The time seems right to allow this particular blog to rest quietly by the wayside, as I move forward on a new phase of my life's journey. However, if you wish to continue with me on the journey, please do consider subscribing to my new blog:
Walking the Cloister: The Musings of Brother Mark
An Anglican-Benedictine-Contemplative monk in a secular world
Having left my medical practice in January 2016, and retired as Medical Director of NHS North Lincolnshire CCG in August 2018, I have meanwhile been training towards ordination in the Church of England.
Four years on, that training is now coming to close and the date for ordination as a deacon has been set.
Today, my Ember cards arrived - another mark on the timeline...
I shall, in due course, need a new title for this blog!
(First Published in 'Three Voices - One Message', the Parish Magazine of Barrow upon Humber, Goxhill and New Holland in North Lincolnshire, October 2018)
And so, we reach the month of October.
A month very much associated with the season of autumn, when
the countryside takes on a mellow feel, as trees change into glorious hues of
red, amber and yellow, before falling as a soft carpet beneath our feet. A
month of reflection, as we look back on the events of a long summer; but also,
a prophetic month: a month that warns us of the future, as it heralds the
coming of winter.
As I write this foreword, I have just listened to a podcast
from The Church Times. In the podcast an author, the Revd Nadim Nassar, was
speaking about the background to his new book called ‘The Culture of God: The Syrian Jesus - reading the divine mind, sailing
into the divine heart’. It promises to be an interesting book and I eagerly await
the arrival of my copy. However, in the podcast, the author raised two
questions in a most emphatic manner. In relation to the difficult issues
besetting our world today, he asked, ‘where is the voice of the Church?’ and
‘where is our prophetic voice?’
The Revd Nassar’s
challenge is a pertinent one for us all. As we look back to the many and
various world events over the summer, where indeed was the voice of the Church?
Was it there at the forefront of our political, social, military and
humanitarian responses to these events, leading and challenging with a loud and
clear message? Or was it muted or, worse, nowhere to be found?
And what of the
months beyond October, as we move towards those times that bring increasing
debt, food shortages, fuel poverty, and loneliness for many people, a time of
winter pressures for the NHS, and a new year in which the UK will leave the
European Union and try to stand alone in the world? Where indeed is the
prophetic voice of our Church, as a strong guiding light amidst all this change
and potential turmoil?
In the life of the
Church, October sees us commemorate several important historic people, who might
act as mentors, guides and role models, should we ever need more than the life
and actions of Jesus himself! Amongst them, George Bell, Bishop of Chichester,
who is recognised for speaking out against Nazi Germany and saving Jews fleeing
the regime; St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Society of St Francis
(‘the Franciscans’); William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English and
was martyred for his trouble; the nun, Teresa of Avila,an author and theologian of contemplative
life through mental prayer; Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, whose important
writings place him amongst the Apostolic Fathers; St Luke the Evangelist; that
learned, wise and gracious man, Alfred the Great; and not least of all, Martin Luther, who stood
up to the theological irregularities of the Catholic church. All these spoke
with a voice written through with their Christian faith, and they were not
afraid to speak prophetically.
So, as we move
through this month of reflection, change and prediction, where do you feel the
voice of the Church is today? Where is the Church’s prophetic voice?
Most importantly, where
is your voice as a Christian?
(First Published in 'Three Voices - One Message', the Parish Magazine of Barrow upon Humber, Goxhill and New Holland in North Lincolnshire, May 2018)
“At last came the golden
month of the wild folk - honey-sweet May, when the birds come back, and the
flowers come out, and the air is full of the sunrise scents and songs of the
dawning year;” so
writes the early 19th century author, Samuel
Scoville Jr. in his classic novel, Wild
Your own idea of May
might be something along similar lines. The month means many things to many
people. For our pagan forebears, it was associated with the Greek goddess,
Maia, a goddess of fertility. For many, it will simply be the delight of having
two Bank Holiday Mondays to look forward to. For others, it will be the idea of
a Royal Wedding that offers excitement.
Of course, within the
Christian Church, we have many exciting things to anticipate. In the Roman
Catholic Church, it is a month of celebrations in respect to the Virgin Mary,
when she is crowned ‘Queen of May’. For Anglicans, May is a month that is
dominated by the Spirit (naturally of the Holy kind). The first few weeks of May
are the final weeks of Easter, with the 50th day of Easter, the 7th
Sunday after Easter, falling on the 20th May. This day is also known
as Pentecost; the day we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the
Disciples after the ascension of Jesus into Heaven.
One week later, we have
Trinity Sunday (27th May); the day we celebrate the Doctrine of the
Holy Trinity – God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that also being the day when
clergy traditionally compete for the unbridled joy of trying to give a concise,
unambiguous and heretically-free explanation of the doctrine from the pulpit. I
suspect that my time will come…
Then, after Trinity
Sunday, we enter a long period of Ordinary Time; that period in the Church
calendar when we do not celebrate any particular aspect of the mystery of
Christ, but when we are left ample time to ponder that mystery in all its glory,
and to deepen our faith through prayer, worship, study and meditation.
Whether it be the sense
of Spring vitality, national holidays, a Royal wedding, the wonder of the Holy
Spirit and the Holy Trinity, or the contemplative freedom of Ordinary Time that
gives a lift to you, may your month of May at least be a Blessed one.
Those were the first,
somewhat loaded words spoken by Philip to the Ethiopian when they met on the
road from Jerusalem to Gaza.
‘Do you understand
what you are reading?’
The words reminded me of
another short but heavily loaded question thrown at one of my senior officers in
the early years of my military career. My Field Ambulance was partaking in
war-games somewhere in the wilds of North Yorkshire, and our vehicles had
trundled into location overnight, in the midst of a heavy fog. The following morning saw
the arrival of a very irate Brigadier, who summoned my Officer Commanding with
‘Major McGarva – Do you know where you are?’
‘Yes, Sir,’ came the defiant reply. ‘I am here, Sir’.
Defiant they may have
been, but in truth, we were lost. In fact, we were in front of the enemy lines– which is never a good place for a
medical unit to be. We did not understand what the map was telling us; had no
idea how we had arrived there, did not fully appreciate where we were, and had
no idea as to how we were going to complete our mission.
‘Do you understand
what you are reading?’
Philip’s question to the
Ethiopian also reminds me of another phrase that has captured the inquisitive
nature of, quite possibly, millions of television viewers: ‘Who do you think you are?’ is the name of the programme,where celebrities are helped in the
attempt to uncover the past history of their family.
It is human nature for
us, at some stage of our lives, to ask questions of our past – where have we
come from? Who were our ancestors? How did we get to the place we now find
ourselves? They are the questions that websites such as Ancestry.com help us to
answer, and in so doing, give us a greater understanding of our identity and
our place in the world today – they help us to know who we are, and where we
are, in the great timeline of life.
‘Do you understand
what you are reading?’
Of course, the Ethiopian
didn’t realise the enormity of what he was reading before Philip arrived on the
scene. He didn’t realise that, by reading the portion from the book of Isaiah,
from what we now call the Old Testament, he was reading something that
predicted the arrival of God in the form of Jesus Christ, and of his subsequent
In effect, it was
somewhat akin to reading an historic document within the family archive of
Jesus’ ancestors, that spoke of a generation yet to come.
For that is what the Old
Testament is to us, as Christians. It is our collective family history as
Christians, our Biblical equivalent of Ancestry.com. It informs us of our past;
it tells us who our collective ancestors were before the birth of Jesus Christ;
it helps us to understand the enormity of who Jesus Christ was and is; it helps
us to understand who we are as Christians, and how we arrived at this place today;
and it helps us to understand our mission from here on…
For the Old Testament
helps us to fully understand the New Testament, and the New Testament
provides us with our tasks as Christians in the 21st century. By
reading both the Old Testament and the New Testament, we understand
clarity the answers to those questions as to Who are we? Where are we? What
should we be doing? and Where are we going?
you understand what you are reading?’
Philip’s question to the Ethiopian is just as pertinent
to us today, as we read the Gospel of St John.
Here, we are introduced to the concept of the vine and
its branches. We are told that Jesus is the true vine, that God is the vine-grower,
and that we are branches of that vine. The passage continues to speak of
pruning and cleansing – of our cleansing - and of bearing fruit – and in truth,
it may all seem a little puzzling at first glance.That is, unless we remember words from the Old
Testament. It is another case of ‘Do you understand
what you are reading?’
For the Old Testament tells us that Israel was first
likened to a vine, and that the 12 tribes of Israel were its branches. However,
that vine contained a lot of dead or diseased wood and proved not to be as
fruitful as God desired it to be.
With the incarnation of God in the form of Jesus
Christ, God the vine-grower was starting again. Jesus brought us a new
covenant, a new promise - doing away
with the old promises made between God and Israel (the old vine). As part of
that covenant, Jesus became the new vine – a strong and healthy vine, with the
ability to grow and spread far and wide. Those who abided in Jesus – those who
stood with Jesus – became the metaphorical branches - the healthy new branches
- of the new vine that was, and is, Jesus.
And as any gardener might tell you, for a vine to grow
luxuriantly, and to have strong new branches, it needs to be pruned - or cleansed
- of its dead-wood. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we have already been
But how would that be so?
Well, the story of the Ethiopian reminds us as to how
we are cleansed. Once the Ethiopian had heard from Philip the Good News of the
life of Jesus Christ, what did he do? He stopped his chariot by some water and asked
Philip to baptize him.
Baptism is an act of cleansing. By our baptism, we are
cleansed of our sin, and we are thus at one with the body of Jesus Christ; we
abide in Jesus; we become a healthy branch of the new vine that is Jesus
Christ. For the Greek word for cleaning and pruning is from the same origin,
and when the Gospel of John refers to us as ‘pruned branches’, he is referring
to our baptism.
But I say again, that question of Philip’s to the
you understand what you are reading?’
For, having understood that the ‘old vine’ of Israel
was failing so badly in God’s eyes, so that God became incarnate – became alive
- in the form ofJesus Christ, and that
Jesus is the metaphorical, the symbolic, new vine – the ‘new Israel’ - replacing
the old vine that was the Israel of the Old Testament - and that we by our baptism have been cleansed
– or, to continue with the metaphor, are the pruned branches of that new vine
that is Jesus Christ – having understood all of that, we then have to
understand what it means for us ‘to bear much fruit’.
For that is what John tells us that we are expected to
do - ‘bear much fruit’ and ‘become his disciples’; become the disciples of
So, what exactly is this fruit we are expected to bear
as we abide in, or stand with, Jesus?
It means that we are expected to act; to make his
words and our beliefs meaningful in kind; not to simply pay lip-service to his
commands, perhaps once a week in church on a Sunday. We are expected to fulfil
God’s mission – to tell others of the hope and love that is the Good News of
Jesus; to baptise new believers; to provide care and compassion to those who
are ill; and to make new disciples – new followers, supporters, helpers - who
will assist us in the work of God.
….that is where we are supposed to be going as we
leave this building today – that is what we are supposed to be doing next –
today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, for the rest of our lives –
that is our mission – that is the mission set for us by Jesus – that is God’s
And we know the vast importance of that task – that
monumental task – the task set by virtue of our baptism – that act which made
us cleansed and pruned, healthy branches of the vibrant vine that is Jesus
Christ – by all of that, we know the vast importance of our task that will
glorify God, and, in so doing, also bring into our own lives, and the lives of
those around us, that which we need to be human – we know all of that, and we
will receive all of that, once we trulyunderstand who we are as
Christians, where we have come from, where we are now, and how we fit into that
huge map that is comprised of the Old and New Testaments, which in turn gives
us our mission for today…
We know all of that with great clarity, once we can answer
‘yes’ - ‘yes, we do’ - to Philip’s question.
May God open our eyes and our ears, our minds and our
hearts, so that we can truly understand
what we are reading.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable
in thy sight, O Lord, my
strength, and my redeemer.
very good morning to you all – and may I say how wonderful it is to be invited
to preach within this beautiful and historic church of St Mary Magdalene.
chosen text this morning is the Gospel according to St Matthew 3.13-end, which I
shall first read.
2006, I was in the habit of subscribing to a writer’s periodical called Writing Magazine. On one occasion, itcarried a competition with the task to
write a synopsis of Mozart’s opera, The
Magic Flute, in no more than 50 words. It was indeed a significant
challenge, but one that I rose to, though, I must admit, not sufficiently well
enough to win the prize.
by today’s Gospel text, I sense that St Matthew would have fared much better
than me in respect to the challenge from the Writing Magazine, and would definitely have been in the shortlist
of finalists, if not declared the outright winner. For, within 5 verses of text
– essentially 6 short sentences - he manages to pack a veritable panoply of
richness that defiantly challenges the sermon writer constrained to a 15-minute
the Gospel you have just heard, we joined Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, at the
River Jordan. So, before I move on, let us just imagine that scene for a
the preceding verses to today’s reading, we know that John is probably standing
in the water. On the bank is a small crowd clamouring and jostling to be next
in line for John’s baptism for the repentance of their sins. To those he baptises,
John issues a warning as to the coming of the Messiah, declaring that the
Messiah will ‘baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’, and in the process,
sort out the ‘wheat from the chaff’. In other words, there’ll be no messing
about - the coming Messiah will sort the truly repentant from those who falsely
this slightly chaotic scene appears Jesus, who has travelled a long way from
Galilee with the specific intention of seeking John’s baptism. His arrival
within the crowd of sinners is to John’s utter surprise and, at first, he tries
to deter Jesus from partaking in the process of baptism because he perceives
that he has no sin to repent. Jesus, however, insists and is thus baptised by
John in the water of the River Jordan.
as he surfaces from the water, there is this remarkable moment when the sky
opens and the Spirit of God descends like a dove upon Jesus, accompanied by the
voice of God, who declares that Jesus is his son, and that God is well pleased
that is it!
6 short sentences, we have John baptising people in the Jordan, Jesus arriving
and taking John by surprise, John baptising Jesus, following which the Heavens
open, the Holy Spirit descends, and God speaks, declaring Jesus to be his son. The
next verse in the gospel, unread today, simply flips the scene away to Jesus
entering the wilderness to do battle with the devil…
I don’t know how you feel, but this is blockbuster movie stuff. This is a good
story… Just as one action-packed scene is over, and before we have a chance to
draw breath and consider what we have just seen, we are off to the thrills and
excitement of the next enthralling encounter...
let us not go on for a moment. Instead, let us press the pause button, rewind
and replay what we have just witnessed in almost a blink of an eye.
within this passage of just six sentences, are contained many of the raw
constituent values of Christianity, including meekness, repentance, the
sacrament of baptism, salvation, peace, and love, – to say nothing of leadership,
preaching the gospel, the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, and the
existence of the triune God.
illustrate this, let us start with John the Baptist.
is quite famous. He is well known as a preacher and has established a name for
himself as something of a prophet. Many people - rich and poor - those with status
and those without - all flock to him to hear what he has to say. He preaches
the importance of repentance - of seeking God’s forgiveness, and starting life
anew. This he demonstrates through the process of baptism – the use of water as
a symbol of cleanliness and purification. And there is no doubt that he is good
at it. Indeed, he is very good at it
– and the scriptures show that he is most certainly a charismatic leader.
despite all this fame and popularity, he is also humble. As we are told earlier
in Matthew’s gospel, John dresses and lives frugally; but he is also very quick
to diminish his own importance: ‘one who is more powerful than I is coming
after me, I am not worthy to carry his sandals’, he says in Matthew 3.11.
Despite being successful and famous, he has a firm grasp of his ego, his sense
of self-esteem or self-importance, and is quick to recognise others who have
greater value than himself.
there we have leadership, preaching, repentance, baptism and humbleness.
then there is Jesus…
this stage, Jesus, like many of us here today, is right at the start of his
ministry, and if we set aside the magnificence of the nativity, he is yet to
become well-known amongst the wider communities of Galilee and Samaria, let
alone in Judea where he has arrived to meet John. That said, he is aware that he has a mission to
fulfil on behalf of God: ‘Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way
to fulfil all righteousness’, he says to John in respect to his request for
baptism by John. But he makes this request not as someone who considers himself
to be important, but by humbly taking his place amongst the throng of sinners
on the bank of the Jordan. In this respect, he certainly takes John by
surprise, for even if John does not know at that moment that Jesus is the
Messiah John has been prophesying, he certainly recognises him as someone who
is without sin, and makes his case for the baptism to be the other way around:
‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ he equally meekly
you imagine what this moment must have felt like to John?
was probably something akin to how I once felt as a GP when a consultant
cardiologist appeared in my consulting room as a patient and asked me to treat
his symptoms, which were quite clearly those of heart disease; and it is most
certainly akin to preaching from a pulpit to a congregation of scholars from a
local school of theology, and finding that amongst them is that eminent preacher,
the Reverend Alex Whitehead!
you can genuinely sense the palpable astonishment and even embarrassment of
John when he realises who is next in the queue…. He knows Jesus as a good man, better than
himself, and seriously thinks their roles are the wrong way around. He
expresses this, telling Jesus ‘no, no, this is all wrong - I need to be
baptised by you…’
the scene is almost one of comedy in respect to who can be the humblest –
‘after you’ – ‘no, after you’ – ‘no,
I really must insist, after you’…
Jesus is making two important points here, apart from showing support for John’s
ministry. First, he is showing solidarity with those who are known to be
sinners; choosing to stand shoulder to shoulder with those whose lives have
been blighted by misdemeanours of all sorts, and not electing for some form of preferential
treatment. Secondly, by confessing sin on behalf of all people (just as Isaiah,
Ezra and Nehemiah had done before him), he was commencing his ministry of
teaching that salvation is available for all people, and that, after
repentance, baptism is of central importance to attaining God’s salvation.
repentance, baptism and salvation - they are all there, right at the start of
Jesus’ ministry, such is their importance.
then we come to that remarkable moment that occurs as Jesus is coming out of
I want you to use your imagination again for a moment. I want you to bring to
mind the last time you dived or jumped into an open air swimming pool – your
hearing becomes muffled by the water; your vision is likewise affected – you
see just blurry distorted images; and just as you cannot hold your breath any
longer, you burst through the surface into the open air – the water runs off
your face, the sunlight is dazzling in a vivid blue sky, and you take great
lungful’s of air – you feel so alive, so joyful, so invigorated – you see so
clearly the great splendour of the sky above you; a scene so vividly clear that
the sky appears never ending, and you might even see a dove flying above you,
and you rejoice at the splendour of it all…
then imagine if, at that moment of exhilaration, you hear the voice of God
saying ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.
which echo the prophetic Old Testament reading for today, Isaiah 42.1: ‘Here is
my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights’; words that will
not be heard again until the transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17.5.
‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am
Biblical terms, this is a truly amazing moment. Not only is it the first
occasion on which God publicly affirms Jesus as his son, but it is the first
time when the triune God is present – God the father is speaking, God the son
has just been baptised, and God the Holy Spirit has just descended like a dove – not as fire, or storm, or lightning,
or a fierce wind – like a dove.
there, contrary to the powerful and fearsome God portrayed in Psalm 29, we have
God demonstrating his true nature as a peaceful, loving and tender God –
showing absolute benevolence to his son as any parent might when the child’s
action pleases the parent.
God is demonstrating
there we have it. In a passage of just six sentences, the raw constituent
values of Christianity – a demonstration of strong leadership, inspirational
preaching, meekness, support to sinners, repentance, the sacrament of baptism,
salvation, peace, the existence of the triune God, and a demonstration that God
is love. (Indeed, the only significant bit that is really missing is the detail
of the crucifixion and resurrection, as covered in today’s other New Testament
reading from Acts 10.34-43).
thus, regardless as to whether we are here now as ordained Priests, or
potential Readers, Deacons or Priests of the future, we should remember that it
is those same factors which are the core elements that we are required to
possess and profess; the same elements that should form the basis of our
ministry as Christians and the good news that we, as members of God’s Church
proclaim to others.
so, we pray that, as we leave here today, we might remember those six simple
but powerful sentences of St Matthew’s gospel, and all that is contained
therein; and we also pray that, by doing so - as we try to walk in the path of
Jesus Christ - we might have our own eyes and ears opened to the glory of
heaven, and the power of the Holy Spirit…
and that one day we might give such good cause that, just like Jesus standing
in the river Jordan, we will also hear God’s voice identify each one of us as
As riot police moved in to stop migrants from entering
the Channel Tunnel at Calais, a young Eritrean man said “God has seen me
through the Sahara; he will not abandon me now”.
is God in this?
Clearly, the Eritrean understood God to have accompanied
him thus far, and his faith was well supported in Scripture, for Psalm 107:4-8
wondered in desert wastes, finding no way to a city to dwell in;
and thirsty, their soul fainted within them.
they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their
led them by a straight way till they reached a city to dwell in.
them thank the Lord for his steadfast love.
However, the activity of the riot police may have
indicated that the man’s faith at this last stage was misplaced; and I was
certainly left wondering what the Christian response should be in England when
we pray to the same God who saw that man safely through the desert.
Nonetheless, within one week, in the UK:
- ½ million
people signed a petition requiring the UK government to ‘Accept more asylum
seekers and increase support for refugee migrants in the UK’ (when only 100,000
needed for a parliamentary debate); and c.f. only 71,000 signed a petition
against more activity.
- the Government expanded the Syrian Vulnerable
Persons Relocation Scheme from 1,000 people per year to 20,000 within this
- the Government pledged a further £100 million to the
£900million in humanitarian aid
- the British public donated hundreds of thousands of
pounds to charities aiding the migrants
- The Scottish government pledged £1m.
- hundreds of people gathered at a ‘refugees welcome’
demonstration in Oxford.
- the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke out quoting
Leviticus 19:34, saying we must…
down barriers, to welcome the stranger and love them as ourselves.
All of which suggested to me that the Holy Spirit was
certainly at work and was indeed providing a Christian response to the crisis.
Hence, the answer to the question as to where is God
in this? Is that I would suggest God is at work through us in providing aid to
that man and his country-folk, in keeping with St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where in chapter 2:13, he writes…
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Lamplight in the Shadows
"How had it happened? How had his entire world been turned upside down; his every sense of right and wrong, of morals and religious duty, been so deftly swept aside to leave his mind in a tumult of emotions?"
Set in the early 1990s, Dr James Armstrong, a young, newly-qualified GP lives with his wife, Janice, in Barminster, where he is busy laying out plans for their future. However, his search for a medical partnership is complicated by a long-term and persistent sense of being called to ordination in the Church of England.
Whilst exploring the possibility of a dual professional life as a doctor and priest, he accepts a position as a locum GP in a practice in the quiet market town of Bishopsworth. Once there, his world is thrown into chaos when he finds himself powerfully drawn to a beautiful young woman, whose own marriage is failing. The result is an emotional drama that brings into focus the underlying difficulties of his own bleak relationship.
Torn between his loyalty to his wedding vows and the unexpected discovery of true love, James is left battling powerful emotions that make him question all that he has previously stood for. He needs to make some difficult decisions; decisions that will mean winners and losers. But what is he prepared to sacrifice and at what price?
Lamplight in the Shadows explores the complex tensions between perceived duty and misplaced loyalties. With characters drawn from rural society and religious settings, the story will appeal to those who enjoy romantic fiction. Published: 28/02/2015 ISBN: 9781784621582 eISBN: 9781784628208 Format:Paperback/eBook
following is the text of my eulogy delivered at a Eucharist at the Parish
Church of St Mary, Barton on Humber, on the Feast Day of St Luke, the 18th
is the Feast Day of St Luke, and I consider it an honour and a privilege to
have been asked to say a few words about the life and work of the man whose
memory we now celebrate and for whose life we herewith give thanks.
said, to some extent, Luke is, in historical terms, an enigma. We know
relatively little about him as a person, and what we do know is gleaned from
the writings of third parties or teased from the writings purported to be by
is widely believed that he was born of Greek parents in the city of Antioch,
Syria c.1 AD; Syria then being part of the Roman Empire.
is understood that Luke was a physician, as evidenced by the writing of St Paul
and, as such, can probably take the title of the first Christian doctor.
know that he was most certainly a disciple of St Paul; accompanying him for
large parts of his journeys and was with St Paul near to the time of Paul’s
death in Rome.
we understand from early church historians that Luke was unmarried, without
children, and died at the age of 84yrs, c. 84 AD; possibly as a martyr.
Luke was much more than that potted bibliography. Once again, it is early
historians who give us the sense that he had an ‘exceptional degree of
holiness’, and was revered as a saint within the first few centuries AD. What
is more, whilst the original texts were written anonymously, there is
considerable evidence to indicate that the third and longest of the major
Gospels of the Bible was written by St Luke, and that he was also the author of
the Acts of the Apostles. His desire for anonymity is therefore a remarkable
indication of his modesty, bearing in mind that together, St Luke’s Gospel
(telling us of the origins, birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension
of Jesus Christ) and the Acts of the Apostles (giving us the early history of
the Christian Church) compose almost 25% of the New Testament. It is because of
these writings that Luke is known as one of the four Evangelists, whose work
‘proclaimed the good news – the gospel of Jesus’; and it is from St Luke’s
Gospel, and only from his Gospel, that we receive some of our most loved
stories, such as The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son.
it doesn’t end there, for Luke was also:
artist – who, it is claimed, painted some 600 icons as well as paintings of
Mary with Jesus as a baby.
he was a poet – for his work has led directly to such beautiful works as the
what relevance does the life of St Luke have for us over two thousand years
later? What message does he give to us that is as important in the 21st
century as it was in earliest years of the Christian church?
he tells us of the life of Christ and indeed about St Paul. However, there is
much about the life and character of Luke himself that can still teach us a
great deal in today’s world.
through the style of his writing, we know that Luke, as an educated man, did
not look down on artisans, for his writing reminds us that those involved in
manual work are equally worthy of our respect; prompting us to be mindful that
all men and women are equal.
St Luke, the evangelist, physician, writer, theologian, poet, artist, and
historian – St Luke the polymath - should remind us that we all have multiple
gifts bestowed upon us by God, and that, by using Luke as our exemplar, we should
make use of all our individual gifts to further God’s work in the service of
human kind and to assist in the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
he reminds us that to be whole persons, we must take care to heal both the body
and the soul, and that such healing cannot come about through science and
medicine alone, but in combination with the many arts, and not least of all,
theology. One of his most famous lines is from Luke 19:10, where he writes ‘For
the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost’. From his life’s work, I suggest that the
phrase could equally be applied to St. Luke himself, whom St Paul may well have
called an Anam Cara, or Soul Friend; a doctor of the soul who, if he were alive
today, would probably be known as a spiritual director.
Luke is symbolised by a winged ox or bull – figures of strength, sacrifice and
service - and in recognition that St Luke sacrificed himself and his life in
following Christ. Today we give thanks for his life and work; a life that
should remind us that all Christians, even in the 21st Century, are
called upon to do likewise, living and working our lives in the name of Christ;
and for which, the emulation of St Luke is a good starting point. For, although we are not all called to be physicians, we can all be healers in a troubled world.
'I think I am in my last days but it doesn't really matter because I have had such a beautiful life. And life is beautiful, love is beautiful, nature and music are beautiful. Everything we experience is a gift, a present we should cherish and pass on to those we love.'
Alice Herz-Sommer (2014)
(Concert pianist and oldest Holocaust survivor, who died aged 110 years).
"You do not need to do anything; you do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. You do not even need to listen; just wait. You do not even need to wait; just become still, quiet and solitary and the world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet." -- Franz Kafka
early seventeenth century proverb informs us that, for practical as well as
moral reasons, honesty is the best policy. Oliver Cromwell, when writing to the
High Sheriff of Suffolk, Sir William Spring, in 1643, remarked that ‘a few
honest men are better than numbers’. In 1814, Jane Austen recognised the
difficulties of positions of power when she was writing her novel, Mansfield
Park, remarking that ‘we do not look in great cities for our best morality’.
Yet only with the pursuit of honesty in public life as well as in private, can
one hope to achieve the safe haven spoken of by the Roman Emperor Marcus
Aurelius when he said ‘nowhere can a man find a quieter or more untroubled
retreat than in his own soul’. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary informs us
that ‘honesty’ is being ‘free of deceit; truthful and sincere; simple and
unpretentious; genuine and straightforward’.
is it then, with over two thousand years wherein leaders in a variety of fields
have recognised that being honest is an imperative of life, do we find
ourselves confronted by newspaper headlines informing us that honesty appears
to be the last moral value adhered to within the NHS? In the past few weeks we
have seen a number of these, not least those proclaiming ‘Rotten NHS culture
led to cover-ups’, followed by discussions of ‘institutional secrecy’, ‘NHS
scandals’ and regulators ‘suppressing evidence of failures’. The Secretary of
State for Health, the Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, was even moved to make a speech in
which he demanded a ‘new culture of openness, transparency and accountability’,
whilst also recognising that ‘the best motivated people do make mistakes’.
latter comment is important, for the pursuit of honesty is not the same, and
should never be the same, as the pursuit of litigation for negligence. In an
honest workplace, with every person sincerely striving for the common good,
negligence should be a rare beast that raises its head. Honesty underpins the
act of doing the right thing at the right time and then being clear about what
it was that was done; even if, with the value of hindsight, matters could have been done in a
the same speech as that mentioned above, Jeremy Hunt went on to state that the
success of a new culture of openness and transparency ‘will depend on the right
incentives and consequences’, citing the need for greater powers for the
regulatory bodies such as the Care Quality Commission (CQC). However,
regulation and regulators are not the answer; they have never been the answer.
Regulators are merely ‘the dust-carts that follow the Lord Mayor's Show of
life’ as the NHS commentator Roy Lilley recently put it. They tell us what went
wrong in the past; they do not give us reassurance that all is well in the
it is not more regulation that we need. What we need is for those working in
the NHS (and politics, and any other facet of public life) to be honest. For only
on the solid bedrock of honesty, do we have the capability of building the
necessary facets of a valued and enduring society.
First published in the Scunthorpe
Telegraph, 4 July 2013
American Psychological Association’s Psychology and Ageing Journal may not be
the preferred bedtime reading for many people in North Lincolnshire. However,
this month it contains an article that we all ought to be aware of. According
to researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University (I know, but we won’t let the
name distract us), the process of volunteering is helpful in bringing about a
reduction in blood pressure. Now, when
was the last time you volunteered to do something for nothing? The employed
might retort that they work for nothing for the first five months of the year (Tax
Freedom Day being somewhere around the middle of May in the UK), but I am
assuming that doesn’t count, otherwise we wouldn’t have such a high demand for
blood pressure pills in this country.
blood pressure is a major risk factor in heart disease, strokes and kidney
disease, so it is worth taking seriously. The American research suggests that
positive lifestyle factors such as volunteering can have a major impact on
blood pressure through the chemical processes that bring about the ‘feel good
factor’. To benefit, a person has to perform voluntary work for at least 200
hours per year.
course, one’s blood pressure isn’t the only thing to benefit from volunteering.
Volunteering also helps to build a caring society, reduces social exclusion,
makes an economic impact (adding £4.8 billion to the UK’s finances), opens up
social networks, brings interesting and exciting new experiences, improves
personal skills, enhances personal development, and improves employment and
career prospects. From a medical perspective, stress levels are also often
reduced, which may be part of the way in which volunteering reduces blood
pressure. So, all in all, it is a good thing to do.
in other areas of this week’s medical press, we learn that the Department of
Health has decided that there is no evidence to support the concept that GPs
are not capable of working in General Practice until their 68th
birthday. Ironically, the same report acknowledges that the same GPs may not be
motivated to work that long. Motivation is a multifaceted beast, but it has a
lot to do with job satisfaction, manageable workloads, and not feeling
exhausted before getting to lunchtime (in itself a vague concept these days).
Even more ironically, on the same day the above report was published, other
reports highlighted (as though it wasn’t already clear) that General Practice
is at breaking point and cannot be looked to in order to solve the country’s
that didn’t stop NHS England suggesting that GPs should provide 24/7 ‘decision
support’ (whatever that means) to tackle the out of hours problems. Neither did
a national lack of GPs stop the Care Quality Commission announcing that it
would close GP practices that didn’t stay open long enough to satisfy patient
demand. I may be losing the plot here, but will someone please explain to me
how that solves the problem? Even as I write, I can feel my blood pressure
rising. Perhaps a quick spot of voluntary work will help? Now, I wonder whether
emptying the dishwasher and putting the rubbish out, before Mrs J-F tells me to
do it, will count towards my 200 hours per year target?
First published in the Scunthorpe
Telegraph, 27 June 2013
recently had a go a cutting my throat. Needless to say, it wasn’t a clean
sweep, otherwise I would not now be writing this column. Either that or I would
be making a small post-mortem fortune in describing the true goings on from the
‘other side’. My wife immediately suspected that I had been listening to
Mahler’s 5th Symphony; for me, a wonderful work with an unfathomable
depth of emotion to it. For my wife, it represents a morose person about to
commit suicide. It is interesting how music affects people in different ways.
However, the truth is that I was not listening to Mahler.
was I contemplating whether to interview the young doctor who put in his
curriculum vitae that his hobby was listening to ‘vintage rock’. It was the
word ‘vintage’ that stopped me in my tracks (sorry; for those who still have
LPs stored in the loft, I couldn’t resist that pun); as he then went on to
explain that the term ‘vintage’ meant music from the 60s. As I was born in
1960, it was a new experience to be considered by implication as ‘vintage’.
the truth of the matter was that my razor head fell apart; giving the blade a
new found freedom that heretofore it had only dreamt of. The result was a one
inch gash a little too close to my left carotid artery for comfort.
Fortunately, I survived the auto-mutilation and can now devote some time to
contemplating how I wish to continue keeping well and live an independent life
in North Lincolnshire. Which is all a very long-winded way of bringing me to
the point of this week’s subject.
Lincolnshire’s Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) is, since April 2013, the
organisation responsible for buying health services. The CCG is now keen to
know your views; views that will help to inform how services are developed within
our county. The question being asked is ‘what needs to happen so that you and
yours feel confident about keeping well and living an independent life to the
full?’ The CCG is keen for people of all ages to contribute to this learning
process. What would make a difference for you and your family? How do we need
to develop health and social services to help and support your aims and needs?
are two ways in which you can become involved with this important survey. The
first is to simply go on-line and complete a survey here, giving us the
opportunity to see how you see life. The second is to attend a public meeting
on Thursday 27 June 2013 between 9.30 – 14.30 at the Wortley House Hotel,
Rowland Road, Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire DN16 1SU. The organisers say that
the event will be ‘fun, inspiring and you will learn a lot’.
if you want to learn more about public health inequalities and what people die
of in your area, enter your postcode into the Longer Lives website and see how
we compare to other areas: http://longerlives.phe.org.uk/. Fortunately,
self-beheadings do not seem to feature for my street, so I may be okay for a
in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, 20 June 2013