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Friday, July 16, 2021

Power and Vulnerability in a 6 pound package: the wisdom of babies

 Most days are pretty hard. The grid electric power has been off a lot this week, and it is not unusual for our team to juggle shut downs in electricity, water, and phone for hours or days, one at a time or sometimes all three together. As a doctor, if I lived elsewhere, it would be really unusual for a random patient to simply find my house and knock on my door and ask for free and immediate consultation and medicine. Here it is a daily experience, requiring that we set some boundaries, which sounds wise but still feels hard when you know that a choice not to hear a person out and hand over money or something from our little stockpile of pills could mean an untreated malaria that results in death. Something toxic bit my foot resulting in days of intense itching, burning, swelling, heat. Morning to mid-afternoon is usually focused here on the hospital, team, mentoring, meetings, visits. Later afternoons and evenings tend to fill with zooms, emails, policies, reading, responding. Nights for catching up with kids and moms. Every week there is preparation for leading a hospital Bible study, teaching our  interns from Somalia a medical topic, leading a hospital CME, preparing a culture study for team and a team business meeting, preparing a Sunday morning plan for interns due to lock-down of churches. Monthly commitments are scattered through the weeks as well, connecting with other teams in our Area and with our organisation centrally. We actually love this life most of the time even when it is hard (well, not the power outages or the fact that we're down to hot-spotting on the only functional phone line left or the mystery bites, but most things). But frankly it's relentless and hard to stay hopeful and engaged sometimes. 

Then there are moments of picking up the avocados and mangoes that fall and slicing them for a salad, or a surprise visit by a sweet little neighbour, or an encouraging note from someone who wants to donate to help. And almost every day, there are babies.

Babies who through no choice or sin of their own end up born too soon, or breathing too hard, or burning with too much fever. They can't talk or complain, they can't knock on the door, they can't even get out of bed. But they can cry and they do, and that has power to pull attention and action. Diane Langberg used that example to demonstrate that both power and vulnerability are part of the human condition: we all have both. (Part of a great talk about abuse in the church and all institutions and how being like Jesus heals). And often they are just sleeping, stretching, batting eyes, or snuggling into their moms. No matter how hard the day is, I have to smile when I'm uncovering little bundles in the incubators and find them dressed in a superhero blanket, or wearing a hat crocheted by friends across the ocean.  Babies, quintessential humanity.

In Matthew, after no doubt exasperating days much harder than mine, Jesus prays (11:25) "I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes." Literally, infants. Baana bakelembe, in my Lubwisi NT, and even though I'm a paediatrician, bakelembe was an unfamiliar word. Not just children, but the most simple and immature of that category. Really?

The whole passage is about Jesus' identity, who gets it, who does not. And immediately after that we hear about the lowly-in-heart King who offers a light yoke and defies the heavy Sabbath rules that rob rest. So what is revealed to babies? Babies know who their caretakers are. They don't hesitate to express their needs and emotions. They are born trusting, expectant, hopeful, dependent, relational. Babies know their parents. That's the kind of knowing that we need. That's the kind of knowing that brings comfort and rest.

NT Wright puts it like this: Jesus had come to know his father as a son does: not by studying books about him, but by living in his presence, listening for his voice, and learning from him as an apprentice does from a master, by watching and imitating. And he was now discovering that the wise and learned were getting nowhere, and that the 'little people'--the poor, the sinners, the tax-collectors, ordinary folk--were discovering more of God, simply by following him, Jesus, than the learned specialists who declared that was he was doing didn't fit with their complicated theories. 

I think of my nephew, and other extra-chromosome people, who err towards love. The empathy, the attention to connection. The unfiltered truth spoken by the marginalised. Yes, that's what Jesus is talking about that the so-called experts miss. And this is where power and vulnerability become not opposite ends of a spectrum, but an integrated paradox. Jesus' power comes from the cross. The more we are like Jesus, laying down our lives, the more our love has power.

Back to me, to us, running around our days feeling the stress of COVID, of loss, of lockdowns, of problems. What can I learn from the babies? 

  • One, that love is the most real presence, the foundational constant, the beginning and the end of the Universe. God is with us, offering to hold us, to care for us. "Come to me", Jesus says.  
  • Two, that it's OK to cry when you're hungry, to say what is true and what is wrong. To ask for help. To be openly vulnerable and not necessarily polite.
  • Three, that all healing takes time and community. We're not in this alone. And we're not out of the mess in a day or a year, this is a life-long arc of knowing and growing.
Today the babies in my care were pink and active and cute. Weights were edging up. Most of the news was encouraging, though the healing burns on one newborn are suddenly seeming to put her shoulder at risk of contracture, two one-month-olds have puzzling syndromes and are not yet thriving, malaria meds were skipped here and there. Not perfect, but better than we often are. And . . . 

Today our dear friends Jessie and Ike, who completed their short term work in Uganda a year ago, will release their 5 day old into the hands of the cardiac surgeons. Jack was born with an under-formed heart that does not pump enough blood to his body (hypoplastic left heart syndrome). He faces three stages of pretty intense surgical reconstructions now, in a few months, and in a few years. It is dangerous and draining. But like a good knowing baby, he's snuggling into his parents, blinking at his nurses, waiting for his heart to be fixed and his needs to be met. Praying today that Jack's heart is restructured to do its work, and mine is too. That all of us know the love that holds us, speak the truth that needs to be said, and stay close until the world is restored to its glory.


mercygraceword said...

Oh.... so many emotions stirred. I'm 67 years old today and have never known the deprivations you describe. My I-phone was in "deep red" this morning and it felt like a potential crisis.
Gentle and lowly Lord Jesus... change me... use me.

DrsMyhre said...

That's the kind of prayer God will surely answer.