Some people are the LEAN IN sort. They lean into your unsolvable problems, show up on your impossible days, and walk with you all the way to the end. How do we become them? How do we create belonging when the people we love experience such uncertainty? Practical theologian and mental health nurse John Swinton knows a thing or two about this kind of love.
In this conversation, Kate and John discuss:
Learn more about Duke Divinity School’s Theology Culture and Medicine Certificate (CTHC) is a one-year course of study designed to equip Christian health care practitioners with the training to engage their work with theological clarity and spiritual joy.
Kate and John are old friends and had a previous conversation on this podcast called The Speed of Love.
Learn more about John’s call to chaplaincy within the church of Scotland.
John explains that Jesus walks at 3 Miles per hour, which is a theory that comes from Kosuke Koyama and his book, 3 Mile Per Hour God.
Kate mentions Dr. Victoria Sweet and her book on Slow Medicine: The Way to Healing. Kate and Dr. Sweet have a lovely conversation on the podcast called Medicine with a Soul.
Learn more about Micro-Breaks and how they can help reboot your brain in this BBC article, The tiny breaks that ease your body and reboot your brain.
Discuss this episode with a book club, friends, or bible study group. Here are some conversation starters:
Kate Bowler Oh hello. My name is Kate Bowler and this is Everything Happens. There are some people who are just “lean-in” kind of people. They’re the ones who don’t balk at your unanswerable questions. You know, the ones you asked during college, at maybe 2 AM, that you feel a little embarrassed about wondering still. These are the people who don’t shy away from your unsolvable issues, who show up on impossible days in the hospital, at the funeral, at the court date. Who allow us to show up as our full selves. The people who walk with us all the way to the edge. These are the kind of people who really understand the practice of presence. And it’s something I really hope that, wow, I mean, that we can just all really learn to do. How do we create spaces of deeper belonging and friendship when the people we love don’t always have easy to solve problems? And how can we learn to stand with them in uncertainty, in the mystery of it all? My guest today lives this out so beautifully. John Swinton is professor of practical theology and pastoral care at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and he’s the founding director of Aberdeen’s Center for Spirituality, Health and Disability. He worked as a nurse for 16 years in the field of mental health and learning disabilities and later also as a community mental health chaplain. I just feel so grateful to get to sit down with him as part of Duke Divinity School’s Theology, Culture and Medicine Certificate Program, which is this program that creates opportunities for students and clergy and health care practitioners to come together and reimagine contemporary practices of health care in light of the Christian tradition. He is an absolute dream. You’re going to love him. Here he is. John! I can’t believe we get to do this! I get to see you in your real-life self!
John Swinton: Yes, and me to see you.
Kate: Do you mind taking me back to the or source? The beginning of John? Because you were this combination of professions that I find deeply compelling. You’re a three-in-one, a real Trinitarian setup.
John: That’s right. So how did I become who I am
Kate: Yeah, you started one thing and then became another.
John: Well, I started life as a van driver. And I really liked that because it was probably the best job I ever had. Because, you’ve no responsibility. You just pick up your stuff and then drive around the northeast of Scotland and go back home. You don’t have to think of anything. That’s great. I wouldn’t want to do it forever. But it was fun. Anyway, so I began my my professional career as a nurse. So I trained originally in mental health. And I worked in psychiatry for a number of years. And then I retrained in the area of intellectual disability, which then was “mental deficiency,” then became “mental handicapped,” then became “intellectual disability.” That’s very significant that these names change over time according to cultural expectations. But anyway, now it’s intellectual disability and I worked for a total of probably 16 years in there. And then, I decided I wanted to train for the Church of Scotland ministry because I thought I was going to be a hospital chaplain. Because my father was a hospital chaplain. That’s not to say that hospital chaplaincy is genetic. It just happens to be that it was always there. It does seem like like a natural thing to do to move from a health care back into the chaplaincy. And I did work in chaplaincy for a while, but as soon as I got into the university, for whatever reason, I knew that I wanted to teach practical theology. It just grasped me straight away. I’m not quite sure why, but you find your vocation sometimes and that’s it. And along the way, I became ordained in the Church of Scotland and I worked as a mental health chaplain for a number of years as well, alongside of my Ph.D. And then, I became … me
Kate: And that was pretty much the three tributaries of me. To be a nurse and to be a theologian and to be a pastor. I mean one of the things that strikes me, especially about meeting you in real life, is you understand the deep art of presence. I always kind of know when I meet a person who’s been a nurse or is a nurse because they just have a way of standing there and not shirking from the awkwardness of suffering because you obviously are someone who leans in.
John: I suppose you do learn that really, particularly because of the kind of “career” or vocation. So when you’re with people, take people with intellectual disabilities, if you’re not there, you’re really not there, because the only way that you can be with somebody is by being present. Like in essence. And to be present means that you have to put to one side a lot of the cultural assumptions you have. Because look, the way in which we normally make sense of one another as human beings is a process of mind-reading. Right? So I’m looking at you and I’m trying to work out how you’re thinking. You’ve got a fairly friendly face on you just now.
Kate: I have a very Little House on the Prairie set-up.
John: So I think maybe she likes me. At least she’s not going to be hostile towards me. And so I make that decision, then you communicate accordingly. And but when you meet people who have difficulties in communication, that goes out the window. So how do you make sense of someone that has no words and that you really can’t mind-read in that sense? So you have to learn just to be. Don’t do anything. Just be there. But I suppose that part of your formation as a nurse and maybe as a chaplain as well. You just learn to be where you are.
Kate: I have a lot of questions about how we create the sense that other people belong where they are. And you’ve had formation in two very distinct institutions that are supposed to create it just naturally. Maybe we could start with the church. The church is, I mean, is inherently designed not to kick people out. It is meant to be an inside-out institution in which the very weak among us … Scripture is very clear on who we are meant to care for: the fatherless, the imprisoned, the… How has the church been a complicated place of belonging, especially for people with intellectual disabilities
John: Well, first of all, I completely agree with you that in principle that’s the way it should be. And sometimes it is that way. But the problem is that the church, like society, has a particular value that it places on intellectual activity. And so if you meet somebody for the first time, chances are you’ll ask them what you do and then you put them in a hierarchy. And normally it would be a brain surgeon up here … because culturally that’s that’s the way we prioritize things. And so we’re fascinated by intellect and reason. So therefore, when you encounter people who don’t have the ability to communicate or to be in that way, then it’s a problem for you, because culturally we think that’s the essence of being a human being. And if you transfer that into a theological context, you begin to say things like, “You have to know this in order to be saved.” Then what happens to people that can never know things or worse, well not worse but, what happens to people who knew things and then forgotten things? And so that kind of intellectual rationale for the nature of faith is highly problematic for people with intellectual disabilities, but also highly problematic for people with dementia, for example, who are beginning to lose these things. And so whilst the church as a community of the friends of Jesus should be a welcoming place in the way that you describe it, sometimes the way in which we construct a theological understanding is even for something as important as salvation, i.e. being with Jesus as a blockage. And you might not articulate it in that way, but in your mind, you may well. Many people think it in that way, and it comes to fruition when people are, for example, not allowed to take part in the sacraments or not to be baptized and these kinds of things. So it can be tricky.
Kate: Because confession of faith plays such a big part.
Kate: So you’ve written so many beautiful books and I have cherished the crap out of them, and I promise I always credit you.
John: I have never heard that term before! That’s great! I’m going to take that home.
Kate: But I find myself arguing. As my friend John says. I had this argument maybe a month ago. It was with a very high-capacity government official, and he was describing his great fear of dementia and losing the ability to tell his own story. And he immediately said, “Well, I would…” and then these very intense desires to take back control over what end of life would look like for himself, because he was so scared. And I was like, “As my friend John says,” that the argument that I thought was so beautiful about whether primarily as a Christian or as a human being, our fundamental job is to tell or to articulate our stories in a convincing way. And then you have this lovely account of God as the one who holds our story for us. God is the one who, as he gathers us to him, like, is like, “I am holding all things.” I find that so deeply compelling. I mean, for the last … what do they call it? Dotage? Like the last, puttering years. But for for anyone who worries that in losing the narrative that we fully lose ourselves.
John: Yeah, no, I completely agree with that. I mean, one of the interesting things about the way in which the writer to the Hebrews describes faith “as being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you cannot see.” That’s a very different understanding of faith and the way that we culturally oftentimes think about that. And I think that’s important because for two reasons. One, in relation to memory, memory is pretty fickle. Right? So I’m thinking now I was latecomer to the faith. I was in my twenties when I became a Christian, and right up to then I thought, “All right, you’re a decent guy. You live a pretty good life.” And then suddenly I discovered I’m a horrible sinner in fear of condemnation. And so, like everything I knew about myself, turns out not to be the case. And memory functions like that. Memory is always very selective. And if it’s what you remember about your self that counts, then you’re in big trouble because you actually don’t remember what you think you remember. And so for me, the important thing is to take seriously what Paul says. You know, you find your identity in Christ. You don’t find identity in your neurology or in the things that you can or cannot do. You find your identity in Christ and your identity in Christ is hidden, as St. Paul says in Colossians. So you never really know who you are and so you’re not in a position to say, “That person is not the person they used to be” because you don’t know who you are yourself and you never will do until it’s revealed to you. So it’s always God’s memory that’s important. So we may forget certain things or the people may forget certain things, but if God remembers those that were held in the safety of that, and that’s really important from a pastoral point of view, because if faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you cannot see, then that’s how I have to look at you. So you may have all sorts of brain damage. You may be struggling to do those sorts of things. But if I’m looking at you for faithful life, being sure what I hope for, and certain of what I can see, then that completely transforms my understanding of who you are and how I should respond to you. So the theology and the practice around that is profoundly important
Kate: John, I think that I got my theology of hope from you, from a book. When when people say, well, then what is hope? Because I usually have a life I can’t fix. And in the certainty paradigms, then I’m supposed to produce a certain kind of … I should die very politely in faith. Just sure of so many things. And I always find myself saying (and I’m almost positive it’s from you), I say, “Hope is a long story, but it’s the story God’s telling us about us.” It’s not contingent then on my ability to, certainly not my abiliity to control. I love that it extends then to even our ability to do the thing which we imagine self-expression does, which is that each of us are telling the good story. Yeah.
John: Yeah. Exactly. You didn’t get that from me, but I’m happy to get the glory.
Kate: I’m pretty sure you did.
John: It’s certainly something I would say. But I’m getting old. I don’t remember everything.
Kate: That’s what happens when you write a lot of books. It’s probably somewhere near the back.
Kate: Suffering or undoing or a feeling of incompleteness. For some reason, I always think of like businessmen rushing off to important job eating an artisanal salad like that is our image of a fully formed, heroic individual at least in North America. If we’re not that self, how does the church, how can the church create more a generous place of belonging for all those of us who will not bring in that kind of heroic individual
John: Yeah, well, I think that the place to begin is with the relationship of friendship, because I think, you know, one of the most radical moments in John’s gospel is when Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants, I call you friends.” Right? And so God, who creates the universe, who comes into the world and calls his creatures friends, I don’t think we take that seriously enough ..
Kate: Your like. No, no, no, friends with the creator, the person sent to bless us all, and not to dip into modalism here, the savior of the world.. but like buddies saved the world, no big deal
John: So then to be a disciple is to become a friend of Jesus. The church becomes a community of friends. But then you look at the friendships of Jesus and they’re really different. Like, so my Facebook friends, of whom I have many (I can prove it with screenshots). The problem with Facebook friends is you can get rid of them very easily. And most of your Facebook friends are very similar to yourself. So you’ve got this lovely cluster of people that just look like you. It’s like looking in the mirror and we can do that in real life as well. The thing that’s startling about the friendships of Jesus is that they are not marked by the principle “like attracts like,” but by the principles of grace that like attracts those people unlike you. So tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes. Not reformed, tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes who are just doing the thing. And it’s through that friendship that they begin to encounter who Jesus is. And I think that’s the heart of belong. Recognizing that we are as a church, a community of the friends of Jesus and that Christ-like friendship doesn’t look like the kind of friendships we’re used to. And that’s the radical edge, I think, in principle that we have to offer to the world in terms of belonging, because people really can find a space through that kind of relationship
Kate: When that when you describe that kind of unlikeness and the way that it forces us to belong to each other. I’m thinking of my friend Roger, who passed away a couple months ago. He was the librarian here at the divinity school, and Roger and I didn’t have that much in common. He was a librarian and liked being a librarian. I liked running around talking about American religion, and we had very little to chat about, except that Rogers showed up for every small act of picking me up from the airport when I needed to go to the hospital, making sure the sign-up sheet for food that I didn’t say that I needed, but definitely needed, was filled in. And the unlikeness that became the most stable part of a very unstable time is I couldn’t have gotten that if I hadn’t been part of a church that was committed to me in a way that like a guy at the grocery store was never going to be committed to me. He like, made some kind of weird covenantal promise at the beginning of time to actually care about my stupid problems. Like when we belong to each other. It’s a lot of work. It’s sort of horrible.
John: But there is great power in small things, isn’t there? Like, I think that transformation and change isn’t necessarily a huge thing. We’re not called to transform the world. That’s God’s job. But we are called to transform ourselves. And often times transformation comes through these small gestures of hope that enable us to find belonging. I think that’s a great example.
Kate: The other institution that is near and dear to you and me, by extension (less dear to me) is the hospital. And I wonder if we could talk about health care institutions as another place that people who are in need are supposed to belong? It is a strange place to be vulnerable, though. What is it, do you think, about the way that we imagine disease or illness or just the way hospitals are set up that it is almost hard to imagine walking in there in a posture of vulnerability?
John: Well, I think at least part of the issue is because hospitals are set up to fix things and to solve problems. I don’t even think we will ever know what that’s exactly.
Kate: We want that!
John: But if the primary focus of my relationship with you is just to fix a part of you, then that’s the part I’ll look at you. So I’m not going to be particularly interested in what’s going on elsewhere in your life. I’m focused on that. So the specialism within medicines is necessary, of course it’s necessary. You want experts to be expert in different parts of your body. But the danger then, is that you actually lose the big picture. And in terms of the way that you think about people when you encounter them, and so you’re so busy thinking about the small parts that you miss the large part. But the whole of a health service — think about the National Health Service in the United Kingdom — it’s kind of set up to be generic. So you can even see that in relation to the way in which spirituality works itself out. So spirituality is roughly defined as a search for meaning and purpose and value and hope, and for some people, God. Why is that? Well, it’s because there’s no room for particularity in a generic health care system. So you can’t have a spirituality that works for only one person. It has to work for everybody. You can have an antibiotic that only works for one person, that has to work for everydoybody. And so even something like spirituality, which in principle should be pushing into the depths of your meaning and purpose, doesn’t really function that way, because they say, “You can ask this question, but not this question.” And so there is that kind of thinness in the way that people become in terms of the way that we describe and interact with them, which is called by that, at least partly by that inherent spirituality within the system, but also by the tendency to break things down and to focus on bits rather than wholes.
Kate: Focus on the bits rather than the whole subject. Exactly right.
John: So if you come in and say, “I’m feeling a bit vulnerable today because something happened.” People say, “So what?”
Kate: So that’s not actually on the pain scale. So if you could make it a one through ten number, that would be great.
John: And don’t think people do it deliberately, but you can get a culture where that becomes the norm and that makes it very difficult to become vulnerable in that situation because you are uncertain about what kind of response you get.
Kate: I used to dress up like I was going for a job interview every time because that is the person that was taken seriously. I could tell only later that I was auditioning for care because it had gone so badly for so long. But I still really struggled not to find like the nearest structured blazer if I’m anywhere near hospital. It did seem too, profession by profession, there was a different sense of whether the whole mattered. I’m obviously a huge fan of nurses.
Kate: But the ability to contextualize your diagnosis and your care and your treatment seems like that is work that is false to some people and not others, I suppose.
John: Yeah, that’s tricky because there’s an even within nursing, there’s a difference between context, you know. So my wife’s a nurse, so she’s a registered general nurse. Oh, as she would put “a real nurse,” you know, and I was a mental health nurse. And the difference between the two of us is that I would sit and speak to people all day long and she would get things done. That’s kind of true. But within mental health, you have to look at the whole person because the whole person is brought to you (unless you get caught up in diagnosis and that allows you to lose your focus). So that context really opens itself up to presence and to belonging and to a holistic understanding. If you’re in a busy acute ward, where you have a series of tasks to do, it’s not so easy to create a space of belonging. It’s just not so straightforward.
Kate: I just remember we talked to Victoria Sweet, her lovely book on slow and fast medicine.
John: Oh, yeah.
Kate: You have good arguments about speed. About the speed at which love can operate. I wondered if you wouldn’t mind first telling me a bit about that. And second, whether you think maybe the speed of love is just perhaps harder to duplicate in a healthcare scenario.
John: Yeah, well, I’ve been thinking about that recently, and obviously the idea that you’re talking about comes from the Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, and his idea of the Three Mile an Hour God. He says the average speed that a human being walks is three miles per hour. So Jesus, who is God and walks at 3 miles per hour. God who is love walks at 3 miles per hour. Love has a speed and it’s a slow speed and what’s pushing us to do is to recognize that if you’re going to love somebody, then you need to slow down and take time with them and spend time in that sense. And it’s very difficult to do that because the natural speed of healthcare is fast. So I remember talking to somebody from Duke, actually, who is a physician, and that we’re talking about Three Mile an Hour God. And he said, “Well, this place makes me walk at nine miles an hour minimum.” And I said to him, “If you walking at nine miles an hour and Jesus is walking at three miles an hour, who’s following who?” So it’s a difficult challenge. But I don’t think that’s an easy challenge to do that, because obviously, the system is oppressive. But then I did some work in Australia during the pandemic, on belonging and care of presence. One of the problems that in care of the elderly was that people had tended to be absent from the situation, so they’d be caring with somebody with dementia, for example, but they’d be talking over them and the people would look at their phones and eventually you have a culture of absence where things maybe get done badly. But people are absent. And I’ve been thinking about how do you avoid a culture of absence and how does my 9 mile an hour physician get out of that 9-mile-an-hour slot?
John: And so I wrote about this thing called micro breaks. Right? Micro breaks occur when you step outside of a situation just for 2 or 3 minutes, recalibrate and go back in. Because when you back go back into that situation, you have a different perspective. When you’re in there, you’re just lost in the slipstream. But simply stepping out and stepping back, that gives you that space that’s crucial to the mental health of the worker. And it’s good for the carer. And it struck that there’s something similar in that dynamic to what God talks about Sabbath. You know, when the people of Israel are oppressed, Jesus says, “Take a break, think of me, remember me, and then you go back into your work.” So it’s like there’s these little Sabbath moments that a professional or anybody can take to step out. That’s a beginning of a movement towards a three mile an hour God.
Kate: Yeah. So I only recently learned anything about basketball this year, and I was over at our stadium, which people have many feelings about. But they have a hype room, which is a small space that they get into that’s the architecture of excitement. It is motivational, it is small, it duplicates the theater of life that they will experience when they rush out there. So when you describe that, I want like the opposite of the hype room. I want the “micro break room,” designed to not make me want to like right now yelling, “Are you ready for this?” It makes me want to be like, “I’m not ready for this. I’m taking it down.”
John: Exactly. I watched the Super Bowl last night. No idea what was going on.
Kate: When people can’t tell the story of who they were because we lose things all the time, you have some lovely advice from experiences and friends of how to perhaps not always do the thing that at least I want to do, which is every time I’ve lost something, all I want to do is go back to the person that I was. I have like a stronger, better, faster … And it’s never, at least for me, it’s just genuinely not possible. But then it’s hard to sort of grieve the limitations that I now have to live with. You had a lovely friend who gave herself a “living funeral.” Am I remembering that right?
John: Yes, yes.
Kate: Can you tell me that story?
John: Tanya. Yes. She was involved with a serious motor accident and she ended up getting brain damage, which changed certain aspects of her personality and sometimes straightforward things, like she didn’t like the clothes that she used to like, she didn’t like the smells she used to like. So the various things that made her sense that she was alienated from herself and her friends felt similar. So the way that she coped with it was twofold. She went to therapy and so she was able to kind of realign certain things in her life through therapy. But she recognized there was a significant rift between who she had been and who she was now. And so she got together with her pastor and they decided to create this funeral service, it’s called a living funerals, ie: a way of grieving for somebody who’s gone, but who is also still alive. And it’s very beautiful, the imagery she used. She said “I gathered my friends and family and I we went down beside a river” and she gave everybody a handful of rose petals. And what happened was that they told stories so they would tell stories about how she had been, how she was. They create this kind of narrative fabric, including her own story, and then tell stories of how she is now. And so the schism between these two things had a narrative bridge and then, give and take, they would put they put the rose petals into the water and watched them as they moved down and disappeared out of sight. And that was to symbolize her old life so that they could come back into this new life and readjust to the way that she was and see what that looked like.
Kate: I did something like that yesterday. Entirely inspired by the Haitian therapy ritual around letting something go. But I was moving out of my home where I had lived and almost died. And leaving it felt so odd because every cupboard was full of medical supplies and there was one room was like, this is where I would quietly give myself these needles and then go take my son out of his crib, but really be hiding my chemotherapy pack. And like, there was just so many parts of it that were like, like such a heartbreaker. But it was also the home I brought my son home to and the place where I used to play this awful video game called Rock Band, where you’re giving people plastic instruments and..
John: I quite like that
Kate: It was really fun. And there’s no modern version. I feel like we should bring it back. So I told my best friend Katherine, I’m really, I’m never going to be that person again and I don’t want to skip it. Yeah. So she drove me over. She’s also an ordained pastor because Presbyterian, you guys are very …
John: Ahh, there’s the key
Kate: You’re good with your rituals and see. All of a sudden, while we were driving over, she pulled very suddenly over to the side of the road, got out, took out a pair of bolt cutters, disappeared into the woods. He came back with two enormous boughs of pine and just put them in the car, then drove on as if as if this were Sunday. And we went into the house and she had a bucket of water and she’s like, “All right, let’s do it.” And we went room by room and told every hard, terrible story of the thing that had been. Yeah. And then bless the person who we hoped would come after and then the person that we hope I might yet be
Kate: And I have to say this like. Grieving the past person I think is such a lovely way of and especially when someone else is there to tell the story of you. Because you’re right. We don’t remember. No, I mean, I only remembered half of it.
John: Yeah. I think that that kind of ritual really important because it’s like a bridge between the past and the present, and we should ritualized things more, I think, because there’s a lot of thing. And I sometimes think that and listen to something like, like the dementia the movements to the different phases is really complicated, difficult and ritualized, and that these movements can be really helpful for just getting from one space to the next be complicated. So I think it’s a great story. And do you feel better for it?
Kate: I do. Yeah. I do feel a bit wrung out. But I can’t. I think it’s hard to make room for a new story if I haven’t had a minute to grieve the old one. Yeah, I guess. Yeah, because. I would have kept it. Do you know what I mean? People, it’s. It’s. I just find it so much easier to move on to the next if the next thing is always unambiguously good.
Kate: Fun. Thicker. Better. It’s usually just different.
John: Yeah, well, that’s right. Exactly right
Kate: Do you think in creating new kinds of belonging? Do you think it helped your friend then be able to find ways to bring old friends along with her and then be able to be like, and this is who I am now? Like it re-inscribes belonging if we can grieve the past self?
John: It really depends on whether you like the people you used to like and they like you, you know. Because our changes like. And so you can go through this. Yeah. I mean, I’d have to speak to her. I don’t know whether, but you go through this process and discover that the old friends that you had, are maybe not the friends that you want to have now. And that’s another source of grief. But maybe that’s just process of of moving on to be honest enough to recognize that some things that were, are just not. That quite difficult thing like it’s very difficult for friends and stuff but I guess that’s just part of that healing process. Difficult as it is.
Kate: Whether you’re someone who’s suffering or someone who is around suffering. Do you have any advice for people who want to create a deeper sense of, belonging in those spaces?
John: In relation to suffering?
Kate: Yeah. It’s whether you’re the person going through it or the person around the person going through it.
Kate: I always think that that can often be one of the loneliest places to be.
John: Yeah, I think I said that. I mean, for people going through suffering, it is a profoundly painful experience. It’s a profoundly alienating experience. Yeah, because you lose a sense of the security, of the way that life is. The life you recognize, the things that you used to use to cope with that are no longer available to you. So therefore it’s isolated. And if that’s combined with pain, then you do have a difficulty because pain is the enemy of community, because it blocks from yourself, it blocks you from your neighbor, it blocks you from God. And so you can find yourself in a horrible space. And the last thing you want is someone to say, I know how you feel because clearly you don’t know
Kate: Do you? Do you really? Yeah.
John: So, in that context, the pain becomes, if you like a spiritual issue. Jesus says the love of the sum of the law and professes to love God, love neighbor and self. Pain can destroy all of that stuff because you lose your sense of who God is. You lose your sense of who your neighbor is. And all you can feel is a pain within yourself. Yeah. So in that context, you need medics, strangely enough, spiritual level to give you medication that can reconnect you that way. And so that is a kind of interesting collaboration between the medical and the spiritual in the context of suffering and the pain. So, I think that something important in there to be released from pain is to be released to reconnect with you, with God, self, and others. For people who are alongside people who are suffering, that can be equally as difficult and equally as alienating for for various reasons. You just have no control over that. And to watch somebody in that situation who is struggling, who is in pain, and to be able to do absolutely nothing is painful and psychologically painful and to accompany somebody in that, is really, really stressful because in reality, very often, you know, emotions transfer. So if you know, if you have a somebody who’s really, really anxious, chances are you’ll leave that you feel self really, really anxious. He was somebody who’s suffering and going through that anxiety attention. You go with that. So from the perspective of somebody who’s walking along side somebody who is suffering, you need to get rid of that. You need to have a friend or you need to have somebody who you can really be honest with. Who you really can lament with one of the reasons why the lament Psalms, which was so powerful, is because they’re so cathartic. Yeah, just just help you get rid of that stuff. And you need that somebody or some group of people that you can be honest with. And so I think for the church’s perspective, reclaiming lamentation is profoundly important. Yeah, not just in the time of crisis, but we need to get into the habit of practicing lament. Then, like there’s plenty of thing in the world to lament about. There’s enough to practice for on. But for somebody in that situation, that accompaniment, that’s I think that’s really, really important.
Kate: Yeah. John You always give me new language for the withness feeling. The like being alongside, suffering not as an aberration incompleteness, not as an aberration, but as part of that’s that. Then in the middle of it, we are all somehow very deeply good, even if we are. Even if most of it is not affirmed by our culture as Yeah, independent, perfect, in control. And I always walk away from a book and now two chances to be with you feeling like a more of a person. So thank you so much for doing this with me. What a joy.
John: It was my pleasure.
Kate: Being with John is so funny. I can just feel my heart rate slow. It’s the nicest feeling. He has this way of really just kind of locking in and listening to him describe it — that slow, intentional practice of presence. It really reminds me of my friend Meg. I lucked out when I walked into the infusion center for my very first chemotherapy and a Meg came into my life. She looks like this little baby Ann Hathaway and she was, you know, assigned to me as my infusion nurse, but very, very quickly became my friend. During my hours and hours, just sitting there hooked up to something. She became the best part of every worst day. So, my loves, I know that so many of you do that for people. You show up, you slow down for a minute, you pause between all the things you really could be doing. So to you, to Meg, to all the Megs, you beautiful creatures. Thank you for caring when you didn’t have to. Thanks. Thanks. Thanks for remembering us in all our particularities. You guys are for the win. So I thought maybe we could do a little blessing to close about all you who care and keep caring about strangers. All right. Here we go: Bless those who give their time in service of people who might not even deserve it. “What a waste.” That wasn’t going to get you a nicer apartment. What if that patient took unnecessary risks or was selfish or was never going to say thank you? You could have been protecting yourself or, God forbid, sleeping through the night. Bless you who listened to long winding stories from lonely hearts instead of rushing off to more interesting friends. You picked boredom or patience instead of the warmth of being known. That was your time and you’re never going to get it back. Bless those who loved people who weren’t grateful. The sick who endangered your health. The deeply boring who know you have things to do. Loving people can be the most meaningful thing in the world, but it can also be hard, and scary, and boring, and disgusting, or sad, or anxiety-inducing with zero overtime. Thank you to all those who make these “bad investments,” those acts of love that are not going to add up to success in the way that the world sees it. You, my darling, are the very definition of love.
Kate: This episode of the Everything Happens podcast was made possible because of our generous partners Lilly Endowment, The Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School and Leadership Education. And of course, nothing is possible without the wisdom and expertise of my absolutely fabulous team, Jessica Richie, my heart, I love you. Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Heginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Hope Anderson, Jeb Burt and Katherine Smith. This really is my very favorite kind of group project. So if you want to know what else we’re up to, head over to KateBowler.com/newsletter so you don’t miss a thing. I would really love to hear what you thought about this episode. Would you consider leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify? It means a ton to us when we hear what you liked or who you want to hear in conversation next. Also, we really love hearing your voice. Feel free to leave us a voicemail. We might even use it on the air. So call us at 919-322-8731. All right, lovelies. I’ll talk to you next week. But in the meantime, come find me online at @Katecbowler. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.
One thought on “The Art of Presence”
I had the pleasure of being introduced to John during the Wee Kirk at Montreat conference in October of 2022 and absolutely LOVE his theology of becoming friends of time. This was a beautiful podcast conversation that lifted up gentle reminders of what love, belonging, and compassion look like. Thank you for a great episode, as always!