Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Jonah brings healing

A man after open heart surgery is not following instructions. He is staying in bed not wanting to move. His wife is feeding him instead of him feeding himself. He is headed in the direction of becoming a cardiac cripple. I get a referral to visit. We get along very well in that first and initial visit. He is open and friendly. He complains about various things including the food. Not eating is not like him. He has always been an good eater. But his appetite is gone. Hunger has vanished. Discovering he is complaining he says, "I don't know why I am complaining to you." I say, "You can complain about anything you want." Now that is giving a person permission and he runs with it. "Why is there so much pain in the world anyway?" "You must have had a lot of pain?" says I, going with his lead. "I didn't know there was so much pain. When I woke up from the surgery I was one ball of pain. And the only word that came to my mind was Jonah." Now there is an interesting remark. I have only heard it once in this context. Every story is unique.


What do you know about Jonah? He gives me a Sunday School answer. Fish, swallowed, etc. Then I ask if I can tell him something about Jonah. Jonah is the symbol of coming back to life. Jesus uses the expression, "Sign of Jonah". It has reference to death and resurrection. His eyes are wide open now and he is attentive. This time the call to new life and mission included "a ball of pain" and the word "Jonah."


I leave the room shortly afterwards. Later in the day I pass the nursing station and they want to know what we talked about. I said, "Jonah." They are not interested. They are interested in the fact that afterwards he decided to get up and start walking. He started feeding himself. A friend of his wife who knows me said the next day the wife was appreciative of my stopping by. Since he had a Church and a Pastor I did not stop in again 


The patient needed an interpreter, a translator, for connecting Scripture with his life experience of ball of pain and the word Jonah. He was not aware of having received the word of hope already. Like Jonah he didn’t like the assignment. But going with the assignment he discovered a way out.


Seventeen years later a Lutheran Pastor tells me about an Alban Institute Conference where Roy Oswald has said that Mutual of Omaha is paying heart patients $3500 to participate in the Dean Ornish Heart Program. The Dean Ornish approach is low fat, exercise, support group, and stress management with meditation. At the time I was part of heart rehab phase 3 for my high blood pressure. I asked the nurse if anyone in Phase 3 was doing the Dean Ornish Approach. She said one person. I said, "introduce me." Guess what? It was "Jonah!" He had no remembrance of my being present 17 years before. That is not unusual. But he knew I knew what no one else knew. He was trying the Dean Ornish program on his own. It was hard. We negotiated to organize a support group with meditation. And we did. He said he brought up the Dean Ornish approach to his doctor who said, "That is what they do in the lab, this is the real world." I said on the spot, "The real world is also a lab!" 


The real world is the lab from bringing Scripture stories, the stories of others, and our own stories together.



Tuesday, November 8, 2022

The Beginners Mind - Asking Questions

Listening and Questions often go together. One of the places we find this is in Luke’s Gospel (2:46-50 ) when Jesus was 12 years old with his parents in Jerusalem celebrating the Passover. His parents missed him when he was not present on the trip home from Jerusalem. Returning they found him in the Temple. The passage reads.

After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. [47] Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. [48] When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you."

[49] "Why were you searching for me?" he asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?" [50] But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

The emphasis on questions here is readily apparent. Jesus is listening to the scholars and asking them questions. The exchange between his mother and Jesus involves three questions. The questions raised by Jesus seems to put his mother to the test. His family relationships have been moved to his relationship with God as Father by way of a question. He has the rabbinical mind already where questions are a central feature.

Questions have always been important for my learning. I have been accused of asking too many questions.

There is more to the word question than meets the eye. A distraught grandfather came to the pastoral care office some weeks after his granddaughter had died of cancer. He wanted to talk about this. His first words after our introductions were, “I am not the religious one in our family. I always had too many questions.” I responded with a question, “And what do the first five letters of question spell?” He answer, “Quest.” I said, “That sounds like a very religious activity to me.” ... We then moved to the heart of his pain and sadness in the loss of his granddaughter.

I have a story about questions that illustrates the beginners mind. This is the story of Dr. Hans Selye who is known as the father of stress research. He gave us the name and he wrote the book Stress which explores this phenomenon from a biological perspective. The exception is chapter 5 entitled “An Attitude of Gratitude.” Gratitude generates an optimal amount of ACTH from the adrenal pituitary glands providing us with a sense of well being.

How did this come to be? It started with a question. The day the professor had four different patients in the ampitheater he came up with four different diagnosis. Selye watched. He talked to the professor later asking, “What was going on in the body that made them all look sick?” The professor told Selye if he wanted to get through medical school he would stop asking questions like that. He was still curious. He talked to his peers. They echoed the professors answer. 

Ten years later Selye was now in Montreal, Canada, working on some hormone research. His task was to go to the slaughter house and get pig nuts in the stainless steel bucket. Ever observant he noticed they were not all the same size. What is going on in the pigs that produce the smaller size? As a farm boy I knew he was talking about the runt of the liter. They were pushed out from getting food by their bigger brothers and sisters. The stress effected five glands of the pig. Stress has the same effects on the glands of humans.

Selye’s conclusion about questions, “Always ask the question no one else is asking.”

I had the privilege of being present with a small group who had lunch with Dr. Selye. I had a question for him. “I heard a former Dominican monk give a talk a few weeks ago, and he told stories just like you did this morning about your stress research.” He gave me the answer. “The Dominicans were my first teachers but I didn’t think they had any influence on my life.”

My question netted a copy of the prayer he wrote while facing the loneliness in doing stress research. His findings caused a change in medical thinking. The new findings were not readily accepted. 

His prayer was written in the form of a Lament Psalm. The Dominicans had more influence than he realized. My question led to a new insight for both of us.


Fr. Whitmer