Prayers and Miracles, a reflection of Faith & Science by Zach Boggs
Ephesians 5: 8-14 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Mark 8: 22-25 They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
Hello, my name is Zach, and I am a 4th year medical student here at UNC. I have a unique perspective when it comes to the discussion between faith and science. In my workplace, most of my patients are quite religious and most of my colleagues are less so. Often, I am put in an interesting position, with patients hoping for miracles and emotional support and physicians striving for evidence-based and algorithmic treatment plans. Since college, I have come to terms with many perceived conflicts between faith and science. I am totally cool thinking that God created evolution. I am fine seeing many old testament stories as allegorical. I am definitely okay thinking there may be life in distant galaxies, and I don’t think the enormity of the cosmos makes us any less special. I love the fact that there is great mystery in life, some things we can discover and some things we can just never know. Tonight, I would like to talk about three things: prayer, miracles and healing.
Prayer. Does God react to our prayers? Can prayers be transformative? Prayer occurs constantly in the healthcare setting. In working closely with patients, palliative care, and chaplain services, prayer is a vital aspect of care for many patients. However, there is a large gap between patients who want to pray and physicians who really don’t. I know of surgeons who will avoid extensive communication with families prior to surgery so as to avoid prayer. In thinking about how I would integrate my faith life into my medical practice, I told myself that I would keep my lives separate in the public sense and tackle hard topics privately. We are told as students to not discuss our personal lives with our patients, to not disclose our political or religious affiliations to our patients, thereby focusing our attention toward the patient. I scoffed at the idea of praying with patients when I first began medical school, mostly in opposition to some students who think that spreading the gospel and saving patients is more important than patient care, which is a different conversation all together.
Then my view on prayer shifted one day on the family medicine service. A patient of mine was having a terrible day. She had been told by one treatment team that she was clear to be discharged home, and another team told her she had to stay another few days for an invasive diagnostic procedure. During morning rounds, she said with frustration, “Is anyone even on my team? Are any of you even Christian?” There was silence in the room, and the resident said, “we are all on your team,” continued speaking about the plan, and deflected the question of faith. Those words stuck with me the rest of the day, and I found myself standing outside her room in the afternoon, deciding that all she needed was a prayer, for someone to show her that we were on her team. She was shocked when I offered to pray. After we finished our prayer, she said that I had completely turned her day around and that she could no longer feel frustrated with her care, because she received everything she needed right then. It was that moment that I realized how important it is for patients to have spiritual healing, whether or not prayer is transformative and whether or not God reacts to our prayers. In fact, there is much research going into the use of mindfulness and meditative prayer in the healthcare setting. Other researchers are studying how spirituality affects epigenetics, hypothesizing that DNA methylation and histone modification can be affected by belief or community, thereby possibly altering health outcomes for yourself and future generations. Regardless of the science, I have seen first-hand that prayer and spirituality have a large place in the healing of our spirits and our bodies, and I will continue to make efforts to bring healing to my patients from various directions.
Miracles. I read the story of the blind man tonight, because I think that miracles are just hard for scientists and anyone to understand. Especially when the advancements of medicine have proven historical miracles. Cataract surgery is a common surgery now-a-days and would have been a miracle in years past. Penicillin was found on accident and has revolutionized modern medicine. I have seen deaf patients hear for the first time with cochlear implants. I have seen someone’s life be turned completely around with a liver transplant. We now do in-utero neurosurgery on fetuses with neural tube defects. I heard about a surgeon attempting a head transplant in Europe. Miraculous events occur daily in the hospital, but miraculous events are different than the miracles performed by Jesus. We still can’t turn water into wine or raise people from the dead, but modern medicine is progressing at a rapid rate. Is it possible that science is “winning” the fight over religion because modern science now has more shock and awe? Religion is up against head transplants today.
We also have to wonder when we reach the point of playing God in medicine. To make matters worse, many patients see physicians as demi-Gods, likely due to the vulnerable state they find themselves. Often times, patients expect miracles from physicians, a miracle drug or maneuver that heals them instantaneously. Historically, physicians were religious figures with divine authority, the ability to heal with powers given from God himself. Today, physicians are hardly religious figures, but sometimes subconsciously imagine that they possess some higher authority, because of the idea of medical miracles. I saw a patient in my outpatient clinic this summer with vertigo, and I appropriately decided he likely had benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, which is what Roy Williams supposedly has. In order to diagnose the disorder, I had to do a maneuver called the Dix-Hallpike Test. When I completed the maneuver, he became very dizzy and nauseous, a positive test. He looked at me after the maneuver with this look of amazement as if I had completed a miracle. I felt in that moment a sense of power, but I had in no way caused a miracle, but I can see how miracles could be misconstrued by people in positions of power. But changing lives is why I wanted to become a doctor in the first place. I’ll never forget what my dad told me when editing my application to medical school. I wrote that I wanted to “transform” lives as a future physician. My dad, who is a pastor, politely said, “You cannot transform lives, God does that. You can merely be the vehicle in which transformation occurs.”
The difficulty with miracles is that they hardly ever happen, especially in the way we read about them in the Bible. Not to mention, the miracles of Jesus are impossible by the natural laws we have all learned in basic physics. People sink in water, they don’t walk on it. However, I have read that Jesus’ miracles were not meant to be explained by science. Like the existence of God, it is a matter of belief not possibly proven or disproven by scientific evidence. However, if we as humans can complete modern-day miracles with the advancement of medicine, Jesus’ story of healing the blind man becomes less special in secular society. Do we need new miracles of Jesus in order for society to regain the faith? It has been argued that the miracles of Jesus were not meant to be methods for recruiting followers, but rather small glimpses of divine enlightenment, bits of light revealed. I think Jesus’ healing of the blind man is a story about how we all can open our eyes to the light, to awaken ourselves to the daily miracles that still exist today.
To dive a little deeper into the Light that Jesus brings to the world through miracles, let’s consider the role of Light in Genesis. There is a conflict in the creation story, which has also bothered me. Light was created on day one, plants on day three, but the sun and stars were created on day 4. How can light or plants be created without our sun? I think God’s light is something much more than our understanding of suns or stars. God’s “light” exists as the foundation of the divine, God’s “light” is how we feel when we help another in need, how we get lost in the music on Sunday morning, God’s “light” is felt and seen when patients hear for the first time or when a blind man has his sight restored. Light is what provided Jesus with his ability to perform miracles and it is the same light which creates modern-day miracles, and we are the vehicle through which that light radiates into the world.
Here are my big takeaways: We need to remember to open our eyes to daily miracles, because they exist through the Light that God shines on us each day. Medicine comes from the advancement of humankind, but healing consists of so much more. And keep praying, because spiritual healing brings us closer to that Light and it may just be good for your health. We will never understand all of the unnatural laws that are not written in science textbooks, so the best way to integrate Truth is to keep our eyes and ears open, to read and learn, and to share our daily miracles with each other in community.