Cromey Online

The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Location: San Francisco, California, United States

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Religion and Healing

This is my Stanford lecture to Professor Larry Zaroff’s medical students about religion. The focus is on how religion helps healing. This is the fourth year I have lectured the class and I have been asked back again for next year.

Religion is more about practice than belief.  The important practices of most religions deal with love, neighbors, forgiveness, compassion, sex, food, communion, worship, singing and community. Practice is worship, laws, prayer, food, clothing, sex and all the things that religious people do and the ways they act. Religions have three things in common, Creed, Cult and Code. Creed is the belief system, Cult is the way the believers worship and pray, Code is the practice or behavior held out as a path to follow.

The actions include caring for the sick, widows, orphans, the homeless, seeking justice for the oppressed and finding peace.

Jesus was a Healer. Many of the stories about him include healing miracles; the woman with the issue of blood, the blind man who is given sight and the lame man who walks.  The Hebrew Bible also has healing stories. Elisha heals a child. Isaiah heals Hezekiah. Prayer for the believer is an important part of healing.

Prayer is often very important to the sick person if it is part of his or her practice. Some people expect God to intervene to assist the medical staff cure or heal. Some patients will be mad at God for not doing what the patient wants. Others will chalk up no healing as, “Well, I guess that is not God’s will for me.”

Let me interrupt with some notions of God. Some believe in a personal all good and knowing God who is intimately involved with all we think and do. Some see this God as allowing the cruelty and horrors that we see every day in our lives and media. Others believe that God is not a being, but being itself. God is the ground of all being. Human beings are utterly depraved and utterly good. We humans act with freedom with terrible consequences some of the time. The ground of all being does not interfere in the world enforcing good or evil. God is a metaphor for all that is transcendent, awe-inspiring, holy, beyond comprehension, nature and the sense of life itself.

I always say along with the Quakers that prayer works not on God but on me. I must take responsibility to do all I can to be healed, with God’s help. If I pray for someone else, I’d better be ready to go help that person in whatever way I can.

In the 1980’s I was rector of a San Francisco downtown Episcopal Church. We had many gay members. In 1983 many were stricken with AIDS. Some died within a week of the diagnosis.  My internist said to me, “Robert, Please don’t refer any more patients to me. I don’t know what to do with them.” Funeral Directors would not care for the bodies of men who had died of the disease. Our church had 75 funerals of young gay men in five years. The sick men asked me and our church to pray for them. What else was there to do? We prayed for their recovery, healing and a peaceful death.  “Thy will be done” is always implicit in all prayer.

I pray regularly a great prayer of thanks for my wife and my life, my daughters and grandchildren. I rejoice that they are a gift to me that I do and did not deserve.  They are a grace, a free gift from God, the power of the universe.

I also confess my sins, foolishness, hurts that I have hurled at others, eating and drinking too much from time to time. That confession helps me take responsibility for my actions and behavior and helps me to change. I can forgive myself, knowing that God, the power of the universe, always forgives.

Sometimes I cry out, “help me, help me, help me.” God helps me. My spouse helps me and so do my friends when I can let myself cry out a prayer of petition – help me.

Prayer and meditation help many people become calm and release tension and relax the body. Just being quiet and giving thanks for my family works for me. Breathing, sitting in meditation is a subject in which I get an F-. I fail meditation.  People are different. Meditation or any these techniques do not automatically work for everyone. But some practice probably works for most people.

My wife and I go to church every Sunday morning. I love our parish in a poorer section of the Mission District of San Francisco. We have lesbian parents, gay parents, straight parents, divorced singles, street people, drug addicts, college professors, doctors, retired clergy, schoolteachers, fund raisers and folks from Silicon Valley and the computer world. We sing, pray, share our concerns and joys.

One doctor said “Most of you know me as a lesbian. At long last I am seeking a partner, and he may be a man.” She got a round of applause.  Then we all go to communion, eat some bread, drink some wine. We are in communion with each other. With God, Jesus or whatever we believe in or practice. We are with people each Sunday whom we ordinarily do not meet or socialize with.  Communion works on us, not on God.

There are studies about the effectiveness of prayers for the sick. A group of people will pray for Ward A to be healed. They will not pray for the people in Ward B. I suppose you can guess what the results were.  The people on Wards A and B both healed, got worse or died in the same amounts.  Prayer was of no help. God is not tricky or capricious. Prayer works on us not on God.

The laying on of hands for healing is a religious practice reaching back into the ancients. In my tradition the minister places hands on the head of the sick person. Our belief is that touch helps people feel the power, the energy of people flow into them They may feel their own healing strengths arise from within and we hope God’s holy spirit attends the patient. This action depends on the sick person’s ability to heal herself. I never do this in hospital visits unless I sense it is OK with the patient and I ask permission.

Some churches use a bit of oil dabbed on the forehead of the person seeking healing. Oils also have been used in sacred rites for healing, blessings and setting people apart like kings or queens.  Queen Elizabeth was anointed by oil signifying her role as a healer and unifier of nations.

Let me say a bit more about grace. Grace – Did you earn your hand, brain, eyesight, boy or girl friend? Most people think they have worked for everything they have. At a dinner party a woman was going on and on about how she was a self-made woman. She had earned everything she worked for.  Getting tired of her rant I said, “Did you earn your foot, your hand, your eyes?” The conversation went elsewhere.

All that we have is a free gift from God, the universe or whatever you want to call it. But we did not earn our brains, our parents or country.

In medicine, psychology and religion we are often told to care for the whole person and not just the symptoms. But in medical practice that is almost impossible in the way medicine is practiced today.

I notice how little time my doctors spend with me. They do not know me, do not treat the whole person only the bladder or whatever their specialty. The visits are short and to the point. I hate to go, I fear I am wasting the doctor’s time, I sense he waits to shoo me away.

It may well be that it will be the chaplain who listens to the patient, knows the whole person – something of the physical ailments, the emotions of the patient, something of the family life of the sick person in the hospital. The hospitalist doctor is on the run, the social worker is busy and can only help if there are specific home, financial or caretaker concerns. The ombudsman settles disputes if they arise. No one spends any time with the patients.

A Seventh Day Adventist volunteer chaplain came to see me after my left knee replacement surgery in August of 2012. She spent twenty minutes with me speaking about a wide range of topics to draw me out. She wanted to know how I happened to choose to be a priest, did I enjoy my life and work? I felt she was interested in me and listened for how she might help. She did not offer to pray with me. I did not ask. She was smart, sensitive and caring. Her religion is far more conservative than my very liberal Episcopalianism. She is also a volunteer, but with three months of Clinical Pastoral Education training before she went on the rounds unsupervised. That is part of the healing process.


The chaplain listens to the patient, listens to the story, describe the illness, her comfort level in the hospital and family situation.

The chaplain looks for the emotions. I am worried about my wife. Don’t get sidetracked on wife – yet. What is the patient really worried about? Here is where healing can happen, getting the patient to reveal an emotional truth like fear or perhaps anger at being in the hospital. Then inquire about the spouse.

Sometimes prayer or the laying on of hands seem important.  Ask permission. Don’t invade. Say a prayer and ask the patient to pray for their own needs and concerns. Sometimes strong feelings will emerge.
 The chaplain should seek medical help if needed. The relationship with the patient remains confidential.

Religion is about awe, wonder, transcendence, and worship. Where do you put your worth? What is your highest and deepest value? That is what you worship. Everyone worships something – money, power, sex, God, science – anything that we give our ultimate worth.

Religion helps people heal by getting people to be responsible for their sickness and health. Healing happens by helping people discover their real values; offering practices of calm, quiet and openness; quieting fears of pain and death; finding solace in the laying on of hands and anointing with oil.

Healing happens with medicine and surgery. Healing happens when the patient has a sense of security, wholeness and is treated reverently, as someone sacred.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

An Impression of 42

We saw the movie 42 yesterday. It is the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black man to break in to Major League baseball. The movie moved along with short sequences of baseball and Robinson, Brach Rickey, Robinson’s fellow ball players and his wife. The baseball sections were exciting and moving and mercifully brief, unlike the long drawn out boredom of a full nine innings.

The film was a good reminder of the virulence and hostility of many white Americans toward their Black neighbors. Explicit name calling like nigger “boy” coon ripped out at us from the screen. Exclusion of Blacks from white only toilets, restaurants and hotels smacked us. I think we need those reminders, as racism is more hidden and smoldering in the dark today.

Harrison Ford’s playing Branch Rickey displayed Rickey’s complex motivation for bringing in the first Negro ball player. It was money, seeing the inevitable and a sense of shame that segregation brought to his beloved game.  I wonder how he would feel today with the greed, salaries and manipulation of the game by club owners, players, drugs, agents, advertising and unions.

The movie is well worth seeing – gripping, shocking and inspirational.  It showed many of Robinson’s fellow players moving from racial hatred to admiration for his abilities. Some remained intransigent. Robinson’s suffering, rage and endurance showed his valor. He knew exactly what he was doing by not fighting back. He let his bat and glove establish his right to play Major League baseball.

The movie was particularly reminiscent for me. In 1946-1947 the newspapers were full of the story of Rickey signing Robinson. At fifteen, I was an ardent Brooklyn Dodger baseball fan as we lived in Brooklyn where my brother Edwin and I were born and raised. Our father talked with us about how Negroes were discriminated against and how wonderful that Robinson was to break the color barrier. Montreal, where Robinson played in the minor leagues for a year, came to Newark, NJ to play the Newark team. Dad took Edwin and me by subway and railroad to see one of the games and see Jackie Robinson play. It was very exciting. I have no recollection of how Robinson played that day. But I didn’t care, I saw him play.

The next year he was signed to play in Brooklyn with the Dodgers at Ebbets Field. We went to a number of games over the years until the Dodger moved to Los Angeles. 42 is a good movie, entertainment and history lesson.


Monday, April 08, 2013

Drone War

Innocent children are killed as collateral damage when drones drop bombs or shoot missiles to assassinate suspected terrorists. Most Americans approve of the use of this method of murder, 65% according to a recent Gallup poll.

According to the NY Times of April 8, 2013, “Since Mr. Obama took office, the C.I.A. and the military have killed about 3000 people in counterterrorist strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, mostly using drones.” The times article points out that killing suspects is easier than capturing them and bringing them to trial. If one is captured on foreign soil there are political, legal and international complications for the U.S. to prosecute. The lives of American soldiers are less threatened when drones kill so-called terrorists.

There are all kinds of excuses for murdering people suspected of being terrorists. I am not immune from understanding the complexity of political problems and foreign relation entanglements. I am angered by the hypocrisy of American Christians who seldom criticize the policies of our government, the horrific use of our tax dollars, and moral cowardice. Many cry Christian, but forget to follow Jesus who urged love, forgiveness, compassion, peace, feeding the people, caring for the widows and orphans.

Church groups rail against the killing of innocent fetuses but are silent when our government shrugs when children are killed as a by-product of assassination by drones. Religious bodies spend fortunes fighting to curb the rights of LGBT human beings. They give no cry of compassion for mothers and fathers whose children have been dubbed collateral damage by the U.S. government propaganda. Atheists band together to assert their right not be harassed by religion and I don’t blame them. But they do not rail against government policies that kill innocent bystanders in Pakistan with drone bombers controlled by people in Los Angeles. The tea party want less government and taxes but supports huge budgets to kill people.

My critics will say, “Well, what is your plan Robert to end terrorism?” The answer is simple. Money. Send food, clothing and education to our enemies, among the poorest people on the planet; make oil companies and other non-native corporations and industries share more of their profits with indigenous people. Spend more money getting all sides to negotiate rather than kill. Spend more money educating Westerners to learn and understand the complexities of the tribal and religious life of agrarian cultures. Perhaps we can teach even our politicians to understand that you can’t make democracies where people don’t want them or even understand how they can work.  I dare say that would be a lot cheaper than financing the war machine that is doing a poor job of keeping the peace. It might even stop the murdering of innocent children.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Triangulate, Go to the Source, Peace

In church, business, school and family life, we find things we don’t like. Sometimes the preacher says something with which we disagree. We usually tell a friend or neighbor what bothers us. That sets up a triangle between the preacher, the offended one and the friend. As a result change can’t happen, anger is not resolved and gossip results.

A more creative approach is to “go to the source.” The offended person might better go to the person, in this case the preacher who has said something with which one disagrees. A conversation with the source, the preacher, might bring clarification to what was said, what was understood and perhaps understanding will result.

People think they should not criticize what preachers say or how they say it. A good preacher loves to hear feedback, responses and disagreement if there is any. It is better to tell the preacher directly than to tell other people what you don’t like. Preachers like everyone love to be acknowledged. They can learn from what others say to them both negative and positive.

At the office we may have a colleague who talks too much at meetings. What we normally do is triangulate. We go to someone else and complain about the talker. The creative action is to go to the over-talker and gently tell him or her what the behavior is that bothers you. It takes courage, yes, but that action can bring about change. Triangulation stops movement. Going to the source brings understanding and peace.


Richard Spielmann R.I.P.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dear Janet,

Richard’s death brought back a flood of memories going back to 1948. I was at St. Paul’s School in Garden City when Richard’s high school baseball team came to play against us. Was it Flushing High? Richard was the manager of the team and his gravelly voice blasted out encouraging his team on to play excruciatingly well. They beat us goodly. 

Then there were the times we met at the fall high school conferences at Camp DeWolfe. Then I was a camper for two summers and he was on the work crew and you were a counselor. Later, I was water front director at camp for two summers and Richard was a counselor too. We played soft-ball, sang “O I’m a hayseed, my hair is seaweed....” Though always a bit plump, he was very fast on the bases and could hit the ball well. Richard was always smiling laughing, kidding around but then was so serious at the liturgies and MP and EP when we read it on the porch of the big house. He and I had our eyes out for the prettiest girls.

I was surprised and delighted when you and Richard became sweethearts and then engaged. I believe I was at your wedding but frankly I am not sure. It was a while ago.

Then we all wound up at GTS in a corps of married students. I knew Richard was competitive from our softball days. It became clear when he strove so hard to get good grades. I learned how to study from Richard. He got his papers done and handed in early and always on time. He read his assignments. I copied him in that. I bought books from him when he worked at the GTS bookstore.

I saw how thorough he was. We were asked what version of the Bible we would recommend to lay people. I wrote, the RSV and gave some reasons why. Richard chose his version and then gave five other versions and why he did not choose them. I learned to be more thorough in my work.

He was so proud when Katherine was born. I was honored to be a Godfather. Hmmm, some Godfather I turned out to be.

We gave some parties in your apartment at 300 West 23 St. Richard and I could make one fifth of whiskey quench the thirst of multitudes.

Laughter and fun was what I recollect about Richard at GTS. After seminary you went to Vermont, Richard got his doctorate in Church History and taught in Ohio and Rochester. I visited you there when I went to see George Barrett begging him not to resign as Bishop because he was divorcing Dee. To no avail. You both were so warm, friendly and hospitable as I was in despair at screwing up my marriage to LIllian. You showed me the bird feeder outside your kitchen window and had me watch them feed.

I was delighted by the story that the day he retired from teaching you were on the next plane to Tempe and a warm climate, at last.

I enjoyed two visits with you both in Tempe. Richard was clearly withdrawn and different from the man I knew. We took some walks and I had to prompt the conversation. We were in agreement on gay rights and rights of women. When I wanted to come again, you said it was best that I not come. I was sad but completely understood.

The two visits Ann and I had with Katherine and Bill and one time with Emily in SanFrancisco stand out as making new friends for us and connection to you and Richard going back these many years.

I hope when things settle down and you resume your travels you will come visit us in San Francisco.

With sadness and love,