The Rev. Dr. Duane R. Bidwell delivers a stirring and illuminating Greenhoe Lecture at Louisville Seminary
December 30, 2022
In delivering Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s Greenhoe Lecture recently, the Rev. Dr. Duane R. Bidwell — a member of Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery and faculty member at the Center for Health Professions Education, Hebert School of Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland — gave both in-person and online attendees a moving preview of a book he’s completing on pediatric hope.
Bidwell called his hourlong talk “Attending to Spirit: Spirituality and Childhood Hope in Chronic Illness.”
Bidwell’s research comes from 51 conversations at three sites he had with children at end-stage renal disease, children who need dialysis or organ transplant to survive. Dialysis and the required medications create plenty of side effects in young patients, Bidwell said. Such patients “are embedded, soaking and marinating in suffering.”
The extensive conversations revealed five practices that children employ, either as resources they carry or gifts they received:
Choosing trust. Children decide to trust the team, the process and the universe.
Realizing connections. Children build community with people on the team and other patients.
Claiming power, in relation to doctors, nurses and phlebotomists.
Maintaining identity, which Bidwell described as “sustaining who you were before you got sick.”
Attending the spirit, “a resource they bring to the experience of the disease,” he said. That includes “the ways spirituality contributes to living well with chronic illness,” research that Bidwell said was in short supply.
“Without God, I really can’t do it,” one child told Bidwell.
“I talk to God like he is my friend,” said another, “and so I just pray.”
“Kids tell me they want to be normal, or more normal,” Bidwell said, calling that “their vision of wholeness and health. … It’s an aspirational thing they’re trying to accomplish.”
One patient Bidwell spoke with, a boy named Roger, was twice matched for a kidney transplant. But the surgery was halted both times.
“He wasn’t disappointed. He didn’t expect the transplant to happen either time,” Bidwell said. Months later, the boy was jolted awake at 3 a.m. by a phone call from the transplant coordinator: “Can you and your parents come to the hospital right away? We have a kidney for you,” Roger was told.
“This time, he had no doubt the surgery would happen,” Bidwell said. “I was dreaming with God,” the boy told Bidwell, “And he showed me a kidney and told me it was mine. A week later, they called me!”
To date, most researchers have “ignored the relationship between hope and spirit,” Bidwell said. It may be many are uncomfortable with children using that kind of language, or that some researchers may have difficulty dealing with the issue of children suffering.
“Yet children reference religion and spirituality again and again,” Bidwell said. Two-thirds of the children he spoke with told him it helps them sustain hope. “It’s a skill they seem to bring to chronic illness,” Bidwell said. “If you ask about it, they engage eagerly.”
“The vision of normal that motivates them cannot be realized through their own efforts,” Bidwell said. “They begin to sense they will always be ‘abnormal’ to some degree. Many turn to an inner transcendent source of affirmation.” That practice is especially important among Black and brown children, he said.
Attitudes and actions in the patients with whom Bidwell spoke “shapes the individual’s image of God, informs their prayers and their belief about serving others and the importance they place on community,” he said.
Bidwell’s research left him with four takeaways:
Hope can exceed human capacities. “We are larger than our bodies,” he said. “We are called to a purpose beyond ourselves.”
Spirituality and religion “matter tremendously during chronic, life-threatening illness.”
Children “suggest to me that attending to spirit relies primarily on relationships and spiritual practices, including the reading of sacred texts,” Bidwell said. “Adults need to help children attend to spirit. We receive divine consolation through the people in our lives.”
Knowing they are loved and valued even when they cannot be “normal” allows chronically ill children “to claim the gifts and wisdom that can emerge from their experience with illness.”
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Greenhoe Lecture at Louisville Seminary
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Gracious and compassionate God, please open our hearts to crisis around the world. May we see the suffering and strive to find Christ-centered solutions. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.