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God’s Healthcare Plan

Janine Zabriskie

June 28, 2015
Psalm 30 Mark 5: 21-43


A reading from the gospel of Mark:

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ So he went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from haemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ He looked all round to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Janine ZabriskiOne of the reasons I know I’m a good Child Life Specialist is because I actually enjoy being a hospital employee. I’m comfortable walking the hallways in a way that many other people are not. It’s my job to help children understand, through pictures and play and art, all of the different things which are going on, around them and to them. The doctors are in charge of the cure – the clinical, medical strategies and procedures which will mend the body. My work is less about curing, and more about healing – having a personal encounter with the child and their family, assessing what they know, how much they are able to understand, and what kind of help the family needs in order to juggle the demands of work, home, family, and a child with a serious illness. In a perfect world, I’m able to come in and soothe fears and answer questions before the child becomes overwhelmed. In practice, however, I often have to work with a family already in a heightened state of anxiousness.

And this heightened state is essentially where we find both Jairus and the bleeding woman in this Gospel text. She has been suffering for twelve years. Depending on which Gospel passage you read, Jairus’s daughter is either nearing death, or already succumbed to it, when he first approaches Jesus. Traditional medicine has failed the woman, and added insult to injury, by draining her bank account too – a scenario still too familiar in our world today. Jairus presumably has the position and privilege to acquire whatever cure might be out there for his daughter, but his status hasn’t helped him – the little girl is dying. Jairus and the woman are both at the end of their ropes, and ready to try anything. They would be easy prey for scammers or con-men right now. Fortunately, they instead encounter Jesus, and an opportunity for healing, not just another cure.

Now, I don’t mean to ignore the positive side of a cure. A cure can provide restoration of purpose, it will return some people to their role, to their function in a community, in the same way a machine can be repaired. Again, this is going to benefit folks already in a good place like Jairus. A cure will do very little for the woman, however, whose circumstances mean she is shunned, rather than supported, by her community. She is unclean. She cannot be cured. She must be healed. Healing somehow brings spirit and matter back together, it mends the fragile bonds of creation, it weaves the body of Christ back together, in a way which a mere cure cannot. In Eugene Petersen’s translation of this text in The Message, where Jesus takes the little girl by the hand, it reads that “she breathed again.” If we were just looking for a cure, we would probably be satisfied with that. Healing, however… Healing isn’t complete until we get to Luke’s interpretation of this passage, which tells us the child sat up, and in that instant “her spirit returned.” Any parent who has ever watched a fever break in their son or daughter understands what this is about. This child has not simply regained pulmonary function. She has become herself again. Made whole.

In his essay, “Health is Membership,” poet and activist Wendell Berry frames this tension between functional cure and holistic healing quite poignantly, recalling a scene from the mid-1990’s, when his brother John suffered a heart attack. He writes, “on the farm, I had thought much about the difference between creatures and machines. But I had never so clearly understood and felt that difference as when John was in recovery after heart surgery, dependent for breath on a respirator. It was impossible not to see the machine in all its oblivious regularity, so unlike the breathing of a creature, which responds to events both inside and outside the body, to thoughts and emotions. It was only afterward, I think, that my family understood the extremity of this deed of faith. We had not known what we were doing, and were feeling that we had utterly given John up to what we did not know.”

Berry continues on with the metaphor, equating our brains with computers, our hearts with fuel pumps, and so on. He contrasts our bodies and their “world of love” with the machine’s cold “world of efficiency.” Love, he says, seeks touch, connection, presence. Efficiency only needs logic, reason, and data. He makes a reasonable leap to the idea that if our bodies are like machines, then perhaps our diseases can be cured by tinkering about a bit – a tightening of this, or a jiggling of that. Perhaps the occasional “turn it off, and then turn it back on.” It’s true, this sense of the “deus ex machina” or “god from the machine” has risen exponentially in our modern world, as machines and robotics now not only breathe for us, they filter our blood, keep our hearts in steady rhythm, and now can even perform the surgery itself, with the human doctor scrubbing in as an assistant. But where did the real people go? In our quest for lower costs, shorter hospital stays, faster recovery, methods and procedures that are more efficient, have we demoted Jesus’s model of personal interaction to some sort of drive-by caregiving? Have we forgone reaching out to one another, a sense of Christian presence? Or how about what my friend and fellow student calls sacred hand-holding? Have we given all this up in search of ever more complex cures? What kind of faith must it take to believe in the healing power of a machine?

Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely an advocate of modern day health care – I believe in better living through pharmacology, and am not prepared in any way to go back to things like treatment by leeches. Technology, machinery, has its place, and allows our human selves to become better, to strive for our best game. We can provide care now in ways which were impossible, even unimaginable 50 years ago. But are we so focused on our efficiency – or the cost-effectiveness of the machinery – that we overlook our much-needed humanity. Preference for the machine should not be dictated by the fact it doesn’t need to be paid overtime. We cannot underestimate the power, or the spirit, which moves between people, in a brushing back of hair from a feverish forehead or a hand held in prayerful silence. As a Child Life Specialist, I’ve had to work hard for credibility among my healthcare colleagues, to be seen as something more than just the “play lady.” Why? Because Child Life services are not billable hours. I bring healing to families. But not cash to the coffers.

And then, there is one last inevitable truth. Our best healthcare practices, every one of our interventions, whether personal or detached, billable or free of charge, are ultimately finite. Cures and healing both give way to mortality. Even machine parts break and fail. As the saying goes, even those whom Jesus healed in all of our Bible stories, eventually died of something else. In his essay, Wendell Berry notes that “any definition of health that is not silly, must include death.” We don’t like to think about that part, especially when we are talking about a child, such as Jairus’s daughter. We’d like to believe that someone who has suffered so much, for so long, like the bleeding woman, would be granted healing, and then somehow escape the inescapable. But here is the truth of it, in Berry’s words. “The world of efficiency is defeated by death. At death, all its instruments and procedures stop. But the world of love… the world of love includes death, suffers it, and triumphs over it. The world of love continues, and of this, grief is the proof.”

Our discomfort in the hospital room, our sadness at terrible headlines, the hands we reach out for, and the tears we shed, whether in times of mourning or in times of joy, as has been the roller coaster of emotions recently. These are all Christ working through us, through our encounter and our attention to one another as he likewise attends to us. And they are how we know we are healing. Amen.