Christian Nursing as Vulnerable Compassion

I was invited this spring to give the address at the pinning ceremony for the graduates of our nursing program at Huntington University. I chose to speak on the vocation of Christian nursing as “vulnerable compassion in the name of Christ.” I am posting the address in full and would enjoy some feedback and discussion.

Nurses are present with us in many of those times that are most important, memorable, and vulnerable. When our children are born, nurses are often close at hand. When we or someone we love becomes ill, nurses are present throughout our diagnosis and treatment. And when our lives draw to a close, they do so many times in the close proximity of a nurse.

However, to say that nurses are present says nothing of the nature of their presence. Is it possible that one’s presence could be just as beneficial as harmful? We know this is true. And we also know that the proficiency or skill of one’s performance of tasks does not fully describe the shape and character of their presence. We know the truth of this even if we are unsure how to describe it. We are aware intuitively that the presence of one human being with another transcends the fact that we happen to share the same physical space. The nature and character of one human being’s presence with another is within our perception but beyond our naming: one evokes unease, another comfort; one evokes manipulation, another, compassion; one catalyzes despair, and another hope.

The potential of a nurse to evoke such different emotional, psychological, and physical states might illustrate the sacredness of human relationship. There is no word for the experience of holding one’s child in the moments after their birth or overhearing an argument at the table next to us. This is no less true for naming the unique character of a nurse’s presence and the affect it has upon those who share it.  This is certainly a glorious mystery.

The Mystery of Human Presence

I said something about the glorious mystery of human relationship once to my wife, and with raised eyebrows she asked, “What do you mean? Don’t I know you, you know me.” But wait, I said. We are two human beings who look into each other’s eyes, and we see past the eyes; we are two living creatures capable of seeing within each other’s physical form to perceive the person who animates the form. This is true for my marriage just as it is true for my relationship with my students. Whether shallowly or deeply we are creatures that are capable of perceiving more than one another’s physical characteristics: eye color, body shape, the way we walk, the tilt of our head, etc.; we perceive the person.

I am fully aware that talk of relational mystery and presence might sound out of place in the context of the sciences. If so, perhaps we fall prey to the uniquely modern problem of separating the physical from the sacred. Marylinne Robinson aptly describes this separation:

There is a deeply rooted notion that the material exists in opposition to the spiritual, precludes or repels or trumps the sacred as an idea….For almost as long as there has been science in the West there has been a significance strain in scientific thought which assumed that the physical and the material preclude the spiritual. The assumption persists among us still, vigorous as ever, that if a thing can be ‘explained’, associated with a physical process, it has been excluded from the category of the spiritual” (When I was a Child, 6, 9-10).

The danger here is especially acute for nurses. When the sacredness of human relationship is removed and replaced by the observable, or measurable, and diagnosable then a whole host of risks stand close at hand. One deserves mention:

When the sacredness of human relationships is removed from the vocation of nursing then human persons are easily reduced to hospital patients. For all the complexity of the medical information that is accessible through a patient’s chart, it is far less messy and complicated than their story, their history, the complex web of their relationships, and their perception and reception of treatment and the presence of their nurse. The sacredness of human presence can be so easily traded for the efficiency of distributing medical treatment; the benefits of treatment are more easily measured, and it costs me less.

On these terms health and wholeness are more easily reducible to physical terms. Not to say that health and wholeness are unrelated to physical existence, rather “health” and “wholeness” name a state of being that cannot be reduced to physically observable criteria. The full content of health cannot be described merely by the cessation of debilitating or painful physical symptoms. Ultimately, medicine is no more than the attempt to provide care for suffering human beings. That care, however, cannot by itself offer the Health and Wholeness we ultimately need and desire.

Nurses stand at a crossroads here when it comes to the way they understand the presence they offer the persons under their care. What will be the nature of your presence?

Let me offer you an invitation today to boldly pattern your nursing after the nature and character of Jesus’ presence with the sick. Christian nurses should not see themselves as Messiahs, or imagine their care will replicate Jesus’ miraculous healings. Rather, I am inviting you to see your vocation as your participation in the work of God’s Kingdom. As Christian nurses, one of the ways the performance of your vocation participates in God’s advancing Kingdom is through offering the presence of vulnerable compassion to the people who receive your care.

Vulnerable compassion will cost you. It will require that you risk entering into the mystery of human relationship with the persons under your care. It will require you to look past symptoms and diagnosis to enter into the sacred mystery of perceiving the person who animates their physical form. Vulnerable compassion will not permit you to stand at a distance. Medical treatment can be indeed by offered from afar by reducing persons to their diagnosis: bronchitis, diabetes, heart failure, terminally unconscious. These terms name physical ailments but not persons under your care. To offer them the care which patterns itself after Jesus’ interaction with the sick, you will have to risk vulnerable compassion.

Luke 5:12-15 – Risking Vulnerable Compassion

The vulnerable compassion of Jesus is nowhere more clearly seen than in his interaction with a man who called out to Jesus that he might be made well.

Luke 5:12-15 – 12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy.When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

13 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.

14 Then Jesus ordered him, “Don’t tell anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.”

15 Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Jesus has just begun his public ministry. He was tempted by Satan in the desert then returned and began proclaiming the liberating and enlivening rule of God. He proclaimed a Kingdom that has no physical borders, but you can find it anywhere that God’s presence takes hold and his reign is experienced.

The biomedical details of leprosy in the first century are less important than its social affect. Someone suffering from leprosy was unclean and anyone who touched them was unclean as well. Leprous people were to live outside the city so they would not come in physical contact with anyone. To protect others, they announced their presence shouting, “Unclean, unclean!” Regardless of the physical dimension of leprosy, having it meant I would not experience the presence of those who were well (Lev. 13-14; cf. 2 Chr. 26:16-21).

In addition to living outside the city and announcing their tainted presence, they were forbidden to enter the one physical space that signified the presence of God and his commitment to his people Israel, the temple. While lepers could pray to God, they could not draw near to him in the tangible, physical sign of his faithfulness.

Luke recounts that word about Jesus had already spread because he was healing the sick. Maybe this man had heard of Jesus and what he could do. He breaches the distance he was required to maintain with someone who did not have leprosy and fails to call out “Unclean, Unclean!” Instead, he approaches, falls on his face, and addresses Jesus as “Lord.” “Here I am, I have nothing to offer you; you are the one on whom I depend. You can make me well if you are willing.”

What kind of presence will Jesus offer this man? He could say the word and the man would be healed, and he does so on many other occasions recorded in the Gospels. There are risks involved for Jesus here. According to the ceremonial laws, touching this leprous man will render Jesus ceremonially unclear and therefore tainted, one to be kept at a safe distance.

Whatever presence Jesus offers this man will say a great deal about the Kingdom of God. What kind of Kingdom is this and what do its inhabitants looks like? How will the world, full of its other kingdoms, recognize the members of this Kingdom, those men and women who are united to Jesus Christ and call him above all other loyalties, “Lord?”

Jesus reaches out and he touches him.

He makes himself vulnerable of being rejected by those for whom the ceremonial laws took president over showing justice and mercy. In that touch Jesus risked so much, but he also revealed so much. He revealed what the pattern of one’s presence will be if they are a man or woman who inhabits the Kingdom of God. How will they be known? How will they be recognized? How will their presence be experienced in all the glorious mystery of one person knowing another? Jesus invites those who offer care to the sick to do so after his pattern: vulnerable compassion.

Will it cost you? Yes, living according to the patterns of God’s Kingdom has always cost those who take the risk. Vulnerability always costs us something, but for those who offer it as Christian nurses, they do so in the name of Christ and according to his power.


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