Can there be any doubt that health care is still one of the hot topics in our country these days? No matter where you stand on the issue of health care, and the spectrum is wide, we all have to admit that there is considerable energy focused on the state of our health.
When our culture is obsessed with physical health, primarily to avoid aging, when our government is obsessed with arguing about whether health care is a right or a privilege, when practitioners argue about the best way to provide care, when those who have health care argue that they don’t want to lose it, when those who don’t have care argue that they should have it, when insurance companies insist that they should be able to determine how a person gets treated by their physician, we can say with absolute certainty that the issue of health care is a big issue.
Recent studies are suggesting that our young people are eating better, getting more exercise, and showing better scores on many measures of physical health. And some of our aging population is living longer, whether because of modern medicine, or their own efforts. There is some evidence that Baby Boomers are not living as long as other generations, and of course, being one of the richest nations in the world hasn’t helped our infant mortality rate, or even our general life expectancy rate, both of which are lower than many other countries who have far less resources than we do.
We are surrounded by information in the media about our physical health, so much so that we can hardly escape it.
In a similar way, horrific mass shootings have propelled us into a conversation about mental health. Even as the American Psychiatric Association adjusts and modifies what it considers to be mental illness, our culture is just now beginning to see the connection between inadequate mental health services and violent tragedies.
Related to the health care system, the mental health care system includes psychiatrists who by and large prescribe medications for their patients, and psychologists and social workers who primarily serve their patients with various types of therapy. And for all the people who receive help through a psychiatrist, psychologist, or social worker, there are many more who aren’t receiving any help at all.
In fact, there are many in the law enforcement field who believe that a majority of inmates in our prisons and jails are individuals who suffer from undiagnosed and untreated mental illnesses.
In addition to the issues of physical health that dominate the airwaves, issues of mental health take a close second. And for all our energy around our issues of physical health and mental health, we, as a culture, as a society, on many levels, don’t seem all that healthy.
Modern Western medicine seems to be a little late to party when it comes to including the spiritual realm in its approach to wellness.
But if you do a quick Google search, you’ll find thousands of books dedicated to all things spiritual. Spiritual wellness has begun to creep into all kinds of discussions. Practitioners from a whole host of traditions are offering ideas about spiritual wellness. Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Pagan, each with their own approach to spiritual health.
What much of the world already knows is that the spiritual health of a person is as important, if not more important, than the physical or mental health of a person. At the very least, it’s an equal consideration in helping someone heal.
But health care systems in our modern, western world aren’t set up to address those aspects of our health. Medical schools rarely devote time to addressing the spiritual aspect of a person’s health. Hospitals consistently understaff their chaplaincy departments, even though there is much evidence that a strong spiritual care department leads to better and healthier outcomes for patients receiving care. When was the last time your primary care physician asked you about your prayer life? When was the last time you saw your health care plan cover pastoral care?
Probably never! Because the overwhelming understanding about that is that it’s not their business. Doctors and insurance companies leave that aspect of your care to you. Some will admit the value of a spiritual component to anyone’s healing, but rarely does ones spiritual health ever get discussed when healing is the topic.
Our physical illnesses get addressed by the doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and nurses. Our most serious mental illnesses get addressed by the psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers. Our spiritual crises by and large get ignored. At best, we’re told that’s between us and our pastor if we have any concerns.
But can there be any doubt that the spiritual aspect of a person’s health is just as important? Don’t we already know that prayer works?
Our Hebrew Scripture this morning through the prophet Jeremiah describes a God who is deeply saddened by the state of the people. The consequences of their use of images and foreign idols led to God’s distance, and even as the people cry out and mourn, God, too, cries out and mourns for God’s people.
Jeremiah isn’t describing a callous and punitive God. The God of this passage is wracked with sadness over the health of the people. The spiritual health of the people.
The balm in Gilead, the physician God speaks of is the spiritual healer that is missing from amongst the people. Time and time again, the people of Israel begged God for a King, a political leader who could protect the people, who could negotiate with other countries for the people, who could declare war on other people. And though God disagreed, God granted them their request.
But time and again, that model of leadership led to unfaithful behavior, which led to God distancing God’s self from God’s people, which led to crying and sadness and mourning. On the part of God’s people, and on God’s part too.
After having this happen over and over again, God finally decided to do something about it. We now have a balm in Gilead, and a physician of sorts: the Holy Spirit, and Jesus. Remember these lyrics from the classic hymn?
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul
Sometimes I feel discouraged
And think my work's in vain
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again
Don't ever feel discouraged
For Jesus is your friend
And if you lack of knowledge
He'll ne'er refuse to lend
If you cannot preach like Peter
If you cannot pray like Paul
You can tell the love of Jesus
And say, "He died for all".
Christians have a spiritual side of their health care that is rarely acknowledged, much less discussed. But here it is, in plain sight: sometimes we’re sin-sick. Sometimes we’re discouraged, not because our bodies are sick, or because our mind or emotions are disturbed, but because our souls aren’t well.
Some of us have access to a pastor, or spiritual guide, but according to recent polls, most of Americans, and especially most of the northeastern Americans, don’t go to church, don’t have a pastor, don’t even know they have a spiritual side to their health!
Right.So here I am, preaching to the choir. Literally and figuratively! Perhaps you already know how important the state of your spirit is to your physical and mental health. But how do we, those who are aware of the nearly invisible aspect of our health, let others know that they can be helped!
The hymn tells us that there is a balm, there is a physician. The balm is the Holy Spirit, and Jesus. And our gospel lesson, as confusing as it may sound, is a prescription from our spiritual physician: if you are faithful in the little things, the things nobody ever sees, you will be trusted with the big things.
We all know whether we live our lives faithful in the little things or not. We often make a conscious decision about whether we will be honest in our behavior or not. It makes a difference in the health of our souls. While many of our brothers and sisters live out their lives unaware of the spiritual aspect of their health, we can be informed about how the little sins, the little untruths, can lead to spiritual malaise and illness.
At worst, being aware of the spiritual aspect of our health can help us make better decisions in our lives. At best, it becomes a tool for healing when our bodies and our emotions are suffering.
Eastern medicine has its approaches to a person’s spiritual health, some are focused almost exclusively on the spirit as a mechanism for healing.
Western medicine, not so much.
The good news is that there is much we can do to improve our spiritual health: prayer for ourselves and others, a spiritual practice of being faithful in the little things, recognition of the role the Holy Spirit and the role our Lord and Savior, Jesus play in our lives, and the resources we have through our church.
If we can begin to pay attention to the health of our souls, I believe we’ll find that our physical, mental and emotional health will improve as well.
Yet another gift from the God who cries when we cry, who mourns when we mourn, and who aches when our hearts ache.