Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

There are times in life when the going gets tough.  I’ve had a bit of that myself lately, and I know I’m not the only one.

I think partly it’s just the nature of life in a fallen world.  Being a Christian doesn’t shield us from life’s tough times. I’ve heard some preachers from time to time say that life in Jesus should just keep getting better and better, and that health and prosperity will be ours if we just believe. While it’s true keeping the Ten Commandments may help us to live longer, healthier lives, nowhere in the Bible is that guaranteed. In fact, if anything, scripture seems to support the opposite: from the Old Testament to the New, people who love God often have very difficult lives. Think about Job for example, who lost his family and everything he owned; or think about the apostle Paul, who was shipwrecked and beaten and left for dead more than once.

One of the characters in my favorite TV show once said (in his wonderful British accent) : “You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.” (Marcus Cole, Babylon 5)

This man has a very dark sense of humor! But things do get rough sometimes, and sometimes it seems the hard times go on much longer than we expected.

The men in both of our scripture readings today know what that’s like.

When God’s people go through tough times we tend to start asking questions like: Where is God? What is God doing? Why is this happening? We’re not asking because we’re wallowing in self-pity but because suffering tends to bring these questions to the surface. So as we look at today’s readings, I want like to approach with three questions in mind: (1) How is this person suffering? What is life like for them? (2) What is God doing during these difficult times? What actions does God take? (3) How is God’s call coming through? One thing I’ve learned about tough times over the years: for people who know and love Jesus, God’s call on our lives can be found, at least in part, in the middle of our suffering.

So turning first to Elijah. Elijah suffers because his country, the land he loves, has abandoned God.  Led by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, they have turned away from worshiping God and have become Baal-worshipers. It started when King Ahab married Jezebel, a former priestess of Baal. She urged Ahab to build a temple to Baal in the middle of Israel, and then she brought in some of her old priest-buddies to run the place. 1 Kings 16:30 says, “Ahab did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all [the kings] who were before him” – and that takes some doing!

As God’s prophet and friend, Elijah is horrified to see his people turning away from the one true and living God. Elijah’s faithfulness to God puts his life in danger, but he doesn’t give up or back down. And when Ahab makes Baal-worship the law of the land, God gives Elijah a prophecy.  God tells Elijah to tell Ahab a drought is coming: a drought so severe, not even dew will form on the ground. Given that Baal was the Canaanite god of rain and dew, this hits Baal where it hurts.  And given that Israel depended on farming and pasture-lands for animals, this hits the country where it hurts too.

But rather than apologize to God and admit he was wrong, Ahab blamed Elijah for being “the troubler of Israel” (that’s what he called him). Ahab said it was all Elijah’s fault! Elijah answers, “If the Lord is God, then follow him; but if Baal is god, follow him.” Elijah then sets up a competition between the two gods: two altars will be set up, with an animal sacrifice on top of each one, and wood to burn the sacrifice, and the priests of Baal will call on their god, and Elijah will call on God… “and whichever deity sets fire to the wood and burns up the sacrifice, that’s the real god.”

All the people gather around and watch as the altars are set up, and the wood is arranged, and the animals are killed. The priests of Baal start dancing and praying and shouting around their altar, all day long, but nothing happens. Elijah then pours water all over his altar, and prays to God for fire, and fire falls from heaven. God’s sacrifice is consumed: and the wood, and the stone altar!

The people all shout “The Lord is God!” and the prophets of Baal are chased into the nearest wadi and slaughtered. Jezebel, royally ticked off, says to Elijah, “I am going to make you as dead as you have made my priests!” And Elijah takes off into the wilderness.

So Elijah has been suffering in a number of ways: He has lived most of his life as a member of a religious minority, persecuted for believing in God. He hasn’t been able to live in his own home town for many years.  After years of preaching, most of the people still follow Baal – it’s like his words have been falling on deaf ears. Elijah is weary and discouraged. And now, in his moment of victory, Queen Jezebel puts out a contract on his life!  Elijah is so down he says to God “I might as well just die.”

So what has God been doing in the middle of all this? First, unknown to Elijah, God has been calling people to faith and preserving the lives of believers. A few verses after our reading (verse 18) God tells Elijah there are “still seven thousand in Israel… [who] have not bowed to Baal…” But Elijah doesn’t know this yet.

God has also been working through Elijah to call the nation back to Himself.  But right now Elijah is exhausted and on the brink of burnout, so God sends an angel to watch over Elijah while he sleeps, and to feed him when he wakes up. God does this for two days, until Elijah is rested and refreshed. God knows Elijah’s physical needs, and he provides as tenderly as a Father would.

God then meets with Elijah in the wilderness and asks Elijah “why are you here?”  Of course God knows why Elijah is there: he’s exhausted and he’s afraid for his life. But God knows Elijah needs to be heard: Elijah needs to speak his fears and his pain.  And God listens.

Then God gives Elijah a fresh experience of Himself, because Elijah needs some first-hand experience of God’s goodness and power. God hides Elijah in a cave, and allows him to experience a great wind, and an earthquake, and a fire – none of which God was part of, but sent by God, while Elijah is protected from the dangers. And then God meets Elijah in the silence that follows.

Only after all these needs have been met does God call Elijah to his next task.  Elijah hasn’t failed, and God doesn’t hold Elijah’s negative feelings against him. On the contrary, God respects Elijah’s heart, and then assures Elijah he’s still God’s prophet by giving him his next assignment – which includes anointing Ahab’s replacement.

God does one other thing for Elijah that we don’t see in this passage: God provides a partner in ministry. God tells Elijah to anoint Elisha as his successor. Elisha will not take over as God’s prophet right away; he will be Elijah’s assistant for over 20 years. But from now on Elijah will no longer feel so alone in his ministry.

So God is with Elijah in the hard times; and God calls Elijah from within those hard times into a ministry Elijah could not have imagined before.

Turning now to our Gospel reading, and the meeting between Jesus and the Demoniac of Gerasenes.


The Demoniac suffers in many ways. First off, he suffers because people don’t even know his name. They know who he is; they know his story; but nobody ever wrote his name down, and even today we only know him as “the demoniac of Gerasenes” – which is what he was, not what he is now.

He suffers because he’s possessed by demons. How people have interpreted this over the centuries varies. It’s worth mentioning that the holy books of all the major world religions have something to say about demon-possession, so this is not just some weird corner of Christianity. Many Christian churches around the world today still practice exorcism. Modern psychology does not recognize demon-possession, and clinical specialists refer to the phenomenon as “dissociative identity disorder” often rooted in traumatic experiences or mental distress.

But however you interpret this – the bottom line is, this man has been suffering and has been out of his mind for a long time. Imagine what it’s been like for him: he’s been naked, living outdoors, and the region around Galilee does get cold in the winter. He has no house to live in, no place to call home. He’s been living in a graveyard, which has to be scary and extremely lonely.  The people of the town avoid him, and the only time they come to see him is when they come with chains to chain him up. Are they chaining him up so he won’t hurt himself or to keep themselves safe? Scripture doesn’t tell us. But no matter: the demons give the man superhuman power to break the chains. Even so he is still completely cut off from human society.

In his conversation with Jesus, we learn the man is also not able to control his own words. His greeting to Jesus is “what have you to do with me, Son of the Most High God?” – which are certainly not his own words, but the words of the demons.

While all this is going on, as the man looks at Jesus, he sees someone who is radically different from himself.  Jesus is psychologically in perfect health; morally, he’s perfectly good; and from a human standpoint (or from any standpoint) Jesus is perfect. It must have been incredibly difficult for this man to look Jesus in the eye.

I think to some extent all of us feel this, at least sometimes, when we’re in God’s presence. We’re not perfect like Jesus. We don’t have it all together like Jesus does. Sometimes it can be difficult to look our Lord in the eye, even in prayer.

But whatever was going on inside this man, whatever his demons were, Jesus sets him free… and sends the demons into a nearby herd of pigs. The pigs, being the intelligent and sensitive creatures they are, go mad and drown themselves. They would rather be dead than suffer with demons. Imagine how much pain that man had been in, and for so long!

As with Elijah, God meets this man where he is.  Jesus begins with the question, “what is your name?” Jesus knows this man has never been called by his name before. And he’s still not able even to speak his own name: he answers, “Legion, for we are many” – and that’s the demons talking, not the man. So Jesus kicks the demons out and sets the man free. When the people of the town came running to see what happened they found the man “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”

You would think such a miracle like this would be cause for celebration – food, dancing, music!  But the people of the town react with fear. They’re so afraid they ask Jesus to leave. They’re afraid of the man; they’re afraid of Jesus; and so in this moment Jesus shares the man’s pain and loneliness, because both of them are rejected in fear.

So Jesus gets back in the boat. And the man says, “please can I go with you?” But Jesus says ‘no’ and gives him God’s call for his life: he says, “Go home” – for the first time – “and tell everyone what God has done for you.”

The people of this town are not going to get rid of Jesus so easily!  Every day for the rest of their lives they will see this man and remember what Jesus did.  They will hear his story, they will be told time and time again about Jesus and his love, they will have the opportunity to become believers.  Some will come to faith, and some will continue to fear.

Jesus’ calling on this man’s life is basically to return to the place where he has suffered and minister there. It seems God often makes this request of God’s people: to serve where we’ve been injured. It’s difficult, but it’s rewarding, and God’s calling redeems the painful times in our lives.

So I’ll leave us all, myself included, with these three questions:

  • Where is life difficult for us? Can we find ways to put our suffering into words and share it with God in prayer? This is not always easy; it may take time. Remember God can and does understand even without words, so if all we can say is ‘help, Lord’ it’s enough.
  • Can we find a way to offer our suffering to God, asking that ‘nothing be wasted’? One of the problems with life’s difficulties is they waste so much time and energy – time we could be spending with family, or working, or doing any number of things. Can we say to God “take this difficulty and use it – don’t let it be wasted”?
  • Can we watch and listen for God’s call? Because in times of difficulty, God’s call will be there somewhere. Expect it, listen for it, watch for it. God’s call is the beginning of healing, because as King David says in Psalm 30, “You have turned my mourning into dancing.” God’s call will make that happen. Listen for it. AMEN.


Today’s Readings:

1 Kings 19:1-15  Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.  2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”  3 Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.

4  But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.”  5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.”  6 He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again.  7 The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”  8 He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

9  At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;  12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  15 Then the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.

Luke 8:26-39  Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.  27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.  28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”–  29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)  30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.  31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.  32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission.  33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34  When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.  35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.  36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.  37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned.  38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying,  39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 6/23/19




Read Full Post »

The following post was written by author and health care administrator F. Nicholas (Nick) Jacobs of Windber PA, who has spent his career working to make health care more humane, especially for those of us who don’t have much clue about it. He is also related to my mother-in-law which is testimonial enough right there. 🙂  His take on the healing power of kindness echoes many of the themes found in the healing miracles of Jesus. If you’d like to learn more about Mr. Jacobs’ work, check out his blog Healing Hospitals.


Having had responsibility for administering the first rural hospice in the United States, a palliative care unit that was established in 1977, I quickly learned about the critical nature of kindness. Although many serious diseases may be life-ending, these same serious diseases are always life-changing, and kindness helps everyone involved.  In fact, Stanford University did a study that demonstrated that kind medical care can lead to faster wound healing, reduced pain and anxiety, and lower blood pressure plus shorter hospital stays.

This coincides with my own finding where, with a fully integrative hospital, we had an infection rate that never went above 1 percent (national average was 9 percent), and we had the lowest readmission rates, lowest restraint rates, and even though we had a hospice where people came to die, we had the lowest death rates of our 13 peer hospitals. When we brought in the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, and Georgia Tech to try to quantify these outcomes, there was only the ethereal connector, kindness.  Kindness seemed to be one of the root causes.

What are the keys to kindness?  They are profound, sincere listening, empathy and compassion, generous acts, timely care, gentle honesty, and support for family caregivers.

For empathetic listening, listen with minimal interruption and convey respect for the person’s self-knowledge.  As my brain surgeons used to say, “This is not rocket science.” And my rocket scientist friends used to say, “This is not brain surgery.”  It’s uncommon common sense. Nurses from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston begin their shifts by asking their patients, “What’s the most important thing we can do for you today?” And then listening to and responding to those patients.

A key element needed to provide actual empathy is the avoidance of judgment. Hate the disease, but don’t judge the person.  Don’t give your unwanted opinions or interrupt with your personal solutions. Simply listen with empathy.  Another is the ability to recognize the emotion that is present and then genuinely respond to it in a caring way.

Generous acts do not have to be limited to healthcare activities.   I’ve had patients who have proclaimed that hugs from nurses or physicians literally saved their lives, and that is not an exaggeration.


My career path took a very circuitous route to where I am today.  I started as a professional trumpet player and school band director, became an arts organization executive, and later founder of two genomic research institutes.  But in my thirties, before I entered health care administration, when I was serving as the president of the Laurel Highlands Convention and Visitors Bureau, I learned about customer service.

In that scenario, timeliness is always a problem. When I got into healthcare, I’d ask why it was I could stay in a nice hotel and in 15 minutes have two or three employees bumping into each other to take care of me for less than $200 a night, but for $2500 a night, after ringing my call bell for 45 minutes, I couldn’t get a bedpan in a hospital? That all changed very rapidly.

The next challenge is carefully administered gentle honesty. A physician friend told me the story of his first year of practice when he told a congestive heart failure patient to get his things in order because what he had was not reversible. This patient had at least 18 months or more to live, but the physician didn’t mention that.  The patient’s wife called the next morning and told my friend that her husband had died that night. Words are powerful.  Use them very carefully.

Finally, it’s imperative that we treat not only the patient but also their family members by considering their daily needs and providing emotional support.  I can honestly tell you that more healing took place in my hospice than in any other department in the hospital: family healing.

That’s the magic of kind care.

Nick Jacobs of Windber PA is a Partner with SunStone Management Resources and author of the blog healinghospitals.com.




Read Full Post »