Sunday, March 02, 2008

Christian Surgeons and Christian Nurses: A Plea for Unity

It’s never cool to be five-years out of fashion. I am beginning to think that twenty-years out of fashion might be cool because the clothes from the eighties are reappearing on my students and they seem to consider the attire popular. But I am about to admit that I am five-years out of fashion and I know that is not cool and I am okay with that. I just read Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller (published 2003). (I think can justify my late reading of this oft-discussed book since several of my friends from college were involved with the Imago Dei Community which Donald Miller helped found and somehow that makes me feel like I had vicariously read the book previously.) gives testament to the fact that within the five-years since this book was published, an immense amount of energy has been spent reviewing this book that examines the relevance of the Christian faith to a postmodern culture. To add any more words of review to Blue Like Jazz would sink a ship with words that is desperately in need of a restorative buoyant force of action. I would, though, like to compliment Miller’s ability to begin a discussion. The following piece (follow link because of length) is by no means a review of Blue Like Jazz, it is simply a summary of the thoughts in my head the day after reading this book. Somehow I think the book and the thoughts are connected.

Relationships can always get better. I have always believed this. Right now I believe that the relationship between Christian nurses and Christian surgeons can experience a much greater depth of appreciation and trust. Too often it seems as though the surgeons, direct and aggressive in approach, have a hard time loving the gentle nurses who follow Jesus. And, admittedly, sometimes the nurses, compassionate and understanding as they are, get really frustrated with the aggressive nature of the surgeons who follow Jesus.

The struggle, interestingly, does not seem to have root in the goal of the mission. The Master Physician made it clear two-thousand years ago that it was the sick (not the healthy) that needed a doctor. The purpose of offering health care in the first place was also distinct: Jesus came to seek and save what was lost. The surgeons and the nurses both recognize that the eternal union of life and health and unity with God the Creator was broken because of sin. Jesus said that there was a way out of ugliness, out of the mess and into the glorious health of restored relationship with God. The surgeons and the nurses both understand this; they both seek to minister to the world the joy of a restored relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

If the tension between Christian surgeons and Christian nurses does not lie in mission, it may be reasonable to think that tension would arise in discerning which patients need healing. But even here, at least in the twentieth-first century, it seems pretty obvious that we all need healing. We recognize the need in every human soul to reach out to touch the hem of the Master’s garment to seek wholeness, to seek healing.

The dissension, I think, between the surgeons and the nurses lies in medical practice. As their root words betray, a surgeon is an expert at surgery and a nurse has a heart programmed to nurture.

When the nurses look out at the battlefield of the wounded, they respond with a cold cup of water, clothing, food, love and a genuine listening friendship. They organize a city mission to feed the poor; they visit the man on death row and recognize his inherent worth and human dignity; they walk the road with single moms struggling to work enough hours to feed their children; they build houses alongside the flood victims of Hurricane Katrina; they plead in the newspapers for the starving Sudanese children; they see the suffering men, women and children in Iraq and pray and hope and labor for the end of the war; they confess the ugly sins of the men and women who have come before them and have slaughtered and killed in the name of Jesus; they wear pink ribbons to empathize with those facing breast cancer and they wear red ribbons to remind us that AIDS is real and an inherent threat to so many innocent children; they are concerned about global economics and the proper and just sharing of world resources. The nurses do these things for the love of Jesus and as they work, they share the gospel of God’s grace and proclaim that God’s forgiveness and love is freely available to all. The nurses sit down with Jesus at the well of Samaria and tell the forlorn woman that there is hope, even for her. The nurses travel to the sides of the road in search of a beaten man who may lie at its outskirts, they offer their donkey and pay the fare at the inn. The nurses find the soldier on the battlefield and nurse his wound.

But when the Christian surgeon looks to the battlefield, and finds the soldier with a bullet wound, he, while empathetic to the pain, understands that it really doesn’t have to be this miserable forever. The surgeon’s training makes him seek a solution to pain. The solution for the bullet wound may, in fact, be the painful extraction of the bullet. But, to the nurse, this is beginning to look like a cruel scene – the surgeon reaches into his bag and extracts, not a warm compress, but a sharp knife and then he begins to cut and hurt the patient and the nurses start to get upset.

The surgeon, too, sees children who are suffering from AIDS, women without husbands raising children, people who are hungry and poor and prisoners on death row. The surgeon perceives the pain and realizes that it doesn’t have to be like this. The surgeons get upset with the nurses because they are spending their time bandaging festering wounds that are never going to heal without a painful extraction. And because the surgeons see that the extraction is necessary for healing, the surgeon begins to discuss morality.

The surgeon understands that if our society upheld some foundational principles and ethics there would not be so many poor, so many children with AIDS, so many woman who are pregnant without support, or so many prisoners on death row. And, considering the situation, the surgeon begins to talk about the importance of family values and moral virtue. The surgeon says that society is made up of communities and that communities are made of families and that when the family is not strong, all of society suffers. And if the family is the foundation of society, then the marital vow is the foundation of marriage, and so the surgeons spend a lot of time defending the importance of marriage as the union of “one man and one woman until the parting tide of death.” The surgeon believes that if more people were sexually monogamous, there wouldn’t be so many children born with AIDS; the surgeon believes that if more children were raised in stable loving homes, not torn apart by anger and the despair of divorce, there would be fewer prisoners on death row; the surgeon believes that if no one drank alcohol, there would be no children who were raised by alcoholics; the surgeons tell their patients that if they would stop attending night clubs, there would be a smaller incident of children raised without fathers. Of course the surgeons understand that there will still be hurricanes and cancer, and the surgeons do surrender to the fact that some bullets are irremovable. However, when the bullet can be removed, the surgeon wants to do the surgery.

The nurses, though, find some of this offensive. Some of the nurses’ patients do drink too much alcohol, some of their patients are attracted to members of the same sex, some of their patients are on their fourth marriage and some of their patients like to sleep around. It’s really hard for the nurses when the surgeons tell them that the bullet inside their patient is extractable and may require some painful change. That can be pretty hard to swallow. It doesn't sound like wet washcloths and love.

Likewise, it’s hard for the surgeons, when the nurses tell them that their patient isn’t strong enough yet to undergo surgery. The nurses, often accurately, understand that if you start surgery too soon the patient will feel only pain and never accept love. The nurses understand that the tragedy of early surgery is that the patient discontinues the search for healing altogether. It is hard for the surgeons to understand timing, to understand that people never can change until they have been overpowered by care and grace.

To me, the need for unity between Christian surgeons and Christian nurses is so apparent. The mission of nurture and the mission of restoration are not incompatible. In fact, as modern medicine makes apparent, both are vital to healing. Unity could bring so much healing, both within and outside the Church.

Ultimately, my prayer is that those whose natural occupation is surgery would begin to practice more nursing and that those whose inborn training is nursing would begin to undertake some surgery. In the tension of this hard balance I believe that we will find ourselves fully united with the Great Physician.

This post would not be complete without a special mention of my parents, who, I think, have worked within their marriage to minister surgery and nursing in a very effective and powerful way. I love when people are so surprised to hear my dad speak in defense of the family, “Tom, you think that?! The way you defend those criminals, I thought you were the biggest liberal in town.”