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The Spirituality of Illness – fill and subdue the earth

September 5, 2008

I meant to blog about this a few days ago but was unable to get around to it. Better late than never however and if you can spare an hour online in the next few days watch the Bleeding Hearts episode of the BBC4 documentary series Blood and Guts: a history of surgery. Yet another terrific production by the BBC.

I was staggered by the brilliant recklessness of the early pioneers of heart surgery. I didn’t know, for instance, that surgeons were operating on the brain routinely before they would touch the heart, and the first real success only came in a field hospital in Europe in 1944.

The programme told stories of how things developed, of the four minute barrier that needed to be breached, how freezing the body and inducing hypothermia increased the window for safe operating to between 8 and 10 minutes.

There is an inspiring story of human goodness in one middle aged man who agreed to be a ‘donor’ for a five year old undergoing critical surgery. In an experimental procedure the boy’s femoral artery was connected to the older man’s and his heart beat for both of them while surgeons operated on the boy.

The programme told how as late as the sixties heart surgeons were receiving death threats for experimenting in heart transplants. One British surgeon told of how his children needed a police escort to school because of the superstition surrounding anything to do with the heart.

The same guy told a wonderfully comic story of how they selected a live pig whose heart would be used in an op. They were transporting it in a taxi to a London hospital when it escaped. Passers-by stared in amazement at a surgical team, in gowns, running down a London street chasing the fugitive pig. Then when they finally captured it and got it to the hospital they found that their human patient was Jewish which necessitated a hasty phone call to a local rabbi.

Finally, I got to see part of an actual operation which gave me insight into some of the procedures that were performed on my body just 2 months ago. I’m glad I wasn’t really about.

It was stirring stuff with a really personal dimension.

Which brings me to the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28

God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’

There is no doubt that faulty interpretations of this verse have been used to justify the rape and pillage of God’s good earth. But there is so much else to this than simply destroying the earth so that Jesus will come quicker – an interpretation which has blighted Christian thinking and action in environmentalism.

The story of the history of heart surgery as told in Blood and Guts is a great example of how brilliant men and women applied their God-given abilities to the subduing of the problems of humanity, such as when faulty heart valves lead to an inevitable and terrible death.

I now have the prospect of a relatively normal life expectancy because at some time over the last 40 years some people managed to develop a replacement for a God-given, but dysfunctional aortic heart valve.

Last Tuesday I visited my cardiologist who listened to the function of the new valve in my chest. It was made from tissue taken from a donor pig. Isn’t that quite simply extraordinary (no poor taste jokes now)?

As men and women, knowingly or unknowingly, applied God-given skills in the search for greater knowledge and the greater good, they were fulfilling the creation mandate in a glorious way – at least to me. I am being kept alive by porcine tissue. And I thank God for it.

[image taken from the BBC4 flickr site here]

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From → Formation, Reflection

4 Comments
  1. Marti permalink

    I’m sorry I missed the BBC4 documentary (I love that channel!) – but I logged on to your blog (as I do from time to time!) because I was just reading something about Jesus’ healing ministry – its probably the best explanation of healing I’ve come across (probably not new to yourself!). Its in John Dominic Crossan’s book God and Empire – and whilst I don’t agree with Crossan on everything I find his books very interesting and thought provoking – and this one was a must, combining as it does, my current (mild!) obsession with all things Roman and my on-going (also mild!) obsession with religion. He has included a wonderful quote from a US inner-city doctor about the reality of the limits of medicine and the assertion that ‘healing is what happens within a community of concern, support and assistance’ – so its a social thing! He also mentions the Tom Hanks movie ‘Philadelphia’ as an example of a story of healing without a cure (and any friend of Tom Hanks is a friend of mine!!!).

    Reading your post also reminded me of my love of M*A*S*H – for me that show summed up the courage of those pioneering front-line doctors. Its also kind of uncomfortable to think that without war there probably wouldn’t be the expertise – and indeed the hospitals – we take for granted today.

  2. Guess I’ll have to wait a while to see the documentary — all the best TV in the States comes from the BBC! I’m grateful, too, for the doctors who took such risks to make heart surgery something we just about take for granted these days. My mom has a valve like yours, plus a chunk of synthetic aorta!

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