Christina throws a piece of debris far over her head into the already overloaded, over-sized dumpster then screams in pain, clutching at her right shoulder. Even from twenty yards away I know the shoulder is dislocated.
She is a young woman from Michigan, an EMT and firefighter–an angel really–who had volunteered to come to Middleburg, Florida and coordinate relief efforts for flood victims. Earlier that day, we met Christina when our motley crew from Crossroad Church arrived at the Middleburg United Methodist Church, and before we divided into teams to go muck out homes. Strong and beautiful, and she gave us our safety lecture. She reminded me of my wife and daughter and daughters-in-law: mostly kind but a little fierce. I wanted to adopt her.
Now I run toward her with no plan. It has been over forty years since I graduated from medical school, nearly seven since I practiced neurosurgery, and I have never treated a dislocated shoulder. I could only support her and immobilize the arm. Between her cries I learned that she had suffered the dislocations before but she had no clue how to fix it. We both collapse into the mud, kneeling face-to-face, both clutching her right arm.
I suggest the emergency room, but she cries No! She tells me the longer it stays out, the worse it will be. I need somebody to put it back it, she says. Tears streak her cheeks and fall between us.
She doesn’t know me. To her I am an old man kneeling in the mud with her. Vague memories of shoulder anatomy float to consciousness as I see her arm where it shouldn’t be, forward with her biceps pointed at a bizarre angle across her chest. I take her forearm and press down, then rotate her wrist toward me. She utters another short gasp. I feel a little click; I hope it is a tendon sliding into place. Then the arm audibly thunks back into the joint and it is over.
For a few moments neither of us moves. Greg lays hands on Christina’s shoulder and prays. Her tears still fall into the mud. Then she says what I don’t expect: I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
And I want to hug her and tell her a thousand things–but only one important thing–because I know exactly what she means.
I am like her. As she runs toward fires, I ran to ERs. As she resuscitates as an EMT, I operated as a surgeon. As she volunteers to serve in disaster areas, I volunteered for medical missions. We want to serve; we want to be heroic.
But there is a thin line between service and self-affirmation. We become what we do, and when we can’t do it we are lost. We are ashamed. We are sorry.
We are “Marthas.” Martha is the women who, when Jesus is coming to dinner and everybody (including her sister, for crying-out-loud) sits at his feet and listens, is in the kitchen cooking the meal. Somebody has to do it, Martha thinks, and she is the one who shoulders the responsibility. Martha wants to get dinner on the table; Christina and I want to muck out that flood-damaged house. We are doing it for Jesus. But when we fail, we forget that we are not loved for what we do but for who we are.
Jesus didn’t exactly criticize Martha for her service, but He did tell her that it was more than okay for her sister not to help. In his gentle rebuke is a reminder: I can feed five thousand people with food out of thin air and turn water into wine. Your sister knows she is loved; so are you. You are a child of God.
A few days later, my ninety-eight-year-old mother complains of “indigestion” and general malaise. My wife, Mary, sits with her for a few hours and realizes this is more than indigestion and calls me and her doctor. I arrive and take Mom to the emergency care center. For ten minutes she gasps for breath and clutches her chest as I drive her to the ER. I know it is the aortic valve disease that has finally thrown her into congestive heart failure, and I fear this is the beginning of the end for her. In between gasps, she says, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
I know exactly what she means.
Mom is okay now. She’s back in her assisted-living facility, taking care of herself and, in many ways, happier than I have ever seen her. But her words on the way to the hospital reveal to me how persistent is the feeling that the love we receive is conditional.
God has a different message, one about unconditional love.
We must know that this is true. But when we cannot be who we want to be, when our shoulder is on fire and we collapse on our knees in the mud with tears streaming down our cheeks, or when our chest hurts and we can’t breathe, we forget.
It’s okay to cry because we hurt. Jesus wept, too. But we never have to cry because we have failed. I try to tell Christina, and I try to tell Mom: Jesus loves you, just like you are, in sickness or health, injured or whole, strong or weak, serving or listening.
Then every day I try to remind myself.