Listen To Article
I was having my teeth cleaned the other day and noticed the hygienist was quietly singing along with the radio in the dentist’s office. The song was “Hotel California.” I first heard the muted singing with the line “She got the Mercedes Benz.”
You’re in a vulnerable spot in the dentist’s office, lying way back holding your mouth open while a stranger pokes and prods your bicuspids with a metal object. It doesn’t get better when you hear the hygienist sing/whisper, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
The incongruity strikes me as amusing and led me to think about incongruity. Sometimes incongruity makes something funny. Other times incongruity can be startling. I read a book recently that fits that bill. Dr. Henry Ottens was startled by incongruity when he took his family from West Michigan to Bangladesh in 1980. Bangladesh had only been an independent state for nine years, and at the time was full of the poverty and disease associated with developing countries. Ottens went from the comfort of American affluence for three months as a missionary doctor. An orthopedic surgeon who typically repaired the damaged joints of American athletes, Ottens was suddenly dealing with malaria, tuberculosis, rabies, florid rickets, Buerger’s disease, leprosy, and many other conditions rarely seen here.
Ninety Days in Bangladesh is Ottens’s recently published journal from those days. About a decade ago, I was invited by Ottens to lead an Adult Enrichment session at Second CRC in Grand Haven. He kept inviting me back, and we became friends. But I didn’t know about this part of his life. After rediscovering his journal on a dusty basement bookshelf, Ottens decided to publish it as a book, with the help and encouragement of David Schock (whose A.J. Muste documentaries have been featured in these pages). I’m glad this happened—the book is fascinating.
“Visit Bangladesh Before the Tourists Come” was the country’s marketing pitch 40 years ago, a sentiment still true today. Although the eighth-most populated country in the world, Bangladesh is rarely visited and mostly unknown to North Americans. The journal provides a view inside the country and a mission hospital. Ottens performed 49 major and 37 minor procedures (and assisted on ten others) during his short stay. He diagnosed pregnancies, did C-sections, and even sewed together a soldier who somehow survived having his throat sliced wide open (“I unwrapped his neck bandages and found myself staring into the distal end of his cut-through trachea,” Ottens writes).
“Almost daily,” he writes, “we are allowed glimpses of what the human body can tolerate before it succumbs to disease or injury. I have learned, for instance, that a child whose hemoglobin has gradually fallen to 2 grams per 100 milliliters of blood (15 percent of normal) does not die of her anemia but can walk and talk and even play a bit. I have discovered that three days and nights of obstructed labor without water may rupture a uterus but spare the woman’s life. That human parasites outnumber their hosts is taken for granted here in the tropics: stool, urine, and blood specimens give undisputed proof. That people can be productive with a million fauna and flora sapping their strength speaks of the resilience of the human body. And yet the human body fails, sometimes inexplicably. An infant gasps his last breath, succumbing to a raging fever which has not acknowledged our antibiotics and antimalarials; an old man’s heart ceases, unable to function in a milieu disturbed by days of fluid and electrolyte loss. But for most of our patients (all very ill, an unfortunate but rigid status for admission), recovery, after a grim struggle, is the eventual outcome.”
Here’s a little more, on adjusting to life in Bangladesh: “The transition to a less cluttered, simplified life came easy. I don’t mind riding a bicycle to work, going to bed at 10, staying home with the children in the evening, or sitting on mats in church (though I prefer a bench!). I don’t miss waiting in check-out lines, filling out forms, committee meetings and television. I look forward each morning to the privilege of alleviating suffering, to fellowship with friends around a table of exotic food and partaking of soul-food from God’s Holy Word. For diversion, I’m readily satisfied with a walk around town or an hour on the beach.”
As you can see, Ottens writes well and his insights are interesting. The short-term assignment to Bangladesh wasn’t the only in his career, he also had stints in Nigeria, Central America, and the Republic of Congo.
His remarkable story of walking away from comfort and finding meaning by alleviating suffering is unusual in Western culture. It’s incongruous with upward mobility. Yet what strikes me is how common stories like this are in the church. Our churches are full of saints who have led lives that were incongruous by worldly standards. For example, there’s a member of my church who spent three decades as a missionary doctor in Africa—he didn’t accumulate the wealth a medical degree typically bestows. But he is wealthy in other ways. He’s one of several retired missionaries in our congregation. I’m sure you know people with similar resumes, who have done extraordinary things for the sake of Christ, hardly tell a soul about their exploits, and model the incongruity of choosing what is foolish in the eyes of the world to shame the wise.
I get depressed pretty frequently over the state of modern American Christianity. I watch the “He Gets Us” commercials—which I think are well-done—and wonder if we really get him. The 81%, the rise of Christian Nationalism, the splits and fractures not just in the RCA and CRC but others like the Methodists and Presbyterians are discouraging. But then I think of saints like Henk Ottens. (He will object to being called a saint, but it’s the correct term.) I think of those filling our congregations who, in the name of Jesus, feed those in need, tutor at-risk kids, hobble along on CROP Walks, drive people to immigration appointments, and on and on and on. Indeed, Father Hopkins got it right when he wrote, “Christ plays in ten thousand places / lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.” Thanks be to God for his incongruous saints.