One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus loved, was reclining at Jesus’ side. So Simon Peter nodded to him to find out whom he meant. He leaned back against Jesus’ chest and said to him, “Master, who is it?”
A few facts: I am terrified of flying. The thought of being on a plane shortens my breath, causes me to clench my fists, induces a mild panic. Nor am I medically inclined. I have not studied medicine and I tend to avoid the doctor’s office. Nor do I consider myself a missionary Christian. Sure, other people find it necessary and important to go to other countries and minister, but that type of ministry is not for me.
Imagine my surprise, then, when family friends invited me on a medical mission trip to the Dominican Republic during my senior year of college. After a bit of hesitation (a plane!), I agreed to go. Being in the Dominican was, as all mission trips are reported to be, a life-changing experience. Every day our team of doctors, nurses, and random folks invited by family friends traveled to a different batey (the villages where the sugar-cane workers and their families live) in order to see villagers and attempt, in some small way, to heal.
During the first few days of our trip my job was to hand out gifts—toothbrushes, little toys, soap, T-shirts—to the people who were leaving our makeshift clinic. On the third day we arrived in a batey that was worse than any of the others we had visited. Whereas other bateyes were mostly clean, children were clothed, and houses were at least somewhat substantial, this batey was littered with trash, children ran around naked and shoeless, and homes were inadequate at best.
On this day I was given the opportunity to sit with one of the doctors while he saw patients. They described their symptoms—back pain, difficulty urinating, itchy eyes—and he prescribed what remedies he could. One of the women who came to Dr. Ron brought her toddler with her. Mother and child were both healthy; this mom simply wanted a check-up. Dr. Ron went through the normal routine: listened to the two-year-old’s heart, looked at her eyes, examined her ears, checked her reflexes.
After the examination he took his stethoscope from around his neck, placed the earpieces in the mother’s ears and allowed her to listen to her daughter’s heart.
The woman’s eyes filled with wonder, mine with tears. She had not heard her daughter’s heartbeat before and here it was, this life moving and flowing in the daughter she had birthed about two years before.
As I watched this interaction, I could not help but think of my cousin Rachel who was about the same age as this little girl. My aunt and uncle had heard Rachel’s heartbeat when she was in utero; I had thought it common for parents to hear the heartbeat of their children before they are born, and, indeed, in America it is. For this woman, though, it was gift, pure and simple.
Heartbeats are intimate. They are life, existence, reality. With them, we begin; without them, we cease. This interaction between mother and child contains the essence of my time in the Dominican.
In one of my theology classes, prior to my trip to the Dominican, the professor related a quote of one of his mentors: “Keep in mind,” he said, “that the most important action in the universe is the heartbeat of Christ.” As he explained it, this was a cosmological phenomenon—the beauty of right relationship, the attentiveness we are called to have to Christ present in our world. But as I watched this mother listen to her child’s heart, it occurred to me that there too was the heartbeat of Christ.