The reflections on work 2018.1 are a little overdue. I usually write about my terms when they end but my time at the Aboriginal medical clinic has rolled on past my 12-months term.
Thinking about prayer
I’m struggling with prayer personally. I’ve also struggled with whether to, and how to, pray in the clinical context. Last year we had a Christian couple share on the topic of “praying with patients”. They are highly respected and the most generous colleagues. Still, I was taken aback when their take was to not pray or talk about your faith. Or if you had to do it, do so discreetly to protect your professional reputation and registration.
Early this year I was given a book about a Christian neurosurgeon who routinely offered prayer with his patients. The surgeon ventures way further into spiritual conversations than I would consider doing. Nevertheless his conviction to attend to spiritual needs where appropriate, and his reservations in doing so, are relatable and helpful. The story starts with him, a confident neurosurgeon, feeling terribly nervous and self-conscious in the pre-op area because he had made up his mind to offer prayer with a patient for the first time:
“If I prayed and things went badly, it could ruin patients’ faith. What if that happened? Will it shake their faith or make it less likely that they would ever want to know God? Would they be angry with me or with God?” – Gray Matter, David Levy
Praying prayers in clinic
Not long after I read “Gray Matter” I was sorting out medications for a patient with bad lungs and heart. People travel in and out of town and medications are sort of, well, not a priority for the journey. Frustratingly, reception will squeeze them in “for scripts” between booked appointment. Sometimes these patients are very unwell and had just come out from the ward (or ICU!) because they took their own leave from hospital.
Even in these days of electronic health records, there are often no up-to-date medication lists and you need to call up multiple sources to prescribe safely. Remote clinics dispense medications onsite and patients expect this from urban centres too, but we aren’t funded to do the same. So working out which pharmacy, which dosing aid, when pick ups can occur and how to assist with transport all takes a long time.
I was doing all that whilst half-heartedly making small talk. She got my full attention when she started complaining how doctors think they know everything, but “God created me and my body!” Every day she prayed for her heart and lungs because God made them and knew exactly how they worked. I agreed with her that God is creator and we doctors do not know everything. I offered a short prayer, which she joined with great conviction. She should still take her medications though.
More recently I offered a pap smear to a woman who didn’t have one for more than 15 years. She consented and appeared to understand what the procedure would involve. Then she stopped as I motioned towards the examination bed and I wasn’t sure if she was still following. “Wait wait,” she said, “I’m just going to pray.” She was a follower of Jesus. So I said go ahead, and closed my eyes too. I caught a few key words as she prayed an animated and expressive prayer in language.
Learning from patients
Of course not everyone is Christian, and many also speak about curses and black magic with real fear. Witch doctors are often sought after in conjunction to Western medicine. But my biggest surprise working in this environment remains how spirituality isn’t something to be “shame” about. The gospel can be offensive but not every conversation mentioning God has to be awkward or confrontational.
One woman didn’t want an intramuscular injection in her buttock that day, because she wanted to sit down at Bible study that evening. Another expressed that her final plans were to go back to country and she was not afraid to die, because she will meet Jesus. Still another, who had her children taken from her and her partner for alleged domestic violence (towards each other), mentioned several times how she was praying for her daughters in foster care. She knew Jesus from her mum, who worked as a Christian leader in the local women’s shelter in a remote community. Last post I wrote about the man who expressed how he chose to walk straight as a Christian leader.
Children of God
Many times I couldn’t help but question, are you really a Christian? Why are you still smoking and not taking your medications? How can you be in trouble with the police and child protection? Or live in those overcrowded houses with scabies, on welfare?
Each of us are accepted as God’s children if we truly believe that Jesus is our saviour. Yet acknowledging we are in the same family of God is challenging because I have an unspoken assumption that real Christians will be like myself. It’s hard for us to see any wrong in ourselves and even if we do see our sins, we think these sins of respectable middle-class citizens are somehow acceptable before God. When the religious leaders looked down on the sinners shunned by society in Jesus’ time, he answered them:
“…It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Mark 2:7
Before I could work out how to do it myself, I saw an example in my patients of how they talked about God and prayer openly, acknowledging faith in everyday conversation, like it was a natural part of their lives. I think honestly wrestling with difficult questions is still important but I also saw here the strength of people who could just pray, rather than spending an excessive amount of time wondering how and whether prayer works. Those are lessons to learn.
“Most of us assume that we have a lot to teach the materially poor about God and that we should doing the preaching… but oftentimes the materially poor have an even deeper walk with God and have insights and experiences that they can share with us, if we would just stop talking and listen.” – When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett & Brian Frikkert
The author in that book stumbled across a group of locals in the middle of an atrocious and poor urban slum. They were gathered in a makeshift cardboard shelter to sing hymns and praise God. He was encouraged by their authentic prayers and sincere faith.
“…Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who loved him?” – James 2:5