I read recently about a Japanese way of mending broken pottery. Instead of getting out the invisible glue, dust your epoxy with gold leaf. Then repair the pot and show all the spidery, golden threads of the former break. Like this:
It’s called Kintsugi, apparently.(Apologies to you if you actually know about this stuff.) What does it say? This pot has history. It’s been broken. It’s been mended. A new beautiful thing has come out of the broken old. Beautiful before, it is beautiful again, but now with beautiful scars.
I read there are Buddhist roots to Kintsugi, the impermanence, the suffering. It has echoes for me though of something else: the resurrection of Christ, of people, of the cosmos. There was Jesus: ‘behold my hands and side’. Look at the scars. My new body, a glorious thing, bears the scars of its former suffering.
What will eternity be like? Will we be all sculpted bodies? Or wrinkled, scarred, golden-mended?
The quick fix is what I usually want with a health problem. I have a problem, the doctor fixes it, we all walk away happy, like taking the car to the garage. We can approach healing prayer the same way: I have this pain or limitation or sickness, please make it go away so that I can go back to normal life.
Doctors live with this stuff all the time and I am told that they also are aware of the psycho-social aspect to almost any healing: ‘who and what are you?’ is important alongside ‘what seems to be the problem?’ Doctors possibly get fed up of people who present with COPD or obesity, for example, and want a pill or a procedure rather than to make changes in their thinking, their lifestyle or their relationships.
Proper biblical Christian healing is about the whole person, their relationships, and eternity. It is also about the real problem, not just the symptoms. The New Testament (in the book of James) locates the proper place for healing as alongside pastoral care: is any of you sick? – Call the church leaders.
It means that seeking healing through prayer should really be about seeking God. We should expect such prayer to ‘work’, but on God’s terms rather than ours.
Interesting to see how Covid is scratching the surface off us and revealing the rawness underneath. I read a lovely article in the Grauniad which I wanted to share in case you hadn’t seen it.
Rachel Clarke (journalist turned physician, apparently, and drafted into intensive care) wrote eloquently and superbly about the stress, the exhaustion, the despair, the abuse on Twitter and elsewhere. She incidentally writes about how ‘Sometimes, in the darkness, a patient pleads to die. They cannot take the claustrophobic roar of their CPAP mask any longer.’ (I recognize that emotion, though I didn’t want to die, just not fight any more, when I was attached to a CPAP in 2013.)
But then this:
All across the hospital, you see it. In the tiny crocheted crimson hearts, made by locals for patients and delivered in their scores so that no one feels alone. In the piles of donated pizzas, devoured at night by ravenous staff. In the homemade scrubs, whipped up by an unstoppable army of self-isolating grandmothers whose choice in fabrics is fearlessly floral. In the nurses and carers and porters and cleaners who keep on, despite everything, smiling. I may be tired and angry and sometimes mad with grief, but every single day at work, I see more kindness, more sweetness, more compassion, more courage, more resilience, more steel, more diamond-plated love than you could ever, ever imagine. And this means more and lasts more than anything else, and it cannot be stolen by Covid.
Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic by Dr Rachel Clarke is published by Little, Brown
Having unexpectedly emerged alive from a four-week-long coma–in 2013–and with our church having held a 36-hour prayer vigil for us at the most critical point, and having had some kind of disability all my life, I’ve thought at lot about healing. This is another piece from my forthcoming book called (maybe) ‘The Sandwich.’ Like the others in the collection, it was commissioned by a Singaporean magazine and intended for newcomiers to the Christian faith.
How do we know when to stop asking and simply accept? What’s the difference between surrender and giving up hope?‘
We are treading on a tender spot here. Because we all know people who have been struck down inside a good healthy life. Some dreadful disease snaffles them and everything inside of us cries out, ‘No! This is wrong.’ So we pray for healing.
Worse (in a sense), we know that God is a healing God. In the person of Christ he walked on the earth and did not view suffering with a Roman stoicism or a Jewish shrug. He wept over it, climbed into the problems, and healed. The lame walking, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised are signs of his Kingdom. These are the gifts he scatters as he walks among us. Jesus our King is full of compassion, fully engaged, and mighty to heal and save. Sin, evil, suffering, demons, death: he detests them all and went to the cross to purge all of them out of his lovely Universe.
We all know what is coming next: yet so many are not healed. I would be very surprised if in the circle of people you know and care about, there are not some for whom you are praying but who are not getting better. Others stay sick and in pain for a long time. What do we do? How do we pray?
I joined a community choir recently. I am a musical illiterate, but I am learning that some songs include a key-change. You are singing along happily enough, you think you’re getting the hang of this, but then the composer introduces a key-change and often it takes the song to a whole new level. For example, the South African National Anthem includes five languages and a key change, because Nelson Mandela wanted to incorporate both the African National Congress anthem and the old white South Africa anthem, and five of South Africa’s eleven languages, into one song. It makes the total experience a powerful statement of unity in a divided land. Without the key-change, it only would be half a song.
As we pray on for the unhealed, we must listen for God’s key-change. Most of us who fall sick only want one thing: to get back to how we were. But with very many sicknesses and afflictions there is no going back. There is only going forward. Hence the need for the key-change. We just want to go home, but God is changing the landscape around us. In his terrible love, God is taking the evil and forging something good in us. This is why I suggest we let God lift our juvenile, confused, panicking prayers to another level. Of course it is not our prayers he is taking to another level: it is we ourselves. Then the song will be complete in us.
Here are some of the elements, so it seems to me, of God’s key-change.
Mystery. In the gospels Jesus walked through a large collection of sick people at the pool of Bethesda and healed just one person (John 5:2-9). He stood in a cemetery full of dead people and called just Lazarus back to life (John 11:38-44). He must have seen a number of funeral processions but he interrupted only one, that of the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-15). Why should some be singled out for instant healing and others not? It does not seem fair, nor can we explain why. It is a mystery. Mystery is like a cloud passing between us and the certainty of the living, loving Christ. We know the Lord is still there, but for the moment all we can see is the cloud.
Eternity. I guarantee you have nothing wrong with you that the resurrection will not put right. When a person passes from this land of the dying to the land of the living with peace on their face, bags packed, ready for eternity, surely that’s a healing, that’s the great healing, even if for us who are left it is a separation and loss. And even if the timing feels all wrong. So real, full healing is guaranteed for all who come to Christ, in eternity.
The present moment. Sometimes in our panic and fear we forget the importance of the present moment. Yes, let us ask God that a person’s dreadful illness is totally healed. But let us not forget the now. ‘God’, we can pray, ‘turn their anxiety into peace today. Make their soul happy today. Set a table for them in the midst of their enemies today.’ In my limited experience of these things, a visit, a word, something, can make your heart almost burst with joy, even if you are lying paralysed in bed and connected up to quite a lot of tubes. People might argue that that’s not the same as a proper healing. I am not so sure. It certainly feels pretty good at the time.
Seeing what the Father is doing. Someone once told me, prayer is not forcing God’s arm; it is taking what is offered in his hand. Somehow we need to walk with the Holy Spirit through the winding paths of prayer and let him guide our prayers so that as we pray, we feel full of peace and confidence. If we feel led to pray for a glorious sunset to a good life, so be it. If it means praying the person with ulcers will feel secure in God so that he doesn’t have to be a workaholic, that’s fine too. I’m not a fan at all of sharing these insights with the patient; they have enough to cope with. I would suggest asking for God’s leading, but then keeping the leading for your own domestic use.
A meeting. Some scriptures teach that everyone who came to Christ for healing was healed. See Mark 6:36, for example: ‘wherever he went – into villages, towns or countryside – they placed those who were ill in the market-places. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.’ I believe these scriptures. Yet many today do not experience instant physical healing. How do we square this circle? Here’s how it works for me. I believe that everyone I might pray for can and should meet God. When the person meets God, in a sense, I can leave the two of them to it. The healing has begun. What goes on between them—instant healing; a long process of healing; abundant life amid continuing physical infirmity; healing fulfilled in eternity; or anything else—is between that person and God. Meeting God is the first and main thing. The core of healing is not getting physically better for a season until something else strikes us down. It’s meeting Jesus. I think I can pray for any sick person that they will meet Christ, they will touch the edge of his robe, and the healing will begin. I use that prayer a lot and I really like it.
The glory. Hospitals, and let us be honest, sometimes a group of pray-ers, can make the patient feel like little more than a useless lump of meat. The sick person themself can start to believe that. But a sick person is not someone who has been suddenly shunted from a fruitful life to a non-fruitful one. He or she is not out of work, certainly not out of God’s work. They may not be on the path they would choose, but they are still on a path. They can glorify God. In the Old Testament Joseph named one of his children ‘Ephraim’ which apparently sounds like the Hebrew for ‘twice fruitful’ and he explained why. It was because ‘God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering’ (Genesis 41:52). That’s a mighty prayer to pray for a sick person. ‘God make her fruitful in the land of her suffering.’ This is not a get-out if physical healing doesn’t happen. It is about people meeting God–Almighty God, that one, the Almighty one–and not emerging unshaken.
Back to the question we were set: How do we know when to stop asking and simply accept? What’s the difference between surrender and giving up hope?
I think I’m arguing that there’s a third option between simply praying for physical healing and simply surrendering the person to God. I’ve called it God’s key-change, and it’s praying that respects mystery and eternity, treasures the present moment, tries to listen to God, believes that healing starts when people meet Christ, and asks for fruitfulness even in their place of suffering.
‘The one thing that can keep communities alive and health services viable.’
I am one of those who has enjoyed the pandemic journalism of Private Eye’s ‘MD’ who being both a practising doctor and a human being can understand and communicate stuff that journos (who often lack the right number of degrees) and politicians (who might be a bit detached from the truth) may not be so hot on. In pandemic-world, I think, journos and politicians are both talking about face-covering while actually attempting to cover something else, and I don’t mean the story.
So. MD (real name Phil Hammond apparently) on health in this week’s Eye (I mean the week I am writing this blog, which is about two weeks behind you reading it. I don’t blame you for this. It’s hard to ask readers to read stuff that hasn’t been published yet.)
The basic ingredients of health are well-known, well-evidenced and fairly easily remembered using the mnemonic CLANGERS, as in: Connect; Learn; (be) Active; Notice; Give back; Eat well; Relax; Sleep.
Friendship and a feeling of belonging; an ability and curiousity to learn and adapt; purposeful physical and mental activity; observation and appreciation of the environment; compassion for others; food that is both delicious and nutritious; an ability to switch off and relax and regular, restorative sleep — collectively these daily joys of health are more powerful than any drug. The privileged can do them every day, even in lockdown. If we all managed them, we would barely need the NHS. But if you’re living with debt, discrimination, depression, domestic abuse, drug addiction, dementia, etc, they are much harder to achieve.
The focus on prevention, helping others and lifestyle medicine is a lot cheaper and more enjoyable than medicating for diabetes and depression. Indeed it’s the one thing that can keep communities alive and health services viable.
MD has put some of his wisdom into a cheery YouTube video just here:
And if you are a regular reader of MD you can parenthetically notice that writers are often different in person than they are on paper, often gentler, as here.
The solution to weariness and world-weariness, it seems, is not ‘no work’ but the right work. ‘Come to me’ says Jesus, if you are weighed down and tired out by the loads you’re carrying, and I will give you ‘rest.’ But the ‘rest’ he offered was a ‘yoke’. (He must have raised an eyebrow or two when people heard this. Mostly the word ‘yoke’ is about slavery.) But Jesus redefines his yoke as ‘easy’ or ‘kind’ or ‘kindly’ and the burden he asks us to bear is lightweight, a non-burdensome burden, like a day-sack rather than a full pack.
The ‘rest’ is a yoke. This speaks so strongly to the idea of vocation. We all have seen examples of when someone gets a job and it is exactly the job they always wanted. Or it is, at least, quite near to being the job or role they always wanted. They wake up, look around at the day, and feel happy. Mostly. Circumstances have aligned well for them. This is so freeing and brings such contentment.
It’s also makes us re-evaluate things like ‘rest’ or ‘retirement.’ Real rest is an easy yoke, a harness but not a heavy one, a work that suits, a work that to us, seems easy and light. It would seem.
In which I stumble into the world of Adverse Childhood Experiences
Just started to read (actually listen to) a fascinating book whose big idea is that there sometimes can be a single cause at the root of a person’s multiple, recurring illnesses and other problems.
This root cause? Childhood trauma. Childhood trauma can cause grownup health problems. When an ingénue like me stumbles into something like this I then quickly discover that what was for me previously unknown territory contains a landscape’s-worth of books, research, controversy, refinements, criticism, and its own three-letter-acronym (ACE or adverse childhood experiences).
ACE is fascinating. What fascinates me just at the moment is how childhood traumas link with those passages in the gospels when people gathered around Jesus and he healed them all. If he healed the sicknesses the people were presenting with, many of them would have been back next week. But if Christ somehow dug out the root, which was something lodged in the psyche, buried there through one or more childhood traumas, and bearing fruit in adulthood as stroke or heart desease or ‘fibromyalgia’, or anxiety and depression, then those patients of his might truly have been healed.
Don’t pray for a future healing. Find today’s grace.
Don’t pray for instant total healing.
Well, do if you must, but it may be that you are really responding to your own rage and pain rather than listening to God. The Psalms do this a lot.
But consider the poor schmuck you are praying for: there might be a better way.
First, remember the context. Suffering is everywhere. Cancer is everywhere. Our seemingly–lonesome path has already been worn down by millions of heavy footsteps and many others are queuing behind us. This can help us past our self-obsession. And we can learn to look with fresh eyes on the human species. So much struggle. And what a brave lot we all are.
Second, reflect that even complete healing (whatever that is) is just part of wider and slower package that includes elements of rehabilitation, reflection and repentance. God continues tenderly to love and form us. Our cancer is not separate from our disciple’s walk or our life’s work of glorifying God. It’s just another thing.
Third, think about the Kingdom and the gospels: ‘People would … beg [Jesus] to let the sick at least touch the edge of his cloak. And all who touched it were made well.’ 1 Remember the ‘all’. We are members of the all.
Just praying ‘God somehow take all this away,’ is entirely understandable. But, given everything, it is an ill-considered and unhelpful place for your prayers or your church’s prayers to land. Don’t focus your hopes on an encounter in the misty future that will make everything all right again.
Touch the edge of the cloak today. Pray for grace for today, for healing today. Pray for God’s help today: the fear and anxiety to be replaced with peace. The pain soothed. The stresses on everyone eased. A good night, rather than a dark one. Pray prayers of thanksgiving for the goodness of God and for the worth and value of the person being prayed for.
We are on very solid ground praying for peace today, dumping our worries and fears today, praying for good communication with each other today and finding ways to thank God and esteem each other’s love today. Find today’s grace.
Touch the cloak again tomorrow. Some of the tomorrows may include further investigations or treatment. Pray about those. Some of those days may include miraculous tumour-shrinkage or joyous remission. Wonderful. Keep pressing on with the rehab, the reflection, the repentance.
Mistaking the peace for the promise
A final thought, sometimes missed: it’s possible to mistake God’s peace for God’s promise. Especially when you’re desperate. When you just want horrible news to unhappen, and you pray and find peace, you can think God has said something when he hasn’t. He may indeed have something to say on the matter but that isn’t it and then wasn’t the time. What does the peace mean, then? It means he’s here, like always.
Fascinating article in about a great source of un-wellness in our society1: loneliness.
‘In Britain 7.7m people live alone … Seventeen million adults in Britain are unattached. More than 1m older people feel lonely all or most of the time, and most of them do not feel able to admit their loneliness to family and friends. Loneliness is one of the chief reasons people contact the Samaritans, though often callers find it hard to admit it. “People who call us sometimes feel that loneliness is not a good enough reason for calling,” says Nick, a long-term Samaritans volunteer. “They feel ashamed or embarrassed, as though feeling lonely isn’t something serious.” Three out of four GPs say they see between one and five lonely people a day; only 13% feel equipped to help them, even though loneliness has a detrimental effect on health equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Only 22% of us have never felt lonely.’
‘In the autumn last year, the body of 68-year-old Marie Conlon was found in her flat at Larkspur Rise in Belfast. She had been dead for nearly three years. In a statement, her family said they were “shocked and heartbroken” at the death of the “beloved sister”. Call be cruel, but how beloved could she have been if they hadn’t seen or spoken to her since the beginning of 2015? I popped into my local funeral directors to learn how often they were presented with bodies which had lain along in flats until they began to decompose. The lady in charge that day was wary of my questions, and made me promise not to give her name. But yes, she said, this happens quite regularly–bodies lie undiscovered until neighbours complain of a smell.’