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Living Water
to Light the Journey

Chapter Fourteen


So Jesus sat down and called the twelve and said to them: “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.”

Book of Mark, The Bible


 Every country has its stories - those narratives of people, places and events that somehow define the nation, that speak to its soul and provide expression for the inner feelings of its population. Australia has a surprising number of stories, from Ned Kelly and Burke and Wills to Gallipoli and the Sydney Opera House. They are stories that speak of dreams, romance, loneliness, grandeur, courage and folly. They teach us what it means to be an Australian.


The Flying Doctor Service is a classic Australian tale. It is a story of big dreams, of the outback and of a humble man and his love for God and for Australia, and his compassion for the under-privileged.


John Flynn was born in country Victoria in 1880, and he grew up with the sole desire of entering the service of God as a pastor. Lack of money delayed his theological training, but when at last he graduated he took a missionary posting in the outback. There, he was shocked by the appalling living conditions, and thus began his long quest.


He published the highly popular Bushman’s Companion guide to life in the outback; he launched a pen-pal service, so those suffering from isolation could receive letters from city residents; he started the magazines Outback Battler and Frontier News; and he established more than a dozen hospitals.


But it was continual frustration at the vast distances that had to be travelled in order to tend to medical patients that led to the establishment, in 1928, of his greatest monument, the Flying Doctor Service. It was the result of a brilliant alliance between medicine and nascent radio and aviation technology. It came about only after intense efforts by Flynn and his team to raise funds and then lobby state and federal government bodies, but it quickly became a core service for those in the outback.



Within his own lifetime Flynn became a hero of almost mythical proportions. A fiercely romanticised account of his work was published as the book Flynn of the Inland, which Melbourne’s The Argus newspaper described as “a story to stir the blood like the sound of trumpets”. He moved easily among the country’s elite.


Yet he remained a man of moderation and humility, despite mixing with people at the highest levels of society, and despite the adulation often accorded him. When he visited an outback hospital or other centre he took with him his toolkit, and while others slept he busied himself inspecting the premises and repairing anything not in good working order.


He was also a man of utter common sense, who knew how to speak to the people of the outback in a manner they could understand. According to Ivan Rudolph’s excellent biography, when Flynn addressed miners he “spoke on mateship, the importance of having a friend you could depend upon in the bush, and how millions of men had found that Jesus Christ provided this kind of mateship”.


Handed a boxful of Christian tracts to distribute to sheep shearers, he was appalled at their content:


“It’s just no good,” Flynn concluded. “These tracts were written for the city, and mainly for those who have some knowledge of church terminology. Listen to this one: ‘Since inviting Jesus into my heart, he has become more and more precious to me.’ The average shearer I met would say, ‘What’s that all about, mate?’ He might even spit on the ground and walk away in disgust. It’s a good idea to leave something with the shearers - our friend has given us these with the best of intentions, but I can’t use them.”


Though strong in his Presbyterian convictions, Flynn was also determined to make Australia a better country, and his example shows that he viewed spirituality as vital, along with a sense of duty. Ivan Rudolph quotes one of his letters: 


Our anxiety is not to make Presbyterians. Our aim is to get a fair deal for all our citizens, to make our country prosperous and healthy in the best sense of the world - which starts with the body and ends with the spirit.



The virtue of moderation comes in many forms: humility, self-control, self-discipline, temperance, modesty. They all carry different nuances, yet all portray the same basic idea of putting others before oneself and of avoiding excess. There is a sense of doing one’s duty, of serving.


Canadian philosophy professor Donald De Marco, in his book The Heart of Virtue, said such characteristics allow people to maintain their balance when the force of their bodily appetites threatens to violate the order of reason. “These appetites, because they are associated with the desire for self-preservation, are deeply rooted in human nature and, consequently, can be very dangerous.”


But he stressed that such characteristics are “not incompatible with exuberance and zestfulness….Rather, it is the positive ordering of bodily appetites for the good of the whole person.”


C.S. Lewis, talking about temperance in the days before it referred just to alcohol, said it applied to all pleasures.


It meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further….A man who makes his golf or his motor bicycle the centre of his life…is being just as intemperate as someone who gets drunk every evening.


It cannot be denied that this is a difficult virtue to teach children, who are naturally self-centred. The great poet T.S. Eliot commented: “Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of self.”


Thinking well of oneself, without also thinking well of others, lies at the heart of many of our problems. It has led to the self-esteem movement, a wave of narcissism, and a sharp drop in the sense of duty that used to be so common.


In fact, nowadays, if you watch enough television shows, you may even get the impression that humility and moderation are vices or character defects of some kind, to be overcome by shouting about your problems. We live in an up-front, in-your-face age. Each day we are confronted with talk shows in which actors, sports stars, television personalities, supermodels and others discuss at length their feelings and the intimate details of their lives.


So there was a certain irony when, in 1998, Australian supermodel Elle Macpherson appeared as a guest on the popular American “Late Show” programme with host David Letterman, to discuss her new baby. She revealed that she had named him Flynn.


Here is part of the conversation:


Elle:   His name’s Flynn.

Dave: Flynn?

Elle:   Yeah. And Flynn comes from, actually, there was a Father Flynn, who set up this flying doctor service in Australia. And he was Flynn of the Inland.

Dave: One person almost applauded.

Elle:   Well, you know, it’s a very Australian thing. Well, then, of course, there was Erroll Flynn.

Dave: Let’s go back to Father Flynn. The flying…

Elle:   The flying…

Dave: Father Flynn. The flying doctor. He would go into the outback?

Elle:   Into the outback in Australia. You know, because of the distances.

Dave: Oh, it’s huge.

Elle:   It was very remote. And people were very worried about getting sick.

Dave: He would go out to treat the Aboriginal folks? Or everybody?

Elle:   Well, and, you know, the not so Aboriginal folks as well.

Dave: And when did this happen?

Elle:   This, I think it was set up in the ‘20s, in the ‘30s.

Dave: So in those days, I mean, that was really, he was a pioneer in both aviation and medicine.

Elle:   Absolutely. And he was a minister as well. So that if you kicked the bucket. You had it too…

Dave: So he had the whole deal?

Elle:   He had the whole deal there.

Dave: And he was, I remember one time reading several books about the guy. That one day he was chased back to his plane by dingoes. Aieeeyahhh! Ah! Ah! Savage snarling dingoes. Aieeeyahhh! Ah! Ah!

Elle:   You do a very good dingo impersonation. Can I see that again?

Dave: You don’t see a lot of dingoes wearing glasses. Or maybe you do; I don’t know. Aieeeyahhh! Well, God bless Father Flynn. And you know, it’s a nice, it’s a nice historical thing to name the boy Flynn.

Elle:   Absolutely.

Dave: Because he’s got a good story going in and things will be great.


Yes, as even one of America’s top television personalities, David Letterman, recognised, the Flying Doctor Service is a good story. And it is thanks to the efforts of a great and humble man. God bless John Flynn.




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