I recently had the opportunity to speak at a Seminary Women gathering (a group of women students, students’ wives, staff members, and faculty wives) where the topic was given to me on visiting the sick and those convalescing in hospital. It was a particularly blessed evening of discussion, with many outstanding and practical questions asked on this topic.
The topic for the evening comes at a tragically unique time in history: when visiting the sick and our ability to go to hospital to care for the infirmed, weak, or dying is greatly diminished. And yet, care for those in the church who are ill or afflicted among us, is some of the most foundational stuff of our true religion. In fact, it seems to be the very heartbeat of our God and our Savior:
Blessed is the one who considers the poor!
In the day of trouble the Lord delivers him;
the Lord protects him and keeps him alive;
he is called blessed in the land;
you do not give him up to the will of his enemies.
The Lord sustains him on his sickbed;
in his illness you restore him to full health.
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.
Jesus intentionally, and according to the prophetic word of the Lord, used healing as miraculous signs to demonstrate the Kingdom of God had come on earth, that redemption was being accomplished and was then-underway. Care for the sick is how the Lord delights to describe himself, and ministering to us in our physical need is of central importance of what Christ has done (the redemption of not only our immortal souls but also our bodies).
Care for the needy is more than the very character and work of God. By extension, He calls his people to much the same. In the story Jesus tells about two groups standing before the King on the day of judgement, he narrates the righteous’ question:
‘And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matt 25:39-40)
Ministering to our brothers and sisters in sickness, is one of the defining characteristics of the people of God throughout time. Still elsewhere in the word, the Apostle Paul says that the body of Christ demonstrates it is the body by caring for one member when he or she is suffering (1 Cor 12:25-26). Visiting our sick and dying brethren in their need is part of the central identity of the church. In fact, what makes the church of Jesus an institution unto its own, is care for her members from conception to the grave.
Now more than ever, we know the importance of embodied care. We are "Zoomed-out". We miss seeing uncovered smiling faces. We know that computer screens just don’t do it for us. This is because the Lord has made us embodied souls, and there is something irreplaceable about holding hands; weeping in the same room; giving and receiving a hug.
In a time when it is being proclaimed to us that our bodies are yucky—that our bacteria-and-virus-laden selves are somehow outmoded, and if only we could achieve a sterile utopia—we must not forget the vital importance of an arm around a shoulder when weeping with one another. Despite all the limitation in our present epoch, the church of Christ must not give up the inestimable value of visiting her members in some of the most susceptible and vulnerable times of life: when ill and dying.
To help us think through how to visit well, I provided the Seminary Women the following practical list of advice:
- Be committed to brevity. It is easy to want to visit our convalescing family and friends for fewer visits and longer duration. After all, we have to drive there, every trip costs us time and effort, and surely the sick person wants to see us for as long as we can offer, right? Yet if we are mercifully other-centered in our visit, we will be mindful of the many aches and pains, the pokes and prods of needles, the continual discomfort, the weariness of medications, and the mental strain it takes to be conversational with visitors. More frequency with shorter duration may be the very thing “the doctor ordered”.
- Don’t forget the spiritual. In all the above advocating for embodied care, there can be a drift toward a social understanding of the Gospel; thinking that all we need is to minister to bodies, while forgetting the soul. When you visit with the person, read a very short Bible verse—even if it is only one sentence long. And pray. Reflect the content of that short verse in your prayer, and pray mercifully short and specific prayers for the one ailing. It is altogether spiritual to pray for medications to be effective, for surgeons to be skilled, and for nurses to be gentle.
- Ask good questions for their sake. When someone hears hard news in the hospital, it can be tremendously challenging simply to receive that content—let alone be thinking of good follow-up questions to ask. Be an advocate for them while you are there. Listen to them talk about what ails them, and ask helpful and informed questions of medical staff on their behalf. Of course, only do so if it is appropriate to your role and relationship with the person. Read the situation well, but use your extra set of eyes and ears and any medical knowledge you may have to bless them and help bear their burdens.
- Help manage other visitors well. Listen to what your recovering friend is communicating about others. Do they long for more visitors? Or are they burnt out by the constant stream of calls and interactions? If possible, take someone with you the next time you visit, or request others to visit, if your infirmed friend desires increased fellowship. Alternatively, if the entire congregation is funneling out of worship and over to the person’s house each Lord’s Day, you might want to consider how you might help reduce such an exhausting experience!
- Be willing to risk embodied care. Friends, I don’t know about you, but I very much desire the freedom to judge how much risk I’m personally willing to take to hold my brothers' and sisters' hands, to cry with them face-to-face, or to hug these ones whom I dearly love. It is not insignificant that Jesus touched lepers. Granted, he is the Holy One who makes all things clean. But he was willing to touch the ones the world deemed untouchable. The world would like us to believe that there is an ever-increasing untouchableness about all of us. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to be willing to care for the body of Christ, as Christ ministers to His body, through our physical bodies as well.