By Olen Netteburg
Bere Adventist Hospital in Chad, Africa, can be a crazy place. One day we’re saving five or six lives, and the next I’m firing someone for embezzling money.
Most weeks we count dozens of people who are alive because we’re here—delivering C-section babies, treating children for malaria, helping mend a broken femur so a woman can have a useful life. We do some fabulous work in some very primitive circumstances with little modern medical equipment. (We don’t own an X-ray machine; don’t even think about MRI and CT scans.) Chalk it up to skilled people—and an even more skilled God blessing our feeble efforts.
But then we find an employee who won’t give medicine or run a test unless the family bribes them. Chalk it up to the devil!
We are on the front lines of the great controversy.
I’m supposed to be the CEO of this 70-bed outfit, plus the adviser to another five hospitals managed by Adventist Health International. I am the all-time reluctant administrator. I don’t like politics. I’m no good at interpersonal relationships when I’m the boss. I’m not organized enough. I’m not motivated enough.
Oh, and I’m overworked. Every day I see pediatric and medical patients, handle radiology questions, see private consults—oh, and then I get to the stuff I’m trained for: emergency medicine.
But I’m the boss. So I govern meetings, raise funds, settle disputes between staff, try to create relationships with government officials, find volunteers—you’d be welcome!
And did I mention there are five other hospitals too?
This month we had a lot of money missing, and two chief administrators to fire, and two other new administrators—no experience in hospital work—to show the ropes. Because of the money missing, I sign off on every expense and every receipt, create payroll—and meet with twice as many people.
I need a place to spend several hours a day responding to e-mails and working on the computer. I need a place to think, to listen for God’s voice, to study and grow in my job and in my spiritual life. When I work at the hospital, patients and staff constantly come to find me. When I work from home—on the big kitchen table—my children want to play.
I need an office.
My loving wife cannibalized a guest bedroom in our house, and our great maintenance volunteer Jamie made me a desk—well, actually found an old desk frame in usable shape and put a nice piece of American plywood on top, with the edges sanded to perfection. All it needed was paint.
So Lyol and I painted it. Sort of.
Lyol grabbed a medium-sized paintbrush and gave me a pencil-sized paintbrush. He then proceeded to slop paint out of the bucket onto the desktop. Occasionally he would push the paint around a bit, not unlike what you might see an octogenarian do on the shuffleboard circuit.
Handicapped though I was by the size of my brush and my desire not to merely use the brush to dip-and-drench, I still managed to keep pace with him on my side of the table. I helped paint the edges. As the desktop was nearing completion, I picked up the paint bucket so we could paint the last remaining corner of plywood. Each time he dipped into the paint bucket, Lyol managed to scrape half of his paint off on my hand. Lyol decided it might also be wise to paint the base supporting that new sheet of plywood, so he slashed a stroke across it.
Then tired of his labors.
He stepped back from his handiwork. I too stepped back from the desk and sized up my 5-year-old son, trying to determine which had more paint, the desk or his skin. He pronounced his work good and moved on to play in the yard, but not before getting cleaned up with gasoline to wash off the paint.
As he played in the yard 40 feet away from me, I tried to clean up his workmanship just a tad. I tried to move the paint from places that seemed a quarter inch thick to places still barren. I painted the edges. I finished the base.
I knew the entire time that I could have done a better job, and done it faster, on my own. But I enjoyed doing it with him. I enjoyed spending time with him. I enjoyed watching him learn to do something.
That was yesterday, and I moved my desk into my office today. It now has the handprints of all three of my children on it. Is it composed of the greatest, highest-quality parts? No. Is it the craftsmanship that makes it valuable? By no means.
But it’s my favorite desk in the world. It’s the perfect desk. Why? Because my son and I spent time together painting it. The two of us. Our project.
So now I sit down at my desk and work. I think of my mountains of assignments. I think of my stress. I think of what a shoddy job I’m doing.
And I realize something.
I’m taking my medium-sized paintbrush to this hospital and to the church hospitals in the region. And I’m slopping paint all over the place, willy-nilly. Some places are way too thick. Other places I miss altogether. I forget. I don’t pay attention to detail. I’m painting things that shouldn’t be painted. I’ve started painting some things, and I’m running out of steam to finish them. I’m getting myself very dirty. And I’m even slopping paint all over the Guy holding the bucket.
He’s standing by, observing, content to watch me do my miserable best. He’s patiently letting me cover Him with my lousy efforts. He’s watching me get myself dirty. He’s seeing all the places I’ve overlooked. He sees how uneven I am, how I make neck-deep pools of trouble. He watches me paint things that were just fine without paint, then tire out. Then He patiently does His best to douse me with gasoline and scrub me clean.
Then He ever so patiently takes the piddling pencil-sized brush I’ve left Him with and starts going over the places I’ve missed. Finishing what I couldn’t. Smoothing over the irregularities. Without ever groaning, He bears the paint I’ve smeared on His hands by my clumsiness and shortcomings and inattention to detail. And He stands back and smiles.
Yes, the job could have been done better—and faster—without me. But you know what? He chose to do this with somebody. And you know what’s more? He chose me!
And when He sits down at His desk to work, He thinks back on spending time with me. He thinks about my silly little efforts, tongue hanging out in concentration and everything. He sees the imperfections in my work, which are not hard to find. He runs His fingers over the places where He remembers me particularly messing up or where He remembers working hard to erase my mistakes.
And He smiles, saying to Himself, “This is my favorite desk. I made this with My son.”
Olen Netteburg is a missionary physician—and reluctant administrator—at Bere Adventist Hospital. This article is adapted from a post on the blog site he shares with his physician wife, Danae. Under the Mango Trees can be found at www.missionary doctors.blogspot.com.