I’ve seen this attributed to a lot of famous theologians, including Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther. Most authentically, I think it’s attributed to Abigail Van Buren, the originator of the famous ‘Dear Abby’ advice column.
Last year, I had more reason to think about hospitals than I’ve had for most of my life. And the church could, indeed, do well to be more authentically a hospital than it usually is.
When I arrived by ambulance at the Erie County Medical Center’s emergency room, I was probably in better shape than many patients. Okay, I couldn’t walk, and I was in vomitogenic pain (if that wasn’t a word before, now it is. The adjective describes something that initiates vomiting, in case that wasn’t clear.) I didn’t encounter staff who were too busy talking to well-liked colleagues to ask what my problem was and to contact the people best equipped to cope with my injury. I had to wait a while, which was not terrible–my ambulance guys stayed with me until I was brought into a treatment area, and although my knee hurt like nothing I’ve experienced before, I knew I was not in mortal danger. But I got the sense that the whole operation was there to deal with my difficulties, or those of other people who came in through the doors.
I was made as comfortable as possible as soon as possible. Skilled people asked me questions, gave me pain medications, took me to the x-ray department (twice–once for a diagnostic of the knee, and again for the pre-op chest x-ray), drew blood for pre-op labs. They helped me cut off clothing that couldn’t be removed any other way without causing further pain and damage. They brought me blankets fresh from the warming box (a nice thing for a Buffalo January). Once the ‘bone team’ (the orthopaedic experts) took over, I was confident that I was going to recover. It would be difficult, but there was no reason to expect anything but a good outcome.
The whole experience centered around asking me questions, ascertaining my needs, and figuring out how to meet those needs. What happened? How much does it hurt (the scale of 1-10 ‘rate your pain’ question)? Can we get you anything? Do you have any questions? (Lots of others, too, but I’m keeping this church-related.)
It stinks to have to be scraped off wet pavement, carted to a trauma center by ambulance, be in pain, have unexpected surgery. But the people along the way were so genuinely focused on helping me that as soon as I was coherent after my first operation, I wrote thank-you letters to the ambulance company and to the surgical department to say how well I had been treated.
If the church is a hospital of any description, it needs to be more focused on the patient. As I mentioned in another post, the general approach to an unfamiliar person walking through the door of a church on Sunday morning is ‘how can we get them involved/serving the congregation/giving money?’ I have yet to enter a church prior to a worship service where there has been a focus on me as a person who might be there because I’m hurting and this might be the best place to get un-hurt. More often than not, the ‘greeters’ hand me a service leaflet, give a perfunctory ‘hello’, and go back to chatting with each other. I’ve never entered a church and been asked the question, ‘What brings you here?’ or ‘Can we help you in any way?’
There is little I’ve encountered that makes the church a good emergency room for busted souls. It needs to focus more on the stranger, rather than the cozy nest of relationships between spiritual colleagues, before it can become a hospital for sinners–or anyone else.