A few things I have learned

A physician shares insights from his ministry that can assist pastors in caring for the infirmed.

Jay Randall Sloop, MD, is the health ministries director, Upper Columbia Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Spokane, Washington, United States.

When I was seeing the usual array of patients on an ordinary day in 1962, one lady came in who appeared particularly troubled. As she detailed her symptoms, I sensed that her need was more spiritual than anything else. At that time in my life, my spiritual toolbox contained only a single item, and that was to invite her to visit my church.

Much to my embarrassment, when I met her at church, I couldn’t remember her name, so right away I called my receptionist. After I described the patient, she gave me name after name until she said “Wilma.”1 That was she, so I went back into the church and introduced her to the pastor.

Because I had never even had a thought about giving Bible studies to anyone, let alone Wilma, the pastor offered to study with her. When he began, Wilma’s 15-year-old daughter, Sharron, joined in. One lesson per week was not enough, so they did two. At that rate, it was not many weeks until both wanted to be baptized. Wilma’s husband, Everett, saw the wonderful changes in them, and he, too, was eventually baptized.

Then there was the matter of school for Sharron. The high school crowd had different values from Sharron’s new ones, so her parents were interested in hearing about Gem State Academy, a Christian high school. The financial obligations, however, seemed overwhelming. But between what Everett and Wilma could do, and adding what Sharron’s older brother contributed, what Sharron could earn at the school, and what aid the local church could offer, Sharron attended the academy after all. Following academy, she went to what was then known as Walla Walla College for elementary education training.

Eventually, I moved to Washington State and set up practice there. Our local church school needed a teacher, Sharron applied, and we hired her. Some time later, she married, and still later, she was my patient for her pregnancies. The first were twins. Sharron and Larry kept a growing spiritual life and raised their three children as Jesus’ close friends.

Years later, tragedy struck. A mammogram and biopsy confirmed Sharron’s breast cancer, which the doctors treated. However, it was later found in her brain. There were several brain surgeries, but each time the cancer returned with a vengeance. Her pastor and friends did what they could to help Sharron through this difficult time. Angela, her daughter who had just graduated from college, moved home to nurse Sharron through those trying years.

With my last visit to this family, not long before Sharron’s death, I concluded that in spite of the persistent and spreading cancer, God did His healing miracle in the mental and spiritual areas.

Since Sharron’s death, I have visited Angela several times. Now it is she who needs, and is finding, healing. She uses her physical, mental, and spiritual tools well, with her spiritual life centering around her daily devotional time with Jesus and the privilege of sharing God’s healing with her friends. And, she has just led her church in its Vacation Bible School.

She also tends to the physical factors in her personal life that she finds necessary for healing, such as careful nutrition for the health of her body’s cells, proper exercise for tension release, and regular times for sleep to bring both physical and mental stability and renewal. Emotional healing is, of course, also essential.

As we look over these three generations, what do we see, and what can we learn?

Wilma came seeking physical answers to spiritual problems. When given a spiritual start, she ran with it and gained the physical and mental blessings as well. Sharron had a physical problem that we never were able to cure. However, she was healed in the mental and spiritual areas. Angela now finds herself needing emotional healing, and she will find it with help from spiritual and physical tools.

As I have watched all this unfold during more than 45 years of medical practice and ministry, a few points have stuck out in my mind about how—if ministers and health professionals would work together—our churches would be in much better position to meet the needs of our members, as well as be more effective in outreach to the community.

It takes all three

What if we were to separate these three areas of healing? What if I, as a physician, had not thought to address Wilma’s spiritual needs? What if the pastor had left her spiritual care to me, since I had been her initial contact person? What if the church had not joined together to help provide for the educational needs of Sharron?

First, ministers should recognize the need to keep the physical, emotional, and spiritual areas of life together as they work with Christian physicians and other professionals when people with special needs come forward.

Second, there are studies that show that purpose in life and spirituality are positively correlated in HIV-positive patients.2 Total sobriety maintenance for those with spiritual involvement and beliefs was significant over those who relapsed.3 There is support for belief that spirituality can significantly improve healing from cancer.4 “Total health is possible only when the body and spirit are integrated into one reality.”5 Research confirms our understanding of humanity and human nature. That’s why ministers and health professionals need each other. None can do it all alone, but together they can be an effective team, working toward ministering to whatever needs arise with the folks they encounter on a daily basis.

Third, we need to work together on a personal basis by asking for help from each other when we need it. We need to join each other in the church, showing that we are on the same team, and we need to work together in our community outreach programs. We have often relegated the pastor’s role in a cooking school to ask God’s blessing on the food, or we request the doctor to give a personal introduction or a three minute “health nugget” at the start of the evangelist’s meetings.

Often those who might not be interested in a preaching series will be interested in an integrated physical, mental, and spiritual series done in your local church. God alone knows how many folks are members today who came looking for physical healing, not realizing how much more the Lord had in store for them.

A more effective ministry

In recent years, great strides were made in our local church when some of the individuals in the medical field had a weekly early morning meeting with the pastor for Bible study and prayer. Differences were worked out, and a spirit of trust grew so that we could count on each other to help in areas outside of each one’s primary expertise. We know we can refer more complex problems over to those who are best qualified to handle them, and as a team we are exponentially more effective than working solo.

Presently, for instance, we conduct weekly community health classes in which health professionals deal with the scientific data about health, another person deals with the social and emotional aspects, while the pastor takes one-third of the time with a dovetailed presentation centered on the healing stories from Scripture.

How can ministers, then, do the same work as their Master?

Team building has become the best answer I know to this important question. When we work as a team, God’s healing messages—grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the hope of eternal life—have new luster and power. But, if a person hurts, physically or mentally, their own pain will be their first priority—not the nature of the Trinity, the prophecies of Daniel, or what happens during the millennium.

Imagine how much more effective your ministry would be if, through working with health professionals, you were able to better meet the physical and mental challenges of those with whom you come in contact. Think about how much more open folks would be to the spiritual messages if you were able to bring relief and comfort in areas where they hurt the most. People are not just spiritual beings but mental and physical as well, and we will be most effective when we can help them, as a team, in all three areas.

Have we forgotten this well-known statement ? “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’ ”6

Herein lies a crucial key to effective ministry: meeting the people’s needs wherever and whenever we possibly can. And so often, aren’t those needs physical and mental and spiritual? Not just one or another?

Nobody can do it alone “I am the LORD that healeth thee” (Exod. 15:26). Ministers and health professionals are only the tools in God’s hands. God is our Healer, our Comforter, and our Savior. We can do none of these things. We can, instead, choose to cooperate with Him and others of His servants in seeking to reach out to the hurting, the lost, and the suffering who are always all around us. I saw this first with Wilma, then with Sharron, and now I’m seeing it with Wilma’s granddaughter, Angela.

Our work isn’t over. And it will never be, at least not until that day when, as was read at Sharron’s funeral, “the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:16–18).

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Jay Randall Sloop, MD, is the health ministries director, Upper Columbia Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Spokane, Washington, United States.

July 2008

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