A number of years ago, Massachusetts General Hospital – one of the great teaching hospitals in the United States – did an experimental program that received a lot of national attention. In fact, it was the subject of an ABC 20/20 segment. The experiment was organized and orchestrated by the Mass General chaplains’ office in response to medical staff asking for help and guidance.
Increasingly hospital patients – particularly those facing serious illness or major surgery – were asking physicians, nurses and other hospital personnel spiritual questions: questions about God and suffering and pain and healing and death and prayer. And so the chaplains’ department created a program to help medical personnel deal with their patients’ spiritual concerns. Some patients were even asking doctors and nurses to pray with them, which was and is, understandably, for most a problematic situation.
Nurse Donna Mckay, who worked the night shift in oncology, said that it was late at night after visiting hours were over and family and friends had all gone home and the hospital was finally quiet and patients were alone for the first time all day that the questions – the fear, the loneliness, the sense of isolation – came to the forefront of their hearts and minds, accompanied by requests for prayer.
An anesthesiologist told ABC’s Dr. Timothy Johnson – who, by the way, is both a MD and a clergyman – that after going through the program and becoming more comfortable with her own faith, she began to gently introduce the subject of spirituality with her patients as she helped them get ready for surgery. She would ask, in an unobtrusive, non-threatening way, and then respect immediately the patients who did not want to talk about it. But, for the most part, this anesthesiologist found that her patients were not only surprised, they were also grateful for the chance to express their spiritual concerns to a doctor – to one who had such imminent power over their lives – and would gladly accept her offer to pray with them. 20/20 captured the intimacy and power of her conversation and prayer with a woman prior to having breast cancer surgery.[i]
Listen to these words from Mark’s Gospel [chapter 1, verses 29 – 39]:
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
“Everyone is searching . . .”
When I first read this scripture passage again, those were the words that leapt off the page at me. Everyone is searching . . . for healing and for wholeness. Everyone is searching for love and for the embrace of a caring community.
And at no time does that search take on a greater sense of urgency than when one is faced with the mortality, the finality, the fragility of life.
In 2002 my mother had hip replacement surgery, after which she developed a serious post-surgical complication – trauma induced pancreatitis – which cause a complete systems shut-down, and which left Mom on life support with very little hope for recovery.
After two weeks of Mom being in a medically induced coma, the lead doctor asked for a family conference; during which she told us of Mom’s .01% chance of surviving the physical trauma, and that it was time for the family to make some difficult decisions.
My father, my sister and I looked at each other and in concert said that we were not willing to give up on Mom, as long as there was any chance at all – no matter how miniscule it might seem – that she could recover. For the next twelve weeks my family (Dad, my sister, Mom’s grandchildren, and various family friends) took shifts holding vigil around Mom’s bed in her isolation ICU room. We prayed, we played music, we read books, we talked to her, we stroked her forehead, we put lotion on her arms, hands, face and feet; whether out of denial, stubbornness, or hope against hope, we simply refused to let Mom go.
We also had churches in Wichita, Cleveland, and – through various family and friends – literally around the country praying with us for Mom’s recovery.
Finally, at long-last, after twelve weeks in a coma, Mom began to show signs of rapid recovery. By the end of the thirteenth week, Mom was fully awake and off life-support. Not only did she recover, other than severe weakness from muscle atrophy, she showed absolutely no lasting physical damage from the ordeal. The whole ICU staff was calling Mom their “miracle girl.”
Of course, I realize, there is a danger in sharing such stories of miraculous healing. Because, no matter how strong one’s faith might be, such healing does not always occur.
As Barbara Brown Taylor observes, “The problem with miracles is that they are hard to witness without wanting one of your own.”
Hearing such stories – like the one about my Mom or these we’ve been reading in Mark’s gospel – are dangerous because we all know people who have desperately wanted, prayed for, and deserved this kind of a miracle and yet who have not received it.
Seven years after Mom’s amazing recovery, she ultimately died of emphysema – a disease from which there is no miraculous cure. And, at that time, we prayed for a different kind of healing for Mom. We prayed for her release from suffering.
And yet, we keep searching for those miracles in life.
And maybe that’s why we find a sense of wholeness through such stories.
In Mark’s story today, Jesus goes about healing in different circumstances, to different people; and sometimes that healing is physical, and sometimes it is emotional, and sometimes it is relational, and sometimes it is purely spiritual.
During my mother’s post-surgical crisis in 2002, my family drew together in ways we could have never previously imagined possible. We found incredible courage in one another’s strength. We found a palpability of shared faith that we had never experienced before; even in the course of all our years of going to church together. We were inextricably bound by our hope against hope; and with countless others throughout the hospital and across the country who prayed with and for us. My family felt closer than we had ever felt – to each other and to those who joined our desperate search for healing.
Together we discovered the extraordinary assurance which comes from a realization of “the bold promise that God indeed brings healing in the face of human frailty and brokenness and that sometimes the healing is physical and sometimes it is not. And even when it is not, the promise of healing still remains.”[ii]
For those tumultuous twelve weeks my family discovered the expansive truth of what it meant to be in Holy Communion with the One whose body was broken and whose blood was shed on our behalf.
And that, I believe, was the greatest miracle of all.
Gerald May, an MD who practices psychotherapy in Washington, DC, writes about the importance of community in the healing process: “God’s grace though community involves something far greater than other people’s support and perspective. The power of grace is nowhere as brilliant nor as mystical as in communities of faith. Its power includes not just love that comes from people and through people, but love that pours forth among people, as if through the very spaces between one person and the next. Just to be in such an atmosphere is to be bathed in healing power.”
Jesus “came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her.” The power of touch, of intimacy, of nearness, to make whole: Jesus must have understood that which we are often too slow to comprehend.[iii]
Jesus comes into the house of Simon and extends his hand to Simon’s mother-in-law and “lifted her up,” as the story goes. And that healing moment is a `paschal announcement,’ using the very same verb which Mark uses to describe Jesus’ resurrection. The ailing woman `rises up’ and begins to serve Jesus and the disciples – no longer as a culturally indentured woman serving a group of patriarchal, misogynistic men – but now as Jesus’ very first ordained deacon, in spontaneous and grateful servanthood to her Lord and Savior; as one who would embody the incarnation of love she had just experienced in Jesus Christ.
Another physician, Richard Selzer, wrote about his vicarious experience of the miracle of healing touch: “I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face post-operative, her mouth twisted—palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed . . . to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut the little nerve. The young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private . . .
“Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.” He bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close that I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate her, to show her that their kiss still works . . . I hold my breath and let the wonder in.”[iv]
As those who have who have been lifted up by the touch of the Savior; as those who are searching – sometimes with hope against hope – for healing, for wholeness, for compassion; as those who are about to enter into a moment of Holy Communion with the One whose body was broken and whose blood was poured out for each one of us; I exhort you to now open your hearts and let the love and the wonder in.
[i] Buchanan, John, recounted in his sermon “Wounded Healer,” February 20, 2000.
[ii] Johnson, Sarah A. from her sermon “The Healing Power of God,” February 8, 2009.
[iii] Enniss, P.C., Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year B., Vol I.
[iv] Selzer, Richard, Moral Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Simon & Schuster, 1974, pp. 45-46.