Fine and Blessed

by Scott Morris

Every time I walk in to a patient’s room at Church Health, I make it a point of asking how the patient is feeling emotionally before we get on to physical concerns. More often than not, my patients respond with: “Fine and blessed.”

“Fine and blessed” is especially what many of my older patients say. They know something about life that I’ve only begun to understand. At Christmas time, I find this message especially important in the harried rush to gifts and relatives far away.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, models this state of fine and blessed for us in a conversation with Elizabeth shortly after the angel visits with the news that Mary will have a child. Mary tells Elizabeth: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 2:46–49).

Mary calls herself “blessed.” She has a peace with the world in this passage that I see in my patients and that I aspire to in my life.

She also makes it clear how God is working in the world. Mary says, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 2:52–53).

I don’t see this only as a metaphor about spirituality. God definitely acts in our world in unexpected ways, turning over the tables of established ways of viewing things. But I also see this passage in literal terms: God lifts up poor people. God lives with the poor. God’s order reverses our systems, however profitable and well-oiled they might be.

My work as a doctor at Church Health in Memphis, Tennessee has taught me this message over the past 25 years. Through my practice, I have seen again and again patients who have little economically but who are strong spiritually.

This experience has come with its challenges. They are challenges to my own spirituality and my own preconceived notions of how to practice medicine.

It is easy to treat poor people when they are sick without truly being engaged in their lives. This is most evident in university hospital training programs. Young doctors care for the poor over a number of years but, in doing so, often become cynical, at times disdainful of the plight of the poor. At the other extreme, a paternalistic attitude can develop where personal responsibility is not required because the person is poor. Neither attitude is helpful.

One of the challenges of poverty medicine is realizing that you are capable of doing only so much. Poverty generates overwhelming needs. I often feel blessed and outright fortunate simply because I am not poor.

Rosemary, a regular patient of mine with poorly controlled diabetes and a chronic mental illness, has more difficulties than most of the patients I see. A few years ago she had her right leg amputated, and then one day two years later, as soon as I walked in the room, I could smell the odor of gangrene in her left foot. When I told her we would need to amputate her left leg, she asked me, “Has God abandoned me?” She lives alone. The utilities have been turned off in her apartment. There is no one to help care for her and she has no income. What was I to say? I told her, “No, God has not abandoned you because neither I nor Church Health will abandon you. We will do all we can to help you through this ordeal.” For the moment, she was reassured, yet I knew that we could not provide for her all that she needs. I wondered how she would cope when she returned to her home after the hospital discharged her. Who would take her there? How would she pay her heating bill this winter? There was only so much we could do.

My sense of comfort is in knowing that, from the very beginning, Jesus understood what it meant for there to be “no room in the inn.” I realize that my limitations are not God’s. I see God’s work in the patients who despite the difficulties of poverty and life still come and tell me they are in God’s hands.

I’m not sure that I have ever achieved or will ever achieve the prayerful, blessed state of Mary. This isn’t resignation. I’m still trying. It’s why I spend time every week paying attention to my teachers in the clinic. I am continually seeking a way to live my life as “fine and blessed.”

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