Hospice or Hospital?

This year I have been thinking a lot about the fact that the Church should be a place of healing. That means that, if a Christian community is doing their job right, there ought to be a lot of hurting people in it, needing healing, comfort, and love. If we are honest with ourselves, we are all represented in that community, at least at some point or another. So the question that occurs to me is what do we do with such hurting and wounded people? The analogy that occurs to me is this: Are we a hospice or a hospital?

The terms have the same root and are often used interchangeably but a hospice, in the modern sense, is a place where people who are terminally ill are made comfortable and at ease so that they might die in dignity. It is an important ministry and service and I have been grateful to see them increase in the States. The primary goal of a hospice is to provide relief to someone for whom there is no hope of cure so that their remaining time in this world may be as comfortable as possible.

A hospital, on the other hand, is an institution that provides medical care and treatment of patients with the goal and intention of making them well. In a hospital the doctors and nurses work with patients to develop a regimen that will lead them to a healthy (or healthier) life on the assumption that they will have many more years to live.

So which should we be? A hospice or a hospital? A place of comfortable decline or comfortable place of healing and growth?

Put in such stark terms I hope the answer is obvious. Christian communities should be a hospital with the best elements of a hospice. That is to say, all should be welcome and made welcome, be comforted and made comfortable, received and accepted as they are. Everyone should be loved in and by the truth of the Gospel. But Christian ministry should not stop there. We should also be a place of true and deep healing and that often means confronting the “patient” with the reality of their ills, in love and grace, so a regimen can be developed and implemented that will bring about true, deep, and lasting spiritual, emotional, and even physical health.

Unfortunately, in practice, this is not the case. Far too many communities think that the Gospel message is only to bring comfort and peace in this world (and that this comfort and peace is defined by this world). Sadly, I think that the reason we often don’t do this in our churches today is because so many efforts at healing have been ham-fisted and hurtful. So it is that some of the most dysfunctional communities I have encountered are well-intentioned and devout Christian communities, but in their efforts to “love” someone they have merely made them comfortable in their woundedness. It is far more hurtful and immoral to allow a person who is suffering to remain in their distress because we are uncomfortable with helping them face their very real wounds and injuries.

In our Gospel reading for this past week (John 3:17), Jesus said, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” This does mean that God means to fulfill his promise to Noah, he will not destroy all the world, but ultimately desire that all would be saved through his Son. But it does not mean that the world should remain as it is.

When a group of pietistic men brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus, he challenged their spiritual health, famously saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” When no one condemned her, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” But he did not leave her there, freed of her guilt. He forgave her of her sin and called her to live a holier, healthier life. “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

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