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But Then, Face to Face…

By Kathleen Russell

At one time, “How I spent my summer vacation” was a staple of fall school essay assignments.  Now that I am retired being on “vacation” has taken on an ambiguous quality. How can one be on vacation when one’s life is no longer organized around work? My life in retirement, launched in spring 2016, has lacked the lines of demarcation that my previous life so easily offered. This spring, a year later, being retired began to make sense. The cloud of uncertainty seemed to be clearing. The future seemed to offer more possibilities than diminishment, but then in May I fell and broke my right knee-cap. Ouch! It was a bad break and altogether fairly traumatic: an ambulance ride, major surgery, four days in the hospital, eight weeks in a full leg brace, weekly physical therapy sessions, etc. I share this not as a ploy for sympathy (heaven forbid!) but to lay out the context for how I spent my summer—learning.

So, what did I learn?

First, I learned to appreciate the work of nurses, doctors, physical therapists, nurse’s aides and other health care providers from a different angle—that of a bed and physical therapy table. When I worked in a hospital as a chaplain, I worked with all those folks as colleagues, meeting them eye-to-eye. But now the angle was literally different as I looked up at them, from a point of dependency and need. This odd reversal of fortune was a more uncomfortable challenge than I would have thought.

I also re-learned the importance of letting friends and acquaintances who are sick or in difficulty know that I am thinking of them, praying for them, or hoping for a good recovery. All it takes is a Facebook “like,” although casseroles matter too! I say re-learned because I know this, but all too often I forget it, assuming that this friend or that someone I know from church somehow mystically knows I care. Not a good assumption.

These are good insights to questions I wasn’t even asking. But how is any of this theological or a matter of the “holy”?

For years I taught about the theology and practice of pastoral care. I taught that the theological grounding of care is in the deep interconnectedness of human beings, with each other and with God. Caring for others is our response to God’s abundant gift-giving of grace with, as Kathryn Tanner puts it, startled gratitude. These experiences put flesh on that knowing, a knowing that had come from earlier experiences, yet all the same, now knowing anew. Richard Hooker in paraphrasing St. Paul asks, “Can any atom of creation look at another and say I need thee not?” This works both ways. We discount our own needs in our illusions of self-sufficiency but we also undervalue the importance of our presence and assistance in responding to the needs of others.

This experience also helped me sort out the relationship between being and doing, which are often cast as not-so-friendly competitors for our souls. As my knee began to improve, my first thoughts went from being able to drive, to meeting friends for lunch, to taking the kind of long walks that I love. But wait a minute! These are all about doing! How shallow am I? What about being? And then it dawned on me that being and doing go hand in hand. The acts of care by hospital staff, my daughters and sister rushing to my side when I fell, all the doings of my lovely care-giver-par-excellence husband, my hair stylist niece who came to the house to cut my hair, and even the physical therapist who made me go “ouch”—these acts are truly gestures of the soul and all are connected to their very being, their vocation, and their relationship to the good. Doing matters because it is the “how” of who we are and what we cherish. Doing is the glue of relationships and incarnation of self. Being and doing, body and spirit, self and other—they all are inextricably woven together.

Gabriel Marcel has called the body the “visible pledge of the hold which reality” has upon us. Our bodies are not only the point of involvement in the world, they make us “vulnerable to the contingencies and needs of life.” Suffering, I have come to see is, an encounter with vulnerability. Those moments and experiences when we come face to face with our fragility and the limits of being, with powerlessness and need. Yet that very vulnerability is where we meet the grace of God and the generosity of others. This is a difficult thing to learn and to know. I don’t think it means that we should seek vulnerability out or that it somehow mitigates against the very real pain of being vulnerable. But it does mean that in those moments when vulnerability no longer lurks at the edges of life but careens into our path, and we come face to face, we can meet it with hope and trust in God’s love. Vulnerability has been my companion this summer, and while it hasn’t been an easy relationship, it has been graced.

When has vulnerability rounded your corner?

How has grace been its companion?

The Rev. Kathleen Sams Russell, D.Min. is a former Associate Professor at the Seminary of the Southwest. Professor Russell brought a range of chaplaincy, parish, and social justice ministry to Seminary of the Southwest when she joined its faculty in 2005. She has taught in many settings—parishes, programs of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), workshops in diocesan settings and other small groups. She supervised CPE students at the Center for Urban Ministry in San Diego and the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC. Her areas of expertise include theological reflection and integration, pastoral care, vocational development in the context of human growth and personality, and crisis ministry and intervention. Before coming to Austin, she served three years as acting rector of a San Diego church where she helped the vestry and parishioners through a period of crisis and transition. Prior to ordination, she organized retired and disabled textile workers in South Carolina in the late 1970s and early 80s. Christian nurture was the concentration for her recently awarded Doctor of Ministry degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. B.A., Daemen College. M.Div., Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. D.Min., Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.


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