Word of the Week

[If you missed Joe's previous two posts on "Waiting with Hope" and "Love That Groans" check them out!]

 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Deuteronomy 10:17-19

 Hospitals are inherently disorienting places, even though the people who work in them try hard to offer “hospitality.” My wife, Sarah, and our unborn son spent five days in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia after fetal surgery to address my son’s spina bifida birth defect (see December 8th post). For a few minutes, our baby was exposed to the world then put back into the uterus for what we hoped would be another three months. I can only imagine that it was disorienting for him. It was definitely disorienting for Sarah to be so completely vulnerable. We had to trust a lot of extremely qualified and very nice strangers. We were totally out of our element.

Our medical team insisted we stay in the area for at least a few weeks for monitoring before traveling back to North Carolina. After leaving the hospital, we had planned to stay in the local Ronald McDonald House (www.rmhc.org), but there was no room in the inn. Our backup plan was not a barn out back, thankfully, but another nonprofit, “Hosts for Hospitals.” (www.hostsforhospitals.org) This organization finds hosts in the Philly area for people who have to travel there for medical treatment. Our hosts, Steven and Ellyn, were in their sixties, empty nesters with a lovely spare room in their suburban home. They were devout Jews and fascinated to be hosting Sarah and her Episcopal priest husband. Their trust was amazing, as we only spoke to them twice by phone before showing up on their doorstep. We planned to stay maybe a few nights until Ronald McDonald House had room.

A few nights became three weeks. Steven and Ellyn encouraged us to stay, and Ronald McDonald stayed full. Although HfH had told us to be responsible for our own food, Ellyn insisted on cooking. She said it was because they kept kosher and did not want us to have to worry about using the right dishes. I think she just enjoyed hosting. Sarah was on bed rest, and Ellyn prepared a tray for her. The second night we were there, Sarah had some disconcerting pains during dinner, and Ellyn calmly wrapped up our bagels so we could take them to the hospital. When we came home a few hours later, they were waiting up to make sure we were okay.

I told Steven and Ellyn they had taken literally the Torah’s commandment to care for and love the stranger. Sarah and I were sojourners who had left our home and other children to visit this foreign place. In the midst of waiting, we discovered the joy of receiving literal “hospital-ity.” In contrast to the disorientation of the hospital, the care and healing we experienced in a stranger’s home was re-orienting. The welcome we received helped us get our bearings. It became a sabbath time, even sharing Shabbat dinner with our hosts each Friday night. In between my care giving tasks for Sarah, I delighted in finding flowers at the farmer’s market for the dinner table. During those weeks, we finally took some deep breaths after weeks of anxiousness. We were never totally at rest (Sarah was recovering from major surgery after all) but we were comfortably uncomfortable.

Advent is a season of disorientation and hospitality. Joseph and the pregnant Mary wander to Bethlehem, even as Mary offers room in her body for the baby Jesus. We open our doors to family and friends, maybe even strangers (the new significant other of an old relative perhaps), who have traveled far from home. Their presence is an occasion for joy but also makes us a bit uneasy. As we anticipate the birth of Christ in us, we encounter our own inner needy folk, asking for directions and care. We are both strangers and hosts, vulnerable and welcoming, disoriented and grounded. One of Advent’s gifts is a sense of Sabbath comfort that reorients us as we uncomfortably wait.

Let us pray:

O God, as we wait for Christ this Advent season, help us to open the doors of our hearts to welcome you. Give us the grace to joyfully accept the welcome of others, that together we might find rest in each other’s hospitality. Help us to love the needy ones within us as well as the strangers we meet as we try to find the way. Amen.

JoeHensleyThe Reverend Joseph (Joe) H. Hensley, Jr. works as a full-time priest at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, NC. He lives with his wife, Sarah, and three children (ages 11, 6, and 2). This Advent he is waiting for God to help him laugh (again!

It has been almost five weeks since I've felt quite right and since I've posted any new content. If you've followed my blog for a while, you know that this isn't normal.

But, here I am on a Saturday night to say "I'm back!" And I'll tell you why I've been gone.

And no, it is not because the dog ate my homework or any excuse like that. . .

Over a month ago, I found myself in a Oklahoma hospital preparing for emergency surgery. I hadn't been feeling well for quite some time, but I seriously thought it would pass. But, after going to the doctor finally, the reason for my troubles came to the light. But I must insert here that the truth took 2 different misdiagnosis and 2 ER visits to come out.

Before surgery, there was a bit of a scare that my illness could have come from cancer: not cool! But, when the pathology report came back from the lab afterwards it was determined that my painful condition was not a long-term problem (no cancer) and the surgery had cleared me of infection. It was just a freak event. All of this was great news, but simultaneously, I faced a couple of months recovery process.

Life certainly took a different turn than I expected in August and September. And my October plans have been altered too.

When folks have heard what I've gone through I've felt a lot of pity. "Oh, my God. I'm so sorry" has been the most common response. So, I tell you all of this not to seek your pity or well wishes (honestly, I don't find comfort in a person's pity), but to focus on the positive and say that this time has been life-giving in its own way. And, I have a lot to be thankful for:

Most of all, I'm alive and don't have cancer.

Without much time to research doctors or hospitals, I felt like I got great care where I landed on August 21st. I was in good hands with the surgeon given to me.

Kevin was not out of the country when I got sick but by my side the whole way (even sleeping at the hospital on a cot for a couple of nights!). He doesn't just run a large non-profit, he's my husband and an amazing one at that!

Help came when I needed it the most: my mom flew in from Tennessee and one of my best friends flew out from several states over to Oklahoma too. They were gifts to our household especially as Kevin still had to work and I wasn't ready to be on my own.

The flowers I got from Feed The Children employees, DC friends and other folks made my hospital room and then our small apartment smell amazing. (And made the hospital staff in particular keep telling me-- you must be loved).

Dear ones became even dearer to me these past several weeks-- a friend from Africa called me every day just to talk me through the loneliness, friends from all over the country called to pray for me or let me cry when I needed to process how scary this entire ordeal was, and my one Oklahoman friend Susan brought the actual presence of joy to our apartment with her visits and often brought yummy food that Kevin enjoyed (even if I didn't feel like eating).

I even got one of those amazing Washington Plaza Baptist "get well" cards that I had signed for countless other people during the years I served as that church's pastor, but this time it was for me.

And now as I'm able to get up and move around a bit more, I'm more grateful than ever for the gift of life's simple pleasures.

Driving my car is a big accomplishment of the day, not a chore.

Being able to shower and even shave my legs (finally) by myself is a joy, not one more thing to do in the morning.

Having enough mental energy to write words on this computer screen is not mundane task, but one full of delight.

Gaining enough strength to fly on an airplane to my home in DC was not just an average day, but one to be celebrated!

Why? Because I simply could. A couple of weeks ago I could not.

Early on, I needed help brushing my hair, dressing and getting propped up in bed. I could not go to the bathroom without being watched. I could not eat food without asking permission. In all of this, I received lessons in being served by loved ones and strangers alike.

Prior of all of this, I was eating well, taking vitamins, and working out, doing all of the things a doctor says "healthy people do" and without any known medical conditions. But all of a sudden, I wasn't well. My illness came on strong. And I was out. I hardly felt like texting or talking either-- two of my favorite things.

Most of all this is what I learned: never let age keep you from being grateful for your health. This 33-year-old named Elizabeth Hagan is excited about her recovery and feeling strong again. And maybe one day I'll write more about it.

But for now, I'm going back to the couch to keep "doing my time" in recovery to be good as new soon. And when I am, certainly know I'll be even more grateful.