In late 1991, I became the sole chaplain at Houston Northwest Medical Center. The hospital boasted the busiest trauma center outside downtown, so it was the perfect blend of trauma and drama for my adrenaline-seeking personality.
The suburban hospital served the fourth largest city in the U.S., which meant that our emergency room kept me busy comforting those who had lost family members to electrocutions, drownings, shootings, child abuse, car accidents and even a suicide in our hospital driveway.
So naturally, when a nurse paged me one afternoon to tell me the ER was treating a baby from a car accident, I expected the worst. She also added that I should look for the distraught father in the ER waiting room.
A few minutes later, I found a tall young man pacing our waiting room and bellowing into a brick-sized cell phone. He seemed to be talking to his wife, saying things like “I don’t know” and “They are calling the surgeon now.”
By the time he finished, I was sure he was the distraught father I sought. I approached him slowly, but not just in anticipation of the possible tragedy. Cell calls were a dollar a minute in those days; it felt like I was approaching “money.”
He returned his phone to his leather briefcase as I managed to introduce myself. When I asked him about his baby, he flashed a spacious smile with a hint of embarrassment.
“Oh, he’ll be OK,” he said. “It’s just a scratch.”
Now, it was my turn to display embarrassment. The nurse described a car accident and a baby. Where was the tragedy?
“No tragedy,” the man said. “My son will only need five stitches.”
“But, I heard you mention a surgeon.”
“Yes,” he explained, “I requested a plastic surgeon to do the stitches so there won’t be any scars.”
Yup, I was talking to money, likely old money. As the father of four, I’d seen how quickly small scars fade from young skin, especially baby skin.
A moment later, he turned to answer a call from adoring grandparents, and I ducked into the ER treatment area in search of more serious pastoral needs.
The plastic surgeon request seemed over the top, but I could understand that the dad wanted the unblemished baby he’d dressed that morning.
I’ve often used the story to reflect on the extravagant love of God. Christian tradition teaches that God’s love is dispensed from “The Great Physician,” a scripturally based title Jesus used of himself.
However, before one can submit to a physician’s care — even a great one — one must confess imperfections and blemishes. Jesus expressed a special reproach for those who considered themselves too pure to need spiritual care.
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor,” he said, “but the sick.” He was saying the healing love of God is accessed through one’s personal confession that he or she is sick or blemished.
I didn’t find anybody else in obvious need, so I stopped to consult the ER doctor as she wrote her physician note on the baby.
I told the ER doc about the doting father in the ER waiting room. When she said the plastic surgeon was on his way, I asked if he expressed some annoyance over being called for such an insignificant cut.
“Not at all,” she said. There was a pause as she exchanged her smirk with my puzzled look.
“He sounded rather happy to be making five grand for 15 minutes work.”