Called to a Ministry of Healing
The following is the sermon by the Right Rev. John Rabb at the Episcopal Health Ministries Conference Closing Eucharist on May 10, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
All of us have those moments in life and in ministry that we call “the teachable ones,” where something occurred that has had a lasting impact on us. I began my ordained ministry as a chaplain at The Massachusetts General Hospital. I had moved through the certification process in Clinical Pastoral Education, believing my ministry was to be in chaplaincy and pastoral counseling. As a Myers-Briggs INTJ, I had learned to be “in touch with my feelings,” and to not begin stating how I felt with “This is what I think I feel…” During this time, I was part of the teaching team for seminarians. I was confident in my work and given the oversight for pastoral care on the burns unit.
Our work consisted of many things, but at that time the chaplains were to leave notes from each visit in the patient’s charts, a mark of the seriousness with which pastoral care was taken. I was finishing up my notations one day when I heard that unmistakable voice; “Chaplain, we need to talk!” The voice was that of one Dr. John Burke, head of burns surgery, and a person who was respected and a bit feared, for he was blunt and did not suffer fools gladly! I thought; “My gosh, what I have I done?”
He sat down and told me that my notes did not give him or the others sufficient insight into how the patients were doing spiritually and even emotionally. He looked at me and said; “We doctors, along with the nurses, technicians and therapists can do our part but as to whether or not a patient is actually healing, it depends on the wholeness of the patient. Many of these people are, to begin with, broken in many ways. (As a fact, over 75% of the burns patients are involved in self-destructive behavior- usually addictions.) You as a chaplain are critical to the healing.” He made his point and exited and I realized that I was doing what often does happen – the spiritual healing, the religious healing is seen as an auxiliary and not as an essential. Thank you John Burke for setting me straight!
Health ministry is about wholeness. Healing is about wholeness, meaning and hope. It is about how people find the deepest meanings of life. Those doing healing ministries of all kinds are not simply doing kind and good things, not an “add on,” but are part and parcel with what it means to bring the fullness of love and grace to people who are hurting – physically and mentally. Further, pastoral care, the great umbrella for so many ministries, needs to shift to being much more concerned about what ultimately counts and matters. I noted that 75% of our burns patients were involved in some form of self-destructive behavior. Why was there a fire? Often because one’s abuse of substance led to loss of judgment.
If we look at Jesus’ ministries of healing, they are always linked to the fullness of faith and meaning. While today’s gospel is the well-known Good Shepherd and does not contain a specific healing action, it does give us a framework for our work in healing ministries. The shepherd is first of all intimate with the flock and the herd, seeing that no danger will come. As Jesus is intimate with us he asks us in healing to stay close, to be present and to see that no harm will come. This is why health care has to involve keeping safe from violence – guns or anything – and seeing that there is adequate health care and resources. We are not simply called in when there is a crisis, but are there to see that we avoid crises when we can. To be pastoral is not just to be kind, nice and available, but to risk, work and even fight for those we are called to care for and love!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in the United States in early years of the work on what in time would become the heart of pastoral theology. Bonhoeffer correctly saw problems with this new “pastoral theology.” He noted that it had two flaws; 1) it was too much like a “fire fighter,” rushing in only when there is a crisis and not being present in all aspects of life, and 2) that it ignored the reality that God is involved in all aspects of our life. Bonhoeffer is right – as he usually is – that too often we bring in pastoral care and healing only as a response to a crisis rather than have it be part and parcel with how we see God working with and caring for God’s people in all ways.
Today’s first lesson from the second chapter of Acts is one that really riles people. If you quote as it is written and do not say where it comes from, you are likely to hear objections when people heard the words:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions
and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Acts 2:43
There is an account of a person arriving late to church and not hearing the introduction of the Book of Acts but hearing these words and complaining; “Why that’s socialism!!” Really? Jesus precedes that issue by a good one thousand and nine hundred years! We are called as shepherds, healers and pastors to create an alternative community, one that fully reflects to a broken and hungry world what God is doing and what God expects!
This reading from Acts is critical for us because it starts from the reality of the abundance of what we have and what God gives us. So often I will hear, as I am sure you all do, that we cannot take on healing ministries because; “Our church is too small." "We have so few resources as it is.” “We do not have the people necessary.” The list can go on and usually does, but those who believe see in common the richness and abundance of God’s blessings and not the scarcity!
Healing ministries are not less than the gospel in action; where God’s people care for God’s creation and those in need; all kinds of needs. Healing is about finding the fullness of life and meaning. We all know people who find healing even in death or with major physical limitations. We also know that a fully healthy person, physically, can be a very unhealthy person spiritually! I believe that the church needs a new pastoral imperative. We need to move from a simple focus on membership, on mere human desires (to be distinguished from genuine human needs) and doing kind things. The problem here is that it is not enough.
Rather, we should as people in healing ministries be about the hard work of proclaiming the truth, working for the fullness of life for all people and striving to change the world! John Burke was right. Healing is about the wholeness of life. And there cannot be wholeness if we ignore violence, hatred, poverty and degradation. There cannot be wholeness if people have lost hope and meaning. Our work, my sisters and brothers, is to fully call the people of God to the gospel life, to life of being true shepherds and pastors!
A woman had been hospitalized with a serious illness. The chaplain, faithfully, came each day and always assured her how much God cared for her, forgave her and loved her. One day she looked up at the chaplain and said; “Do you care for me, do you forgive me and do you love me?” The chaplain was caught off guard and simply restated how much God cared for her. She then said to him; “If you show me you care for me, you forgive me and you love me then I shall surely know that God does!” This is our ministry!
Photo via The Frederick News-Post.