“Symbolic healing” on a Sunday when we really need it

April 22, 2013

When a member of my church began the morning prayer on the Sunday following a terrible week, I knew I had come to the right place.

“This has been a horrific week,” he began, “with bombings at the Boston Marathon where three were killed and 170 were injured, a police officer later assassinated, a bombing suspect killed, and then the chemical explosion in the community of West, Texas, where fourteen were killed including firefighters and rescue workers, and 200 injured. Then an earthquake took the lives of more than 150 people and injured 5,550 others in China.”

He invited us to join together in a time of silence and remembrance for the victims and families, after which he offered a long prayer, with words carefully crafted. A few minutes later, our pastor (who last week told us that being nice is not good enough) preached a gentle, emotionally charged sermon about God the Good Shepherd.

So what’s the point of all these prayers and sermons in church when the world is torn apart by horrendous pain and suffering? At home after church, while pondering this question, I came across an answer in I. M. Luhrman’s op-ed column “The Benefits of Church,” which she posted April 20 in the New York Times. Luhrman is a professor of anthropology at Stanford and the author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God.

 “We have increasingly better evidence,” she writes, “that what anthropologists would call ‘symbolic healing’ has real physical effects on the body. At the heart of some of these mysterious effects may be the capacity to trust that what can only be imagined may be real, and be good.”

While Luhrman refers to her research in evangelical churches, symbolic healing also takes places in liberal churches like the one where I worship. Here is the prayer that is helping me trust that a peaceful world, something I can only imagine, may be real and at sometime in a future we can only imagine come to pass.

“Creator God and Life-giving Spirit: We gather on this Lord’s Day with Easter only days behind us. While Easter was a time of new awakenings, this past week has been an occasion of both death and new life. Our eyes and minds have been bombarded with images of violence, destruction, injury, and death. We have been filled with both hurt and happiness.

“It is difficult to imagine the historic city of Boston being shut down, the people terrorized and living in fear. It is just as difficult to imagine an entire town on the plains of Texas being blown away by a chemical explosion.

“We come today remembering and praying for our sisters and brother. Our hearts go out to those who lost loved ones and whose lives will be forever changed. With your tender mercies bring healing and wholeness to their brokenness.

“O God, our great Shepherd, healer and helper, we also remember today those who are ill, hospitalized, convalescent, or homebound. We remember those who grieve—the loss of companions and loved ones, the loss of strength and youthfulness, the loss of quality of life.

“We remember the lonely who need friendship, those whose hearts and lives are broken , those who live with their addictions, those needing food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. With your tender mercies bring healing and wholeness to their lives.

“O God of hope and encouragement, enable us to see the world not only as it is but as it can be. Give us a vision of families living together in a global community where there is peace with justice for all, sufficient food and water, housing, education, and healthcare. Teach us the joy of giving and the dignity of caring.

“Use our humble gifts to build a better humanity. Let us never lose sign of the purposes you have for our lives, and grant us the strength to obey your voice. In the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, our elder brother and friend, we pray. Amen.”

Following public disasters like the Boston Bombings, public officials encourage us to continue our normal patterns of life, vigilant but unafraid. And we want to live that way. What the public officials cannot easily do, however, is provide the symbol healing that gives the spirit of trust in the reality of the world that can only be imagined.

By themselves, prayers are not enough. What must follow is the constant, hard work of seeking justice, overcoming all that causes pain and suffering, teaching, and building. All of this we have to do. But in order to engage in these labors, we need to believe that what we do can make a difference. The disease we face is cynicism, the inaction  that comes from believing that nothing good can be done.

The healing symbols of hopeful expectation enable us to move past our illness into new life.