Monday, December 30, 2013

Words Reveal

In the not-so-distant past, I remember an evening of enjoyable post-dinner conversation. Seven of us around the table--missionaries--and the subject followed usual lines. We all worked in Africa, so the stories of accidents, near-misses, and scorn of maintenance were set in vast plains, potholed roads, and humid swamps. It was not so much a competition as a mutual shaking of heads and chuckling at the lives we had chosen and been called to.

But in the African context, stories always turn medical because life is fragile and the miracles of the precarious are most precious. Two missionary nurses were at the table, and though I knew them both, I hadn’t consciously thought about their vocation. I have a amaranthine admiration for this amazing breed of women: their calling awes me. Missionary nurses were models of love and humor throughout my MK childhood in Korea and adult work in Africa. These are the women who make it happen: keeping doctors going and hospitals running and people living . . .

and people laughing.

We did our share of laughing that evening as the setting African sun sent shimmering rays on the dining table. And I heard words that showed me a heart inside I hadn’t seen before.

It was an unremarkable story about the usual petty, rural bureaucrat in a developing country with no concept of medicine, medical education, or helping communities grow. The nurse had been involved in the start-up of a project that had suffered quite a few impediments and not a little greed; this big-fish-in-a-little-pond had met more than his match with our friend. She put him in his place with her degrees and certifications and authorizations until he slunk away with his tail between his legs. No one pushed her around: then, or ever.

I looked to the other nurse, a friend I’d known many more years, and saw pain etched in her face. She, too, had endured being bullied and put-down by people vastly her “inferior” over the years. But she would not have thought of them as such, since she loved them unconditionally. She learned their languages. She wore their cloth wraps. Her children played with theirs.

Suddenly my eyes saw how powerfully our words reveal who we are. 

My close friend, who had also held my hand while I labored with our firstborn, didn’t say much else that evening. She could have wowed us with her current work in a big-city, high-powered, multi-machined, neonatal and pediatric intensive care unit. But her private stories to me are peppered with words like “honored” and “humbled”. The times she has given the Lord credit for her not blundering or a patient not dying cannot be counted. The miracles she has seen, when ineptness--her own or someone else’s--would have been inevitable tragedy, but God . . . are the warp and woof of her words.

And those are two of her favorite words: “but God . . .”

She does not believe herself capable or qualified. She seeks out the Somali patients who are frightened and in cultural confusion, assuring them that she grew up in Africa and is African. She is dumb-founded that her supervisor would ever put her in charge of a shift and admit: “There’s no way I could do it. I just don’t know it all. They could all do it better than I.” But she does it and does it well.

I simply want to say to her: you are my choice at my bedside when I’m giving birth.

And I wonder: what do my words say about me?

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