Tag Archives: St. Paul

Of Papyri, Perimeters, and Possibility

27 Jan

“So keep still, and let Him do some work.”
~ Thomas Merton, OCSO

Earlier in January, as the Christmas season progressed, we heard from the First Letter of John during the weekday Mass readings. One morning, out of curiosity, I grabbed a handy New American Bible at home to refresh my memory about the Epistle’s backstory. I read the Introduction, and then, my curiosity further stirred, I turned to the Introduction for the Second Letter of John. “Written in response to similar problems,” it began, “the Second and Third Letters of John are of the same length, perhaps determined by the practical consideration of the writing space on one piece of papyrus” (emphasis added).

I paused and pondered, and then I envisioned St. John sitting down to write these two missives destined to become Sacred Scripture. He’s anxious about specific difficulties in the fledgling communities he’ll be addressing – false teaching, harmful divisions, a lack of hospitality – and yet he’s limiting his communication, whether by choice or paucity of resources, to a single page each. Both letters are indeed very brief – 13 verses for II John, and 15 verses for III John – and perhaps they adequately served their purpose in the churches which originally received them.

Regardless, these two short memos came to be accepted by the Church as Holy Writ, and both Letters have cameos in the Lectionary every couple years. Even so, I couldn’t help wondering what else was tumbling around in John’s head as he came to the end of each physical page. Evidently there was plenty. “Although I have much to write to you,” he notes in the Second Letter, “I do not intend to use paper and ink” (v.12).

It strikes me that all this is a helpful image of how God is eager to work through us despite our limitations – and despite our own doubts concerning his ability to do so. That’s a weird notion, in any case, because we see plenty evidence in Scripture and Church history of his accomplishing amazing things through very imperfect people. Peter is the easiest example – a hotheaded fisherman who denied the Lord at the first sign of trouble, and yet whom the Lord appointed as the first pope. And then there’s St. Paul, who was well aware of his personal shortcomings (“I will…boast most gladly of my weaknesses,” he writes the Corinthians), not to mention his burdensome past involvement in persecuting the very Christ he came to embrace – something we heard about at length on his feast day last Friday.

But these drawbacks didn’t seem to matter at all. The Lord chose him anyway, which he revealed to Ananias in Damascus before dispatching him to heal the blinded future Apostle. “Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine,” God told the skeptical Ananias in a vision, “to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel” (Acts 9.15). Sure enough, Paul went on to preach the Gospel and plant churches all over the Mediterranean, despite his being the equivalent of a very limited apostolic papyrus.

These reflections came to mind today as I listened to NPR’s “Big Picture Science.” The featured guest was Rob Dunn, a biology professor at North Carolina State University, who enthusiastically described the vast variety of hidden critters – arthropods and microbes, bugs and bacteria – that peacefully and (praise God) invisibly coexist with us in our own homes.

At the end of the show, Dunn contrasted his domestic explorations with the assumption he’d harbored as a young researcher that new discoveries can only happen in exotic, far-flung places. “Over the last few years, I realized that many of the things we can find in the rainforest, we can find in homes – not the same species but the same potential for new discovery,” he said. “If we could just sort of re-focus people on the potential for discovery around them, [then] we could have wonder-filled lives.”

We have a tendency to think that we have to make monumental changes in ourselves before God can work anything through us, let alone wonders. Nonsense. God is accustomed to making use of ordinary, fallible human beings to accomplish his purposes all the time, and we’re no exception. By all means, put away sin, receive the sacraments, and get to Mass – daily if possible. But don’t wait until you feel like a saint to start attempting saintly things. That is, don’t hedge on action because you’re not a spiritual rainforest. Instead, expect to discover that God can already make wonders happen by means of your humblest efforts, and despite your humdrum limitations.

And please don’t dawdle until you’re the equivalent of a thick sheaf of pristine papyri before you allow the Lord to write his story on you and through you. Take it from the Apostle John: When it comes to fleshing out the Word of God, any ol’ page will do.

A version of this meditation appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Best Answers: Of Nursing, Foolishness, and SNL

24 Jan


“There’s a sucker born every minute.”
~ P.T. Barnum

You’ve probably heard that Barnum didn’t coin that memorable phrase. In fact, there’s no hard evidence that the consummate showman and circus magnate ever said it even once. Still, the quotation has become permanently associated with Barnum’s name because he was the quintessential charlatan.

His circus – the “Greatest Show on Earth” – owed its success, at least in part, to exaggeration, dubious claims, and hoaxes, and all of those depended on locating folks ptbarnumwith money to burn and credulity to exploit – “suckers,” in other words. Rubes. Chumps. Fools – as in the old saying, “a fool and his money are soon parted.”

But there’s another kind of fool, and this auditorium is full of them: Nursing students. Students who have devoted long hours to arduous study, the painstaking acquisition of new skills, and the challenges of early morning – very early morning – clinical experiences. And…why – for what?

In pursuit of a profession that’s oriented to sacrifice and service? In the hopes of making a difference in people’s lives, maybe even change the world?

C’mon – really?

The truth is: Nursing is a pain in the neck – literally, along with the lower back, and not to mention the head (pass the Tylenol, extra strength). The demands are constant, the stress, relentless, and the implications of our actions and decisions, enormous – and these guys are signing on voluntarily?

Then there’s this: Nursing stinks – again, literally. I’m confident these students can tell you stories from last semester’s clinicals (if they haven’t already), and you nurses out there in the audience have plenty stories of your own to share.

Moreover: Nursing is lousy – sometimes literally, as in lice-infested. Or perhaps it’ll be any of the other vermin, viruses, and infectious critters that show up in healthcare domains and which ordinary folks prudently avoid.

Not nurses, though, and these students are heading right into all that – and we’re here to honor their bizarre, yet noble professional trajectory.

Some of them will work in hospitals after they graduate, some in doctor’s offices or nursing homes, some will take their nursing skills overseas as missionaries. Regardless of where they end up, they’ll all devote themselves to lightening the burdens others, and, in so doing, brightening up their corners of the world for everybody.

In a sense, they’ll be following in the footsteps of St. Paul, that wacky missionary who seems to have been heedless of all inconvenience and danger as he tramped about the Mediterranean proclaiming the Word – and not just in words. “With such affection for you,” he explained to the Thessalonians, “we were determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well.” That is, Paul strove to match his verbal message with a practical one – to make the Gospel he preached identical to the Gospel he lived.

Isn’t that what we expect of nurses? Isn’t that what nursing’s all about? It’s not just about passing pills, managing tubes, and dressing wounds. It also includes pouring our very selves for others – in most cases, total strangers.

So, are you wondering how we go about equipping these would-be fools for that all-encompassing task? No doubt, you’ve already heard the worst of it from your students – like the exams, for instance, which are unlike any exams they’ve had before.

Yes, those exams are so tricky – the multiple-choice questions often have multiple correct answers, but only one best answer. It’s by design, of course, because we’re testing not only the acquisition of babyaspirinknowledge, but also critical thinking with regards to applying that knowledge in actual clinical situations – no easy task, I assure you.

Let me give you an illustration of how it works – one that’s very familiar to the students, and quite likely personally familiar to many of you gathered here: The daily baby aspirin.

Lots of folks take it these days, but few if any babies – it’s a grown-up thing. Unlike baby aspirin for babies – which might be for fever or pain – a baby aspirin for grown-ups is for one of its other properties: Reducing blood clot formation, which may help prevent heart attacks and strokes.

So, let’s say this comes up in a med pass at the nursing home or hospital. As our students are checking their Five Rights and consulting their drug cards, trying to get everything in order, we instructors might casually ask, “And why is your elderly patient taking a daily baby aspirin?”

The first time this happens, there’s almost always a pause, and maybe a stammer, and then a timid, halting, “for…pain?” We’re never surprised by that answer, and, technically, it is a correct answer, isn’t it? I mean, we do give aspirin for pain, don’t we?

But it’s not the best answer, and explaining why that’s the case is part of the steep, steep learning curve for nursing students. And the next time a baby aspirin is on the menu for an adult patient? The student will reply, “To prevent clots”…hopefully.

Frankly, we expect our students to get things like this wrong – even repeatedly – regardless of how much they study and practice. It’s why they’re in school, after all: For the “nursey” stuff. If they got all the “nursey” stuff right from the get-go, most of my colleagues and I would be out of a job.

Yet, as I’ve already noted, there’s more to it, especially here at Bethel, for we’re also attempting to foster an alignment of nursing identity – the one oriented to meds and treatments and monitoring vital signs – with servant identity – the one given over to charity and empathy and simple kindness.

There, too, there’s a constant weighing and evaluating between correct and best, and it can be a challenge, for straightforward nursing tasks are never optional, and they can’t take a backseat to spiritual and otherworldly concerns. Sometimes we succeed in finding the proper balance; sometimes we don’t. In both cases, we reflect on our experiences, take heart from our little victories, learn from our mistakes – and keep on going.

SNL_Original_CastIt’s like something I heard Lorne Michaels say on an NPR interview. Michaels is the television producer and innovator responsible for Saturday Night Live – basically he invented it. When asked how he manages to put on a live broadcast comedy and variety show each week, do you think Michaels replied that they have everything in place each Saturday? That all the contingencies have been addressed, all the potential problems ironed out?

Not at all. “We don’t go on because we’re ready,” Michaels told NPR. “We go on because it’s 11:30.”

That’s true for lots of endeavors that entail risk and hard work – marriage, for instance, and parenting. Christianity itself, for that matter, and certainly nursing – even while we’re still in school. We aim for excellence, but we can’t wait for perfection, for total confidence – we’d never act! We’d never nurse!

Besides, it’s not the nursing itself that’s the point – as important as it is, the nursing’s not the point at all. Instead (and at the risk of sounding terribly corny) it’s really about the love – moreover, for us here at Bethel, we can specify further and speak of the love of Christ.

It’s the kind of love that drove the earliest disciples of Jesus to radically extend themselves on behalf of others in imitation of their crucified and risen Master. “We are fools for Christ’s sake,” to quote St. Paul again, but the world needs fools like these – and not only to care for sick folks and babies and aging codgers like me.

We need them because their idealism reminds us of what ought to be – what the world could be if only more of us chose to embrace selflessness as they have.

So, congratulations, students, for your foolishness – and thanks. Your future as nurses is a gift to us all and sign of real hope.

This essay was adapted from an address to first-year nursing students at their Nursing Dedication ceremony, Bethel College, Indiana (23 January 2016). A version also appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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