Religious Practice and Improved Health

May, A.D. 2012

Dear friends in Christ,

Of late, I’ve read about several studies attempting to correlate religious practice (i.e., church attendance) and improved health. While researchers hold differing views about whether or not church attendance correlates positively with physical health (by measuring blood pressure, heart rate, brain activity, etc), many more researchers agree that people who are connected with a faith community ‘report’ feeling better. In other words, they describe greater feelings of well-being.

Having dabbled in genetics studies throughout my early twenties, I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to soft science. That is to say, I am not likely to go out and market the Church as the next best thing since aspirin. Furthermore, I know of enough instances where church affiliation has caused ill health to warrant caution about simple correlations. But because my father battled cancer through most of my late childhood, and died at the young age of 58, and because our Protestant denomination did not regard anointing of the sick as a sacrament, I take personal interest in the Episcopal Church’s healing practices. As your Vicar, I believe we should always be assessing our health as a spiritual community, and lifting up for each other and the world the Mysteries of healing, present in all of the Church’s sacraments.

No doubt, healing and wholeness is a predominant theme throughout the Bible. The Psalmist proclaims “Bless the Lord, O my soul….Who heals all your diseases, Who redeems your life from destruction” (Psalm 103: 1-4), and “O Lord my God, I cried out to You and You have healed me” (Psalm 29:20). Jeremiah the prophet, prays, “Heal me O Lord, and I shall be healed” (Jeremiah 17:4). The gospels cite several instances of Jesus healing the sick, and of empowering his followers to do the same: “So they went out and preached that people should repent.  And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:12, 13). And James, in his letter, advises new Christians in this way “Is anyone among you is sick, let him call for the elders of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up.  And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:13,14).

In Episcopal tradition, healing is a defining metaphor for salvation. Salvation is indeed about eternal life made possible by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Salvation is about this life, too. Salvation entails several levels of healing: emotions and the psyche, physical wellness, human reconciliation, and harmony among peoples. In Episcopal practice, the rite of anointing with holy oil is a sacrament, administered by a priest or bishop, and available to anyone who seeks healing for themselves or on behalf of another. Confession and absolution invite us to the ongoing need for forgiveness. The prayerbook Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent invites a more personal consideration of what is broken in one’s life, and of the source of forgiveness as God. And our ongoing ministries are examples of Christ’s healing grace being channeled to the world.

As Easter culminates in Ascensiontide and Pentecost, I invite you to join me in asking How can we as a community continue to focus on spiritual health as we seek to grow? What may we offer the world around us by way of healing and reconciliation? What in our own lives needs healing? and Who in our midst has spiritual gifts for healing? In the words of Diana Butler Bass, “Healing is an expression of God’s peace, God’s dynamic wholeness, the central vision of the Bible in which all of creation is one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony.” Let us never fail to thank God for blessing Holy Cross with abundant healing and shalom. As we move forward, may we so value spiritual health above numerical growth that others may be drawn to a community where they both find and reveal that peace which emerges out of deep oneness with God.

God bless and keep you,
with love and thanksgiving,