Talk: Following Christ in medicine today

It's 48 years since I started as a medical student, and working in healthcare has never been so challenging

In October I spoke at Jesmond Parish Church in Newcastle at a special service for those working in medicine. You can watch my talk or read the notes below.

It’s my privilege to give a talk at this Medical Service on what it means to follow Christ in the challenging and pressurised world of medicine today. Some of you are medical or healthcare students, right at the start of your journey. Some of you are newly qualified and taking on life and death responsibilities for the first time; others have been serving in the medical arena for years.

It’s 48 years since I first started as a medical student at St Thomas’s in London; I worked as a paediatrician, a neonatologist and a neuroscience researcher in central London for more than 25 years. Now I’ve retired from the clinical front-line but still engaged in researching into some complex and challenging issues of medical ethics and technology.

The world of healthcare has always been challenging but COVID-19 has made it even more complex and difficult. None of us expected that 2020 would change our lives in such dramatic ways. And many of us have found ourselves confronting responsibilities and challenges that we had not anticipated. So it’s a good time to step back and remind ourselves about our calling as doctors and healthcare professionals who are followers of Christ and to re-dedicate and re-commit one another to this high calling.

What the Bible teaches is something quite astonishing – that the God of the entire cosmos saw you and knew you and loved you from before the foundation of the world. Lesslie Newbigin, wrote this:

‘You have to indwell the story of the Bible as the true story of the whole world’.

In other words you have to understand that you are also written into the Biblical story, the true story of the whole world.

You are part of the drama. God saw you and knew you and loved you from before the foundation of the world. He formed you in your mother’s womb and pursued you and called you to serve him as a Christian doctor or health professional at this particular and very strange moment in world history – when the first major and lethal global pandemic for 100 years is sweeping around the globe.

He might have been called you to be a Christian physician in a very different era – you might have been called to be a physician at the time of the early church like Luke, trained as a follower of the Greek physician Hippocrates.  You might have been called to be a Christian physician at the time of the early plagues in the Roman Empire, or at the time of the Black Death in Europe, or at the time of the Ebola epidemic in Western and central Africa. But instead God chose that you should serve him as a doctor now in 2020, at a time of a new global plague.

Most of us know the Great Commission in Matthew 28.18 – Jesus says to his disciples:

“Go into all the world and make disciples…..”.

But there is another important Great Commission which is found in the Gospel of John, although it receives less attention from missionary strategists. It’s another special moment when the risen Lord Jesus addresses his disciples and gives them their marching orders, he sends them into the world. It’s in our reading from John 20.19-21:

“…Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad…Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you…” [And here is the other Great Commission:] “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.””

The original Greek language implies that the meaning is – “In the same way that the Father sent me, now I am sending you.” So Jesus is explicitly saying that there is a parallel between how he was sent into the world and how he is sending us. The Father sent the Son into the world with a specific vocation, and a specific way of reaching out to people. Now the Son is sending his disciples with a similar vocation and a similar way of reaching out to people.

“In the same way that the Father sent me so now I am sending you.”

So how did the Father send the Son? We are going to look at just three aspects of that sending and then apply them to ourselves as Christian medics:

1. Sent to serve

The Father sent Jesus into the world not as a triumphant Messianic King, but instead in the paradoxical form of a servant leader. See for example Jesus’s words in Matthew 20.28:

“…the Son of man came into the world not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

So as Christian doctors, Jesus is telling us that we also are called to serve, to take the place of a bond slave. To do the dirty jobs that no one else wants to do. That’s what Jesus modelled for us by washing smelly and disgusting feet, and embracing leprosy victims, submitting like a bond-slave to the needs and demands of others and ultimately sacrificing his life for others. What’s the brand image of a Christian doctor – is it the stethoscope, the ITU machinery, the PPE – well here is the brand image of the international Christian Medical and Dental Association. It’s a cross and a servant’s towel, a towel used for washing feet – a rather smelly, dirty and disgusting article if you think about it. As the Father has sent me I am sending you – as a slave.

I’m afraid one of the besetting sins of doctors across the world is arrogance. Now I would like to tell you that of course arrogance is not a problem with doctors who are follows of Jesus. But the truth is that medical arrogance is a stench amongst Christian doctors too. We want to remind everyone that we are special. We want to make sure that the magic letters DR are placed before our name at every possible opportunity. We want our special status to be recognised. And medical arrogance is like BO or halitosis – you don’t realise you have it, but everyone else is painfully aware. Just ask the nurses, therapists and care assistants who work with doctors. And I’m afraid that sometimes the newly qualified F1 treats the junior nurses more arrogantly than the senior consultant does.

So if you are a newly qualified doctor how are you going to behave now you have reached this social status? “In the same way that the Father has sent me I am sending you”. We are sent to serve.

2. Sent to stand up for the truth

Jesus was sent by the Father to stand up for truth – to be light in the darkness. “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12).

And now Jesus is sending you into the world of healthcare. Much of this world is wonderful, inspiring, thrilling, where God-honouring things are happening and where we have opportunities to reach out to others with the love and truth of Jesus. At the beginning of the pandemic many people told me that morale in the NHS was much better then than it had been for years. There was feeling of camaraderie, of the team pulling together, looking out for one another, of generosity and compassion.

Sadly it seems that much of that initial camaraderie and motivation has worn off. There’s a rising tide of mental health issues, burn out and discouragement with the prospect of a very difficult winter to come. And I have to say that the medical world in 2020 has some pretty dark places. Places where vulnerable lives are being deliberately destroyed by doctors, and food and nutrition is being withdrawn from patients on dubious grounds. Where abortion tablets are being sent by post to vulnerable women who are being pressurised by controlling men. I’m afraid that some patients in the NHS are being neglected and treated like dirt, some health staff are being bullied, coerced, there are places of corruption, lies and misinformation.

And Jesus is saying, “in the same way that the Father sent me, now I am sending you” – Go out there and stand up for truth, in my name. So let me challenge you – are you prepared to stand up for truth, whatever it might cost? To shine a light into some dark places, even if this might be a career-limiting move? Sent to serve, sent to stand for truth. And then finally:

3. Sent to care

The extraordinary thing that the Gospel writers recorded is that Jesus didn’t just help those who were needy. He was deeply emotionally involved with them. He revealed a God of ‘pathos’, feeling, as well as righteousness.

Luke the physician tells us a moving human story in his Gospel. Here is a widow who is burying her only son. She has lost her husband and now the most precious being in her life, her only son – carrying all her love, her care, her hopes, her future – her precious son was dead. When Jesus saw that pathetic funeral procession, our English translation tells us that he was ‘moved by compassion’ (Luke 7.13). In the original Greek, Luke the physician chose a medical term ‘Splanchnizdomai’. If you are a medic you will recognise the anatomical word splanchnic – it means of the bowels. So literally Jesus’ bowels were moved by emotion. The Son of God revealed in the Gospels is not a distant emotionless spiritual force. No, he is viscerally involved.

The Gospel writers go out of their way to show that Jesus cares emotionally for those he is seeking to serve. He weeps, he groans at the reality of death, he is deeply troubled like the stirring up of flood waters, he snorts like an angry horse.

And now he is sending us in the same way, to care for our patients deeply and emotionally. You might have thought, and you may have been taught, that it’s not professional to care too deeply. That you should cultivate a cool expert detachment. But you know when patients and relatives are facing the ultimate catastrophes of death and suffering and medical disaster, the health professional who really makes a difference is not a cool detached expert, it’s the professional who is also a human being, someone who actually cares.

It’s not an easy calling. I know from my own experience that entering into the suffering of desperate patients and relatives can be deeply costly and even damaging. Nearly 20 years ago I suffered a major psychiatric breakdown which was caused largely by overwork and stress. I’m not recommending this. As I look back now I see that my breakdown could have been avoided, that is was contributed to by my own folly and failures in recognising my own vulnerabilities.

So we all need to make sure that we have a strong support network if we are going to care as Jesus cared. Who is going to be caring for you as you fulfil your calling to care for others? Please make sure that you stay close to those special friends, relatives and church communities and keep close to those who can support you in the Christian Medical Fellowship and elsewhere, those who will pray for and support you. None of us can do this on our own.

Did you notice that before Jesus sent them out into the world he shows them his wounded hands and side? (John 20.20) Perhaps it was symbolic of the fact that being sent by Jesus might be costly, might lead to sacrificial suffering, just as it had cost him.

So we are sent like Jesus – to serve, to stand up for truth, to care from the heart.

Maybe it all sounds a little overwhelming, idealistic, hopelessly unrealistic? But in our passage in John 20, Jesus does not stop there. Symbolically he breathes on the astonished disciples and says (John 20.23): “Receive the Holy Spirit”.

In the original Greek it’s more striking – literally the text  says that Jesus blows on them and says to them “Receive the holy breath”. For the Greek word pneuma means both Spirit and breath.

So if you are a genuine follower of Jesus you too have the mysterious breath of Jesus within you, so that we can live like him. That same living Spirit that energised him is blown into our hearts, we can serve as Jesus served, we can care as Jesus cared. And in those mysterious words (John 20.23): “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven…” is a reminder that as humble followers of Jesus, we can hold out his grace to others. No, we can’t forgive anybody but we can hold out the grace and forgiveness of Jesus to those who are traumatised by guilt and failure and evil and spiritual pain.

And twice Jesus says to his terrified and bemused disciples “Peace be with you”, “Peace be with you”. It’s all right. There’s no need to feel overwhelmed – it’s going to be OK. Peace.

Its 48 years since I started on my medical journey, and I can tell you that there is no higher privilege than being called to ‘be Jesus’ in the world of medicine and healthcare, to be the hands of Jesus, to be the lips of Jesus.And after those decades of trying to follow Christ, can I tell you something that I have learnt. That 90% of being used by God in the world of healthcare is just turning up and being prepared to be useable. You don’t have to be incredibly holy, incredibly wise, incredibly clever, incredibly prayerful, incredibly self-sacrificial. You just have to turn up and say to Jesus, please use me despite all my weakness and my limitations and my sin and my failures. Make me usable in this place that you’ve called me into.

Make me useable – that’s a prayer that God delights to answer. So I want to encourage you – there’s nothing special about me but over 40 years God has been able to use me in small ways, to serve, to stand up for truth and Christian ethics in some dark places, to care for thousands of sick babies including many who died, to find new ways to bring healing to damaged brains through medical research, to care and weep with those who were weeping. And if he can use me then he can use you too.

And if you are sitting there thinking it’s all a bit challenging and overwhelming then remember that Jesus is breathing his Holy Breath into your heart and hear him say to you – “Peace, Peace, don’t worry.” “In the same way that the Father sent me into the world, I am sending you.”

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