Not playing God

Sep 17th, 2008 | By | Category: Ministry

It was quarter past four on a Friday afternoon, the ward was quiet, many of the patients having been discharged prior to the weekend.  Eric was in a four-bedded bay of the new hospital.  If being in hospital was necessary, this was not such a bad place to be.  The other three beds were empty; it was a surprise to see a stethoscope-wearing doctor standing in the corner beside Eric’s bed.

“Come in”, he said, come in.  I was just telling Eric that he had taken a little longer to recover than we had anticipated, but that he is doing very well now and will be home in a few days”.

Eric beamed with delight at the news he had just received being confirmed to a third party.

Eric chatted cheerfully about a holiday he had enjoyed in England.  He  remembered with particular fondness his visit to Wells, a little city in the English West Country, with its 12th Century Cathedral and swans that swam in the moat of the bishop’s palace and pulled a string to ring a bell when it was time to be fed.  Eric recalled with happiness the details of his visit.

The next morning the telephone rang at 8.30 a.m. Eric’s son wanted to know exactly what the doctor had said.  Word for word, it was as Eric had told him during a visit later the previous evening.

“I’m phoning to say my dad died during the night”.

People die unexpectedly and people in hospital are particularly prone to dying.  What made the news difficult was the definitive view of the doctor, so confident, that he was prepared to share his opinion with a complete stranger.

When figures of trust seem to fail us, it prompts a suspicion of everyone.

A woman whose husband died after not being diagnosed with an illness commented with bitterness that the difference between doctor and God was that God did not think he was a doctor.  It was an unfair comment, but it came in reaction to her being told in certain terms, just before her husband’s death, that there was no need for concern over the illness from which he died.

The church has had to learn painfully the lessons of humility, as clergy, once held in a regard verging on fear, have been revealed to be as flawed as the next person.

There seems a reluctance to admit that one gets things wrong.  In the church it is easier to throw the hands up and admit failure, there is no spectre of litigation, (no-one seeks a prosecution for a clergyman anymore for lack of professional competence – they did in the past!), but, even with that, saying that one got it wrong does not come as part of the training.  Perhaps people would be less litigious and more forgiving if there were a greater degree of vulnerability on the part of those regarded with trust, if we could all say together that we are human and that we make mistakes.

In the words of the old Elton John song, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word”.

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  1. Sometimes, they don’t get it wrong. There’s often that moment of lucidity before death that makes you think all is going to be fine – then crash! Doctors are just body mechanics but I do think the litigious nature of society prevents anyone admitting culpability. And on that note, people who do not make mistakes, do not make anything.

  2. Did he get it wrong? The man went home to his Maker!

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