What chokes every prayer

Mother’s Day 2017, a combined sketch from my sister & I. Her childish and heartfelt expression breaks my heart.

“What chokes every prayer and every hope is the memory of all the prayers H. and I offered and all the false hopes we had. Not hopes raised merely by our own wishful thinking; hopes encouraged, even forced upon us, by false diagnoses, by X-ray photographs, by strange remissions, by one temporary recovery that might have ranked as a miracle.” – A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis

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Thanksgiving and lepers – part one

Thanksgiving 2017

We typically have our thanksgiving gatherings at the end of the year. I hesitated to lead the songs this year. Could I wholeheartedly sing songs like –

you give and take away
you give and take away
my heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be Your name?

At the sharing part, I tried to give a genuine account of our struggles and thanksgivings since mum’s diagnosis two years ago, and more specifically, about these several weeks in hospice. I felt this was quickly whisked away to a wholly different space of thanksgiving for great life and great health, not only by youths, but grown up adults as well.

“I give thanks that everything is going well in my life. I managed to do more subjects than anyone else and still somehow got A’s in everything.”
“My business is growing and my family is all healthy.”
“Life is smooth for me and when I look around, that doesn’t seem to be the case for many around me. So I’m thankful.”
“Things worked out in the last minute. God’s way is the best way.”

If you’re giving thanks to God for who he is, in good and in bad, I’ll gladly share your joy and be encouraged. But if your family is thankful for a great life, whether to God or fate, all I’m hearing is that you’re thankful that you’re not like us.

Avoiding lepers

In fact, Christians who say that only good things can happen makes me question whether this religion is worth taking seriously. The reasoning is that God is good, so he will only let you prosper – in health, wealth, family etc. Is God still good when miracles don’t happen (and surely by definition miracles are rare, else we wouldn’t think of them as miracles)?

One woman said that they dreamt of mum walking beside them so her legs will be fine… despite her untreatable spinal cord compression and rapidly growing metastases that we touch and feel every day. I don’t doubt God as creator of the universe can do all things but I wish people would see that projecting their own well-intentioned hopes for her health as reality can be unhelpful.

Often at church, I get asked about how she is. The Chinese phrase for “how is she?” is literally “is she good”? To which I would reply no, she’s not good. Then they might go on to say is she getting better at least? Again I would reply no, she’s getting worse. And then there would be some muttering about how these things happen to everyone, or that it will be fine, or something.

“An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t… Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers. To some I’m worse than an embarrassment. I am a death’s head.” – C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I feel that underlying this “leper” treatment is more fear than simply not knowing what to say. Sickness that persists and deteriorates despite medical care and prayer is jarring to a theology of God who only allows prosperity – if it can happen to you it can happen to me and I don’t want to know about it. As Job said of his friends –

“They are distressed, because they had been confident; they arrive there, only to be disappointed. Now you too have proved to be of no help; you see something dreadful and are afraid… Those at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.” – Job 6:20-21, 12:5

 

Perils of our profession – part two

I wrote this not too long after finishing part one and I’m not quite sure why I’ve kept it in draft until now. The problem of pride and self sufficiency isn’t unique to the medical profession but I will write about it from this perspective, as it is the one I’m most familiar with.

Whose glory?

This is a continuation of the questions in part one.

David – it’s true that David’s name was renowned in Israel, Philistine territory and beyond. However, he was primarily concerned with the reputation of God’s name (1 Sam 17:45). In contrast, Saul was interested in his own name – in doing so, he became fearful of man, half-hearted towards God, and eventually rejected God altogether.

Dangerous words – I like the title Faithful is Successful. Not saying that unsuccessful is necessarily faithful, but neither is success in itself a mark of faithfulness. The notion that we are being faithful to God when we succeed in our grades or careers (or ministry!) is quite prevalent at our church, which boasts a number of young people with top grades, envied careers, musical talents, sharpness in understanding the Bible, and more. Assuming that we are already bringing God glory through these things, and that we need not do more, is dangerous and lures us into lukewarm lives.

Medical fellowships

I have this love-hate relationship with Christian medical fellowships. In the early years of uni I found them a great encouragement and was so grateful for the opportunity to reflect in my pre-clinical years with students who were in clinical school, about being a Christian in the hospital setting.

Later I became incredibly disillusioned with such gatherings. I felt that the doctors identified more closely with their positions as “head of some specialty at some prestigious hospital” than who they were in Christ. Students hankered to speak to these oh-so-important professors and fellowship was simply a cover for the actual agenda of networking and getting a foot into your favourite training program. For a time I was suspicious of Christian doctors altogether. I felt this again more recently when a speaker specifically called me out for not including their “Dr” titles in introducing them to the group.

A shared sickness

As I re-entered this space in my working years, I saw that my deep cynicism reflected a shared sickness within my own heart. That is, I can only feel so sharply towards what others are thinking and doing because I first had these self-centred thoughts and desires myself.

I’ve been refreshed by the perspective of older doctors, especially those at the end of their medical careers. Several shared candidly about a tendency towards pride and self sufficiency given their career successes, their places in society, and the praise of man – and about God humbling and transforming them, often through life’s thorns and failures.

There’s nothing new under the sun and we’ve been warned about these perils:

“And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” – Mark 10:23

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” – Mark 10:15

Even if we consider ourselves to be not-so-wealthy, we have enough security in our line of work to make Jesus’ words relevant. How can having more money make it hard for us to enter God’s kingdom? In what way do we need to be like a child? My sister, who is still a child, articulated this better than I could – “a rich man might be proud and rely on himself instead of God”.

 

Here is life, reposted

hereislife

Here is life – KJC, 2009

Life is not on hold,
   put aside until you get home,
Living happens here.
Here you will see a fullness of being human
   that you may not notice when you are well
      and busy in the everyday.

But here in this place you will see…
– beauty in the face of a woman who has seen ninety-three summers
– courage in the determination of a man who must learn to walk again
– kindness from a lifelong partner and from a complete stranger

While you are here experience the
   deepness of being human
      really human
         and take home joy from that discovery.

It took me awhile to locate the original post. That was my first year of clinical school. In scrolling through archives and fishing for the original post… I see that I had a lot of words (or time) to write. And I was less obscure in my writing. But some things stay the same.

As a student I obviously liked clinic because I could sit down and talk alone with patients. “Sit down” is the important part (preferably with a cup of hot milk tea) because sitting is better than standing and starving on a ward round, or in theatre. I’m pleased to say I’ve stayed true to these priorities in my career choices.

Everything about patients and hospitals was foreign and fresh. Now the ward, the staff, the beds, the equipment, the beeps, the hand-wash – all these are familiar, comforting even. What I feared I still fear, though I’ve seen it up close, both personally and professionally – that is, disability and uncertainty, palliation and dying. Yet knowledge and familiarity doesn’t make life and death any more comprehensible.

“No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.” – Ecclesiastes 8:17

Here is life, I make a mental note before stepping in. Here is life so stay awhile and take it in. Don’t mute it with “real” life.

“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.” – Ecclesiastes 7:2-3

Opposites – part one

I thought again about dealing with medical folks today, but the rest of that post can wait until I have a little more energy for writing.

Conversations from earlier this year, before our engagement, on love and relationships:

On “爱我的人和我爱的人”
“That’s so sad, like a sad story. I don’t know if I prefer to be the one you’re in love with or the one you’re with…”
“If I were you I’d prefer the first one, of course.”
“I think I prefer the second.”
“What, really? Why?”
“I’ll be the one you’re with, then I can be both!”

On being young
“Too bad I didn’t see how up yourself you were in first year because you hid it so well.”
“Lucky, because now you get to be with me!”
“Yeah lucky, I’d never be with someone like that now. But then again, I probably thought it was fun because I was childish as well.”

On growing
“Tell me how to lead better. And what you admire about other guys… so that you can admire me! Haha.”

On chasing
“What happened?” The movie was A Dog’s Purpose. “I don’t get it, why does he break up with her?”
“You know this sort of thing happens all the time. Girl goes to college and boy can’t go with her, so he lets her go. It’s for her good, because he loves her, get it?”
“What, that’s crazy. You can’t let your favourite get away!”