catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 13 :: 2007.06.29 — 2007.07.13


A post-hospital confession

This past March, I experienced my first hospitalization. I was diagnosed with a ruptured appendix, and what could have been routine treatment turned into a two-week stay at Palos Community Hospital. This happened right before spring break, which meant that I was off Trinity Christian College's campus for a total of three weeks.  When I returned, I had to begin giving accounts for my absence.

This wasn't as ominous as it sounds—in my conversations with friends and strangers, I encountered an overflow of love and care that I had never experienced before, and I was stunned by it, stunned by the sheer weight and power of this love and care. But I was also stunned in a more literal sense—I had no idea what to say in response to these warm, joyful reunions, to the kind and strangely intimate encounters with people I had never met. I had no idea what to say when they asked me "How are you doing?" and I heard myself giving responses, felt myself smiling and nodding, I knew that I was saying something, but I didn't know if I was really speaking.

We all experience this feeling, and these kinds of questions hit us when we least expect them, in the ordinary exchanges that mark our daily comings and goings: the blessedly awkward coffee time after church, e-mails from old teachers and friends, your Sunday afternoon phone calls home. These questions stun us, strike us dumb, overwhelm and overcome us—they overcome us because they demand us to give an account of who we are based on what we're going to be doing. These are questions that put us into question, and they do not just require factual reports on our busyness, our medical conditions, or our post-graduation/post-job/post-marriage plans. They are inquiries into who we are, and we cannot escape them; we know that we have to give an answer.

This is what I've been telling people about my hospital stay: "It was hard, and very scary, but I had excellent doctors, and my friends and family with me, and I could feel everyone praying for me. I am definitely back." That is a true statement, but every time I say it, I know that I'm leaving something out, that it's too slick of an answer, too quick of a response, too triumphant-sounding for what my hospital stay was really like.  The answer doesn't fully describe who I was in the hospital, who I am post-hospital. Perhaps you're giving these kinds of answers, too: "I'm teaching at this school." "I'm relocating to be with the company in the fall." "We'll be married in July, and moving to such-and-such a place in August." Some of us have one-sentence summaries that sound like this: "I'm not really sure what I'm doing, but I'm waiting to see how it all works out." Waiting to see how it all works out, the declarations of job offers and marriage plans, ward off our anxieties about the future because they give us a definite place to stand, a definite thing to say.

These kinds of answers are not only a quick fix for our anxieties about the future; they also, in some way, keep us from speaking the truth about our past, about how we got to the places where we belong, and how those pasts contribute to our identities. My quick answer about how I'm doing post-hospital sweeps over the two weeks that I was at Palos Community—I do not include my story about vomiting barium and weeping in my sister's arms because there's not enough space in my telling of the story to include the vomit and the weeping. I don't allow myself the space to include that story.  My past experience has to stay in the background, silent,  spoken over with quick smiles and triumphant language.  "I am definitely back," I say. The way that we gloss over our past experiences contributes to our inability to face our past experiences, to confess the truths of our past experiences to others. We don't include these stories because we're afraid that others won't understand our experiences, that others won't be able to re-encounter those experiences with us, and our refusal to confess those experiences binds us to the quick answers, keeps us from truly recognizing the pain that we experience, the pain that others experience.

I recently graduated from Trinity Christian College, and the theme of my graduating class was "Embracing Shalom." We received this title when we came to Trinity, and we also received another kind of "quick" account along with it: as students at Trinity Christian College, we were entering a community that sought to "shape lives and transform culture," and were given a lesson in worldview that, regardless of anyone's affinity to Reformed teaching, offered an account of our identities as Christians: God, our maker and Lord, created the world and everything in it, including us, and he declared the whole creation good, whole, and entirely belonging to God. Sin, as it came through Eve and Adam, tainted the world, turned us away from God, and infested us with a hatred of God, neighbor, and self that human beings could not remedy. Through Christ's saving act, God has turned us back to him, and has instituted his Kingdom on earth.  As part of the Great Commission, and as co-workers with Christ, we most fully know ourselves as Christians by witnessing to all the world, through every part of our lives, that Jesus is Lord, and that God intends to fulfill his Kingdom through our work as Kingdom-builders: as teachers, business people, nurses, social workers, lawyers, researchers, scholars, artists, and as students, our vocations are a direct response to both the original goodness of creation and God's plan to restore the world. We are shalom-seekers and kingdom builders—our whole education centered on this claim, and it is the truest thing that I know.

But there is a contention to be made about this story, and about our reception of it. We hear about sin's effect on the world, and we hear about our call to participate in the unfolding of God's kingdom, but we don't fully hear about our current, ongoing, right-now experience with the not-yetness of the Kingdom—with poverty, infidelity, political corruption, divorce, murder, genocide, addiction, illness, death. We experience these things, and respond to the experiences of others, but in this account of who we are as Christians, we gloss over these experiences, keep them quiet, and declare our version of the story loudly, triumphantly, trying to squelch the sounds that these experiences make, the silence that these experiences carry. In our inability to confess this—that we live in a world that hurts, that we live as hurting people—we do not tell the truth about ourselves, and as people who seek to embrace shalom, we have to understand that embracing shalom means speaking the truth, testifying to pain, recognizing the ruining effect of pain and sin on our world. We live in a world where over 1.2 billion people live in abject poverty, where AIDS orphans number in the millions, where 1 in 10 American families suffer from hunger.  We have to tell the truth about ourselves, and our past and present encounters with pain, in order to rightly yearn for the kingdom that calls to us. We have to begin including these stories in our accounts in order to live as disciples, to rightly encounter the suffering that marks the world. To truly seek shalom, we have to tell the truth. We have to tell the whole story.

The worst part of the hospital was the nighttime. At 7:00 p.m., my fever would spike, my pain would sharpen, and I became a bundle of broken nerves, weeping and falling asleep mid-sentence, begging my roommates to spend the night with me, waiting for my 8:00 p.m. dose of morphine to bind my nerves together in a hot fog of restless sleep. My parents, sister, and friends sat with me during the day, filled my water cup, washed my hair, talked with my doctors, watched me sleep. I don't remember everything that happened in the hospital, but I do remember leaving for surgery, my bed wheeled down a hospital corridor.  I remember one of my best friends holding my hand, her fist squeezed bravely around mine. "You'll be alright," she said, her face crumpling into tears. My family and friends experienced pain, too, a pain that I couldn't shoulder with them, a pain that pushed me into more anxiety and desperation, and I would daily beg God to send me home. One night, a few nights before I went home, I took a walk around the floor that my room was on, 361 Bed 2. Walking was an extremely difficult task—you don't know how much you rely on your stomach muscles for walking, you don't know how central something is until it's been sliced and stitched up, and it took me a good fifteen minutes to walk up and down the hallway, nurses rushing around me to their med stations, the florescent lights blaring. The oncology floor was right next to my floor, and I smelled the sweet, acidic smell that I didn't smell anywhere else in the hospital, the smell of the cancer ward. I sat down in the solarium, surrounded by the dark, the silence punctuated by the beeping of IV machines and the lulls of televisions, I heard a woman in the room across from me squeal out "Help me, help me, I can't breathe, help me," and the nurses kept rushing, the machines kept beeping, and I knew, at that moment, that I was surrounded by a holy groaning, the kind of groaning that Paul talks about in Romans:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as children, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8:18-24a)

This is the other part of the story. We suffer, and the world suffers, and we hear its groaning along with our own groaning: the beeps of IV machines, the smell of the cancer ward, the slow fracture of friendships, the reports of famine, the suffering that marks our living in the not-yetness of the Kingdom of God. Suffering marks our identities, and it also marks our calling as disciples. It is in weeping with those who weep, mourning with those who mourn, that we hear the brokenness of the Gospel, the brokenness of Christ's own body, the brokenness that brings us life. It is in the taking up the suffering of others that we know ourselves to be the people of God, called to minister to our neighbors lying in the ditch, unheard, unnoticed, silenced. Before we can speak and act, we have to listen to the groaning, we have to recognize that suffering exists, we have to encounter suffering for what it is in order to hope, to heal, to rejoice and return home. Let us take up that rejoicing in the not-yetness of the kingdom.  Let us speak the truth about the world around us. Let us allow ourselves to speak the truth about our suffering world, our suffering selves, our suffering-and-ascended Lord. Let us tell the whole story, and in that telling, may we yearn for the true freedom of the children of God—freedom to tell the truth, freedom to listen, freedom to embrace shalom.

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