Nurses deserve our utmost gratitude as they literally keep us alive physically, in addition to meeting our social, emotional and spiritual needs.
May 12 is International Nurses Day, and I want to celebrate the work of nurses by offering a theological reflection on this vocation.
As a hospital chaplain, I have the opportunity to observe firsthand (and bear witness to) the many roles that nurses take on in their work, which mirrors the activity and work of Jesus.
We’re familiar with Jesus being called the “great physician,” and I would suggest that the variability of his work and the way in which he journeys with his people through long days and nights align fairly snugly with the nursing profession.
Thinking of Jesus as our nurse will help us appreciate that breadth and depth of the nursing profession as well as Jesus’ ministry.
1. Jesus is nurse as he proclaims the gospel to us and calls us to change our unhealthy habits and traditions.
He encouraged people to strive toward wellness through an uplifting message to those who were downtrodden by the crushing weight of empire, poverty, illness, addiction, tragedy and sin.
Nurses likewise step into the most devastating situations and are called upon to offer compassion, understanding and medicine. The good word may be, “I see you hurting, and I pledge to be with you for the next 12 hours.” Or it might be, “Today we are going to try this new medicine, and it may help your pain.”
Besides a word of hope and comfort, Jesus offers us the chance to repent of the habits and tendencies that have left us feeling sick and stuck.
In the same way, nurses want to see their patients transition to healthier lives; that means challenging them and teaching them to take on new ways of doing things.
2. Jesus is nurse as he allows himself to be “polluted” by the uncleanness and messiness of those who were considered “unclean” and hence far away from God in his day.
This was perhaps one of the most provocative and scandalous ways that Jesus carried himself.
While we do not share the same beliefs about spiritual “uncleanness” spreading through physical contact today, we do place a large value on cleanliness, privacy and personal autonomy.
Nurses place all of this on the shelf as they step in to care for individuals who are oozing bodily secretions and emitting smells beyond description.
They believe that a patient’s need for healing is more important than their need to remain untouched and clean.
3. Jesus is nurse in the way he affirms the dignity of the most broken bodies and his tenderness toward those who feel as though they are “wasting away.”
Nurses in the same way care for the most broken among us. Their patients may have skin that is so thin that it breaks every time its touched, fluid that builds up in odd places of the body, bizarre manifestations of psychosis and so many other dynamics that require the greatest measure of selflessness and integrity to care for them in a way that treats them with dignity.
4. Jesus is nurse in the way he advocates for his people by speaking as one with authority to the condemning authorities of the day.
Nurses often occupy similar spaces as they stand between doctors, administrators, dysfunctional families and other parties that need to be buffeted at times by an advocate who isn’t afraid of confrontation.
Sometimes nurses are the one figure who can see the many dynamics in a patient’s life because they are with the patient for such an extended period of time and therefore can speak often in a way that takes many factors into account.
5. Jesus is nurse in the way he comforts us with his word of mercy and his presence in the dark nights of the soul and in the hours of silent loneliness.
He promised that he would never leave us or forsake us, and he promises to keep watch with us through the long nights of turmoil and strife.
Nurses likewise offer one of the most effective medicines known to humans – their presence – at times when that is the only but also the most needed thing.
Hospitals are some of the loneliest places on the planet, but nurses show up to stand and sit with patients and their loved ones.
Thanks be to the nurses and their profession and the ways in which they show us more fully the work of our Savior and Lord.
Brian Warfield is an ordained Baptist minister and staff chaplain at Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City.