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Sermons: “How Shall We Be Healed?

The gospels are full of stories about Jesus healing. The healing stories represent some of the most moving images in Scripture. They are the most important miracle stories that were used to convince the world that Jesus was the Son of God during the first five centuries of the Common Era. They are the stories that the Unitarians of the 19th century disputed as being any legitimate proof of Jesus' authority. They are stories that have been an inspiration for generations of Christian healers.

It is no wonder that 20th century Unitarian Universalists have had a lot of trouble with healing in a religious context. What we usually dismiss as "faith healing" is contrary to almost everything that we usually place a lot of stock in: science, reason and self-reliance. Most of us are people willing to put ourselves in the hands of doctors and pharmacists when we are ill. Most of us have mostly good experience with the medical model of healing. We take whatever pills we are told to take and we see the doctor in the morning. Most of the time we feel better. Or we accept the surgery, and we see a whole lot of doctors for many mornings. Most of the time, we feel better.

But around the edges of our lives, we are aware of the disease that doesn't respond, the injury that won't get better, the illness that can't be cured. Whether it is AIDS or cancer, whether it is schizophrenia or depression, whether it is stroke or Alzheimer's, we are all aware of the limits of medicine. For some of us, the edges become the center, when disease or injury takes over our lives and leaves us with no hope for a cure. Finally, no matter if the edges ever move to the center, we remember at last that there is one condition we are absolutely sure will never be cured, and that is life itself. We are mortal. Our death is inevitable. Medicine may win a lot of battles, but it will always lose the war.

How, then, shall we be healed? What does it mean for us as religious liberals to talk of healing in a religious context? What does it mean to talk of healing in a world where illness and disease are understood more clearly than ever before, but where adequate health care for most of the world's people remains inaccessible? What does it mean to talk of healing when medical and spiritual models of wellness don't speak much to each other? What does it mean to talk of healing when all too often the best we can do with all our knowledge and power and technology is not enough? How shall we be healed?

I don't think we can begin to talk about what it means to be healed until we have arrived at a common understanding about what it means to be sick. If we limit our understanding of illness to the physical realm, then we limit our understanding of healing to that realm as well. We all live our lives in four dimensions. The physical is but one of those dimensions. The other three are the emotional, the intellectual, and the spiritual. Although we think first about something being physically wrong when we become ill, it doesn't take much reflection to realize that illness involves all four of these dimensions at the same time. Something as simple as a common cold has repercussions in our emotional mood, in how well we function intellectually, and in our sense of connectedness and wholeness with those around us. The disruption to all these dimensions of living by a major illness is much more serious, not only for the patient, but also for the family and friends of that patient. Illness not only affects the body, mind, and spirit of the one who is sick; it becomes a systemic disease that infects and disrupts a marriage, a family system, a community. Illness affects the wholeness of who we are, and this wholeness is a religious issue.

Medicine first looks for a physical cause for the illness, but doctors will be the first to tell you that if and when they find that physical cause, the reasons behind that malfunction or injury in the body may remain mysterious, and go far beyond some identifiable mechanical factor. You don't have to be a believer in faith healing to recognize that physical symptoms can manifest themselves as a result of wounds suffered in the psyche or spirit. We forget at our peril that illness is more than something physically wrong, for then we also forget that healing must involve more than making things physically right.

If we think about healing in this broader sense, we then can understand that curing and healing may not be the same thing. When we cure an illness, we generally think of the cessation of physical symptoms or the correction of the physical malfunction that was causing them. But if healing involves the whole person, we can imagine the possibility that medical technology can help the physical problem but not cure the underlying dysfunctions in other dimensions of our lives that have brought the illness to the forefront in the first place.

The Gospel of Mark offers an image of this broader understanding of healing. It describes a legendary episode in the life of Jesus that occurred early in his ministry, at a time when he was at home in Capernaum. The story describes the large crowd that had gathered at his house to hear his teachings. By this time, Jesus had acquired a reputation as a healer, and a paralyzed man came to him in the hopes of being healed. The friends who brought the man to Jesus found the crowd so thick that they could not gain access to the room where Jesus was teaching. So they had to resort to desperate measures. They climbed up on the roof of the house and removed part of it so that they could lower their friend down on a pallet into the room where Jesus was.

Jesus' response to this man, who had gone to such great lengths to reach him in search of healing, was to say to him: "My son, your sins are forgiven." Now why would Jesus say something like that? This is a man with a physical illness. He hasn't come to confess any wrongdoing! He has come to be made well! And Jesus' response is to tell him his sins are forgiven.

This is a story that resonates with any minister who has come to a home or hospital bedside to find a patient or family wallowing in what amounts to guilt about why they have this illness in their lives. Two thousand years ago, at the time of Jesus, or even two hundred years ago, it was commonly believed that illness was a punishment, or at best a trial of character, sent from God. These days, that kind of theology is largely discredited in mainline Christian churches.

But some people have instead embraced one version or another of the new-age "positive-thinking-take-responsibility-for-yourself" theory of illness. Unitarian Universalists don't ask themselves "Why did God do this to me?" We tend to say instead, "Why did I do this to myself? Why didn't I take better care of myself? Why am I creating this in my life right now?" There is much to be recommended in the insights contained in the writings of people like Dr. Bernie Siegel, but we can go overboard in examining our responsibility for bringing illness into our lives, especially the illnesses whose causes and course are ambiguous and unpredictable. We have become too smart to simply accept illness as punishment from God, so we punish ourselves instead for the illnesses we endure.

When Jesus says, "Your sins are forgiven," he is offering healing to the whole person, not just the physical person. He is saying to the paralyzed man, "Let go of your self-hatred and your guilt. You are accepted as you are. You are not an outcast. You are one of us." That is what it means to me when he says, "Your sins are forgiven."

I wish that story had ended there, because I think Jesus' first impulse in responding to the paralyzed man was his best one. Unfortunately, saying something as audacious as "Your sins are forgiven" sets the scribes, the religious law-keepers, buzzing over in the corner. "Who does this guy think he is to say that he can forgive sins?" they say. The implication is that human beings can't really accept and love and forgive in a healing way: only God is supposed to be able to do that.

Jesus is angered by their response, and resorts to a demonstration of his power and authority to prove his point. "What do you think would be easier for me to do," he says. "Forgive this guy his sins, and accept him for who he is, as he is—or—to make this guy acceptable by making him like the rest of us, by making him walk again?"

The scribes mumble a little into their beards—"Well, I don't know Jesus. I guess it would be harder to make this guy walk."

"Right," says Jesus. "So watch this!"

And Jesus says, "Take up your pallet and go home!" And of course, the paralyzed man does just that.

The story tells us that, to assert his authority in the political and religious atmosphere of his day, Jesus had to heal physically, heal magically, heal instantly. It certainly did impress the crowd. But I still think that Jesus first response to the paralyzed man is the one most useful to me.

I would like to think that a person's spiritual and emotional dimensions could be made so whole and healthy that they would dramatically pull the physical self toward wholeness as well. I heard a UU colleague, who was a friend of the great Doctor Albert Schweitzer, paraphrase an observation that Schweitzer had once made. He said, "The role of the doctor is to awaken the physician in each person, and no one knows really how we do that." So while I take the many miraculous healings that are attributed to Jesus as legends and parables, while I am skeptical of dramatic stories of faith-healing in fundamentalist cultures, I do not discount the power of prayer, of visualization, of family and community support, and of faith in God as steps towards healing. The physician in each person is there to be awakened, and there is no single path, so single belief system that forms the correct way for that awakening to happen.

I cannot use that word awakening without thinking of the book of that title, written by Dr. Oliver Sacks. In my meditations on healing these past few months as this sermon topic percolated in my consciousness, the experience of reading Awakenings was a powerful one for me. It was powerful because it illustrated so clearly the possibilities for healing without cure. You will remember that Awakenings is the story of a community of profoundly disabled people who have varying neurological deficits ranging from Parkinsonian tremors and tics to deep coma states, all results of the disease known as "sleeping sickness" that afflicted them in the early part of this century. Sacks tells the story of their miraculous responses to experimental treatments with dopamine drugs in 1969. The awakening they experienced was the temporary restoration of nearly normal functioning for most of the patients in the experiment. The patients' personalities re-emerged intact from underneath the rock of symptoms under which they had been hidden for as much as forty years. In the annals of modern medicine, if anything comes close to duplicating the miracles that were ascribed to Jesus, it surely is these awakenings that happened in 1969. Tragically, the miracle was not permanent. Almost all the patients who took the drug suffered from a return to previous symptoms and detached states or the emergence of new and sometimes more severe Parkinsonian symptoms. Each patient reacted differently, according to his or her own unique life history, family support, and personality.

In spite of this recurrence and relapse into Parkinson's, Sacks reported that many of his patients reached a new level of accommodation with their illness, a state that he describes as "no longer very well or very ill," as "relatively even water which is nevertheless much better than their (pre-treatment) state." (p. 267) There is indeed a will to get well, to be well, which Sacks describes in his patients, and which is so familiar to anyone who develops friendships with people who have disabilities. Sacks observes:

One sees again and again, not merely in the contact of Parkinsonism, but in cancer, tuberculosis, neurosis—all diseases—remarkable, unexpected, and 'inexplicable' resolutions, at times when it seems that everything is lost. One must allow, with surprise, with delight—that such things can happen...Why they should happen, and what indeed is happening, are questions which it is not yet in our power to answer; for health goes deeper than any disease. (p. 268)

"Health goes deeper than any disease." I like that. I believe that. I think that the most difficult thing for people who are ill, especially for people who have serious or life-threatening illnesses, is that not only will their caregivers begin to see and define them in terms of their disease, but friends and family will start to do that as well. While it is true that illness affects the whole person, it does not need to dominate the whole person, and the emotional, intellectual and spiritual strength of people whose physical selves have been decimated by illness is undeniable.

If we are to answer the question "How shall we be healed?" it is this strength of spirit, intellect, and feeling in our loved ones and in ourselves that we must recognize and to which we must appeal. If we truly believe that health goes deeper than any disease, we can reach deeper and become the agents of healing, even when we have given up hope for a cure. The journey into illness, the will to get well, and the search for healing are some of the most important spiritual journeys that we take in our lives. These are not voluntary journeys, ones we neither seek nor boast about, but for most of us they are an inevitable part of what it means to be human. In his meditations about the journeys taken by his patients, Oliver Sacks could be describing the larger meaning of healing in the face of illness for all of us. He writes:

Many of (these patients) appear now to have come back full circle, and to be back where they were, in their [most disabled] position; but this, in actuality, is by no means the case. They are no longer the people they were. They have acquired a depth, a fullness, a richness, an awareness of themselves and of the nature of things, of a sort which is rare, and only to be achieved through experience and suffering. I have tried, insofar as it is possible for another person to enter into or share their experiences and feelings, and alongside with them, to be deepened by these; and if they are no longer the people they were, I am no longer the person I was. We are older and more battered, but calmer and deeper.

They have come to rest once again in the bosom of their causes. They have come to re-feel the grounds of their being, to re-root themselves in the ground of reality, to return to the first ground, the earth ground, the home-ground, from which, in their sickness, they had so long departed.

This is how we too shall be healed. So be it.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Tuesday, February 26, 2013.

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