“Healing Words” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – January 22, 2012

Call to Worship – from “Friendship” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. Despite all the selfishness that chills like east winds, the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth.

Reading – from “The Man to Send Rain Clouds” by Leslie Marmon Silko

Sermon – “Healing Words” by Mark W. Harris

When I was 8 or 10 years old, I remember being sick with a sore throat, and needing to go see a doctor. We couldn’t get an appointment that day with my regular doctor, but I was feeling pretty poorly. My father said something like, I am sure old Dr. Sauter is available, with my brother chirping in, he’ll set you straight. I just wanted to feel better. Dr. Sauter was an elderly, kind old man, who was round like a butterball, very short, and he smoked like a chimney. In between puffs, this owl like man with his round glasses teetering on his nose, placed his cigarette down on an ashtray, and bid me to say AHH!. I was soon done with the examination, which was a good thing since the closet sized, smoke filled room was not aiding the healing process much. I left equipped with a prescription for what appeared to be strep throat. It was probably not so surprising a half century ago to see a physician who smoked, even while there were patients in his office. After all, it seemed like everybody smoked then, and this was prior to the warning labels on packs and lawsuits that netted millions. At one time, people believed that smoking was good for you, and while we know that to be false now, the power of example and suggestion was pretty strong then. Most adults I knew did in fact smoke, including my father. Moreover, all of my favorite baseball players, the passion of my life then, were smokers. Flipping through Life Magazine, I would see Warren Spahn, the left handed pitcher, who I dreamed of being just like one day, puffing away on his Lucky Strike, while standing in the dugout.

So the parent, the healer and the hero in my life were all giving the message that it was alright to smoke. As a child these examples were powerful ones, and certainly did nothing to deter me from smoking, which I ended up doing for many years. The power of suggestion to convince consumers to purchase a product is something marketing companies have employed for years. I saw the example of those I wanted to emulate, and I was easily convinced that the product they used would be good for me, too. It must be a quality product, since these individuals endorse its use. Many of us are naïve consumers convinced by name or reputation, when a product is associated with something we consider reliable or trustworthy. This is true of the words “old” or “foreign,” two labels liberal New Englanders like us can be susceptible to. With old, we have the historical and antique lovers, who assume that any old house must be preserved in its original form, even if it turns out it has no lasting architectural value, and its care has been neglected. Liberals sometimes seem convinced that anything foreign must be made better. We make the suggestion that they care more about serving people, and somehow put more care and craft into their products. Yet if you lived with my family when we were in England, and you used the washing machine that drained all the color from my lovely blue shirt, and then subsequently returned to the house at 10 o’clock at night to find a dryer still running that you had turned on at 8:00 a.m., then perhaps your faith in the quality of European products would be shaken. While their washers and dryers are not so reliable, there is no more powerful incentive or suggestion to trust and buy than the use of a British accent on a television commercial. Every other person on television employs the jolly old brogue and we Americans are lulled off into consumer hypnosis with our wallets nearly falling out of our pockets for everything from vacuum cleaners to Geiko insurance.

We all know that some people can be convinced to buy something by a compelling word or a tone of voice. It may seem more interesting, more provocative, or more reliable. What makes us feel better about this purchase? We have a history with their products, friends or even celebrities vouch for them, they are recommended by experts with data to prove their worth, or perhaps the price is right. Consumer purchases are one thing, but by implication, the history, the tone of voice, the expectations and attitude, all play a role in what makes us feel better in our interactions with others. What first led me to write this sermon, was a comment I heard from a relatively new member who was serving as a greeter one day. Another parishioner came in, and the new member apparently felt accosted when she was greeted with a kind of dismissive tone, who are you? This was as if to say, I don’t know you, and therefore you must be new here. While we all want church to be a place where we know and trust others, it is also true that we have a fair amount of transience here, and must be open to greeting new faces as we change and grow. Many of us come infrequently, and so even two people who have been around for a while, may not be known to each other. Our attitude may make all the difference in whether a person feels welcome or not. My all time favorite story from our church occurred when a relatively new person, approached a woman who had not been in church recently, and so seemed like a fellow newcomer. As it turned out she had been teaching in the church school for several weeks, and had not been in church. This apparent new person was Andrea, the former minister and my wife. Sauntering up to her, the confident newcomer said, so what do you think of the minister and that sermon?

The attitude, or the tone following the effort to greet them in the first place can make all the difference in the world as to how someone feels about their church experience. If we accost them because they are new to us, or for other reasons, it hardly provides an atmosphere of welcome. They may take their religious journey elsewhere. I recently saw the movie, “My Week with Marilyn,” which is the story of Colin, a young British third assistant film director who befriends Marilyn Monroe when she comes to England to prove her real acting abilities in a movie opposite the famous Laurence Olivier. Meeting Olivier’s and others demands to get the film in the can, stretches Marilyn’s ability to respond with timely, responsible behavior. Colin, who is the least important person on the set, becomes her confidant because he makes no demands on her. Yet she is an emotionally fragile person who has a history of abandonment, who is also aware of the public persona that brings her much adoration and fame. She bounces back and forth between the emotionally needy person who must constantly be assured by her acting coach that she is great and wonderful to the famous icon who poses for and seduces the public into adoring her more and more, and at one point asks Colin, “Shall I be Her?”

Without over-psychoanalyzing who is seducing whom, or if Colin’s goal is to turn Marilyn into a real person, and not the public’s main dish, we are led to ask what would have healed her of her dis-ease of never feeling loved enough. He cannot turn the idol into a person, and she ends up preying on him to fulfill her needs. Despite her fragility, we do see that he has some success in helping her feel at home in the world, by not asking too much of her, or telling her what she must do, but rather by listening to her, and affirming her, letting her have fun, but still not allowing her to shirk her responsibilities. Whatever the motivation, Colin said the right words to Marilyn to help her feel better, finish the film, and move on.

The kind of healing words we can convey to one another is the kind of relationship Emerson spoke of in his essay on “Friendship.” More than mere gossip or trite compliments, or the cover-up of our true thoughts “under a hundred folds,” Emerson said we can speak to the conscience of everyone we encounter. He spoke of bringing every person into true relations. “The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it’s the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when he discovers that someone else believes in him and is willing to trust him with his friend.” Here in this community we want to be authentic with one another.

Finding the right words or using the power of suggestion to make someone feel better is central to the controversial use of placebos in medicine. A recent article in The New Yorker called “The Power of Nothing” about Ted Kaptchuk, reminded me of a conversation I had with a parishioner in a hospital many years ago. He had a splitting, migraine headache when I entered the room, and probably a visit from the minister was the last thing he wanted. But I stayed and we talked, or rather he talked, and I listened, with but a few leading questions. Perhaps the headache came because he had been alone, and was worried about what was wrong with him, or was anxious about one of his children. Maybe just talking let him forget about what was bothering him. What I can say is that he was with someone, and not alone. And he was talking with someone who was not demanding that he do or be something. Either of these could have relieved his tension, or perhaps it simply went away. I left the room, and he later reported to his wife, tongue in cheek, of the miraculous cure I had induced. Yet there were no special words. The headache was gone after I left.

Kaptchuk, who was an acupuncturist for many years believes that there is an important component of medicine that involves suggestion, ritual and belief. We are not talking about miracle cures here with intercessory prayers, or making tumors go away with meditative visualization, but rather giving ourselves and our loved ones the best possible circumstances in which to respond to medical and emotional challenges. A homeless person, for instance, who is in a safe, beautiful, affirming home surrounding is going to be a lot better off than when he/she lives the lonely, hazardous and harsh life of the city streets. It is as simple as that.

Of course the traditional concept of the placebo is the use of a sugar pill instead of a prescribed drug. The effect was first reported from a battlefield circumstance during World War II when wounded soldiers were being brought in to a field hospital, and the staff ran out of morphine. They administered a saline solution instead, and the soldiers reported they were getting a strong pain reliever. They expected relief, and they got it. Medical professionals might react that this is unproven and irrational, but we need to remember that many people simply want to ask the question, besides heeding the results of science, what else is it that will heal me?

The word “placebo” comes from the Latin, and literally means “I will please.” What, we might we ask ourselves, will please us when we are confronted with circumstances of pain or discomfort? While some of us are more susceptible to suggestion than others, and some illnesses are alleviated more by suggestion than others, there is no mistaking the power of atmosphere and attitude to achieve the desired result. When we take the ibuprofen for the headache, we expect the pain to be gone, and we may well start to feel better because we have it in our heads that we will feel better. Talk about suggestion – research shows that bigger pills are better than smaller, and two better than one, and so forth. Part of the reason for this success is that when we prepare ourselves to receive some healing salve, our bodies open to it. The expectation or the suggestion has been made. This can be threatening to medical professionals because it broadens the definition of healing.

Yet there are words, we all need to hear that will make us feel better or even heal us. I remember once having terrible leg cramps that simply would not go away, and calling a friend who was a doctor. We got together, so I was not alone. We talked, and he made some suggestions about diet. It was enough to calm down an anxious me. There is an African proverb which says, “Visitor’s footfalls are like medicine; they heal the sick.” This is not to demean serious treatment for serious illnesses, but to suggest how important that interaction between doctor and patient is. If there is a level of trust, then the relationship may help us feel better, but too often people are dismissed, rushed, or have to haggle with insurers.

One can imagine the importance of the relationship between healer and injured in the case of Clara Barton ministering to soldiers on the battlefield. During the early days of the Civil War she was upset by the lack of care given to wounded soldiers. She went to Washington to convince the generals to let her go out on the battlefields to help. They agreed, and she spent months bandaging, washing and feeding soldiers, often within range of rifle fire. She went directly to the men where they were lying because wounds left unattended often became infected, and others died of thirst while waiting for help. She said she was strong enough to go to the front. While there was often little that could be done medically, the placebo effect would have been that much stronger with clean care and loving arms to hold the wounded. The water, the bandages, and the compassion turned out to be a saving balm.

In her short story, “The Man to Send Rain Clouds,” Leslie Silko describes the death of the grandfather in the simple act of tending sheep. Here words and ritual infuse the world with meaning. The native Laguna Pueblo culture make the dead still significant to the living, and so it is their responsibility to bring plenty of rain so that the earth can be renewed. Their culture blends with the traditional religion of Catholicism and the priest’s holy water. At first the priest resists bringing the two worlds together – but finds a common religious sensitivity through the merging of life and death – the ritual means that water will return to replenish the earth. Here there is a bit a magic, but it signifies that the world will continue thanks to the gifts of the dead. The priest heals by letting go of the rigid rules of his faith, and hearing what will please the family. This affirms the integrity of their native tradition. Someone listens, does not makes demands, and they are healed. In Medieval times there were hired mourners for the dead called placebos who would often chant a portion of Psalm 116, which says “I shall walk before the Lord in the lands of the living.” This meant the dead still walk around, and still perform service. Before our beloved member Mary Schlivek died she spoke of the hospice workers as singing her out, and we know how Mary will continue to inspire us and serve us, even in death. Healing words mean we give each other the opportunity to speak the truth about the life we live, and give it meaning. That is why people come to church. We need to give everyone the chance to discover that meaning with each other. You are the placebos to life’s pain and turmoil when you listen to and befriend one another. To be together in church means that we are not alone, and we provide service even unto death. Here we want everyone to be listened to and received for who they are, not for what we want from them. And in that spirit of community and care, we gather with the expectation of a healing balm.

Closing Words – “Our Jeopardy” by Thomas John Carlisle

It is good to use
best china
treasured dishes
the most genuine goblets
or the oldest lace tablecloth
there is a risk of course
every time we use anything
or anyone shares an inmost
mood or moment
or a fragile cup of revelation
but not to touch
not to handle
not to employ the available
artifacts of being
a human being
that is the quiet crash
the deadly catastrophe
where nothing
is enjoyed or broken
or spoken or spilled
or stained or mended
where nothing is ever
pored over
laughed over
wept over
or found.