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Checking Our Priorities

By The Rev’d Phil Wales, Distinctive Deacon

Last Sunday marked World Mental Health Day. Since it began in 1992 it has sought to highlight the needs of those facing mental health challenges and to promote good treatment. This Sunday there will be a special service in the Cathedral. It is to be a time of prayer and reflection for all who have been caring for us (as well as the scientists who have been working to develop effective treatments) during the pandemic.

There are countless stories from the many different fields of healthcare, nursing and medicine which show how compassionate, skilled and dedicated workers have helped improve the quality of care we each depend upon.

For me, one especially powerful story in recent decades concerns Atul Gawande, an American surgeon. In the early 2000s he led a project into surgical care, realising that it was not always as safely carried out as it could be. Such complex care depends on the skill and expertise of many people and it is, of course, essential that mistakes are avoided. His team’s aim was to come up with a solution which could be used anywhere. The result of their efforts was the World Health Organisation’s ‘Safer Surgery Checklist’ which sets out the essential steps to be followed to reduce the likelihood of oversights occurring.

The decisions that doctors, nurses and other carers make every day flow from their deep desire to relieve pain and suffering. And yet they are only able to do what they do by following carefully worked out protocols which guide their actions and ensure care is safe and effective.

In life, the rules we choose to follow say a great deal about what we prioritise and what is important to us. One well known Bible story illustrates this. A wealthy and eager young man, seeing Jesus in the distance, rushes up to him and pleads to be told what he needs to do to lead a more spiritual life, to be allowed to enter God’s kingdom. He is particularly perplexed because, from his point of view, his priorities are the right ones and all in order.

Jesus’ response to the young man’s plea is direct: ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ The man walks away, grieving, having been given an answer that he clearly did not hope for. Yet in saying this Jesus does not condemn him but rather looks on him with compassion, giving him a choice to rearrange his life.

It’s sometimes said that possessions are called possessions not because we possess them, but rather because they can take hold of us. God, in Jesus, provokes us to look deeply into our lives and review what we hold dear. May God gaze on us with love, and support us as we check in on our priorities, reorder them if needed, and go beyond where we are today in living them out.