Friday, July 17, 2009

Miraculous Healing and the Postmodern Pastoral Caregiver

I've had this experience before - maybe I'll do better this time.

Say you had the following experience, or one like it:

When you are little, growing up on a farm, your foot gets caught in farm machinery, and from that day forward it is clubbed, your toes curled entirely under you foot. You have to walk around with a huge orthopedic shoe.

By the time you are in your 20s, you are told that you will need surgery to have some nuts and bolts and plates put into your foot. This scares you. You go home and pray "Jesus, help me", and then are struck to the floor. It feels like your entire body is receiving an electric current. When it is finally over, you stand up, pacing around the room, trying to make sense of what has happened, upset and confused.

Then you realize you are pacing...on a brand new, healthy, foot.

Five days later you return to your orthopedic surgeon and show him the foot, say "thanks doc, but Jesus healed me, and I'm outta here", and then walk out the door.

For the purposes of this story, it doesn't matter whether it literally happened or not. You experienced it, and remember it, and it is central. It also isn't the only story of miraculous healing you have in your life, just an example.

Now, imagine that you are in the hospital, have been told that you have two cancers, one of which is terminal and inoperable. Imagine the pain this will cause when you do not experience any healing, but firmly believe that you could, if only...if only...something. After all, you have been healed in the past. The Bible says you will be healed in a multitude of places.

This is a patient I just talked to.

All joking about tent-revival hucksters aside, as far as I know, this patient is telling the truth, and I don't have time or resources to go back and verify her stories. So now I'm stuck, a person who has never experienced a dramatic miraculous healing myself, and whose love of biological sciences predisposes him to be skeptical of such stories, trying to provide pastoral care to a patient who can't figure out why she hasn't been healed yet and is, understandably, incredibly upset.

What I'm proud of is that I did just that. She was very thankful, and I could tell that I was very helpful to her. But its hard for me to just chalk these things up to mystery, and I can see how if this woman is not healed, her theology will turn against itself.

I can also see why my Unitarian Universalist colleague found talking to her so challenging.

So, seriously, any advice from you pastors who read this blog? Have you encountered something like this before? What did you do? I'm going to see her tomorrow morning, briefly on the way home, and will consult with my colleagues about further visitation, but man, this one's a knot and no mistake.


Jodie said...

I'm not a pastor and I can't give pastoral counseling on this, but I would explore with such patient the meaning and ramification of such close encounters.

One would think that such tangible experiences of God's presence and power could give a person a strong sense of life after death, that illness and death are only temporary afflictions, and that this person is clearly in God's hands no matter what God decides to do.

And I would also admit in sympathy that even the Apostle Paul considered death an enemy. The last enemy, an enemy that would ultimately be overcome, but clearly still an enemy and not a friend.

One is never completely comfortable in the presence of one's enemies.

Heather W. Reichgott said...

You can only work in a hospital so long without developing a belief in miracles.
But then, you can't even work in a hospital for an hour without noticing that there are an awful lot of places we'd LIKE to see miracles, and they don't happen.
During CPE I came to love C. S. Lewis's poem "Stephen to Lazarus" more than ever. I can't recite it but the point is that after Lazarus is miraculously restored from the dead, he still has to die again one day; and maybe that's a worse martyrdom than Stephen's famous one.
Actually, maybe that poem would be a comfort to this patient, if she's the sort of person who would find comfort in something darker. I know I would.
God be with you both.

Mary Christopher said...

In my experience, Miracles do happen and they are not Magic. Usually, Miracles are the working of a principle in the Universe that we do not yet understand. Also one Miracle does not guarantee another.
And, I believe we can strengthen and support the "action" of Miracles through our Faith, our Knowing of the Presence of God and through the committement of our hearts to each other and to our deepest understanding of our own path.
My experience is that often, when I am just simply present with someone or a situation, the Answer comes.
God Bless you,

Mary Christopher
a practicing mystic

Doug Hagler said...

Thank you all very much for the comments - particularly Mary the practicing mystic. This situation was definitely a challenge to me, and the next one will also be a challenge. What I have under my belt is a situation where I could offer good pastoral care to this person even though I didn't have a solid framework through which to understand her experience.

Its a good point that one miracle doesn't guarantee another - by definition, now that I think about it. For this patient, I think that "miracle" wouldn't even fit, since her supernatural healing was something she expected, and a miracle seems like it would be unexpected. If anything, from her point of view (as I understand it), it was a function of the universe that perhaps neither of us understood...

Anyway, thank you for the feedback.