The moments where God and life on earth interface truly fascinate me. This is where the gritty meets the glorious: Jesus Christ, the Eucharist, burning bushes in a word, the transcendent. In this combination I am reminded that God is not far away. At times when I drift off to sleep, or as I wait on God in the early mornings, my fascination turns more into a hunger. I hunger to see and touch and know God in tangible ways. I know transcendence exists because I see it in the Bible and have known it in my life, but where exactly to look is not easy of the story. There is an ultra—reality that plays out as we drive to work in the morning and punch out at the end of the day. There is a God whom we call Lord, even to say. It seems to pop up in the least expected places.
My search took me to an inner-city clinic in Chicago. I had graduated the previous spring with a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and pre-nursing and was intending to be a nurse-midwife. I took a job at the clinic for several reasons, but mainly I wanted to see if I could enjoy working inside the healthcare system. I hoped to find some niche where I had space to interact with people in real ways - and where God had space to break in with his presence. Fears of out-of-control schedules, mountains of paperwork, rigid bureaucracy, and stuffy professionalism cautioned me from jumping in with both feet. Since both my fears and expectations were theoretical, I needed some experience to find out what was true.
At first I was doubtful. The clinic was streaming with people running in different directions. It seemed like we were always falling behind schedule, trying to put patients through a machine as fast as we could. I felt more like a sheep herder than a person giving care. There was a lot of paperwork, and most people seemed stressed past their limit every day. It seemed impossible that anything meaningful could transpire while patients got rushed here and there and providers continually battled to get everything done. In a larger sense, I knew the clinic was meeting a major need, but it seemed distant from the clinic’s everyday workings.
I see now that these first disappointments were mainly due to a critical heart and preoccupation with myself - the usual obstacle to God breaking into my life. Once my white self became a little more comfortable in my new Afro-American/Hispanic community, and the Holy Spirit convicted my critical heart, I began to touch and see the transcendent everywhere.
One of the first places I found transcendence occurred both inside and outside the clinic. I was living with a doctor and his family in the neighborhood where the clinic was located. They have chosen to live in the neighborhood as a way to greater identify with the patient population. From their years of living as white members of the community, they had a lot of wisdom and advice to help out another white sister. Before I knew it, I had learned some important skills to help me take part in my new culture. I soon caught on to the major social skill of laughing and joking with the ladies at work. I learned how to sympathize with some of the trials and tribulations of African American hair and could soon tell the difference between weaves, wigs, and real hair. Because the clinic also serves a Hispanic population, my Spanish skills came in very handy. I could laugh and show care and interest in the lives of our Spanish-speaking patients instead of just giving them instructions or pointing them in a certain direction. During this instant immersion into a unique cultural setting, my comfort levels were stretched way outside their previous settings. In this I heard God say, “Isn’t my creativity beautiful? Part of me is inside this culture and in the ways I have revealed myself to them.”
In addition to broadening my cultural identity, God began to instill in me a personal identity with the people at the clinic. My first response to the chasm that lay between my background and that of my patients and co-workers was to ignore it. I did not know what their lives were like, but I assumed they were hard and messy. I knew I had known a lot of privilege, and since I didn’t know what to do with this disparity, I tried not to bring any attention to it. This was a bad idea. I wasn’t fooling anyone by keeping my background a secret, and instead I gave no insight about my life to people who were genuinely interested. Jesus began to take down the walls that I had constructed for fear of offending people. I stopped concentrating on our vast difference and the systems that created these differences, and I began to see individuals. I started seeing the good and the bad in both of our past experiences. We all had hang-ups in our lives, and it seemed easy to classify certain hang-ups as worse or having steeper consequences than others, but these differences began to fade.
One afternoon a father came in with a sick child and immediately shoved the child into my arms, paying little attention to him and giving me little information about what was wrong. My first response was to be put off and make a judgment about his patenting. How could you just shove your child into a stranger’s arms? Then I began to think about all the small things in my life that I shove into other’s hands because I do not want to deal with them. Each patient’s life became similar to my own in some way, and yet each had personality and uniqueness. Some days I would look out into the waiting room and see this web of human entanglement and how we were all waiting for Someone to step in and save the day. It was in these moments that God was tuning my heart to see people and not faceless patients. God was showing me that all of humanity is created in his image, and that he can give us enough love and compassion to look humanity in the face.
My particular role at the clinic was “medical assistant,” and as much as people told me my job was important, I knew I was at the bottom of the health care totem pole. Instead of being out front with voice and vision, I was in the background enabling other people to do their jobs. There were definitely days that seemed endless and mundane and I would look forward to returning to school. But I began to see what a unique opportunity lay before me. Without having to be so focused on my personal performance or the pressure of making proper diagnoses, I was able to see the health care system as a whole. I saw what was required for other departments to do their jobs, and I felt the inconvenience when someone thought his or her agenda was more important than the whole. I spent many hours working, laughing, and enjoying members of the healthcare team that I would not have known as well had I immediately become a provider. I was convicted of my need for status and privilege as I felt the discomfort of giving up these needs.
During my hours of routine work, I began to hear God again step in and say, “A meaningful life is not dependent on what you do or the responsibilities you hold. Efficiency is not the greatest measure of good health care. The world offers power and prestige to certain people, but I am truly powerful and see all people as important.” God used this change of pace to address some important issues I am sure to encounter down the road.
Finally, daily situations at the clinic always reminded me of God’s superseding power in my heart and life. There were hundreds of moments every day when I wanted to lash out at a rude patient or defend myself against a mistake that wasn’t mine. Through watching some of the providers and other workers, I began to see the beauty of letting small injustices go. I would stand amazed while a doctor or nurse completely extinguished a fiery situation using only calm words and firm directives.
There were two specific areas in which God began to rewire my heart. First, I have always felt a little sheepish telling people I am going into nursing. I would wait for a faint look of disappointment or disinterest, and I felt the need to prove that I was smart and capable despite my choice not to pursue an MD. Truth was, I really wanted to be a nurse and a midwife for a multitude of reasons that had nothing to do with how smart I was. I knew I was folding to societal pressure, but my lone voice sounded unconvincing in my attempts to justify my decisions. During the months I spent at the clinic, I had several encouraging conversations with women physicians and nurse practitioners who were very supportive of my decisions and gave me many more reasons why nursing was a good career choice. This support, from people already in the field, gave me confidence to follow my heart. Through them God silenced the opinion of the world and let me hear a stronger voice.
The second way God superseded one of my personal desires pertained to where I wanted to live. For a long time, I have counted down the days until I could skip the country and move to a tiny village where I spoke Spanish and delivered babies along the mountainside. I thought there cannot be too many people who want to do this, so God should be okay with me going here. I would weakly say prayers about my willingness to go wherever he led me, but I still expected to leave the country. I thought that I needed certain things like cultural diversity, mountains, and medicine practiced away from the nightmare of liability insurance. I know that God’s plans are always better, but I really wanted these things.
Through some subtle, and some not-so-subtle, ways, God released my grip on where I will live and practice medicine. I loved life at the clinic. It was a lot of fun, full of helpful resources, and definitely not lacking in cultural diversity. I truly enjoyed living and working in the inner city, a place I never thought I would enjoy. Through this God said, “Trust me. You will be fine wherever you are.”
These last four months were good for my soul. I found exactly what I was looking for, both gritty and glorious, in places I never would have looked on my own. I am starting to realize that this hunger only gets stronger the longer we live and the more we experience. But if God hangs out in clinics and hospitals like he did these past four months, I will be spending time in some pretty holy places.
Two areas of life that I greatly enjoy are the gritty and the glorious. I love life that is real, without pretense. Emotion when it is raw and unfiltered. I want to hear things the way they are, with all the gory details of life, unedited. I like mountains and city streets, babies crying and human-interest stories. I like solutions to be practical and good for the greatest number of people. At the same time, I love the fact that life, as we see it, is not the end though we have never seen him. We say we are waiting for his Kingdom to come to pass. This is glorious. There is something greater than what we know.