ILLNESS and WITNESS
Health was actually one of the things that helped the church grow. How?
Picture this : you're in a city of the first century AD Roman world. Except for a few buildings in public commons or wealthy houses and spas, there were no sewers -- unless you counted the narrow mud walks they considered roadways. There were no flush toilets. No refrigerators to keep food fresh. No air conditioning to keep you fresh. No plastic wraps to keep dust and vermin off the food. Soap, at least as we would recognize it today, wasn't always readily available. Rats, ticks, flies, and other disease-bearers were plentiful. Dead animals (including the human kind) were an everyday thing, leaving a ripe odor in the air much of the time. Intestinal worms were common. Water is kept in large jars or barrels which did not move, keeping the water stagnant so that, at normal temperatures, germs would breed in it. And more people keep coming in : trickle upon trickle, even wave after wave. If you've been in any of the shack cities around the major cities of Latin America, it's all too familiar -- but you couldn't tame it with modern medicine or modern packaging, for those did not exist. Plagues were common, sometimes killing as much as one-fifth of a city's population.
Now, drop into that scene the kind of Christianity that we see in Acts or in Paul's letters, or in some of the pagan Roman accounts of the Christians of their day, or slightly later on in the hospitals of Bishop Rabbula of Edessa (Syria) (420s AD). Watch on, as Christians :
- turn over their income into a common pot to share with those who need it.
- nurse people's infections and sores.
- see to it that people were fed.
- refuse to engage in social behaviors that made the health problems much worse.
- bother to do the little things that make for a cleaner, healthier place.
These Christians' faith made them care enough to be responsible citizens in a putrid environment. Spiritual healing was not a separate thing from physical healing; all was God's reality. Their caring didn't make them immune from plague and disease (though their exposure to the germs of others may have made them more resistant, long-term). They didn't pretend that it was so. They just didn't let it defeat them. No one else could say that.
The Gathered Believers as a Hospital
What does this mean? The ancients who lived in the cities knew that their world was horrible, and even more so when they saw these Christians give them little glimpses of something much better. Thus, the supportive caring of the Christians became something people wanted to have. It could mean extra years onto their life, less disfigurement, more energy, and just feeling better all around. Starting from the time of Jesus' own ministry, it was the way of Christ's followers to go out to aid to those who needed it. (For instance, at the temple, in the streets, in nearby towns, and even traveling far away.) Most importantly, the caring was a consistent match to their message: a message of hope, of a strange sort of victory that even the sword could not achieve.
Health was not the only thing Christianity had going for it. Not even close. But remember that Christianity first took hold in cities. The church, like its founder, was known for healing. It was a big part of the reason Christianity grew. Perhaps the same thing can be true today - but is it?
It is in treatment of mental and emotional disorders such as depression that the separation of 'spiritual' from the 'material' world does its most harm. The two are part of the same creation by the same Creator, with the same end: the Kingdom.
I myself suffer from depression, which in this case is a change in the workings of the brain's neurons which weighs the brain's operations heavily in favor of the sad, the serious, the lonely, and the pessimistic sides of life. Pleasure becomes rare, and it's harder to get up an interest in doing things. Many millions of people are affected by depression. My version is quite mild as depression goes, but when it first hit, it hit hard. The best treatments have many sides, all of which have a 'spiritual' and a 'material' effect, if we are to use such words. Depression must be treated holistically, rather than just by willpower or medicine or prayer. The good news is that for mild or moderate depression, treatment works for about 90% of those who have it. The bad news is that less than a third of those who have depression seek treatment for it.
Holistic Treatment of Depression
Here's what a broad-based holistic treatment looks like:
- Medications act against the chemical/biological causes.
- Exercise rallies the body's own antidepressive workings and gives me the energy to go out and do things.
- A healthy diet, low in carbs and fats and attentive to my body's sensitivities to certain foods, helps to take an edge off of depression. Good foods also help lower your immune response, which is what gives you that sick feeling when depressed.
- Depression is most helped by a good night's sleep. (I have much trouble sleeping.)
- My mind's awareness of depression makes me able to spot when I am thinking or acting according to the depression, and to choose to do otherwise. I act out my depression when I blame, or suddenly put someone down, or get snippy, or without cause expect others to be negative about me. I can catch myself thinking, "why get up" and "why go anywhere", and choose to get up and go.
- Prayer and spiritual disciplines keep me tuned to the power of the Holy Spirit within me without which the only change is bad change. Spiritual practices also help open me to healing possibilities. I trust it also helps to have others praying for me.
- Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing may help, especially when you're very upset or anxious. The Asian de-stressing arts, such as tai chi and basic forms of yoga, are often helpful for depression, when practiced regularly. (They've not been all that helpful for my own depression, but they might help you, especially in helping you pay close attention to the state of your own mind.)
- Lower the level of stress and anxiety in your life by being less involved in activities that create the most stress, where that's possible.I get less physical inflammation by being less inflammatory at the world around me.
- Fellowship brings the conviction that no matter how it seems, I am not alone among humans. I have brothers and sisters in Christ, at least some of whom care about me. Make a network of friends!
- I set aside time for serving others by volunteering for community, faith, and charitable activities. The idea here is not to do anything from a distance; instead, get face-to-face with those who need your help.
- Support groups help me to share in detail with others who are going through the same thing, and know what to do from experience.
- Scripture keeps me aware of Christ and the Kingdom, here and to come, so I know my life really is going somewhere and not stuck in place, whatever I may feel at any one moment. The Bible also has the stories of some of the faithful, which are helpful with my depression not because they're great but because their lives are botched up, and they make Spirit-led choices that led them out of it. In their lives, I find much of the stuff that helps me through.
- Hobbies, sports and entertainment, and especially singing, bring in the fun and help me to stop taking things too seriously.
- Being outdoors, especially in sunlight, helps. Sunlight in moderation has uplifting effects on brain chemistry, creating a 'sunny' feeling and giving you energy. Just going around outside doing things will take your mind off of depression and on to relationships, activities, and nature. It gets your body pumping, too.
- Worship gives me a chance to be thankful and grateful to the One who deserves more thanks than I can give, thus filling me with joy. The rituals give me a pattern which, at least for a while, arrests the confusion which depression often brings.
- Having attainable goals gives me something to aim for, forcing me to stretch in order to attain. (In depression, you sometimes aim for fantasies which won't happen, setting yourself up for failure.)
- Paying full attention to the world around me gives God an opening to send little blessings when I least expect them and most need them. God sees me caught in my depression, then through these little blessings waves a hand saying "I'm here, and I care, whatever else happens; you're worth it".
All this attacks depression on many fronts in many ways. A course of truly comprehensive and holistic therapy for depression does not banish it (it's happened to some, but not to most and not to me). It helps me become able to live with the depression I have. The idea is to beat up on depression more relentlessly than depression beats up on me. The healing is spiritual and material, alone and with others, resting and doing. It is in a sense a 'self-healing', yet God and other people are crucial to it. I find I need every bit of this help to keep going ahead with life.
This treatment for depression is holistic in the best sense of the word; it covers all of life. It has to, because depression has so many different ways of showing itself, at any moment. An honestly "holistic" approach is not based on adding an herb, or taking something out of your diet, or discovering any one 'secret' behavior or practice or attitude which will unlock your potential. It is rooted in the whole context of one's life. Thus, holistic treatment of depression is an approach, not a therapy.
The danger comes when some person without medical training tells you to go off the antidepressant drugs because "your faith has made you well", or because some herb, vitamin, or healing technique will cure you. The track record is ultra clear: going off medications outside of medical supervision makes your depression worse, and sometimes makes it very dangerous.
An example of how a faith community can be a team for those with depression is in Ankeny Iowa USA.
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Congregational Health Ministry
There are many ways for a local congregation to have a health ministry. Few of them have the size or the intensity of mission to do all of them, but any congregation can do some of them. How can a congregation develop a ministry of healing and wellness? Some ideas (among many):
- By prayer chains and intercessory prayer cells, which keep the ill in prayer for as long as is needed;
- By the laying on of hands, or anointing of the sick with oil by elders, deacons, and others who are commissioned or ordained. Especially during worship while others are communing, as part of the congregational prayers, or quietly after the service;
- By visitation teams that give comfort and joy to those in supervised medical settings like nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and hospices;
- By prayers during worship, and prayer-oriented special worship services for healing;
- By holding the simple conviction that God answers prayer;
- Through the Spirit's gifts of healing, given sovereignly by the Holy Spirit;
- By one-on-one private confession and absolution, the key step for inner healing;
- Through support of community health services, such as hospices, social services centers, abortion-alternative services, abuse shelters, and clinics for the uninsured;
- Through encouragement of preventative health care through exercise, education in first aid, heimlich, and CPR, and sign-ups for blood and organ donation;
- Through the promotion of good personal health practices, such as eating good foods in moderation, keeping clean, brushing teeth, and discouragement of smoking and alcohol abuse;
- Through choosing a qualified local Christian as the parish nurse, who has the task of teaching about health, spreading word about available health services, and making basic preventative care freely available in the congregation and neighborhood;
- By creating an atmosphere where joy, laughter, and fitting celebration are a part of healthy normal living;
- Through Stephen Ministers and other trained helpers;
- By being home to support groups such as AA, Al-Anon, and Overeaters Anonymous;
- By being home to fellowship groups for nurses, doctors, EMTs, and such; and to create drop-boxes, email boxes or message boards for them as a place where they can freely ask for prayer;
- By supporting or setting up day care for working moms, or relief care services for those who are taking care of those with long-term illness at home.
The Congregation as a Healthy Place
This is a holistic approach. Let's go back to the origin of the word 'health'. The -th ending means 'that which has the quality or character of'. 'Health' comes from tacking that ending onto Old English *hál* (whole, hale). Thus, 'health' and 'holistic' are both about 'wholeness' and things that are 'wholesome'. That's a spiritual thing and not just a physical one, for if your soul is sick, what good is your perishable body's wholeness going to do for you -- except perhaps to buy you a sliver more time in which to heal your soul and get right with God? Health involves all aspects of physical life, when you are well as well as when you are ill. So a congregation which believes itself to be called to a 'healing/wellness/health ministry' needs to think thoroughly about what that really means.
If the church is to be a real place of healing, she must not abandon the healed ones, but stick with them, broadening their wholeness into the other aspects of their lives. Some churches have been known to cause miraculous healings or dramatic recoveries from life's deep pits, but many of the reportedly-healed eventually come to express a sense of being abandoned by the church. So after a while, they don't come back. No teaching of the faith. No continued prayer with the healed after the healing. No one to help them live a new way of life, which, as all Twelve-Step folks well know, is so important if they are to stay healthy. Is that what the gospel is about? Is that what's meant by a healing ministry?
Your Caring Counts
The action of faithful believers really counts. Think of the paralytic being lowered through the roof by his friends so they could bypass the crowds and get him to Jesus (Mark 2:1-13). Jesus marveled at their faith and their determination for their friend. Disease can make faith and hope harder to come by. The struggle is hard and can rip a person up inside. When that happens, the ill depend on the faith of other faithful people to pull them through.
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Health and Mission
There are some Christians who will read what I just wrote above, and say, "you give the miracle of healings and recoveries too small a role in a congregation's approach to health". Others, especially those who have come to distrust healing ministries because of all the lies done in their name, will read it and say, "why give an opening to such poppycock?" It is a part of a description of health ministry because Christ has given His followers the power to heal, through whatever means. Throughout the history of the church -- including today -- recovery of all sorts has come through the hands of His caring followers. It is just one part of a health ministry, because it is uncommon, because there is so much more we are empowered to do for our health, and because there are no guarantees regarding health from any source, except that in the end we all still die and if there is to be anything past that we must turn to the God who made life. But if it is there at all, I have no right at all to totally disavow it, even if I felt it was necessary to do so (which I don't).
Throughout its history, the Christian faith's approach has been holistic, but has always included miracle recoveries and strange healings. A good example of this is Gregory Thaumaturgos (218-270 AD), a top student of Origen's who became bishop of his hometown of Pontus (in modern Turkey). He had a wide range of gifts, leading people to the faith using his family's high social status, his strong education and ability to teach, his visible concern for everyone in the Pontus area, and miracles of healing. By the time he died, he had led almost everyone in his small city to the Christian faith. The epithet 'Thaumaturgos' means 'miracle-worker'. There was a power behind his actions that left a strong imprint on anyone who saw him operate.
Give Honor to Health Ministers
When someone -- anyone -- commits themselves to a part -- any part -- of a health ministry, they need the open support of their congregation. Anyone in the congregation whose career is in providing health to those who are ill deserves to be given recognition and approval. One way to do that is by commissioning them at a worship service. The format's simple: present them before the congregation by name, specify the role or roles, have the congregation pray for their health and faith, and for the Spirit's empowerment in the health ministry, and have the chief ordained minister speak a blessing over them and their health ministry on behalf of the universal Church. That last part may include anointing them with oil and/or a laying on of hands, perhaps in the form of a huddle of prayer over them. Then, they and the whole congregation pray for the healing of those to whom the new servants will be ministering.
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Recap on Health
The most important thing to remember is that we live in a sadly broken world, a world which is simply unable to finally heal itself and set itself right. Yet, there are all sorts of signs going on in this world that there is something that is working at bringing about that world's complete health. And what signs does God give us?
- The life, death and resurrection of Christ -- God is with us. This deed of God is the root form of all other healthful deeds of God, for through it God healed all that exists. Jesus had actually refused to be healed. He did not jump off the cross, stop bleeding, regenerate his damaged organs, and then start dancing around Golgotha, shaking hands and speechifying. Instead, he let the damage do its worst -- he died. Only then did God act, so that unhealth and death were no longer the final words for the living. The only way past death was through it. Even after going through it, Jesus still bore the slash in his side and the holes below his wrists, as marks of the journey.
- It is God who gave human beings the skills and gifts to heal each other.
- Even while we are ill, we can grow in the Spirit. Sometimes, a physical illness or damage can be turned in a positive way. Even if the illness itself isn't made into a positive, at least positive things can flow from it, in learning about oneself, discovering humility, learning how to care and how to want to help. More than anything else, illness makes it a lot easier to understand what's true all the time even for healthy people: there's ultimately nowhere else to turn but to God. (More on that elsewhere on this site.)
- There is so much actual health in this world. There is a reason why everyone is not usually suffering from grave illness, and why most of us are well enough to keep going.
God doesn't want us to be ill. God does not want us to want to be ill. God wants us to be healthy. God wants us to want to be healthy. When a Christian says that illness can deepen faith or teach important lessons, it is not the same as saying that we should go out and get ill so we can learn those lessons. When inner growth happens, it is not the illness itself that does it. It is the Spirit who does it -- the same God who makes a way out of no way, the God that makes good come from bad and life from death. It's not the illness or even the sick person that merits our greatest attention; it is Jesus the Healer who merits it. This is true even if there is no recovery.
Health care may be a right, but health itself is not a right. It's a favor and a gift of grace from God, and even a constant miracle, for which we are to thank the One who gives us health now and full wholeness in a time yet to come.
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