Vicar's Blog ~ July 2018
As the NHS celebrates its 70th birthday, most of us have no conception of what life without penicillin, surgery and medicine would be like. Clearly it would be painful and short, especially at the end. Similarly, even only a few centuries ago people could not have conceived of our world of hospitals, surgery and chemotherapy. A hospital was, after all, a place of hospitality, where people were fed and given shelter, or tended to while they nursed injuries or hardship. Illness was a sort of death sentence, the slightest wound could become septic, and the common cold could kill. The person on whom Alexander Fleming first tried penicillin, a 43-year old policeman called Albert Alexander died from sepsis brought on after scratching the side of his mouth while pruning roses. That was in 1941. So what the ancients would have thought of as healing miracles are happening countless times in the midst of a National Health Service that we moan about, criticize and say costs too much. 100 years ago people died after an afternoon’s gardening.
Miraculous modern century medicine aside, this touches on something both obvious and profound, which is that illness is part of the human condition. This is particularly true of ageing. There is something in the way we are built that degenerates. We were built to fall apart as we get older. So what does healing mean in this context? In this day and age, many people, of any age, have fallen into the belief that the world owes them a favour; that they have certain rights, and that society exists for the benefit of the individual who seeks to benefit from it. Education is for the benefit of my child, healthcare so I can be cured, policing so that I am safe. This attitude is not in itself wrong, but it is prevalent. But it does not make distinctions between what is possible and what is acceptable. Politicians will tell us that having access to a cure for a particular disease does not make it either necessary or imperative to provide that cure. I am not a politician and am not very interested in that kind of argument. But I am interested in its spiritual equivalent, which often sounds something like: God can cure people, why doesn’t he cure me?
Let’s just remember a few facts: We are all going to die. Most of us want to be alive rather than dead. Pain hurts – we don’t like it. We want to be better. At the same time, we find ourselves as the occupants, or owners of bodies that naturally ail, creak and groan, break and slow down. In seeking healing we are also following our human nature, even when our desire to live and the inevitability of death come into conflict. That is how we tend to hope against hope, that one day we might not die, that somehow we can escape our human nature and be cured of the incurable. Most of the healing miracles of Jesus were done as signs to show that he, Jesus Christ, commanded human nature, that he was more than human, was divine and could transcend, overrule and turn upside down the principles that governed human nature. Healing miracles were one of the ways in which Jesus showed himself to be God.
But healing is as much about wholeness and hope as anything else. In the church we often speak not just of healing, but of wholeness and healing, which reminds us that not all healing is physically manifested as a cure or relief. We are not machines, but spiritual beings, and we have something that no machine or animal can ever have, and that is hope. We can have hope of healing and hope of heaven. In the face of our natural responses to pain and fear, we have a God who shows us in Christ that there is another way. For when we approach God directly for healing, whether here in church, or quietly at home or in agony in a hospital bed, that hope distinguishes us from those who have no faith, and whose attitude to their own life, health and death is ultimately self-centred, mechanistic and hopeless.
Every day we pray for the sick. What’s that all about? Well, it’s about hope. And we can and do have hope, because we have seen healing, in ourselves and in others, in answer to prayer. And whether it looked dramatic and involved low-flying crutches and white sticks or was a quieter inner working of the Holy Spirit, the healing is real, and, through hope, leads to an ultimate wholeness that no-one other than our heavenly Father can offer or provide.