I went to high school with a doctor named Atul Gawande. He not only practices medicine, he has also been an advisor to the White House and has written books one medicine and public policy, becoming a bit of a go-to person for the media when issues arise in the health care arena. Of course, it is always good to see someone from your hometown do well. It is an even greater blessing to see great good arise from someoneI grew up with's work. Atul brings an intelligent, open and engaging persona to some of the harsher realities of the current state of our health care debates and offers accessible clarity to non-medical folk like me.
I have one of his books on the shelf in my office: Better. It is an exploration of life in medicine, and he talks about ways to effect positive change in the way we deal with, and treat illness-infectious or otherwise. He also takes on the heavy challenge of defining what "better" looks like in an ill person's journey to healing. Sometimes that sense of better means returning to health after an ordeal. Sometimes "better" means finding a quality of life that may be quite different than what the person experienced before becoming ill. Sometimes, "better" means an end to suffering, dying.
Another perspective on the state of the healing arts found in the book is the center of my reflection today...clean hands.
Reading today's selections, I am deeply affected by the impact of how we experience "clean" versus "unclean." In Leviticus, clean, and unclean, is defined by God. Certain animals are clean. Others are not. If you touch something unclean, then you are unclean-usually until sundown-even after you wash up. Being clean also involves performing ritual in the right way, and at the sanctioned time. Poor Nadab and Abihu found that out the hard way, paying with their lives for lifting up an ill-timed and inappropriately timed incense offering before the place of meeting. Also, for all of you having bacon for breakfast...I am afraid you are now on the outs...pigs don't chew the cud. Game over.
But my primary focus is on Jesus' engagement with the Pharisees over the cleanliness debates. What is appropriate in their eyes (and what they had received from their elders) indicated an assiduous adherence to keeping themselves CLEAN. Wash hands, vessels, cups...heck, wash tables, chairs, etc. When the Torah requires three steps...take five. Jesus challenges them to see that when that sort of zeal is exercised, then connection to God and our neighbor suffers greatly. His healings in this chapter, as in the last, are not necessarily "clean" acts. He touches the unclean, associates with the unwashed and
Atul's book talks about how important clean hands are to lives of patients and personnel in hospitals, medical offices and care facilities. Washing hands, regularly, is perhaps one of the most important actions ANYONE can take in hospitals to avoid the spread of infections and bacterial contamination. Hospitals that institute policies demanding compliance with disciplined hand-washing protocols see dramatic reductions in opportunistic infection. And yet, he writes, people don't always comply. The biggest offenders? Doctors themselves. Go figure...
When I go to visit people in hospital, I am acutely aware of the MANY opportunities they now present those walking the halls to keep their hands clean and safe (well, safer) with regard to avoiding infection. The difference in this kind of hand-washing versus the sort of clean/unclean tending Jesus is critiquing? Atul's framing of the argument for hand washing is focused on connecting people to each other as they walk with each other on a healing path. I am not washing my hands regularly to AVOID connecting to people. I am washing my hands regularly in order to connect and commit to the well-being of my neighbors.
What makes us holy? Not things that attempt to separate us from connecting to each other, of that I am sure. What makes us clean? Those actions we undertake that serve to draw us closer together as we seek to care for each other and offer to each other mindful and loving service. Hand washing in that sense serves to connect us more profoundly to each other, and thus to God.
I will be praying on that today...each time I wash my hands. May God keep me mindful that this action draws me closer to loving my neighbor...clean hands like those, yes. Amen.