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Different worlds


How do we respond to the world of the broken? By Michael Manning



It is hard to communicate how chaotic and vulnerable lives can be. They exist on the ragged edges of society, eking out spare days in hidden pain. These are people suffering from chronic mental and physical ill health. These are people suffering from the actions of others and their own distorted choices. Often the suffering has been going on for a very long time. Above all, these are people who face their struggles almost entirely alone.
To step into these lives is like stepping into another world. The landscape changes. What is possible or even desirable shrinks and shrivels before the mixture of pain, confusion, incompetence and incoherence. There is no rock, no stability, no safe or secure place from which to move or think or even consider other options. There is only chaos within and without. Nothing makes sense.

I’ve accompanied two men recently to GP appointments, providing transport and a friendly face. One is in his late 30s and has struggled with significant physical ill health since childhood. He has a long history of substance abuse and has suffered much subsequent discrimination from health services. His anxiety is palpable, his mind never stopping as he struggles to gather any sort of purpose or direction.

One is in his 60s, an alcoholic whose addiction has relentlessly taken everything away from him. His relationships with family and children are shattered. What friendships he has attempted to foster in recent years have led to serious abuse and assaults, leaving him physically frail. Now he has almost stopped eating and is gradually turning skeletal, ever slower, ever more insubstantial, ever more incapable.

To this mess the GP has ten minutes, maximum, to prioritise, to glimpse any underlying problems, to offer reassurance, to refer, to advise, to listen, to participate in a measure of healing. It’s a big ask.

The patients, pinning painful hopes on this interaction, are panicky and incomprehensible and irrational. The doctors, knowing the chronic futility of these lives, are harried and hurried.

I sit there and you can feel the deep mutual frustration. No one is satisfied. Everyone wants the best, yearns for some sort of positive outcome, for transformation even, but all these fine intentions are smothered by the weight of the problems. This is too light an appointment to even scratch the surface of the deep and ongoing difficulties. The chaos does not yield easily to some swift health advice and a prescription.

Something is rejoicing in this fruitless enterprise, and it isn’t the cause of hope or healing.

Both parties are looking in the wrong place for any potential solutions. It is hopeless to think that a brief contact with a GP will bring sudden, total recovery from a myriad of woes. It is hopeless to think that a patient will leave such a fleeting interaction and make any radically different choices in the teeth of the circumstances controlling their lives.

What does Christian hope have to say to this situation?
Sometimes I fear it doesn’t say anything. We don’t explicitly say much and when we do it seems that the very best that we can imagine is some sort of delay in the inevitable death. We seek to prolong the misery of these lives, nothing more. We pray that they’ll exist a bit longer in slightly more palatable contexts until they depart and they won’t be our, or a doctor’s, problem any more. At its worse the church suggests that the best course of action is to say sorry for all the wrong things you’ve done and trust in Jesus for…well, for heaven when you die, which in these cases might well be very soon.
It doesn’t seem much of a hopeful response.

What does it look like to say that sin is indeed the problem in these lives? Not only bad choices and blinded failures, although there’s a strong argument that people facing these problems don’t have much choice, but in wider factors? What about the sin of economic systems curtailing access to better health services? Or the selfish sins of private households, families and lives where the isolated are excluded and shunned? Or the political and social narratives that deem some people burdens and disposable, worth less because they don’t do paid work? The powers are reigning still. To answer these challenges requires are far more robust, dirtier, courageous, stubborn, hard-nosed articulation of Christian hope.
Maybe we glimpse in Jesus a hope of a kingdom and a family where no one faces life alone. Where people are committed enough to love others in and through the incoherent mess. To declare to the powers that there is another way to be human. That we are not controlled by those things that seek to demean human flourishing. That there is indeed another, better world, a true reality. To say to the lonely, we are with you. To repudiate the frustration with a love that sustains all things and does not, will not, can not fail. This is a hope that may be spoken but must be embodied. A cross-shaped, suffering, resurrecting hope.

A hope maybe for doctors and for patients. A hope to transform us all.

Image | Charlie Balch | Freeimages.com

Michael Manning is a co-ordinator of Graih (www.graih.org.im), a charity serving those who are homeless and in insecure accommodation on the Isle of Man. He lives with his family in a shared household and belongs to Broadway Baptist Church in Douglas.

He is the author of No King, But God - Walking as Jesus Walked

Baptist Times, 10/10/2017
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