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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wednesday Festival: Tension

From our friend, Pastor Julia, who writes at Faith, Grace and Hope, a reflection on


I have been re-reading parts of Victoria Sweet's God's Hotel for two months now. I've maxed the renewal time of my local library and finally decided to buy my own copy. Though the book is about the last almshouse in the United States, located in San Francisco, it is about more than healthcare. I strongly recommend this book.

Sweet writes about the spiritual and emotional dimensions of caring for the chronically ill. She studies the work of Hildegard of Bingen and considers how the tools of ancient medicine apply to practice today. In a sermon here, I talked about Sweet's understanding of the difference between anima and spiritus.

She also details the tension between different factions in the hospital, between doctors and nurses, administration and city government, willing patients and resistant patients. Though many of the decisions for the future of the hospital are necessary, but lamentable- Sweet reflects on the writing of Florence Nightingale regarding the necessity of tension in medicine.

Nightingale wrote:

“A patient is much better cared for in an institution where there is the perpetual rub between doctors and nurses and nuns; between students, matrons, governors, treasurers, and casual visitors, between secular and spiritual authorities… than in a hospital under the best governed order in existence.” (Nightingale, Notes on Hospitals, 184).

Sweet interprets: 

“But then I remembered what Florence Nightingale had written about the struggle between medicine and nursing and administration. That struggle was irresolvable and should not be resolved, she said, because it was in the patients’ best interest. If medicine ever won control of the hospital, too much would be practiced on the patient; if administration, too little; if nursing, medical progress would be curtailed in the interest of the spiritual and emotional care of the patient.” (Sweet, God’s Hotel, 327). 

Part of the reason I've kept this book for so long is for the passages like this. I turn this over and over in my mind and I wonder about the necessary tension in the church. What is the critical balance between laity, clergy/rostered leaders, and administration/judicatories? How do we balance the interests of all and how do we discern to whom God is speaking and who thinks the sound of their voice is God speaking? 

There is also the balance between history, tradition, and spontaneity, between styles of music, prayer, and preaching, between interpretation, meditation, and contemplation. 

Some of the truly difficult work of the church is learning to live with the tensions, when to give and who should give, and how to move forward. And in all this, we must also remember not to let the work of the church interfere with the work of the Lord. 

Sweet, Victoria. God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. Riverhead Books, New York. 2012. p. 327, 372


  1. Julia, what a DELIGHT!!! so much to think about here -- THANK YOU!!! (Now I must go see what von Clausewitz has to say about tension -- he says lots about friction -- perhaps they amount to the same thing! I note Nightingale talked about "rub"...

  2. This is a wonderful post. And yes, so wonderful to read about friction and rub in a positive light.

  3. Thanks Julia.
    Interesting that the tensions you name are in trinities....
    much food for thought.

  4. Tensions...ebbs and flows...are necessary to creative growth. I wonder if we embrace them rather than fear them what will happen.

  5. Good words. Thank you. Reminds me of the old Shanti Elder song: "it's the friction in the bow that makes the violin sing."


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