‘It’s summer time and I am in my singlet, shorts and thongs, Oh! Jingle bells, jingle bells, Christmas time is beaut……’
Errr, nope, I didn’t know this version either! But I admit I enjoyed it. It’s 32 degrees here in Taomasina, where the Australian members of crew led us in an …’alternative’ rendition of jingle bells at our carols by candlelight. On the dock. Burning stuff on a ship is apparently frowned upon.But thats not the only thing about December that’s been different this year. I do miss dressing up warm, the twinkling London lights, mulled wine with friends. I very much DON’T miss the relentless commercialism that seems to start some time in mid-September at home. The incessant barrage of advertising of stuff, ‘Black Friday’ sales, Christmas sales, January sales… The Brits spend more money on Christmas presents than any other nation in Europe, and are more likely to get into debt by doing so according to a study last year.
I recently re-read Charles Dicken’s classic ‘A Christmas Carol’. It seems to me that the real transformation in the story of Scrooge is not that of penny-pinching miser converted to open-walleted extravagance, now a commendable consumer par excellence buying ALL the stuff and boosting the economy! Rather the beginning of the story depicts a self-absorbed materialist, who you might say knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing (Oscar Wilde). By the end of the story, he has been transformed into someone who cherishes community, values people over things, and relishes giving over getting.There is no doubt that a well-chosen gift can be a wonderful way to express our appreciation of someone. My personal favourite I think was the ‘mandolinden’, a mandolin made from Linden wood from my family one Christmas! But I have been reflecting on a different kind of generosity this Christmas. Not in gifts of things, but in people who have given something impossible to stick a price on; themselves. Their attention and time. Like the team at one hospital in Madagascar where we delivered training. They all turned up at our hotel in a minibus the night before we left town so that they could take us out for BBQ and karaoke! They had just finished up a long day treating 10 trauma patients brought in following a terrible road accident, but somehow they found the energy after work to reach out in hospitality to their visitors in town.
Or one of the nurses on board who invested so much time and energy to encourage and support me on my return to the ship, even though she was working long shifts and would herself be leaving for home in Holland in just a matter of days.
So how do you decide how much particular people are worth? How do you decide who makes the Christmas card list? How do we decide which displaced people deserve to be allowed into our country? None of us has unlimited time, money, or emotional energy, so it seems understandable that we ‘budget’ these things- after all they will only stretch so far!
If someone is very obviously important, interesting, fun, useful to know, or good looking, the decision to give them our full attention is easy! If they are none of the above, we may find ourselves ‘dialling out’ especially when we are tired or busy. But a consequence of this line of thinking is that it can encourage us even subconsciously to view other people like ‘commodities’ whose worth (just like all those other ‘things’ we get pre-occupied by at this time of year) is weighed by their appeal or usefulness to me. Somewhere along the line, I have made a valuation.
I am challenged when I remember the truth, that every person we come across had immeasurable worth.
Our team shares an office with the wonderful ‘screening’ team who travel the length and breadth of this enormous country to find patients we can help through surgery. One of the team has a note above the desk quoting Dr Paul Farmer, who already got a mention in my last post! (Quotation seem to be coming in twos on this blog.)
But there is another reason I am thinking about the value of people this Christmas. I am always struck when I read the words of the man often referred to as the ‘English Hippocrates’ or the ‘Father of English Medicine’ Thomas Sydenham. All the way back in 1668 he wrote these words….
It becomes every man who purposes to give himself to the care of others, seriously to consider the four following things; First, that he must one day give an account to the Supreme Judge of all the lives entrusted to his care. Secondly, that all his skill, and knowledge, and energy as they have been given to him by God, so they should be exercised for his glory, and the good of mankind, and not for mere gain and ambition. Thirdly, and not more beautifully than truly, let him reflect that he has undertaken the care of no mean creature, for, in order that he may estimate the value, the greatness of the human race, the only begotten Son of God became himself a man, and thus enobled it with his divine dignity, and far more than this, died to redeem it. And fourthly, that the doctor being himself mortal man, should be diligent and tender in relieving his suffering patients, inasmuch as he himself must one day be a like sufferer.’ Sydenham T. Medical Observations Concerning the History and Cure of Acute Diseases, 1668
I love the fact that the motto of the Royal College of Anaesthetists is “Divinum Sedare Dolorem” – “It is divine to alleviate pain.” Jokes about physicians having a ‘God complex’ aside, this is one of the reasons I love being an anaesthetist. When you see hurt, pain, brokenness, it feels natural to us to want to put that right, that it should be put right.
The events of Christmas, as Thomas Sydenham reminds us, describe a God who sees a broken world of broken people, and is filled with compassion. Not just sympathy or judgement from afar, but compassion leading to extraordinary action. It’s a mind-blowing thought… In Jesus, God himself was born into poverty and social rejection, fleeing his country as a refugee to escape a terrible genocide. Which might not sound a festive thought, unless you read to the end of the story! That despite all our faults and failures, you and I are so immeasurably valuable that Jesus was willing to give the greatest gift of all, his very life. No half measures. And because of him, everything broken can be made new.
‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned’ Isaiah 9:2
So Merry Christmas and a happy new year!
PS, a Christmas thank you message from the UK crew on board Africa Mercy can be seen here: if you want to help bring health and wholeness to some more people like those in the video for the new year, a generous donor is matching all donations for December!