November 27, 2005
John Heath, M.D.
Montgomery United Methodist Church
The basis for this talk about healing arose from a long car ride I had with Pastor Tony this past year on a trip with the church’s confirmation class. We spoke about various perspectives on healing and how different churches approach healing missions among their members. I suspect this conversation led to the invitation to talk this morning, so one moral of the story is to be careful in what you say during car rides with the pastor!
The three main ideas I’ve come up with for us to consider are:
1) Healing happens….but we may not understand the how or why;
2) Healing is happening ….but we may not control the when;
3) Healing can benefit us…even if we’re not the one being “healed.”
Healing can happen in many different formats and under many different philosophies and techniques. There is a wonderful variety of healing philosophies and techniques illustrated in the biblical accounts of healings – from the application of “poultices” like the mud and spittle mixed together and applied to a blind man’s eyes, to distant healing efforts effected in response to the petition and prayers of a faithful believer. We recall the touching story of the woman of great faith seeking out Jesus from among a crowd for healing – “If I can just touch the hem of his garment.” The laying on of hands, use of anointing oils, and prayer intentions all remain examples of different modes of spiritual healing actively used currently by some to great effect.
Medical approaches to healing in both ancient and modern times have also incorporated many different approaches and techniques, some of which are now viewed with considerable scientific skepticism by some and with passionate devotion by others. I attended a Philadelphia medical school named for a German physician Samuel Hahnemann, who was founder of an approach to healing called Homeopathy, though I was taught none of that now fairly discredited approach. As a medical student, I remember seeing a chiropractor work on a family member and was impressed that, while I didn’t understand the basis for much of what was being done, the impact was clearly felt and was of much benefit to the patient. Even within the allopathic approach to medicine – the “MD” school of medical training – that I learned and now help teach as faculty at a medical school, there are various philosophies and approaches to medicine.
There is a story that illustrates these differences involving three doctors who go on a duck hunting trip. They had their guns and retrieving dogs, and they were sitting in the duck blind, waiting for the birds to arise from the swamp nearby. The first physician, an internal medicine sub-sub specialist was the first to stand up with gun raised when a group of birds took off. He exclaimed: “Birds!......Water Foul!.......a Duck!.......most likely a Mallard…but wait, perhaps it was a Merganser, or maybe a Ruddy? We had best run a few tests, obtain a MRI scan, review the blood chemicals and….” The discussion went on long after the first duck had flown away. The second physician-hunter, a psychiatrist, was interested not so much in the kind of bird but rather in what might have motivated the bird to take flight in the first place. “The neurochemical basis for such flight could have been a fright response. But perhaps this individual bird was responding to long-ingrained patterns of behaviors and may therefore not have….” His discussion also went on, all the while the third physician, a surgeon, sat quietly in the back of the boat, her gun at the ready. When she heard the first sounds of feathers rustling from the nearby swamp, she quickly stood up, raised the gun, and fired immediately upon seeing a bird one the rise. Her aim was true and her only word she said after triumphantly holding the bird up was “Supper!” Different approaches among different healers who seek a common goal!
Often, both the healer and those seeking to be healed are hoping for a cure. And they are seeking this cure NOW! Many healers, like surgeons, hope for an immediate effect – a “to cut is to cure” mantra. But in many other situations, the healing process is ongoing and the healing that occurs may not be on a time frame that we expect or can immediately witness. One example of healing at a personal level occurs on a daily basis for those of us who struggle with substance abuse issues like alcohol. Healing in such contexts is clearly an ongoing process. This is sometimes reflected in the language used – a person is “in recovery” rather than “recovered.” Often the challenges of just getting through the day, one day at a time, illustrates the tough road of healing for some that may not be visible to the rest of us.
I can provide a story that illustrates what I also think is healing but over a much different time frame - and provides an example of healing at a broader level – that involves the former church that we attended in upstate New York, before our move to New Jersey. The United Church of Fayetteville, NY, was formed from uniting the community’s Baptist and Presbyterian congregations. In the early 1900’s, coal rationing was in effect so that there was insufficient coal to heat both churches during the upstate New York winters. A decision was made to use a single building in the winter months, but keeping two different services. Over time, repeated contacts and overlapping services led to a developing relationship between the members of both congregations so that it was decided to unite the congregations into a single body, though maintaining both formal affiliations, allowing for new members to come together.
Now, I admit that getting Baptists and Presbyterians to worship together is hardly of the same miraculous healing rank as the blind able to see or the lame to walk! But at another level, the history of interactions between peoples of differing religion “labels”, even within Christian denominations, doesn’t seem to be very positive. I am increasingly grateful for our own current community of faith and for this particular congregation and its pastors and leaders in choosing to focus on the positive, interconnectedness of our members and our shared values rather than divisions. The process of “judging not by the color of skin but by the content of character” and similar lessons our children learn here and model for others can hopefully continue a healing process started in prior generations. We may not know or control the time frame over which such healing occurs, but we can help it continue.
My third point is that we all may participate in healing but may be surprised at our role in the process. Those who have been blessed in caring for smaller children know about having to respond to their falls, scrapes, or bumps that happen on a regular basis. The natural response to hold or rub the injured part - perhaps “kiss the boo-boo” – may be a silly example of “healing.” But I mention it not focused on the benefit to the child but to the loving adult. At a very core level, most of us feel better when we help another to feel better; we seem to benefit from being part of their “healing”!
Let me share a final story of such “unintended” healing occurring at a more profound level. Dolores was a patient whom I first met after she had developed progressive memory problems in her early 60’s, a tragically early age for the onset of a dementing illness like Alzheimer’s disease. Dolores’ had been brought back from Florida to New Jersey by her ex-husband, to be closer to her daughter from that first marriage. During the frequent office visits I had with Dolores, it became obvious that the relationship between the daughter and her father was quite poor; they frequently disagreed about how best Dolores should be cared for but never jointly brought her to the office.
Despite the best of treatments, her condition progressed over the next 6 years so that she entered a nursing home where the dedicated staff really strove to best determine how best to cope with her growing emotional distress and worsening function. It eventually became clear to the staff that Dolores seemed the calmest and responsive when there was conversation going on in her room. Both her ex-husband and her daughter, who independently appeared devoted to Dolores and committed through the end, seemed to recognize this and eventually started to make joint visits to see her. Over her final few months, the father and daughter would meet regularly in Dolores’ room and talk, initially to Dolores but eventually with each other as she appeared less responsive to her surroundings.
You likely already know that this story does not end with a wonderful, miraculous cure for Dolores; she died from her progressive dementia condition at far too young an age, though the staff and I were amazed at how long she lasted. During the conversations with the nursing staff at the nursing home following her death, it was the consensus opinion that Dolores lasted as long as she did so that she could bring the father and daughter together. The staff felt she “finally let go” only when she knew things were better between the two most important people in her life.
Such stories of healings of relationships among relatives of a dying individual are not unusual and are obviously very moving and meaningful to those loved ones surrounding the individual. But since her death, I think that those involved in her care have also been “healed” in some way from our gaining the insight into the situation. I don’t pretend to understand the mechanism by which I benefit from “finding the healing” in others. But in telling Dolores’ story - and in our collective ability to become more aware of healing that may happen to others - we too can benefit and grow from the healing of others.
The best closing analogy I can find for this aspect of healing may be birds. Some of us may identify ourselves as bird watchers, spending considerable time and effort at this rewarding hobby. Others, while not “bird watchers”, may on occasion find themselves “watching birds”, amazed at what they see at a particular time and place. While we may differ in the extent of our detailed knowledge, the intensity, time or devotion we bring, somehow just knowing that birds are out there at a very basic level can enrich us. Like birds, healing is around us; it is happening and our knowing that we can participate - and benefit from – the healing that is happening around us enriches our lives.
Such a realization about healing is yet another insight about how much our God loves us. Our pastors do, too! Amen.
© 2005 John Heath