Next week I’m going to talk to a small group of students about a film I wrote several years ago. As I was talking to their teacher he asked me ‘Why did you write this film?’ He’s a bloke with a habit of asking searching questions that demand an answer.
The film we will be discussing is about Ludwig Guttmann, the German doctor who revolutionised the care and rehabilitation of paralysed patients, and who became the founding father of the Paralympics. The simplest answer to the question would have been ‘Because I was asked to’ but of course I’ve been asked to write many true stories and have said a firm and rapid ‘no’ to most of them. So, why did I choose to write this one? What made this story worth telling? I’ve enjoyed exploring the answer.
When Paul wrote his epistles, he had no idea of the history-changing effect his words would have. He was one of a handful of believers in a world of pagans and heathens and Christ-haters. He was ridiculed, imprisoned and beaten, but he kept going. When the early church fathers got it all down in writing, they weren’t given medals and awards for their work, but still they told the story that had to be told. Painstaking work, penmanship on parchment, copied again and again by others who were equally hard working, read aloud in meetings, carried to the next town, hidden, read in secret, written from prison. No great success for these people. Their peers were better off than they were, and I bet they looked down on these daft deluded men who had given everything up for God. They could all have been on their boats, bringing in a harvest of fish, or up in the hills with their flocks, or down at the temple collecting taxes, they could all have been earning money, building up wealth, untroubled by persecution, but they chose another way. And they had no idea what the end result would be. They didn’t do it thinking ‘this will make the 21st Century sit up and listen’ Paul didn’t say ‘If I write this now, it will be an encouragement to people in West Wales in two thousand years.’ They had no concept of the future as it has unrolled. They just did what their faith told them to do.
Listening to the Gospel as I walked on the beach today (wet and windy and grey – like walking through cloud) I thought about that handful of men and of their legacy. What would they make of me in 2022? These were men who didn’t know the British Isles existed, who knew nothing of the combustion engine, of technology, of modern communication. They would look at my waterproof jacket and wonder what animal had been skinned to make it… at the glowing and speaking phone in my hands, and – hang on – I’m a woman! And I’m a widow unsupported by anyone, living and walking alone, free as you like, and shouting hello to blokes, and I have cropped hair and I have three dogs with me – dogs! Unclean dogs. They would be horrified, bewildered. And how is it that I’m able to hear the words they wrote two thousand years ago in a language that didn’t even exist then, while, half a mile away, my car is waiting to skim me home, to a brick built house with underfloor heating….. and a gas fire…. and TV and… a Bible on my desk, a sturdy block of wonderfully thin paper, covered in an alphabet they wouldn’t recognise?
They had no idea, no inkling at all, of today, of the effect that their writing and lives would have on the future of a world they couldn’t comprehend. They had no blinking idea!
We all have no idea how the things we do today will affect tomorrow. Sometimes the small lives we lead can change the world. That’s why I wrote about Ludwig Guttmann.
He was a German Jew, from a religious family, and he came to England just before WWII as a refugee from Nazism. Already highly respected and very successful, he was welcomed to the UK but, as a German, he found it difficult to fit into the medical hierarchy here. After a few years trying to establish himself, he ‘washed up’ at Stoke Mandeville, a hospital with just one ward for the soldiers who had been paralysed in battle. He was appalled by the basic but well-meaning care they received, appalled that they were written off, that their lives would be short and painful, that care for people with spinal injuries was pain relief and that was all. And he set about, one patient at a time, to create new lives, to assert the humanity and dignity of all people, however seriously injured. He did it because it was the right thing to do. He did it in the back rooms of a hospital, unseen and unknown. He did it when he had to battle for every nurse and every drug and every piece of equipment he needed, when his colleagues laughed at him. He did it because he believed it to be the right way to go. And he did it in a workmanlike, unshakeable way.
He didn’t know when he walked into that neglected ward on his first day of duty, that one day the Paralympics would be a global event, that disabled people would excel at sport, that strength and health and vigour would be the result of his work. That wasn’t a part of his vision. How could it be? He didn’t know that his ethos would lead to disability rights, to independent living, to restored lives and even to physical healing. He had no way of knowing that one day he would be seen as a hero and a revolutionary.
Quiet lives can be epic lives and they should be celebrated. As we worked on the script we knew that we would have the tightest of tight budgets but that was OK – we didn’t need crowds of extras, or a dozen locations, we didn’t need special CGI, and we had a fabulous cast lined up because they, too, wanted to tell this story. The script went to the BBC and the woman then in charge of BBC2 drama commissioning said she liked it, but it wasn’t ‘epic’ enough. We were so taken aback. Epic? This was the most epic story I have ever been asked to tell. The very fact that there are no palaces, no guns, no spies, no mobs, no sexual conquests, no battles, no out and out villains, no space ships, no vast panoramas, the very fact of its smallness makes it epic! This woman in her moneyed ivory castle couldn’t see beyond the bedpans to the courage of a small and quiet man. For the first and only time ever, in my 35 years of writing, I refused to take ‘no’ for an answer. I sent the script to her boss, the head of drama commissioning, for the whole of the BBC. The next morning I had an email from him – the film would be made.
And it was!
I don’t know if Ludwig knew Jesus. It’s none of my business. But I know that he was a man with a great heart, a quiet and humble man who did great things, and he didn’t do them to be seen as epic, but in doing them he became epic. And it’s a damn good story.
While I’ve been thinking about that original question ‘Why did you write this film?’ I have visited so many ideas and God has revealed so much to me. Mostly I’ve realised that even when we’re banging our heads on a brick wall, and maybe when we think we’ve taken a wrong turn, made a bad decision, we still have no earthly way of knowing what the outcome of anything we do or have done will be. We’re not meant to see the future. That would put everything in our hands and we would be chomping away on the fruit from the tree of knowledge, vying with God, our original sin.
All we can do is listen for God’s leading, do our level best to hear him, follow him, and simply trust in him. He knows what’s coming up… he knew what Paul would mean to me as I walk on the beach. He knows the beginning from the end. All we have to do is trust and obey, like good steadfast foot soldiers.
Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
I declare from the beginning how it will end and foretell from the start what has not yet happened.
I decree that my purpose will stand and I will fulfill my every plan.
Think you may have made a wrong decision even as you were trying to follow God? Think again. You’re not in charge. He is. You have no flippin’ idea where he’s taking you. Sit back and enjoy the ride.
It’s going to be epic.
PS The woman who turned down the film never made anything of mine ever again. Ooops.