Healing-What and to What End?

FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Prayer of the Day: Everlasting God, you give strength to the weak and power to the faint. Make us agents of your healing and wholeness, that your good news may be made known to the ends of your creation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“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 the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Mark 1:30-31.

Healing was a big part of Jesus’ ministry. It has also been very much a part of the church’s mission. The “hospital” originated as a distinctively Christian institution. Religious orders began opening the doors of their monestaries to shelter abandoned children, those rendered homeless by fires, floods and earthquakes as well as persons too ill to care for themselves. Healing has also played a central role in our worship practices. For many Pentecostal churches, “faith healing” is a central aspect of ministry. Among us mainline believers, prayers and services for healing are a regular part of our worship culture. But what are these practices intended to accomplish? What do we mean when we pray for healing? How do we deal with the fact that, in spite of fervent prayer, many people are not healed of their illnesses and injuries?

While I don’t pretend to have pat answers to these questions, I think there are some biblical perspectives that can help us frame them more constructively. The first thing to keep in mind is that mortality is not a sickness to be healed. We are creatures living within finite limits. Our bodies were not designed to last forever. Thus, “healing,” whether by natural or miraculous means, is at best a temporary reprieve. Everyone Jesus healed from disease eventually died of some other cause. Even Jesus himself finally died. Mortality is part and parcel of humanity.

Too often, I think, Christians view healing as a weapon to be wielded against our mortality. In his recent book Todd Billings, Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, notes that a major study by the Dana-Farber Cancer institute found Christians to be three times as likely as other terminally ill patients to opt for extreme measures to prolong their lives. The End of the Christian Life (c. 2020 by Billings, J. Todd, pub. by Brazos Press). We seem to have adopted the notion that life is finally a struggle to survive at all costs and that we are under some moral obligation to stave off death until the last possible moment. Language we use to describe struggles of the terminally ill is replete with military imagery. “She’s a fighter,” we say of someone hanging between life and death in the ICU. When a person finally succumbs to terminal illness, we say something to the effect that “he lost his battle with cancer.” However ill a person might be, however much pain they may be in or however hopeless their prognosis, we expect them to go down fighting. To admit our human limits, accept and submit to them is a sign of weakness amounting to the ultimate sin of “giving up.”

At some point, prayers and hopes for healing become desperate and defiant acts of rebellion against God’s solemn declaration: ‘Turn back, you mortals.’ Psalm 90:3. At some point, the desire for healing must give way to a search for reconciliation, forgiveness and peace with God in the limited time one has left. At some point, fighting must give way to peaceful acceptance, gratitude for all that has been and openness to that “one more surprise” God has in store for us. “Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 732. Often I have found that well meaning relatives and friends of dying persons rob their loved ones of the opportunity to find such closure by encouraging them “not to give up hope,” to “hang on,” and to “keep fighting” even after it is clear that further fighting is futile.

It was not always so. During medieval times, death was at the very center of life. According to church teaching, the whole purpose of life was to prepare for death. Participation in worship and the sacraments was understood as a process of formation, readying one for a “good death.” Time was measured in saint’s days marking the death of biblical and post biblical heroes of faith. The landscape was dominated by parish churches and towering cathedrals which were the sites of local graveyards. The faithful were challenged to so live that in death their hope and confidence in the resurrection and eternal life might glorify God. Death was surrounded by familiar communal rituals and symbols of comfort and hope. It was sad, to be sure, but not so terrifying that it needed to be shielded from view, banned from polite conversation and hidden away in the sterile halls of haspice wards. Our present day fixation on pushing death as far from our consciousness as possible ends up robbing us of much joy, comfort and hope that comes with recognizing and accepting it for what it is: the end of a mysterious and wonderful gift that we have been given, namely, life. Part of what makes life precious is the knowledge that it is finite. Much of what makes life meaningful is the recognition that it is brief and what we choose to do with each minute of it matters.

That brings me to my second point: Healing is not an end in itself. For all the healing that goes on in this Sunday’s gospel reading, healing isn’t really the final point. Note well that, after Simon Peter’s mother in law was healed by Jesus, she got right to work in serving dinner. Putting aside the cultural and sexual stereotypes we might read into this text (or which might in fact be in the text) something important is being said. Our lives are not our own and whether God extends them through the gift of healing or, for that matter, simply by granting us the gift of waking up to another day, we are to understand that this gift is not simply a return to or extension of the status quo. A prayer for healing begs the question, “to what end?” So that we can pick up where we left off and get on with our lives? Perhaps we should begin by asking whether our lives are worth preserving and what we intend to do with renewed health or an extension of life.

A prayer for healing should recognize in illness or injury, not merely an inconvenient disruption, but an opportunity for change of direction, revision of priorities and new understandings of what it means to live well.[1] In biblical terms, healing is never simply a return to baseline. We learn from the Psalms that it involves a reorientation of one’s whole existence. Life will never be the same again. One who has experienced God’s healing touch carries the scars of their illness-memorials to God’s gracious gift and reminders of their vulnerability and continued dependence. True healing touches every inch of one’s being and always evokes praise, thankfulness and generosity.

Here is a poem by Karenne Wood speaking to the depth of the healing process and its transformative potential.

The Lilies

When I learned I might have cancer,
I bought fifteen white lilies. Easter was gone:
the trumpets were wilted, plants crooked with roots
bound in pots. I dug them into the garden,
knowing they would not bloom for another year.
All summer, the stalks stood like ramshackle posts
while I waited for results. By autumn, the stalks
had flopped down. More biopsies, laser incisions,
the cancer in my tongue a sprawling mass. Outside,
the earth remained bare, rhizomes shrunken
below the frost line. Spring shoots appeared
in bright green skins, and lilies bloomed
in July, their waxed trumpets pure white,
dusting gold pollen to the ground.
                                                                     This year,
tripled in number, they are popping up again. I wait,
a ceremony, for the lilies to open, for the serpentine length
of the garden to bloom in the shape of my tongue’s scar,
a white path with one end leading into brilliant air,
the other down the throat’s canyon, black
and unforgiving. I try to imagine
what could grow in such darkness. I am waiting

for the lilies to open.

Source: Markings on Earth, (c. 2001 by Karenne Wood; pub. by University of Arizona Press). Karenne Wood (1960-2019) was a poet and archivist for Native American tribal history. She was a member of the Monacan Indian tribe. Wood served as the director of the Virginia Indian Programs at Virginia Humanities in Charlottesville, Virginia. In addition to heading up a tribal history project for the Monacan Nation, she conducted research at the National Museum of the American Indian and served on the National Congress of American Indians’ Repatriation Commission. She was named one of the Library of Virginia’s “Virginia Women in History” in 2015. You can find out more about Karenne Wood and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] I want to steer clear of the notion that God sends illness as a punishment for sin or in order to teach us a lesson or to cultivate some virtue in us. While the Bible does speak in this way and the psalmists frequently link their suffering to God’s action or lack of it, I don’t think it is possible to make such a determination for anyone else in any particular case. Causation for illness is complex. To some extent, it is genetically predisposed. Environmental factors over which individuals have little control also contribute to disease. Sometimes illness is triggered by unhealthy lifestyles such as substance abuse, an overactive work ethic or simple carelessness. Frequently it is simply a matter of dumb luck. I suspect that much of the time our illnesses arise from a combination of these factors.  Nevertheless, I believe we can also say that in the occurrence of illness (as in all other occurrences), there is a “God factor” at work. As one of my professors once remarked, to say that God is omnipotent is not to say that God’s power determines the outcome in each transaction, but that God is a redemptive force to be reckoned with in all transactions. Part of the work of prayer for the sick, then, is discerning the way in which God is making Godself redemptively present and active.

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