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Steve Sturman

Sidelined? Or waiting for God’s time to serve?

Steve Sturman is CMF Associate Head of Doctors' Ministries, with a focus on developing pastoral care programmes and resources for members. He was formerly a consultant neurologist in Birmingham.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

How Life Changes

Four and a half weeks ago, I left my desk at a busy teaching hospital to start a semi-enforced break of five weeks between technical retirement and return to work in early April. Fortunately, I didn’t plan a cruise or world tour! However, a visit to a Christian hospital with a CMF team was mercifully cancelled by our hosts before we set off. This, it turned out, was all to the good, as the symptoms of what I take to have been COVID19 would have started just as we would have arrived, and I would even now be firmly incarcerated in an Egyptian fever hospital!

So, it all feels a bit odd. Two weeks of fever and feeling under the weather, no consultant role, under technical house arrest, awaiting advice on what ‘return to duties’ might look like. A vague sense of being cheated of my ‘well-earned retirement rest’. Conversely, there is strange guilt that I might not be doing enough. Even good old CMF is piling the pressure on. There are daily webcasts and online prayer meetings, and we have helped set up support structures for people to access prayer, listening, encouragements and debrief sessions. But sitting here in urban middle England it is eerily quiet. The Pastoral Care and Wellbeing hotlines are quiet, apart from (very welcome) offers from other medics who want to join the pastoral effort to support the ‘frontline’.

 

Coping with ‘Calm Before the Storm’

We hear echoes and voices from the ‘frontline’ and share the concern and distress of healthcare workers who are becoming increasingly overwhelmed. However, for most of us, we are merely waiting, poised and braced for what may be coming. This brings up a whole range of reactions. A junior doctor called to say they had been sent home from their surgery job and told to wait until there was something to do. They felt guilty in their flat while colleagues were being exposed to the risks of urgent care. A surgical colleague at a district general hospital says it is half empty and people are getting planning fatigue. He feels uncertain, unsettled and apprehensive.

People at church ask me about NHS pressures, and I have to sheepishly admit that I am most likely to be doing routine telephone consults which by comparison, seem trivial. I will never be a ‘Covid Hero’. The desire to find significance and identity in this crisis is strong, and the temptation to seek self-fulfilment, even self-glory in this is enormous. Even if we dodge that temptation, we can still feel frustrated and anxious that we are not doing all we should and could. And, what if, when the storm breaks, we can’t rise to the occasion and we fail and fall?

 

Lessons from God’s Word

God’s word always sheds light on our path and is a lamp for our feet (Psalm 119:105), and there are pointers to help not just the ‘frontliners’, but also the sidelined. John the Baptist locked in prison, silenced and socially exiled, is content that ‘he (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30). This isn’t second-best; it is what God has purposed. So, what if I do end up in obscurity? What matters is that Jesus must be glorified. That is what will ultimately make the difference in people’s lives when they see Him. My significance per se is nil; what matters is that Christ is glorified.

Armed with an attitude like this, we can wait for God. How important it is to await his time. Moses jumps in as an agent of social justice and his precipitant murder of an abuser leads to forty years of exile. At the end of that time, however, he is fit for purpose. No longer headstrong and impulsive, he has become dependent on God and receives revelation of what is required of him.

Patience is not much applauded as a virtue even in Christian circles. But God desires that we learn it, especially at times of crisis. John Coleman, a missionary in Iran at the time of the Revolution, told of a time when he spent weeks in negotiation for a visa with authorities there. Daily he walked to the Immigration Office and daily returned empty-handed. Frustration grew. Why could this matter not be settled, and his ministry started in earnest? One day he noticed a donkey that he had passed repeatedly on his daily journey. The animal was tied outside a house waiting. Always waiting. Waiting for its master.  He was humbled by the animal’s patience. ‘If the donkey can wait, so must I’ he thought. The visa was granted soon after.

And let’s remember too, the dangers of over-commitment. Even Jesus had boundaries, taking time away from ministry. Martha needed to remember what was really needful, even when stuff has to be done.  My worst nightmare would be to be in casualty and just seeing more and more people coming with no end in sight and just feeling myself losing strength to do any more in the face of overwhelming need.

I asked a senior army medic how they coped with that scenario in the field hospital at Camp Bastion. There is nowhere else to send the casualties, and if the choppers keep coming, surely you must keep going. Or so I thought. The answer surprised me. ‘No’, she said. ‘The gates of the hospital are locked, and we strictly keep the shift teams out until their turn comes, and we relieve the outgoing team. People will queue to get in when they see the choppers landing, but we keep them out until their time comes.’ There is a time and place for everything. We must learn to pace ourselves and wait for the moment when our turn comes – whatever that looks like.

And in the meantime, let’s pray and wait on God. If we want to be truly ready to serve, then we must wait upon the Lord to receive His strength. And yes, I will still feel anxious and apprehensive at times, but there is no need for guilt or frustration or fear. Our times are in His hands (Psalm 31:15), even when we are on the bench, waiting.

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