Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Mystery of Healing

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

Isaiah 53:5 (NIV)

Bernini's The Ecstasy St. Teresa*
In this season of Lent, we are confronted with the reality of death and the promise of healing.  How do we understand those realities?   Sometimes the answers are found in some unusual locations. 
In his epic novel, Cutting for Stone,  Abraham Verghese uses the vision of St. Teresa of Avila as a metaphor for the life and death of the Sister Mary Joseph Praise.  The story of maternal deaths is one that has occupied a large part of my professional life.   There are few harder questions than the causes and prevention of maternal death.  For me, the answer is summarized in the Latin phrase, “Mortui vivos docent” – “Let the dead teach the living”.   My focus has been on prevention and causes; but as Dr. Verghese implies there are important spiritual dimensions.  
St. Teresa of Avila’s impact is primarily related to her mystical visions and spiritual ecstasy.  We see this in the statue of Bernini that combines the apparent opposites of “piercing” with healing.  This is certainly a metaphor for the art of surgical healing; but what about death and healing?   Can we somehow see healing and death in the same story and statue?  Dr. Verghese makes that case in his novel!
I have previously seen this tragedy primarily from the perspective of the death of a mother and not as the reality of the orphans.   When in Africa, orphanages are a reality of lost generations of parents that have occupied the attention of religious organizations and NGOs.   The good news of  Dr. Verghese’s novel is the witness of foster parents.    So maybe the ecstasy that we can experience is found in that difficult but profound act of being a “parent”.   I think that is a lesson for the living!

“True religion is care for the widows and orphans”
“With God everything is possible”


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Practitioner, Professor or Other?

The last and final word is this:
Fear God. Do what he tells you.
And that's it. Eventually God will bring everything that we do out into the open and judge it according to its hidden intent, whether it's good or evil.
                                                                   The Message Ecclesiastes 12: 13-14

But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God's instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted.
                                                                     The Message 1 Peter 2:9-10

I have read two recently published memoirs, Hannah’s Child and The Pastor. What is instructive for me is the movement between practicing and understanding the Christian faith. Both Stanley Hauerwas and Eugene Peterson have been prolific writers and Christian teachers. Their life journeys are mirrors of each other. Eugene Peterson moved from academy to pastor and most of his story is about being a pastor to a new congregation in Maryland. Stanley Hauerwas describes his life in the academies but finds fulfillment in the pastoral role. These stories should not be seen as vocational tension, but how practice and belief complement each other; how Christian living requires both and as a part of a larger story.

My medical vocation has been a strange dance of practitioner and professor. Just when I think, I have arrived at an identity; things change. It is as Peterson describes haphazard and at the same time intentional! What resonates with me and these two memoirs is the desire to be a witness to a larger story of God at work in the world.

For me the “patient congregation” is best appreciated when I have moved to new communities or countries. It means you wipe the slate clean. You bring what you have learned and taught into new and sometimes unusual locations. It means learning and teaching a new curriculum. When I have been with students you see the newness of the practice of medicine. The challenge is paying attention and realizing the limits of your professional preparation. Being with God’s people in these new places has been a blessing.

So for me these two memoirs challenge me to see that the vocation that we are called to is bigger than either practitioner or professor. That larger calling of the Christian journey is addressed by the “teacher” in Ecclesiastes. That final call is a clear challenge that is as much about outcomes as intent. It means that whatever our vocational titles all are subject to the duty to love God and keep his commandments and the bigger story of that royal priesthood in God’s Kingdom project.*


*N.T. Wright, After you Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. HarperCollins, 2010