in our suffering

While at CTS, I took a class with a fellow student who was a nurse, quiet but incredibly insightful. One particular day, we talked about how a Christian can comfort a bereaving family or a person who’s just found out he’s dying. She may not have realized it, but on that day, in particular, she was a wealth of information for those of us whose lives hadn’t yet known a similar kind of suffering.

She told us once about one of her patients. He was an  80-year-old man who found out that he was dying from kidney problems and, realizing that it would be a long and painful process, told his doctor he didn’t want the surgery. The doctors eventually talked him into the surgery, which didn’t go well, and he ended up in the ICU.

I remember, at this point, that our fellow student was sniffling. She then told us that the man’s family, upon finding out that he wouldn’t recover, told the doctors to take him off his ventilator. And finally, one day while she wasn’t working, the doctors purposefully pumped the man full of morphine, which slows down respiration, and in so doing, deliberately killed the patient.

It was easy to notice that she was hurting, and watching how our teacher, a deaconess, responded to her in her need was a wonderful example for the rest of us. I remember distinctly that she didn’t gloss the story over or say, “Oh, thanks for sharing.”

Instead, she stopped the class, turned toward the student, and said, “This still hurts you, doesn’t it?”

That was all it took. Our fellow student started crying, trying to put a voice to her sorrow, saying through her tears that if only she had been working that shift, perhaps she could have saved the old man, that she felt guilt for something outside of her control. I was crying, and so was the second career deaconess next to me, and the one next to her, and everyone in the room. Together, we learned mutual suffering.

Our instructor calmly appointed one of the students to find a devotion in the Pastoral Care Companion that would speak to our friend’s situation as a nurse, as one who was not allowed by the law to share the Gospel with any of her patients, as one who had to reconcile that patients were killed at the very institution that was supposed to save them. That student began to read the 23rd Psalm and a passage from Job and then a prayer for comfort, and while she did, our deaconess instructor quietly stood up and went to the nurse, standing behind her with her arm on her shoulder while her student sobbed with her hands over her face.

After that, I went to her, and so did my classmate next to me, and the next, and the next.

It sounds cheesy and hokey and emotional, but I remembered that class distinctly today, perhaps because it was a true lesson in human suffering and the way in which Christ comes to His people in its midst. Our instructor not only showed Christian concern but showed us HOW, setting the perfect example in the way in which she cared for her student and immediately recognized her need.

And our fellow student taught us too, letting us get a glimpse into just how difficult it is to care for those you serve, what it means to feel helpless, how to rely only on Christ and His promises.

Even though both did it unintentionally, we as students were fortunate to see unrehearsed diakonia in action.  It was, after all, one of the reasons we were at the seminary in the first place.

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