Scum of the World

I could hear the cussing from inside the room and noted the awkward glances of nearby nurses and staff who turned to look and gawk. Even though I only sat a few feet outside the door, I ignored the increasingly loud litany of expletives and deliberately focused on the screen in front of me. He was my patient and I was doing my best to concentrate on his rapidly evolving list of medical problems, the electronic progress note already ballooning in front of me as I tried to prioritize multiple terminal conditions competing for attention. I scrolled through pages of old notes that were littered with repeating instances of phrases such as “lost to follow up,” “did not comply with therapy,” “uncooperative,” and the ever favored, “signed out against medical advice.” I paused and watched as a freshly berated specialist walked out of the room, sat down at a nearby computer, and dictated into his own note the word “belligerent.” The diction snob inside me was pleasantly surprised to hear a new and applicable word and so I inserted it into my note as well.

Last week my pastor asked me, “How do you keep from becoming cynical?” The question caught me off guard; it occurred in the context of a series of conversations on the struggles of caring for people in both spiritual as well as physical matters. My reply was somewhat flippant as I didn’t have a good response. The question was unintentionally pointed; Pastor Tom is a quick-witted man and one of the many reasons why I respect him so much is that even though he appreciates a dry and sardonic sense of humor, he intentionally suppresses it. By contrast, I relish in lengthy conversations about all things dark and cynical. In college I would rant about the evils of systems of poverty, child slave labor, sex trafficking. Nowadays I rant about urban violence, health disparities, child abuse, racism, Donald Trump. I am not shy about these views and justify vocalizing them as a mechanism for challenging injustice, but the genuine and curious nature of Pastor Tom’s question left me unexpectedly exposed to scrutiny. After all, what is justice and how does that apply in medicine? What is the root of cynicism and why are criticism and sarcasm so satisfying?

Continue reading “Scum of the World”

Scum of the World

Can You Drink the Cup?

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

October 2005 found me bewildered, tearful, and dyspneic in a hospital bed. “Dyspneic” is a clinical term that means “feeling short of breath.” The real experience of it is far more terrifying than the word sounds; it is like drowning in air. For me, that vague sense of breathlessness was coupled with an acute sense of pain. A finger’s-width tube of plastic ran from my side into a suction device and I could feel it wedged between my ribs, prodding the inside of my chest. Even, so it was not the first thing on my mind.

2005 was the year I graduated college. It was a year meant to be full of career potential and opportunity, but instead of working for a professional firm or matriculating directly to medical school, I dedicated a year of service to full time campus Christian ministry. It was a very unusual act of faith for me; I typically hate anything that strays far from traditional paths. I am not a risk-taker; I like to play it safe and gradually grow my options and interests over time. But that year, I felt called to that form of ministry and to take a step back from well-established routes through post-graduate education or engineering work.

At the time, everything seemed to fit tightly under the concept of “God’s calling.” My parents, though initially guarded about the decision, ultimately became supportive and agreeable. Major barriers that once seemed insurmountable — housing, fundraising, and other logistics — were miraculously resolved only minutes after fervent prayer. Opportunities to speak to students opened up across campus and I felt increasingly comfortable with where I was and what I was doing. I had completed applications to medical school and attended two interviews which felt successful. I had even started talking to a girl about a possible relationship. Surely, it seemed, everything was going well because everything was aligned with God’s divinely ordained plan. It felt well-orchestrated because it must have been.

And suddenly, in the middle of a staff meeting, I found myself struggling to breathe. Within the hour I was in the emergency room and by the end of the night I was in a hospital room, dyspneic and dealing with physical and existential conflicts I had not planned on having.

During that hospital stay, everything fell apart. I had a collapsed lung. This meant likely surgery (which happened a week later), and that grounded me from flying (which meant “distance” medical school interviews were gone). My parents insisted that I quit ministry and stay home to recover, and since they were my primary financial supporters, I had little choice. Even the girl came to my hospital room and, in an inexplicably ironic sense of timing, told me she wasn’t interested anymore.

All this had a profoundly disabling effect on my faith. Did I misinterpret God’s calling or was God playing games with me? Who was to blame when everything that had seemed so right was overturned in such a precisely and profoundly painful manner? Had I misunderstood God’s call on my life? Had the signs I read as approval been intended to indicate something else? Did I screw up somewhere? Did God?

Many books are out there about discerning God’s calling for life, but many seem written for those who have the power and liberty to make a choice between multiple good options. The vast majority of students who ask me for advice on career and life decisions do so when they are struggling to choose between colleges, graduate schools, professional options, and dating relationships. They are struggling to achieve a clairvoyance of convenience: insight into future paths of similar virtue.

But what about when life occupies the other extremes? What about when the choices seem incredibly obvious or profoundly limited: an offer that is too good to pass up or a forced circumstance from which we cannot escape? What about when life is terrific or terrifying? Do we reflexively interpret ease as blessing and hardship as punishment?

“Two things I ask of you, Lord;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.
-Proverbs 30

In studying the life of Joseph at church, I have been struck by how perverse the sense of “calling” in his life could seem. He was given a dream by God that was accurate and precise: that he would rule over great kingdoms and even his family. Yet by speaking that very God-given truth out loud, he unknowingly condemned himself to an unjust, brutal journey and suffering that would be difficult to justify in anything but retrospect. Could any calling be clearer than such a dream? Could any fall from grace be as bitter and unjust, so unlike what he would have imagined for himself? It was not the dream that his father chose for him, nor was it even a dream he chose on his own.

We know little about the thoughts of Joseph during his most definitive struggles, but we know that he was a man who felt the suffering and needs of people deeply, weeping at his brothers’ penance, at his family’s reconciliation, at his father’s death. Here are a few words that Joseph did say:

But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. — Genesis 50 (KJV)

The life of Joseph is a prototype of the life of Jesus Christ. In his story of calling, humiliation, obedience, and exaltation, we see a foreshadowing of the greater and more inclusive story that is to come. The book of Hebrews, commenting on a long lineage of faithful ancestors, had only one thing to say about Joseph: that he spoke of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, looking forward to a future promise.

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets… There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. — Hebrews 11

We seek to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus Christ, but do we really know what we are asking for? We are eager to embrace glory, but will we if its satisfaction is delayed or even hidden? Could it be that the calculus of God’s will demands an integration of the decisions, sacrifices, and sorrow of others in a distant day, one that may never be revealed? Are we willing to drink the cup, knowing it may mean that our calling is crucifixion? Could it be that there is no rationale for the cross of today except the promise of future joy? And that to occupy such a position is precisely where God’s will for us is intended and directed, even though it may seem unintentional and directionless?

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him,“Follow me!” — John 21

L is a friend of mine, one of the first in the city community to embrace me. He is a young man of quiet but intense humility who serves with Urban Promise, the Christian after school program I have come to volunteer and live with in my day-to-day life. He lives in a small row house and sleeps in bunk beds shared by interns and other staff workers. There are more than a dozen others like him at UP. In addition to his daytime responsibilities at the after school programs, he runs sports camps for the kids and seems to devote most waking moments to talking with them, thinking about them, and praying for them. I had always assumed he was employed somehow, but recently discovered that this was not the case.

“Wait… so what do you live off of?” I asked, somewhat awkwardly.

“I have some savings,” he said, a little hesitantly. I was stunned and paused to take it in. I couldn’t keep myself from asking, “Have you thought about where you’re going to be next?”

“I don’t know,” he said somewhat absently. “All I know is that this is where Jesus wants me now.”

I know that L would be upset with me for posting our conversation here if I did not immediately say this: it is no real sacrifice to live with Christ and to go where he leads.

People often ask me what it is like to live a step closer to poverty, and I immediately tell them it is the best decision I have ever made. It has shown me how easily wealth has inflated my pride, but it has also taught me the liberty and sweetness of daily bread. I have felt far more joyful than ever before, even on the days when the substance of life is hard. It is often difficult to express this in words, and I wonder if this is how L feels. I think I understand Peter better, the man whom Jesus instructed would be led where he did not want to go:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.1 Peter 1

Joy inexpressible. What a strange concept to me. In an uncharacteristic act, I bought a bottle of Merlot today. I had plans to cook it in roasts and other dishes for my neighbors, but I poured a glass for myself tonight as a private communion of sorts. It is a strong wine for me, one that I did not enjoy drinking much at first but have now been savoring in larger sips and draughts. I am staring at the glass’ last dregs, letting it rest for now on our dining table. I am also staring at a huge, handwritten “scroll” on the wall that my roommate designed for a summer camp. The scroll contains some of Jesus’ last words at the last supper and the first communion:

I am the vine, you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. — John 15

There is only one calling. It is to drink the cup, eat the bread, and follow Jesus wherever he may lead, knowing that he leads with joy, and joy inexpressible.

The cup of wine and the scroll about the vine.
The cup of wine and the scroll about the vine.

Can You Drink the Cup?