This morning is the third installment in this sermon series on Vocation that began on Labor Day weekend with an introductory sermon about the spirituality of calling and continued last week with a service about the spirituality of teaching. Next week this sermon series will conclude with a service in which we’ll hear reflections about the spiritual significance of the vocation of being a librarian. This morning, inspired by the reflections of several members of this congregation who work in medical professions, we’re going to explore the spirituality of healing.
There’s an image that came to mind several times as I thought about this sermon. I used to write my sermons at a coffee house near my home and I used to share a table with a group of medical students from KU who were in their early years of medical school. Over time I got to know these students. They were incredibly smart and passionate. They projected a sense of bright-eyed enthusiasm. These medical students would sit there with their laptops and their earphones and watch videos of med school lectures. Only the videos would be watched on “fast forward,” so that an hour lecture could be received in forty minutes. It sounded like a medical school lecture given by Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks. One of the students explained her study habits to me this way, “The thing about medical school is that if you actually go to the lectures you don’t have enough time to learn all you need to learn. It’s all about finding a way to squeeze 28 or 30 hours into the day.” I think of the residents and interns I met when I worked as a hospital chaplain. They explained their 36 hour shifts in the same way. In order to get the experience you need, you just need more hours in the day.
Henry David Thoreau once said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” He wasn’t talking about medicine. It is a quote, though, that could certainly apply to any vocation. Moreover, it is a quote that applies to the entirety of our lives. “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” This morning we explore the vocation of those who serve in the medical professions – doctors, nurses, therapists – those who have dedicated a significant and substantial portion of their lives to the work of healing.
Over the past few weeks I’ve spoken with a number of medical professionals in this congregation, including several nurses and several doctors. Those I’ve spoken with represent just a small sampling of those in this congregation with whom I might have spoken. (It is estimated that one in eight Americans work in a health care related field.) When I spoke with some of our members, I asked a series of questions: What inspired you to choose work in a healing profession? What is the spiritual connection with what you do? What do you wish I would say about the healing professions? And, what is something going on in your field that you think is important or that needs to be mentioned?
When I asked members of our church how they discovered their calling to heal, the responses I received were all over the map. One doctor said the decision to become a doctor came to her at the age of twelve as she sat in a chapel. She insisted that she didn’t experience the voice of God, but rather instead experienced an inner sense of conviction about the path she would pursue. Another member of our church was drawn to health care because of a childhood illness that she faced and because she experienced the care of a nurse who powerfully touched her life and inspired her to want to be a nurse. The most common response, though, was pretty matter of fact. It involved people who said they liked science and were good at science – a blend of affinity and acumen – but came to feel that they also desired to help people directly.
For some the choice of a career in the healing professions came from a strong sense of calling. For others it was something they just happened to navigate towards. But, regardless of the motivations that led them to the healing arts, every single healer I spoke with said exactly the same thing when I asked them if their work had a spiritual dimension. Each person I spoke with began by speaking about what a privilege it is to work as a healer. It is privilege to enter into people’s lives when they are at their most vulnerable, in the midst of pain, suffering, and fear. It is a privilege for people to share their deepest, darkest secrets with you, and to be there during some of the most intense moments of their lives. It is a privilege to be present for a human being’s first breath or last breath, not to mention all sorts of breaths between. It is a privilege to be trusted with some of the most intimate details of a person’s life and the tremendous vulnerability involved in that sharing. It is a privilege to be the one called to administer care when a life has been adversely affected by a medical condition, to relieve pain and promote healing.
At the same time that health care providers testify to the tremendous privilege of the work they do, they also find that the work weighs heavily on them. Privilege and burden are like two sides of the same coin. One doctor put it this way. She said, “The burdens of this work are insane.” She went on to describe that practicing medicine exposed her to her share of “Wow! moments,” as she called them: amazing breakthroughs, surprising recoveries, miracles. But practicing medicine also exposed her to horrifying things, things that doctors and nurses I spoke with said made them shake their heads or want to shake their fists. A nurse told me, “Caring requires me to be vulnerable, but I also find myself needing care and support for what I carry home.”
When I spoke two weeks ago I cited a study that said that about 70% of Americans disliked their jobs. Last week when I talked about teachers I cited a study reporting that 62% percent of teachers reported feeling low morale in regard to the teaching profession. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any good statistics about how medical professionals feel about their work, although I did discover one study that found that year after year, nursing is far and away the most trusted profession in America. One doctor I spoke with claims that 50% of doctors say they regret choosing to enter the field of medicine. Despite not being able to cite any good survey data, I will tell you that all of the doctors and nurses I spoke with did speak of roadblocks, frustrations, and aggravations. Chief among their complaints is the burden of documentation and completing paperwork for insurance companies, work that they feel is not a good use of their time or skills. There was a deep resentment about exchanging life in order to fill out forms. One doctor put it sardonically, “In my practice I can spend an eternity documenting the treatments I prescribe, or I can go work at the free clinic and avoid the paperwork because the treatments I’d like these patients to receive are not available to them.” One doctor fantasizes of a health care revolt on the part of skilled healers, a rising up against the paperwork and bureaucracy. Those I spoke with mentioned feeling a disconnect between the rewarding nature of healing and working within a system that is profoundly flawed. A nurse told me that she gets heartbroken and angry when she encounters cases that have no place existing within a developed nation. How is it possible that we are seeing people with these maladies in the first world?
Early one morning this past week I received a call from a church member insisting that I turn on NPR because they’re doing a story about a doctor’s sense of calling. The story was moving and heart-wrenching. It dealt with a doctor named Jim Olson in Seattle, Washington, who heads a lab at a prestigious medical institution, operates two biotech companies, and is also a practicing physician who treats children with brain cancer. (Somehow his days must have way more than 24 hours in them.*) The story begins with Jim Olson recounting the types of conversations he has had to have too many times, in which he explains to the parents of a young child that their child’s brain tumor is in a location that makes it impossible for it to be removed surgically, that it is a form of cancer that doesn’t respond well to radiation or chemotherapy, and the cancer will likely take the life of their child within a year. He explained that his calling had two different components to it. Central to his calling as a researcher and scientist was developing new technologies and treatments so that he could offer better prognoses to the children and families he worked with. But most of the story had to do with a complementary calling of his which is to offer an excellent quality of care even when the medicine doesn’t go the way you want it to. He tells stories of the wisdom and strength of the families he sees. He mentioned how moved he was when parents told him that he helped to make the death of their daughter as beautiful as her birth had been. He talks about learning from his patients to focus on the beauty of life rather than the tragedy of death. In turn, he is able to help others to do this.
He was speaking of the same spiritual elements of his calling as our members did when they described the privilege of being in the presence of humanity in all its messiness, the vulnerability of healing work, being with people when they’re vulnerable and in pain, when their darkest moments are before you.
A member of the church told me that she always found it offensive when people she met, upon hearing that she was a doctor, would ask her, “How’s business?” I’m not in business, she’d reply defiantly. I practice medicine. Every doctor I spoke with told me to tell you that it is a gross misconception that doctors are mostly in it for the money. The skilled work of healing is something for which they’ve exchanged an immense portion of their lives for the privilege of being able to do.
Most of us will never perform a surgery, will never read an MRI, will never present during Grand Rounds. But virtually all of us will have the opportunity to engage in the work of healing, comfort and care. We’ll kiss boo-boos and place band aids on the skinned knees of a child, make chicken soup, change bandages, schedule medical appointments, and hold the hand of a friend or family member in the hospital. Thanks be to those in this church community and beyond who have dedicated a massive portion of their lives to the work of healing. For them and for all of us, may the words of the poet Marge Piercy ring true. “May the thing worth doing well done have a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.” Amen.
(* In the list of people who seem to have more than 24 hours in their days, I can't help but mention Chris Adrian, one of my favorite authors. Adrian is a pediatric oncologist, a successful author having written 3 novels and a collection of short stories, and was named by the New Yorker as one of the 20 best authors under 40. He also was a student at Harvard Divinity School.)
Questions for Reflection:
1) Have you ever been called upon to function as a healer? Was there anything meaningful in the experience?
2) Thoreau said, "The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it." Does this quote ring true in your experience? What are you spending your life for and what is spending you?
3) Has a healer ever played an important and valuable role in your life? What made that person an effective healer?