A metaphor that is often used of the church is that of a hospital. The idea as I understand it (and as it’s usually presented) basically comes down to this: the church is meant to be a place where broken people come to find healing, which means of course that the church is going to be full of broken people.
As a metaphor there is certainly nothing objectionable about any of that, as such a description would no doubt on some level be accurate. However, on another level I’ve often noticed a tendency to use this metaphor (or by extension the premises underlying it) as a means to justify certain approaches to worship, preaching, “doing church,” etc. That can of course manifest itself in varying ways, usually to ground approaches that are heavy on concepts like welcoming, outreach and the like.
After all, if the church is a place for broken people- which St. Augustine contra the Donatists would wholeheartedly affirm- then shouldn’t our churches and our worship be places and experiences that broken people feel comfortable in and want to come to?
As I’ve pondered the idea of the church as a hospital, I’ve started to wonder if it’s a very good metaphor after all. And if it is- and I’ll admittedly be stretching it a bit to develop my idea- the real question might be: is the church a very good hospital?
Having spent a significant portion of my life in hospitals, I think I can safely say without controversy that a hospital is actually one of the last places one would ever choose to be. As Michael Scott observes: “I hate hospitals. In my mind I associate them with sickness.”
However, when there is something seriously wrong with your health, the hospital is one of the first places you might choose to go. And to be sure, not all hospitals are created equal, or even floors of the same hospital. Having gone through a stem cell transplant and staying many stints in the BMT ward at KU Hospital, I can say that it’s actually one of the nicest rooms one can get there, which is magnified by the fact that (by design and necessity) one is in a room by oneself.
Being comfortable in a hospital room is also- all things being equal- a very good thing. When you’re sick and fighting for your life, the last thing you necessarily want is to be fighting a lack of amenities. And the KU cafeteria makes some pretty fair biscuits and gravy, so all is not lost.
However, no matter how accommodating the staff, no matter how comfortable the bed (although I wouldn’t necessarily call the constantly moving beds comfortable, although I suppose bed sores are worse…), no matter how passable the food- the hospital is still one of the last places you want to be. Every time I had to go, the constant thought running through my mind was “I just want to get the heck out of here as soon as I can.” Every morning when the doctors made their rounds, there was the anticipation of finding out if I could leave, and then the heartbreak of finding out my fevers were still hanging on and I had to stay another few days.
In the hospital one is certainly a broken person, in some manner or another. But, of course, the reason for going to the hospital isn’t to stay broken, but to be healed.
During my many times in the hospital and with the various medical things I’ve gone through, I’ve always appreciated the fine doctors that have worked with me. It certainly takes a lot of dedication and compassion to be able to face down ailments (especially severe ones) of all kinds day after day.
But as much as I appreciate doctors with kindness and compassion, who try to empathize with the hurt and the pain and the struggle, ultimately one of the most important things a doctor must do is to diagnose what is wrong. This then ultimately entails that they have to tell the patient- in no uncertain terms- exactly what is wrong, and what is required to heal or mitigate it.
When I was diagnosed with a relapse of cancer after having been in remission for almost 20 years, my doctor was certainly compassionate and empathetic, but ultimately he was uncompromisingly forthright with me about what I was facing. In fact, he bluntly told me that if I did nothing, I wouldn’t see another Christmas. Words like those hurt and can kind of come as a shock, but that’s how the truth is sometimes, and there’s no getting around it. He of course presented options and was optimistic about the prognosis, but in the end the truth often stings no matter how it is couched, simply because the truth doesn’t always align with what we want or expect.
But as painful as hearing that truth was (and it is no doubt difficult for anyone to tell someone else that they might be dead inside of a year), worse still would have been to not tell me the truth, even if it spared me the pain of hearing the truth. In fact, one might consider the withholding of such knowledge to be inherently unjust.
In many ways sin is like a cancer. It often starts out small, and uses one’s own body against oneself, much like how sin latches onto our desires and affections and concepts of the good. It grows silently, gorging itself on its victim and multiplying the body’s own cells out of control. What are inherently good processes go awry, and similarly sin can take affections and desires that are inherently good and turn them away from their intended aim, which is God. Cancer often progresses surreptitiously, as often the symptoms do not manifest themselves until it is well progressed. (For me, as an example, I felt no sort of illness or difference; I only discovered it because of an abnormal growth under my armpit, at which point the lymphoma was already at Stage 3.)
But far more troubling: cancer doesn’t just go away on its own. It will keep growing and progressing until it kills. Ignoring (or being ignorant of) this truth is tantamount to signing one’s own death warrant. Sin is precisely the same in that it requires external intervention; otherwise it promises the same fatal outcome.
And of course, the treatment for cancer is not pleasant; in many ways it can seem as bad as the disease. To have one’s body assaulted by chemicals whose intention it is to kill parts of your body is not a comfortable experience, and is often less so the more severe the ailment.
My first bout with cancer as 9 year old was relatively easy; sure, there were times of nausea and fatigue. And watching one’s hair fall out is a pretty weird experience, although when you are 9 it’s actually kind of fun to pull it out of your head in front of your friends!
In my late twenties the second round of chemo was more aggressive, but also not too bad. Except for chemo days (and the day following) I was able to keep up most of my normal life like going to work, going out, etc. I did end up having to change some of my habits, however, as my immune system was weakened by the chemo, which wasn’t always easy or convenient.
It was the most recent treatment of chemo prior to my stem-cell transplant that was the most trying and required the most out of me. My immune system was intentionally eradicated so as to help prevent rejection of the transplanted stem cells, and that simply takes a toll on one’s body. It wasn’t just occasional nausea or fatigue; it required a total reorienting of my life, my habits, my diet, etc. And that was only for the chemo. The real challenge came after the transplant, when my immune system was trying to rebuild itself and I was on a myriad of medications which dramatically altered my ability to focus, my overall demeanor, etc.
No longer was it an option to go anywhere besides the clinic or the hospital. And so for the next 9 months or so I basically was stuck inside a smallish apartment, staring at the same walls, eating the same foods, feeling the same frustrations day after day after endless day.
Yet for all my hard work at getting better, I still ended up in the hospital at least three times. But as much as this was not a fun experience, it did teach me something very valuable.
Any time one has a protracted period of convalescence, one of the greatest dangers one faces is contracting pneumonia due to inactivity. Prior to and throughout my transplant it was beat into my head over and over that one of the most important things I could do to aid my recovery was to be as active as I could, doing low impact activities like walking and the like.
And to be sure, this seems somewhat counterintuitive. After all, during convalescence one is often weak, fatigued and lacking in overall energy; the last thing one wants to do or even thinks about doing is being intentionally active.
Yet this is absolutely crucial, as protracted periods of inactivity lead to a greater risk of contracting pneumonia, which can be especially virulent and severe in those whose bodies are trying to recover. What might be a relatively minor and treatable inconvenience for a generally healthy person can quickly prove fatal for those who are already sick.
The tendency is to simply lay there on a bed, to rest and recover one’s strength. And of course this is necessary. But at the end of the day, if one doesn’t take the effort to get up, one may never get up at all.
I learned this in a hard-truth kind of way when I went into the clinic for a blood transfusion. I was exhausted, I hadn’t been sleeping because of the steroids I was taking (and wouldn’t really sleep for the next 7 months), and generally I just felt like I wanted to die, and even if I didn’t really want to it felt like it was happening then and there. At that moment in the clinic all I wanted to do was lay down and sleep, or at least rest, as I was so weak that even the few steps I took wore me out.
However, the nurse practitioner walked in and asked me how I was doing. I was currently curled up on the bed in the exam room, wanting to sleep, and I mentioned how I felt exhausted. I was expecting a sympathetic word, or perhaps some acknowledgment of empathy. Instead, I got a verbal dressing down in one of the most important truths I have ever learned. She said:
If you don’t spend more time vertical than horizontal, you’re never going to get better.
I grunted in acknowledgment, but internally I was furious. She didn’t know how tired I felt, how hard it was to even take a few steps. How dare she be so callous as to say this to me now, when I’m exhausted on a bed waiting for a blood transfusion!
Yet despite my initial anger, I realized that no matter how singed my emotions were or how unfair it all felt, in the end she was absolutely right. And while it certainly wasn’t easy and at times required almost all of the strength I could muster, I took her words (and that truth) to heart and began to put it into practice. It was full of missteps and failures, but also successes and a certain amount of ease that came with discipline. I began to discover that even though I felt tired most of the time, I actually received energy by being active, which compelled me even more to want to do so.
Had she been afraid to speak the truth to spare my feelings, I may have never left that bed, either literally or metaphorically.
I’ve had this same experience after surgery as well. I had to have abdominal surgery as part of a biopsy, and abdominal surgery takes a while to recover from, especially when they have to go deep. The first day or two after I could barely move my abdomen, let alone get up and walk. Yet that is exactly what all the nurses, ahem, “encouraged” me to do, sometimes as a suggestion at first, and sometimes more as a suggestion that was largely a command.
And while it was hard at first and extremely painful, the more I got up and moved the more the pain subsided, and the more energy I received. My experience with the transplant came rushing back into my mind, and it wasn’t long until I was wanting to get up and walk.
The truth- as painful as it was- changed my perception as I embraced it and oriented my life to it. When I was in pain it seemed like the last thing I’d want to do, but after time I discovered it was what made me feel the best physically and helped move me further along in my recovery.
The wound was still tender, but being able to walk out of the hospital under my own power was a stimulating thing, to bask not only in the brightness of the sun but also the freedom that the truth had brought into my life.
In all my experiences, it was the truth that helped lead me back to health, enabled by amazing doctors and nurses who were willing to wound me in order to heal me. The truth sometimes stings like too much potassium through a too small IV or a large bore needle extracting bone marrow from one’s hip, but when one is sick and broken it is necessary to bring one back to health.
This extended metaphor hopefully has a very obvious corollary to how we “do church” and worship and the like. If our churches are like hospitals, then the truth is the most important thing we can offer. If we believe that the wounded and broken who enter our doors can be healed and that what we believe is the content of that healing, then beyond being welcoming or inviting or having great worship services or great music, we need to have truth, and be willing to speak it, even when it’s painful.
Naturally, good doctors and nurses don’t wound out of malice or any such thing, but are motivated by a desire to heal. They even try as much as possible to mitigate the pain of treatment. But in the end sometimes we must submit ourselves to the scalpel and all the pain it entails, as something external to ourselves is often necessary to bring us back to health.
I often wonder in the ways that we do church and worship if we are aiding in bringing the broken back to health, or if we are really just creating more comfortable hospitals? Do the things that we do and the things that we say help people to get well, or do we try to shield them from all discomfort, never encouraging them to get up and walk?
In many ways it seems that our efforts are more aimed at repainting a hospital room wall a better color or getting better food in the cafeteria than helping people get well. If one examines the ways in which we tend to market what our churches are about, it often seems like we are more like a hotel than a hospital, creating more and better amenities without ever talking about our track record in bringing people back to health, or even that that is something that happens within our walls at all. And when one examines what actually happens in our worship services- when we purport to be in the same room as the Great Physician- it seems that far too often we are adding new magazines to the waiting room instead of getting diagnoses and treatment.
More pointedly, does the way we do church cause those who enter our doors to feel comfortable enough on their beds so as to not get up and walk, to never realize that without the discomfort of the discipline of movement a spiritual pneumonia may creep in unawares?
Or is this truth to painful to speak loud and clear, even to those who may need it the most?