“Patch Adams” Christianity

Last night I watched “Patch Adams,” with Robin Williams. Based on a true story, Hunter “Patch” Adams is a passionate doctor-in-training who eschews the cold science of doctorship and seeks to provide true, wholistic care for his patients. While I believe the relationship between the “establishment” and the “rebel” is somewhat overplayed, the clarity of the fight certainly provides good material for thought.

The dean of the medical school sets the stage with his opening remarks:

It is human nature to lie, take shortcuts, to lose your nerve, get tired, make mistakes. No rational patient would put his trust in a human being, and we’re not gonna let him! It is our mission here to rigorously and ruthlessly train the humanity out of you and make you into something better. We’re gonna make doctors out of you.

I get the impression that much of our thinking about “ministry” and service in the church would fit nicely with Dean Wolcott’s view of the world. In fact, I can imagine some seminary professors using these lines verbatim! We look for pastors (and deacons, counselors, teachers, etc.) who remain unnerved by the disease they handle, who never get tired, who don’t take shortcuts, and who don’t make mistakes (at least not big ones). This is fine, so long as the source of that strength is the compassion of Jesus Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit within us.

But so often we rely not on the compassionate humanity of Jesus Christ, but on the cold efficiency of emotional detachment. We schedule our meetings with “sinners” and remain as distant as the doctor in the mental ward at the beginning of the film. Sure, we listen and we care, but we give our theologically correct answers and move on with our lives. Sometimes this is what people need, and is love — but the possibility exists that we give true compassion only lip service. We avoid what doctors call transference.

Why is this so? Two answers are interwined: fear and pride. Fear keeps us from getting too close, lest we be stained with the sin, or trapped by it, or stuck in a situation that will sap every last bit of life from us. Pride maintains distance because we’re better than this, that we’re not like “them.” Like fear, pride is a coping mechanism for our own inadequacy. In either case, getting too close can spiritually and emotionally wreck you. You can witness fear and pride in an interchange between Corinne and Patch. (I find that I often think like Corinne, by the way.)

Patch: I know it’s not gonna be easy, but you said anything worth doing is difficult.

Corinne: Look, um– I’m not like you, Patch. I want the white coat. I want people to call me doctor more than anything. I want the recognition.

Patch: You’ll get it every day in the eyes of patients you’re helping. There is more to life than what Dean Walcott puts out there. That is all about power and control, all right? I know you’re scared.

Corinne: You’re right. I am scared. I’m scared to death. You know, you sit here and you talk about life without limits… you know, and breaking the rules. It all sounds very, very romantic. You wanna know what the truth is about all that crap, Patch, hmm? People get hurt.

Indeed, people get hurt. The very nature of compassion means a shared pain — and in the case of Jesus, it meant agonizing suffering and death in my place. Fear and pride need to be cast out by faith. We need a true understanding of who we are and the humility to submit to be like our master. We need to trust that God can heal the diseases and pain of this world and of the heart, but that his will is beyond our comprehension, and sometimes shared suffering is all that we can offer. Let us not be like Job’s friends, whose first, and perhaps only, inclination was to “fix the problem.” Let us love.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.

1 Corinthians 13:1-8a

Update: After reading this, a friend sent me the following questions.

Interesting. I agree that we are called to love to a level of pain. However how do you survive if you enter into the pain of others 3 or 4 times a day? Are we called to give hope, which sometimes means detaching from the pain to speak of what we ourselves hope for?

To the first question, I’m not really sure the answer. How do we survive if we take upon us the pain of those around us on a regular basis? I could quote “my grace is sufficient,” but in my mind that phrase sometimes rings hollow. (Probably because of my empty head, not the phrase itself!) The answer has to be “Jesus,” but these things aren’t worked out in my mind or life yet.

To the second, I say yes. We are called to give hope, which does mean stepping above the pain to offer something better. But I’m convinced that unless we share the pain to some extent, we have no legitimacy in our offer of hope. Sure Jesus had to die for our sins, but why did he have to suffer? Perhaps our best hope is in a kinsman-redeemer who has shared every suffering and every pain.

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