Monday, February 9, 2015

Service: Loving with the Gloves Off

Our church is doing a series of guided discussions right now on 5 commitments of membership: Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service, Witness. I'm delivering the homily on Service, and guiding the conversation as all of us teach each other what that means for our community. Pretty cool really -- this wild, participatory style of church. We're working hard to elevate each discussion above simplistic lectures like "give more," or "pray more."

I'm unabashedly biased in believing my nursing experience is the highest practice of service, because it demanded providing dignity and respect in the lowliest of work. (I respect your right to believe your calling is the highest form of service. In fact, I hope you feel that!)

When I think about service, this story from my practice floods my mind inescapably.

I cared almost daily for a man very ill with AIDS, as well as a handful of other chronic, fatal diseases. On top of that, he had a couple antibiotic resistant infections. Going into his room required dressing head to toe in protective gear. He was dying. He couldn't accept that. He was gay. He and his family wouldn't talk about that. His illnesses were taking him down an excruciating path, toward an excruciating death, and he was not equipped to face and plan for that.

My job was to help deal with the symptoms I could ease, and facilitate conversations to help him plan. I had a clear agenda. I wanted to help him face his reality, and in that process, alleviate some of the coming suffering.

Shortly before the end, I went in for yet another visit. Garbed in a garish yellow gown and blue rubber gloves, and all the defenses necessary for my other patients, but that felt like brick walls between him and me, I sat beside his bed.

It's strange to me now that I don't remember what we talked about. I tried to discuss death with him. He shut that down emphatically. Perhaps we talked about his loneliness. I remember him becoming more and more emotional. And it became clear to me that he needed touch. Not safe, clinical touch. Human touch.

I removed my gloves and grabbed his left hand in both of mine. Skin to skin. And, he cried. He said, "I don't remember the last time someone touched my skin."


We sat in that moment for a long time. My agenda abandoned, and perhaps a bit of my clinical distance and superiority, too, I knew to leave this experience just where it was for both of us.

It was messy for me. Not just because of the diseases, or the tubes, or the particular thick and pungent humanity that coats long-term hospital patients. Because I wanted to take this guy from denial to life- and death-changing courage, and I knew our limited time frame. Service, in this instance meant shelving my agenda, and sitting very still. And coming back, despite fruitless attempts, and despite my brain twitching to steer the conversation down a "useful" path, over and over again. I had to let him teach me how to be his caregiver.

Service is ongoing. Messy. Demands presence. Demands you be aware of your humanity, and the humanity of the person you serve. Service requires humility. True service removes the barriers that keep us feeling safe and clean and separate from the humans we serve with, and for.

Post Script: After the rich, rich discussion with my church today, I want to add some of what they shared on Service. Two insights struck me most. The first associated courage with service. It takes deep courage to abandon agendas. Lost agendas mean lost control. Lost control means the neat lines making me server and you servee fade. It takes courage to subvert your human propensity to judge, and replace it with acceptance and forgiveness.

The second insight bluntly raised the spectre of suffering -- calling out our tendency to serve until the Other's suffering gets too close, too real, too implacable. At that point we pull away. The man above was dying, in pain and alone. Nothing could change that. And, as often happens, these circumstances perpetuated themselves. Because, most of us don't know how to sit in another's suffering, so we shy away, or become cheerful and soulless. We put on bright protective gear and pretend things are really better.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus removes his clothes, wraps himself in a towel and washes the well-traveled feet of the disciples. He took off the layers, and the one layer he added became the tool of his Service. He told them he meant this for a clear example of how to live. I can't even imagine how the world would change if we lived this bravely. But I know the moments that have changed me most started with removing the outer robes of pretense, or knowledge, or self-sufficiency. These actions deepened my experiences of serving AND being served.  

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