Touching & Healing the Total Person

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Stethoscope-Heart-Health-conceptAs wonderful as it was to get home and change into jeans and sandals, it was a huge blessing to go to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center today and address the graduating class of medical students from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences who gathered in the base Chapel for their baccalaureate service. I am so appreciative and so proud of our Church in Bethesda graduates, Dr. Tim Curlet and Dr. Sarah Anderson, both of whom helped plan and lead the service, today. Thanks, Sarah, for hooking me up with this sweet gig on base!

Here’s my speech. Those who know me know that I’m one for suits and notes, except at weddings. I dialed it up today with both those things, a suit and notes, so I have the text almost verbatim as given:

Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
Baccalaureate Speech, May 16, 2013
Pastor Todd Thomas, Church in Bethesda

Good morning, graduating class, faculty, staff and honored attendees. I am so glad to be here; I’m humbled and excited to address you this morning. This is a different kind of speaking gig for me to be honest, and so I’m using notes! I’m a pastor, but on Sunday mornings I just roll a bit freer with very little written down. For an occasion like this though, I’m going to rely on my notes.

I look out at you, and I am impressed. I live and work just a mile from from here, and so I’ve been blessed to know many medical students from your school. I thank you, for your service to our country, and your service to our species. You people totally rock!

I know that there’s not one type of person or personality that pursues medicine. You are a wonderfully diverse group of individuals and you each are going to be suited to various disciplines within the broader field of medicine according to your personalities, abilities and interests.

And still, there is the bond that exists between you all, that you have chosen to work in one of the greatest helping professions. You have all similarly chosen to serve the medical needs of your fellow human beings. You have not only chosen this, but have invested and devoted yourselves to this task.

One of the things that fascinates me about people in the medical profession is that by nature or by training, or by both, you are able to necessarily objectify the human being, to see so clearly the processes of life, health or disease. You can handle the sight of blood better than the average person. You’ve sliced cadavers and explored regions of human anatomy I’ve only seen in video games. That is so cool.

You can look at a person and see the systems, nervous system, cardiovascular, immune system… and in seeing these systems and the present affect of each, you can begin to detect issues, problems, and solutions. That’s really amazing, and it is a product of an incredible amount of work. Again, I commend you. You are so needed, and your skills and gifts are needed!

I commend you for all you’ve accomplished and all you will do, and I ask you to do something for me, for all your future patients: Never let that necessary objectification of the human being move from an asset to a liability. As you deal with these physiological systems and realities of each human person, keep a strong hold on the spiritual, the emotional, and whole reality of the person.

Forget “beside manners,” it’s not something you can simply fake. I ask you to care about the person. I ask you to love me, to love your patient. And then speak and act from that love. It won’t be easy. The people you are going to serve will rarely be very objective about their body or their situation. They will be somewhere on an active sliding scale of fear, anxiety, depression, fatigue and pain. They will benefit by your love as well as your knowledge and skill. I’m not asking you to kiss your patients or write them love notes. I’m not asking you to “fall in love” with every person you serve. But active love for your patients is powerful and needful, and I believe it looks like this:

First, love listens. If you haven’t yet, you should explore some ways to learn to listen well. I used to think I was a good listener, I mean, I’m a pastor! But then I went through a year of training as a life coach, and we focussed quite a bit on how to listen, and I realized I was a poor listener who broke all the rules. While someone spoke, I was most often simply formulating my response. I would interrupt people. I would fail to keep engaged, meaningful eye contact. And because I broke all those rules, I rarely was able to ask good questions when it was needed.

Let love cause you to listen and hear what your patient is saying, not just what their body is telling you. Slow down, and don’t even start thinking about the next patient. Let this person fully be your “present moment,” and love them sincerely in it.

Second, love respects. Make a commitment, and I mean make it! Write it down… commit yourself to the dignity of every person you will serve. Their dignity and the respect you show them are vital parts of their total health. Your active respect of their personhood can engender trust and participation on their part that will make your job easier. When you unpack your knowledge for them, explaining the processes and aspects of the body they don’t know, when they ask the wrong question, when they cannot speak in their grief or any longer stand in the crucible of their pain, love them where and when you find them.

Third, love hopes. Yours really is one of the greatest helping professions there is. You are now equipped to serve and heal your fellow human beings. Do this from a deep and sincere hope for them: hope that they heal, hope that they will grow, and hope that they will realize a joyful existence. Don’t forget that as people come to you for help, they come seeking hope, because heath is their vehicle back to the joys and dreams that they carry: their family, their friends, their vocation and their community. When you touch them, when you heal them, when you diagnose them, when you speak to them, remember to hope with them.

When the Apostle Paul wrote to the followers of Christ in the city of Corinth about love he wasn’t writing a text for wedding ceremonies, and yet that is where we have most often relegated 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “Love Is” passage. Instead Paul was writing about the things in life we seek as attributes for service to others, and he sets all that up in chapter 12, leading into chapter 13 by saying, and this is my paraphrase: “Now I’m going to show you what is truly awesome!”

He was about to unpack the awesomeness of love. Paul said that no great storehouse of knowledge, sacrificial spirit, or greatness of any kind about himself, would be of any true use, if not found in the presence of love. Here is 1 Corinthians 13, verses 1 through 8:

What if I could speak all languages of humans and of angels?
If I did not love others, I would be nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
What if I could prophesy and understand all secrets and all knowledge?
And what if I had faith that moved mountains?
I would be nothing, unless I loved others.
What if I gave away all that I owned and let myself be burned alive?
I would gain nothing, unless I loved others.

Love is kind and patient, never jealous,
boastful, proud, or rude.
Love isn’t selfish or quick tempered.
It doesn’t keep a record
of wrongs that others do.
Love rejoices in the truth,
but not in evil.
Love is always supportive,
loyal, hopeful, and trusting.
Love never fails!

Because Paul was speaking of love in the sense of daily service to other people, and not just in the arena of covenantal marriage, these words have everything to do with the way we pursue our careers, render service to our neighbors, and daily meet the people and the tasks put before us.

So I stand here and I look at you. You people are amazing. Go, and make this world more amazing than it has ever been.

The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and give you peace. Amen.

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