Sunday, October 18, 2015

The "Real Doctor's" Message

“And [God] gave skill to human beings that he might be glorified in his marvelous works.”
Sirach 38: 6

“Down in Guatemala,” he told me, “I had to be a real doctor, and it scared the heck out of me.”  Now don’t get me wrong, according to the standards of the American Medical Association and the licensing agencies of his rather lucrative specialty, my parishioner was very much a real doctor.  He had been in practice for decades and was highly regarded in our community, sought out by people in need of surgery.  But things were different, he was telling me, when he went to Guatemala on a medical mission trip with his son’s church. 

They were working in a remote area, with very minimal equipment, you see.  There were no MRI machines and it was a day’s journey over rugged roads for an x-ray.  They could do simple blood tests, and had a few diagnostic tools, and some basic medicines but that was about it.  My parishioner said he had learned all about diagnosis back in medical school, but it was so much easier just to run a test and be sure.  Here in Guatemala, he had to listen to the stories, mark just how people described their symptoms.  It was really challenging work, and he wasn’t certain about a few of the cases he had seen.  There were some maladies he just couldn’t treat. 

Malpractice insurance companies, of course, don’t tolerate this much guesswork here, and that’s probably a good thing.  But it was interesting to me that my parishioner didn’t think of his work within these narrow limits as useless.   “A real doctor,” that’s what he called himself, someone stretched to use all his ingenuity, to listen more carefully, to treat the whole person and not just the symptoms.  He left that time in Guatemala a bit wistful about the more accurate and lucrative way he practiced medicine the rest of the year, and anxious to get back again to a place where he really do justice to his profession.

Today we give thanks to God for Saint Luke the Evangelist, called by Saint Paul, “the beloved physician.”[1]  He is the patron saint of those who work in the various medical professions, and our Old Testament lesson appropriately gives thanks to God for the work these people do in bringing healing to the world.  Now we don’t know anything at all about how Saint Luke practiced medicine, but as someone who worked in a time when there were even fewer diagnostic tools than my former parishioner found in that Guatemalan clinic, I think he must have gained the kind of skills that made for a “real doctor.”

You can see many of those on display in the third Gospel and the Book of Acts, which he wrote as an “orderly account”[2] of the life of Christ and of his earliest followers for a reader named Theophilus.   First, he was a learned man, as all doctors have to be, a master of complicated patterns and unusual symptoms.  Of all three Gospels, Saint Luke’s abounds most in historical and geographic detail, and there’s even more of this in the Book of Acts.  When historians or Holy Land tour guides want to place a given Biblical event in time, it’s usually Saint Luke who provides the anchoring facts. 

Saint Luke was also a very gifted storyteller, someone who had obviously been trained to listen carefully as people described their afflictions.  Legend also says he was an artist, and I once saw a painting that was attributed to him, in the Syrian cathedral in Jerusalem.  I’m not so sure about that, but Saint Luke certainly painted his accounts with colorful tidbits.  And they give us a fuller understanding of, say, Christ’s gentleness toward the suffering and the boldness of Saint Paul.  Many of the best known and loved stories from the life of Jesus are recorded only in his Gospel.   The Nativity story, for example: the Virgin Mary’s encounter with the Angel Gabriel, her joyful meeting with Elizabeth, the birth in the stable, the angels filling the Bethlehem sky with song, that’s only told in his Gospel.  Those stories from the beginning are matched by extensive and evocative descriptions of Christ’s appearance after his resurrection at the end, especially the story of that mysterious encounter on the road to Emmaus, where Christ appeared to His disciples “in the breaking of bread.”[3]  Luke alone recalled Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, and that sequence of tales about the joy of reconciliation that ends with the story of the prodigal son. 

He also has what we might call a more inclusive vision, and was especially careful to recall the role of women and the poor in the Gospel stories.  The great canticle of praise offered by Zechariah in chapter one, for example, is echoed by another sung by the Virgin Mary a few verses later.  Simeon rejoices to receive Christ in the temple, and then so does Anna as well.  Saint Luke tends to group Christ’s parables so that one that has a man as the protagonist, like the shepherd seeking the lost sheep, is followed immediately by one with a woman in the primary role, like the woman with the lost coin.  He also recalled many of Christ’s teaching about the hazards of wealth, and God’s desire to bless and strengthen the poor, as in the dramatic sermon at Nazareth that serves as our Gospel lesson.  Now, Saint Luke might have been more interested in outsiders because he was a Gentile himself.  But his profession had also accustomed him to treat all kinds of people, men and women alike, “master or servant, bond or free,” as the Hippocratic Oath has always stated. 

“[God] gave skill to human beings that he might be glorified in his marvelous works.”  That’s what old Sirach said about the way doctors can lead others closer to God.  He was talking of course, about their medical skills.  But for Saint Luke, the saying was true in an even deeper sense.  Because it was his skill as a doctor that trained him to bear witness to God’s most marvelous work, His redemption of the world through Christ, in a truly powerful and unique way.  “Why are there four Gospels?,” I’m sometimes asked.  Well because to see Christ in the full, we need four different observers: rabbinical Matthew, breathless Mark, meditative John, and Luke—the historian and storyteller, perhaps the one who had the widest vision of them all.  Each of the Gospel writers gave a distinct account, shaped by his own passion, his own experience in the rest of life.  God inspired them to write His word in the midst of their own stories, not in spite of them. 

In Baptism we all promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,”[4] that is to say, we all promise to be evangelists.  We each tell our own Gospel—not that we all write Holy Scripture, of course, but we tell the story recounted in Scripture in our own particular way.  Your education, the work that consumes so much of your life, your experience as a spouse, a friend, a parent—these all shape the story you have been given to tell to others about God’s love and His purpose for human life.  Maybe you haven’t thought much about this before.  How is Christ revealed in the work of a paralegal, an accountant, the third chair clarinet in the high school band?  What’s the spiritual value implicit in what you know about lesson plans, defense strategy or professional football?  Every talent, every passion, all the truth we have learned, all the goodness and beauty we have created is meant to be drawn up in this noblest task of all—revealing God to the world.  Think about your own story and how it tells the big story.   If you don’t know quite know to start, ask the good doctor for some help.  He shows us all how to do it so very well.

[1] Col. 4:14
[2] Luke 1:3.
[3] Luke 24:35.
[4]Holy Baptism,” Book of Common Prayer, 304.

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