed stairs and got in and out of a car. Most of the time, PT was brutal. I felt like I was on a medieval torture rack being pulled apart. In one session, I was so vocal, I joked I felt like Linda Blair in the Exorcist. I noticed that everyone left the gym while I was yelling, too. They were probably afraid my head was about to spin around. But, the funny thing is that every time I finished PT, I thought I could run a marathon. I felt so much better. Proof that stretching is good for you. Stretching in a different way is important to the church as well. Being willing to take on different tasks, work with different people and stretch ourselves is important to our own spiritual health as well as the health of the church. The same people can’t always be in charge or do the work of the church. It is not wise and it causes stagnation. Accepting new ideas, ways of doing things, even incorporating cultural changes are important features of a healthy vibrant church.
Coming home: So, what did I learn about church in my 11 days of “retreat”? The clichés about the church being more like a hospital are true. My church home is full of broken people just like me. I realized that no matter how the church is represented corporately, true church is a small group of believers committed to serving and encouraging each other without favoritism or reward. Believers also must be humble enough to accept the service of others. The purpose of the church is not to squelch differences, but to embrace them, to welcome questions and to encourage believers to think for themselves. We all have something in common if we delve deep enough. Trusting each other is necessary to driving out fear. Finally, I learned that God can speak to us, build a retreat for us in the least likely places and through the least likely people. We just have to keep our eyes and ears open.