January 4, 2011


A funeral homily for a physician

Romans 8 / Mark 1:40-45

It would surely be the height of presumption, and theologically suspect, to conclude that any one particular profession is the most Christian of occupations.

On the face of it, the best candidate for a solidly Christian profession would be carpentry. By most historical reconstructions, Jesus was, among other things, a trained carpenter.  And surely at the bottom of the list would be preachers, since our Lord was consistently hardest on and most critical of preachers and other professional religious types like me.

But a case can made, I think, that the practice of healing, the art of medicine, the curing of disease—these are terribly Christian sorts of things to be about.  And this is particularly so when such practices are imbued with acts of personal sacrifice, with a living concern for another’s well-being, and with a thoroughgoing love of neighbor.  Love of neighbor, let us remember, being Jesus’ second commandment for all like R. H. who would follow in his way—in Jesus’ practice of God’s medicine in the world.

At bottom, what makes the practice of medicine a Christian act is likely not competency, but compassion.  (Although, one need not suggest these two are in conflict with one another.) But to be human with one’s patients is to care for them, as well as their bodies.  It is to offer, not merely advice or prescription, but counsel, concern, care. This is—if I may say it this way—a very Jesus sort-of-thing to do.

On Friday, the family and I were talking about the good counsel Dr. H. was given early on in his practice by a mentor in the profession. Essentially it was this: When there are no medicines to prescribe for one’s patient, there is always the gift of human touch. This wisdom, so important to your father, put one of you in the family in mind of Spencer Free’s lovely verse:

’Tis the human touch in this world that counts, 
The touch of your hand and mine, 
Which means far more to the fainting heart 
Than shelter and bread and wine. 
For shelter is gone when the night is o’er, 
And bread lasts only a day. 
But the touch of the hand 
And the sound of the voice 
Sing on in the soul always.

Free’s gentle words and our conversation on Friday put me in mind of Mark, chapter 1. The afflicted leper: broken in body from a dreaded skin disease, cut off from his community because of contagion.  He boldly prevails upon Jesus for healing.  “If you choose, you can make me well.”

At this moment, we all take a deep breath to see how it is God’s servant-son Jesus will respond. Mercifully, the gospel writer is unambiguous: Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to the leper, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Note well the compassion.
Note well the deliberate choice.
Note well the touch.

All those late-night phone calls.
The untold miles across Lawrence County.
More exchanges of compassion, counsel, care than can be numbered.

And even when calamities could not be cured through a prescription pad, at least your father was human—Christian, in that sense.

I wonder: Could it be that the work of a compassionate doctor is a faithful echo of God’s redemptive work in the world? Could it be a pointer to this Jesus, who choses care and compassion and practices healing and such good touch?

Of course, even healers themselves need healing sometimes.

Dr. H's time as a physician, R’s time in life, has now come to an end. For now, in this world, that seems to be the nature of things. But remember that we gather within these walls, in this building, long dedicated to announcing the good news of God. We gather here not just to remember a life well lived, or a profession well inhabited, but to remember a God’s promises, well-transacted. Nothing — neither life nor death — will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The physician is now the patient.

And he is in the good care of a good God,
who is moved with compassion,
who reaches out to touch lives,
who says to those he loves,

“I do choose: Be made well.”

It is so for R.H.
May it be so for each of us as well.