Apothecaries Master’s Day Service September 2016
St Andrew by the Wardrobe, Blackfriars – Master Dr Derek Adams
1 Kings 17:17-24, Luke 8:43 – 48
Firstly I’d like to thank Derek for asking me to be his chaplain for this year. I’ve already tested the meals in Apothecaries hall so I know I shall be well fed (it’s an important part of the discernment process for any chaplain). But also the invitation has provided me with the opportunity to explore a little of what you do as a society, which has been of great interest.
I also think in Derek you will have a hard working and wise Master. He has vast and varied experience in his profession. His unassuming and steady manner will guide and serve you well.
I do not have a scientific or medical background, but I did act as chaplain to the UK fundraising office of the charity Mercy Ships for a few years. You may have heard of this charity, they operate the world’s largest hospital ship, infact are in the process of building a brand new one. This floating hospital spends most of her time on the West coast of Africa offering free surgery and medical care to some of the world’s poorest people. They specialise particularly in maxillofacial and ophthalmic surgeries as well as other general medical procedures. Staffed entirely by volunteers – doctors, nurses, dentists and a whole host of extras make up the ship’s crew, people give two weeks, two months, two years and in some case over two decades of their time and skill for free, in what is an amazing place of healing and kindness.
And one thing I learned in my time as chaplain to them, and I witnessed first hand on the occasion I was able to visit the ship in Togo, was something you will all know – that healing is rarely just physical – that ill health has most often a social, emotional, economic, sometimes political edge – and that the gift of medicine and skilled practitioners has the potential to transform not only physical health, but also restore livelihoods, relationships and mental wellbeing.
I witnessed this whilst watching simple cataract surgery and surgery correcting a child’s squint. The strength of the sun in that part of the world, combined with constant dust in the air, and lack of early intervention meant cataract patients were literally blind. They would queue up in the morning and be admitted on to the ship, each one clinging on to the back of the other, their feet fumbling along the gang way.
The skill of a surgeon’s fingers fascinated me, how transformation can happen with just the smallest of movements, and about 20 minutes in surgery led to the return not only of sight, but also of livelihoods. And the boy who I watched have his squint corrected was able to return to a village where he his mother had been told she must throw him out, because he was seen as having an evil eye that would curse them all.
And I saw this whilst having the privilege to share in a ceremony held regularly for women who had received fistula corrective surgery. The constant leakage of urine caused them great embarrassment and stigma.
One woman told me how her husband had taken a new wife. When she was very sick even her children were not allowed to help her. Another woman spoke about having lived with the condition for 20 years and the smell that people complained of.
A third woman spoke of her traumatic experience of childbirth, ‘they thought I was dead’ she said ‘and they took me outside the village to bury my body. It was only when I started shaking that they knew I was alive’.
But these women who knew not only physical suffering but also social stigma, before they leave the ship – are dressed in the most beautiful new clothes someone styles their hair and wraps colourful fabric around them, their makeup is done, they are made new jewellery, and they enter the ward anew, a new start, a new beginning to the sound of a beating drum. When I was at the ceremony the ward sister, a large, beaming Ugandan woman read from Psalm 103 as they enter, the psalm we have sung together tonight:
“Bless the Lord and do not forget all his benefits – who forgives all your iniquity and heals all your diseases. Who redeems your life from the pit.” These words which were followed by exuberant, excited, joyous, flamboyant dancing – and I too celebrated with them, in a slightly more British manner by stilted clapping and self-conscious, awkward bobbing from the sideline.
And I saw it when I met 9 year old Tanni, who had fallen into the fire as a young child, and lost her lips, ears nose – which the surgeons had been patiently rebuilding. We played endless snap together – interrupted on occasion by the little phrase she would chant “You are beautiful” she would sing “I love you”. “You are beeoootiful and I luurve yooou!” She, a girl who was quite unlikely to find a husband, in a society where that would make her vulnerable financially and socially, she knew these words well – as the American nurse who tended her said that to her over and over again, every day, morning and night –
“You are beautiful and I love you. You are beautiful and I love you”. Words, as well as medicine and scalpels, can be powerful agents of healing.
Our lessons this evening are also aware of this mix of physical, social and spiritual healing. Elijah brings back to life the widow’s son; her grief and despair compounded not just by loss of her child, but coming also from a place of great poverty, her life completely at the fate of his wellbeing. And then we’ve heard the account of the healing of the haemorrhaging woman – blood and gender contributing to her uncleanness before others. Her healing, brought by her daring to trust in Jesus’ regard for her. Healing which would be more than just a physical restoration. So often, biblical accounts of healing, and Jesus interactions in particular, show God’s concern with those on the edges and margins. Those whom the world rejects. Those where shame and sin, poverty and politics, are as much a part of the burden they bear as the ill health which marks them. In physical healing is revealed God’s desire for wholeness in all its forms.
And it struck me, looking at the work of the Apothecaries Guild, and the educational programmes that you offer, that there also is a very gospel edge to the work you are investing in. Victims of sexual assault, people living with HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, refugees and others suffering catastrophes, you have in your commitments a distinctive social and marginal edge. We may see, in those very recipients of your concern, some of the most vulnerable and excluded people – for whom physical needs are woven tightly with social and emotional wellbeing.
Perhaps those programmes won’t quite resurrect the dead, like Elijah, but they will, in their own way, bring life. They may not be instant in their cure, like Jesus and the bleeding woman, but they will play their part in compassionate reminding of a shared and valued humanity with some of the most traumatised and rejected people.
We come today to begin a new phase in this society’s long and prestigious history in which you, with the Master, will all play your part – and with that we thank God for the people who’s lives will benefit from the efforts of this guild, and we ask God to bless again, all the work, that together, you do. Amen.