I want to talk about health care, not because I want to pick a fight, but because we almost never talk about it as Christians. I must tell you that I think our nasty arguments over “Obamacare” are tacky. The reason we are so fired up about health care is that we are all so afraid to die. There may not be enough resources for us if we shared them with everyone. This, I now believe, is our most serious theological problem. We believe that we live in a world of scarcity and we are encouraged in this belief by those who make sure we are always scared. Maybe this is evidence of our greed because greed presumes a world of scarcity and want. A world shaped by scarcity is a world that cannot trust God has given all that we need. If there is not enough for us, at the critical time of our approaching death, we are afraid we will die. And so our health care debate is not about health care; it’s about money and death. For if we share anything as a people, it is that death ought to be avoided in the hope that we can finally get out of life alive (Stanley Hauerwas).
Some months ago I asked a number of you how you wanted to die. Some of you looked at me like I had just asked you to eat dirt. Among the answers: Quickly; in my sleep; with a fishing rod in my hand; without pain. Heroically. This means that we want to be kept alive long enough that when we die we will not know we are dying, and then we get to blame the doctors for keeping us alive. Doctors have a tough job because they are now the ones anointed to keep us alive. Once it was the pastor who was responsible for getting people to heaven, but now doctors are supposed to keep us from ever dying. Such is the illusion that dominates our lives.
These desires are the opposite of what Christians in previous centuries said about death. They wanted a lingering death. They feared dying without having the time to be reconciled with their enemies, who were often their family, the church, and God. Today we fear death. They feared God. This is a seismic spiritual shift.
Health care issues confront all of us. These issues are riddled with tough ethical decisions and yet these decisions are treated as financial or medical. We are not at all sure about what to do with our two-tiered system – one for people with insurance and one for people without insurance. And I am not convinced that we ever think about these issues theologically.
Since medical needs are unlimited and medical resources are sparse, there is no way to avoid this discussion. And hospitals must be concerned about the bottom line. Even a non-profit hospital wants to maintain that 4% margin each year. Why do we support giving dollars to research on more effective ways to do heart transplants but are not willing to fund preventive care? Transplants are sexier. The action is not in preventive care but crisis intervention. Preventive practices puts all the responsibility on us. We have to be grown-up adults taking good care of ourselves. If we pay no attention to preventive practices, we get to be patients, dependent on doctors to keep us alive no matter how much the cost. By and large we seem to like it that way, at least every month except January when we are working out and losing weight and taking care of ourselves. Of course there are some illness that no prevention in the world would have stopped.
Our present system assumes that we will provide for the needs and wants of individuals in an open market of supply and demand. Justice is determined by our ability to pay. In this system there is no general right to health care. Is market “justice” Christian?
I OFFER A CONTRADICTORY: THIS IS A THEOLOGICAL ISSUE. Jesus was a healer. The Gospels are packed with healing stories. In our Mark reading we get a man with an unclean spirit, a mother-in-law with a fever, and the word got out and soon the waiting room was packed and Jesus healed many sick people. Then Jesus healed a leper and this all happens in just part of one chapter of Mark.
I think we are embarrassed by the idea of healing. I think that if we have a healing service one Sunday in the chapel, and we are going to do that, some of you will be nervous about it. You will worry about whether it will make us look like a bunch of overly emotional Pentecostals. But again I refer back to the basic idea: Jesus was a healer. The church is commanded to a have a healing ministry and for centuries we did. Then Catholics and Protestants got into a fight over healing and miracles that was nastier than Republicans and Democrats fighting over health care, taxes, and immigration today. Protestants said that Catholic miracles were of the devil. Catholics said that Protestants didn’t have any miracles because they were not a true apostolic church. Then Protestants did this strange move. They made up an idea to defend what they believed. They started claiming that when the last apostle died, there was no more need for miracles. This absurd idea is known as the limited age of miracles. Calvin said that we no longer needed miracles because we had the Word of God. So I think you can see why there is so much confusion among us about the role of healing in the church.
We are also impacted by science and our secular minds decided to give the healing business to doctors and hospitals. It is hard to know what role the church can play in healing once we have learned to view the world only with scientific glasses. Yet the church invented hospitals. The monks started hospitals because they believed that “even amidst the injustices of the world you could take time to be with the dying.”
I find it at least a bit ironic that Roman Catholics still operate a system of hospitals, but most Protestant denominations are out of the hospital business. The name may say “Methodist” or “Baptist,” but that’s more for publicity and marketing than any religious interest. Hospitals are corporations and they are not much interested in religion. I was on the board of a major hospital foundation for 8 years and I watched and protested the corporate decision to do away with the pastoral care department. The chief of chaplains died and was not replaced. The counseling center was shut down. The CFO said, “Pastoral care is not showing a profit.” He was not familiar with the words of Jesus, “What will it profit a hospital if it gains all the market share in the world and loses it soul?”
I think the church closed her healing business and left behind only the “faith healers” who have turned healing into a business more profitable than a hospital. Maybe we like it that way. After all, praying and being with people in sickness and in dying can be messy and painful. People are more than numbers, more than heart attacks, cancers, and replaced knees. There’s more to healing than a doctor and all the technology in the world can handle.
I want us to grapple with what the church has done and I want us to discern together how FBC Peoria can be a healing church. And just so you know that I’m not making this up, we have clear Scriptural teaching on a Christian healing and health care practice. The Epistle of James: “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”
The church needs to return to her healing vocation. That’s my message. The church can provide healing of mind, spirit, and attitude. Forgiveness and reconciliation are powerful healing practices. The elimination of anxiety, fear, and despair is a healing ministry. As Christians grow weaker physically, they can grow stronger spiritually. There’s got to be a way for us to learn these skills. When enough people pray with enough intensity, I believe possibilities are provided for God to work in unexpected ways, ways that can still only be called miracles. It’s not magic and it doesn’t work every time, but praying is part of our vocation. After all, prayer is at the heart of Christian speech. I find it helpful to read books of prayers so that I can learn how Christians in the past have prayed with the dying the prayer that needed to be prayed. A good place to start is with the Book of Common Prayer. There’s also a wonderful prayer book Celtic Daily Prayer. Perhaps it is a verbal sign of our secular nature that church members will say to a sick person, “I am thinking about you.” Well, that’s nice but I want you to say, “I am praying for you” because all Christians are called to live a life of prayer. This is surely the most important work in the world.
One last theological thought for you to discuss over lunch: Christians are a people who have learned that our deaths are not an unmitigated disaster because we are a people of resurrection. We are, or we should be, a people who have learned that service to one another is more important than life itself. This means that the church should be able to envision forms of care in which the poor are not excluded. It also means that we already know that there are people we would die for at any given moment. Spouse. Children. Grandchildren. But would we give up life for a friend, a stranger, an alien? Would we give up life so that others might live?
The most Christian act I can imagine is the possibility that Christians learn to deny ourselves forms of extraordinary and expensive care at the end of life in order to provide for the basic health care needs of the poor. This would be a Christian practice of medicine based on sacrifice, love, and suffering. That my suggestion is met by stares and maybe outrage is not surprising. I have pursued this conversation because I worry that the current political strategies are no longer sufficient for the care we offer one another through the good office of medicine.
Being healers in a world of judgment and meanness may be just what the Good Doctor ordered for us. Let the healing commence!