Thursday, July 26, 2012

How I Learned about Healing

As a therapist my interest in faith and medicine began in earnest in 1968. I had received a telephone call from Mother saying Dad was near death from an auto accident.  It was a harsh reality. Dad was dying and the doctors only hoped he would survive until my brother Tom arrived home from Korea. My older brother Maury and I went immediately back home to Illinois to Good Samaritan Hospital. After surgery, we took turns holding on to Dad’s arms to keep him from pulling the tubes from his nose and mouth. It was an awful experience. I felt so helpless and hopeless.

After some time of talking with Maury, I silently prayed that God would heal Dad. I hadn’t prayed like this before. Our denomination did not believe in healing or any of the miraculous gifts. We often “Prayed for the sick we didn’t pray for them to get well,” so went our joke. We asked God to “Bless the patient, the doctors and nurses and comfort the family” But I failed to ask for a miracle. This time I was so desperate that I forgot my theology and prayed for healing.

My prayers were awkward, mumbled and panic stricken. They were not filled with faith or hope. Despite this, I sensed the presence of a powerful force come in the room. The hair on my head stood up and I had chills down my spine. About the same time Dad became quiet and his labored breathing became smooth and peaceful. His body was calm and quite sleep replaced the thrashing and resistance we two brothers were trying to control.

I immediately knew Dad had been healed. I followed his lead and relaxed. His hands fell quietly on the bed. I had faith that God had answered my prayer. And, as it turned out, He had. Dad recovered fully. He lived another ten years and I was thrust into the healing ministry with no educational preparation but a great personal experience.

My church and my profession both resisted the telling of my story. Neither was thrilled by my sudden entry into the healing journey. Few of my friends welcomed my new faith in God as healer. Preachers and teachers who regularly talked about the Great Physician were shocked when I mentioned what He had done to integrate their theory with His experience. 

I was caught between the Scylla of fearful Christians and the Charybdis of anxious Counselors. When I was preparing for graduate school my Sunday school teacher warned me to “Stay away from psychology! It’s from the devil” but now those same religious friends were frightened about using prayer to heal.  I found that my professional friends were deeply suspicious of any healing other than their own brand.

For example, while getting a doctorate at U.C. in 1972 a sociology professor refused to allow me to research the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous. “We are a public university and we cannot violate the separation of church and state,” he pompously said. A.A. is not a church, but they do allow clients to acknowledge God. Research shows clearly that A.A. is effective in treating addictions but that fact did not convince my agnostic professor that ending addiction was enough reason to research faith. Many of my teachers were frightened about the idea that there is a spiritual reality in the world and used all kinds of bogus excuses to forbid its study. 

The event with Dad at the Good Samaritan Hospital spurred me toward further study. In 1974-75 I wrote a doctoral dissertation that integrated psychology, theology and prayer. During my studies I found few believers and fewer psychologists willing to support my quest.  Even today some people are militantly against all expressions of religion outside a sanctuary. Recently an honor guard was fired for speaking about God. He ended his graveside talk with "God bless you and this family, and God bless the United States of America," he would say as he presented a folded flag to them. Because of that, he was released from his duties.

Most Americans want doctors and counselors to integrate religious practices into their lives. In 1993 and again in 1997Eisenberg and colleagues surveyed Americans about their use of alternative medical and psychological treatments. The percentage of persons who use at least one alternative therapy increased from 34% to 42% in those four years. The percentage who sought care from an alternative source increased from 36% to 46%.

Between 1990 and 1997 there was a 47% increase in visits to alternative practitioners, from 427 million to 629 million, exceeding the total number of visits made to all conventional primary care physicians in 1997.  The estimated amount paid to alternative practitioners increased 45% to $21.2 billion. The total estimated out-of-pocket expense for alternative therapies in 1997 was $27 billion, comparable to the amount paid out-of-pocket for all physician services in the United States. (1998 JAMA)

The numbers of persons seeking soul care from “alternative sources” has always exceeded those who visit professionals. Some 42% of distressed persons seek help from pastors, priests and other religious leaders and 18% seek help from a doctor. Only 8% look to professional mental health practitioners. However, 100% speak with family members, friends, colleagues and church before seeing anyone else.

Religious ministries are five times more involved in delivering mental health counseling than Mental Health Professionals. Ministers deliver more care and counsel than all other professions combined. When we add friends, Bible studies, healing services, church counseling centers, Alcoholics Anonymous and other self-help groups the percentage of influence raises dramatically. At least 95% of all emotional support, counseling and therapy in the USA is delivered through religiously oriented individuals and groups.

One commentator notes that India is the most religious nation on earth and the least is Sweden. It appears that America is a nation filled with citizens like Indians ruled by Swedes.

According to a recent NEWSWEEK poll, 84% of Americans believe God performs miracles today. They also found that 48% have personally experienced or witnessed a miracle. However, many doctors and therapists do not agree with their patients and refuse to accommodate their faith and hope. The lack of support and affirmation causes much unnecessary client pain. Some would say it is malpractice.

Several years ago a psychiatrist friend asked me to see a patient who had been under her care for several years. The diagnosis was depression and treatment was medication. The patient never improved and kept asking the psychiatrist, a Christian, to discuss her spiritual condition. The woman believed she had committed the unpardonable sin and was doomed to hell.  The doctor refused to discuss religion but decided to ask me to help the patient with pastoral care and counseling.

I saw the lady for four years and listened intently to her stories about why she believed God had left her. After some months I asked if I could pray for her and she agreed to allow me to pray silently. However, she was convinced it was hopeless. It was not long before the patient began to feel better. Then, after some months of probing and prayer, she started to consider the possibility that God was still with her.

The client is currently free from most of her depressive symptoms and is convinced that God loves her. It was a slow but remarkable recovery. She will tell you it is the result of prayer. I would add that in addition to prayer it was patience, supportive interactions, cognitive interventions including scriptures on the love and grace of God.

This lady has been under psychiatric care since 1955 but did not find any therapist that would take her spiritual concerns seriously until she met with me.  It seems to me that intentionally disrespecting the patient’s beliefs and convictions led her to live in misery for 50 years.  That is malpractice.

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