Between Chronic Pain and Healing

My article for Catapult Magazine’s Health and Wealth Gospel issue tells the story of my journey with chronic pain and the questions I asked along the way. Disease, dying, decay…how did these realities make sense together with the healing, restoration and rebirth that Christians speak of as signs of God’s presence among us?

Read the full article here:


iPhones as Liturgy

iPhoneiPhones and other forms of technology function as alternative liturgy, James K.A. Smith suggests.[1] They are “covert incubators of the imagination, because they play the strings of our aesthetic hearts.” But instead of stretching our imaginations to encompass an irresistible view of God’s kingdom, the habituated bodily practices of such technologies “implicitly treat the world as available to me and at my disposal, to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed,” Smith writes.

Smith’s claims raise important questions for us. If we, like Smith, believe that “the way to the heart is through the body,” then it matters for our spiritual well-being what rituals we are practicing with our bodies. What does it do to our spiritual imaginations to be regularly hunched over gadgets that presume to place to world at our fingertips? Does walking around with earphones blocking most outside sounds in any way affect our ability to listen for God’s voice in the world? How does something like masturbation, which presumes that we can somehow meet our own physical desires, condition our hearts to respond to other unmet longings?

I’m not sure how to answer these questions. I think it’s crucial to ask them, though, because the habituated postures of our bodies affect the postures of our souls. This goes for all kinds of body habits, including how we handle technology, how we eat, and how we live out our sexuality.

I don’t think we will be able to escape using technology, but at least we can be aware of the psycho-spiritual effects that our iPads, laptops, and Kindles have on us when we cuddle with them in bed and when we touch their screens so intuitively. We can also intentionally immerse ourselves in liturgies that do call us out of ourselves and into God’s kingdom.

One of the most powerful liturgies in which I regularly participate is a monthly Taizè gathering. After a few meditative songs, children are invited to go forward and light their candles, which they then use to pass on light to the rest of us. I love how this simple act of receiving light from the tender hand of a child sends a message to our souls about what it looks like to enter the Kingdom of God.

During the Alleluia chorus, we raise our candles high, proclaiming with our arms and eyes and hearts and voices the truth that God’s light overcomes all our darkness. Later, we kneel and plant our individual candles at the foot of the cross up front in an embodied act of surrender. During the Lord’s Prayer at the end of the service, we join hands with our neighbors and form long rows of the people of God connected in body and spirit.

Our lives are filled with liturgies, whether the intentional liturgies of worship services or the unintentional liturgies of technology. How are these liturgies training our bodies? How are they shaping our souls?

For a powerful meditation on the spiritual effects of technology, check out Derek Webb’s latest album, CTRL.

[1]Alternative Liturgy: Social Media as Ritual” (The Christian Century, Vol. 130, No. 6, March 6, 2013, p. 30-33).

Doctors, Your Patients Are Human Beings’ve seen a lot of doctors in the past three years – too many to count on my own two hands.  The number of doctors by whom I felt heard and truly cared for, though, is less than a handful.

Maybe my expectations are too high, but after running the gamut of doctors, I’ve come to believe that a doctor’s responsibility runs much deeper than simply diagnosing a physical complaint and running a treatment protocol. That’s because when we go to a doctor, we go not just as a bundle of body parts and malfunctioning cells sitting in an isolated exam room. We go as living human beings connected to families, communities, religious traditions, and a reality beyond the material.

All too often, doctors seem to miss this reality. Admittedly, we aren’t going to them to get our souls treated; doctors are tasked with treating our bodies. But then again, bodies are much more than anatomical parts and processes. Furthermore, western medicine is not the end-all-be-all authority on diagnosing what’s going on in our bodies. Reading physical symptoms, taking medical images, and running tests only reveal a partial truth. The truth of what the patient is experiencing, in my opinion, is just as weighty.

Melanie Thernstrom, in her book The Pain Chronicles, describes that in recent centuries, the question that doctors ask their patients has shifted from “What happened?” to “Where does it hurt?” It’s a subtle shift, but one that reveals a dramatic reorientation of perspective. No longer is the doctor asking the patient to tell their story about how they’ve ended up in the exam room, with all its starts, stops, hesitations, and implied meanings. Doctors now completely bypass patient understandings and instead hone in on the physical problem, minus patient narrative.

My own countless doctors’ visits attest to this fact. I would go into the exam room prepared to explain to the doctor when my ankle pain started, how I think it started, what I’ve tried to do for self-care, and my questions. Oftentimes, before I got a chance to get out more than a few sentences, the doctor would jump in. “Okay, take off your shoes and socks. Does this hurt? Can you rotate your ankle this way? Resist when I try to push your foot this way. Okay, now get up and try to stand on your toes. Hm…okay, take two ibuprofen three times a day for two weeks and it should be fine.” Before I could re-gather myself to ask questions, the doctor would be gone.

This description is only a slight exaggeration of my experiences. In short, the treatment of many doctors has left me feeling voiceless, like an inanimate object squeezed into a too-short time slot, cursorily poked at, and then ejected from the exam room right in time for the next inanimate object to arrive, and not a minute over.

My friend in her second year of medical school pointed out to me that a lot of the problem is the whole health care system in the United States. Unless they run their own practice, doctors don’t have a lot of say over how much time they are allotted to spend with each patient, and they are required to see a certain amount of patients a day in order to satisfy the group or hospital requirements. The system of which doctors are a part, willingly or not, simply doesn’t give them much wiggle room to take a more personal approach. I agree. I think the system needs to change.

Beyond the logistics of the system, however, lies a deeper issue of epistemology – that is, how knowledge is arrived at. Western medicine has evolved such that knowledge is believed to lie in concrete physical facts which can be measured, compared, quantified. Pain is rated on a scale of 1-10. (I’ve always disliked having to reduce my experience of pain to a number.) To be sure, numbers are helpful, and without such cut and dried measurements and processes, we might still be getting bled and leeched every time we saw the doctor.

The problem with numbers and cold measurements, though, is that human experience often gets cast to the wayside. How has the stroke affected Mrs. Farhad’s life? Does she see it as an act of God, something that she should resign herself to, or as a result of diet and lifestyle, something that she can gradually improve upon?

What patients themselves make of their ailments matters, not just for treatment, but also because how they interpret their experience through the matrix of their own cultural and metaphysical understandings of the world is a kind of truth. It is the truth of their everyday existence, of how they live their lives. Even if it is not the lens a medical professional uses to diagnose and treat maladies, this does not mean that it is irrelevant.

What am I asking for, then? I am asking that doctors listen to their patients. Not just listen to the number at which they rate their pain, but listen for what their pain means to them, how it has changed their lives, what it does to their sense of self. I am asking that doctors step down from their pedestals of lofty, scientific training and approach their patients in a collaborative eye-to-eye relationship. I am also asking them to take into account different kinds of knowledge – personal experiential knowledge and not just abstract textbook knowledge. Bottom line, I am asking that doctors treat their patients as human beings whose voices matter.