Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Apologetics: Apologizing on God's behalf

I think the humblest discipline to get into is apologetics because you have to "apologize" most of the time. (and I am pulling out all the stops on this, so pardon me).

For example, in a miracle or healing service, when people don't get healed or are partially healed (80%...no joke, my church actually proclaimed to the petitioner on open stage that he or she is about 80% healed to thunderous applause), you have to engage in biblical euphemisms like, "Continue to believe/You will soon receive your healing/just have faith."

And when you pray for a healthy baby and the child turns out otherwise, you again have to finesse the disappointment by saying, "God has better plans for your baby/Continue to trust in Him/Do you have any unconfessed sins?"

Lastly, when one marriage breaks up, even for a marriage ordained by pastors and there is a general consensus that the marital union was made in heaven with God's blessings, you have to buttress the weary faith with these words, "She is not God's will for you/He will find you a more godly spouse/You have to examine your own heart the next time."

You see, the above examples are real life examples. And every time a prayer returns to one void, the party who does the praying will have to "apologize" (using it loosely) for it. That's what apologetics is about I guess; you make "excuses" (using it loosely again) for the disappointment of an unanswered prayer, of a hidden God, of an unpunished evil that prospers despite, of an undeserving death, of unmitigated and gratuitous suffering, and of a grossly unfair eternal damnation.

Professor Antony Flew, before he opened his heart to omnipotence, once said that the Christian definition of God ‘dies a death of a thousand qualifications.’

This is his parable of two gardeners to prove this ferocious bias: “Two explorers come across a clearing in a jungle. It contains a mixture of weeds and flowers. One claims that there must be a gardener who comes to tend the clearing. The other denies it.

They sit and wait, but no gardener appears, however they try to detect him. One gardener continues to claim that there is a gardener; one who is invisible, inaudible, intangible and undetectable.

Dr Flew argues that, in the same way, if a believer’s statement about God can be made to fit into any circumstance, it is not meaningful and has no empirical implications.”

You kind of get what Dr Flew mean when you take the time to read the tomb entitled "If God is Good: Faith in the amidst of Suffering and Evil?" by Pastor Randy Acorn. It is essentially "qualifications" galore.

Nothing escapes the ingenuity of man to come up with a God-defending purpose for every conceivable human tragedy in this world despite the earnest and persistent invocation for relief. There is a self-dictated reason for every unanswered prayer. Every death is interpreted as a timely divine intervention; however young or tragic the deceased comes to his end. Every unremitting physical suffering is redemptive in nature for his glory. And every marital betrayal, spate of violence, sorrow inflicted, and social and financial calamities are the archetype tribulations of life and they are planted by the divine architect for the expressed purpose of our betterment.

Here is a personal experience for me.

When one of my loved ones went for brain surgery, despite heaps of the sincerest prayers for healing ever uttered, I once asked this question: "Why doesn't God make himself obvious enough so that it takes much less time to convince the die-hard atheists, the staunch agnostics and the apathetic deists?"

I mean "obvious enough" in several ways. God could easily intervene when pointless sufferings are taking place. He could stop the gang rape of a little nine years old. He could teleport an elderly woman out of the way of a group of thugs and murderers. He could deflect incoming missiles heading straight for a school bus full of children singing "Amazing Grace".

He could end deformity in babies. He could answer the earnest prayer of a travailing believer. Or maybe, just maybe, He could make himself "obvious enough" by occasionally saving innocent lives and punishing deserving evildoers; not too often though, but maybe occasionally.

Surely a world like this would still have suffering to strengthen our character but it would not have pointless suffering that aim to arm skeptics with a reason to mock our faith. A world like this would explain a lot about God and give us a clearer picture of His goodness, mercy and grace. A world like this can't be that faith-dampening, right?

I know we live in a fallen world with fallen world consequences. And we have to factor in free will in that men will have to live with the consequences of their choices with unavoidable collateral damages of innocent lives, extreme poverty and deformed babies.

But surely nothing is stopping God from tweaking it just a teensy weeny bit to bring about a semblance of good sense, peace and justice for the sake of the starkly downtrodden, the terminally ill, the cruelly exploited, the repeatedly mistreated and the inhumanly abused.

Maybe, at this quite depressing juncture, a little fresh water spring from CS Lewis would be most soul quenching: "They say of some temporal suffering, no future bliss can make up for it, not knowing that heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory." (Revelation 21:4-6)

Question: Will the end ultimately and eventually work backwards and turn every agony, suffering and pain in this world into a glory?

Herein ends my lamentation of faith.

Let me tell you what apologetics is to me, finally. It is not so much an apology for an absent God. But it is an apology for the absence of an inquiring mind. The mind that gives up in the face of suffering, however inexplicable and searing, is to me the apotheosis of an absent mind. And it is a pity for a mind to call it quits when confronted with the theodicy of a seemingly uncaring God.

One author wrote this about suffering, "If people cannot speak about their affliction they will be destroyed by it, or swallowed up by apathy. Without the capacity to communicate with others there can be no change. To become speechless, to be totally without any relationship, that is death." (Dorothee Solle)

To me, real death is a mind that is closed, a heart that is cold and a faith that has given up. I believe apologetics is like a diligent active search; a never ending search for the Truth. You may die trying but in trying, you live.

True purpose comes from never knowing sometimes and never knowing may be what faith is all about. Madam Jeanne Guyon wrote, "If knowing answers to life's questions is absolutely necessary to you, then forget the journey. You will never make it, for this is a journey of unknowables - of unanswered questions, enigmas, incomprehensibles, and most of all, things unfair."

Mind you, I am not excusing ignorance or justifying indolence. There is no excuse in sacrificing learning for self-conceited orthodoxy. What I am alluding to is a sense of wonderment or the intuition of curiosity. It is a mind that is humbled by the infinitude of knowledge beyond one’s earthly grasp. And when we come to such a ledge overlooking the epistemological schism or the knowledge gap, we acknowledge our limitations. We switch gear. We close our empirical sight, or that itch or urge to want to reduce all things to the irreducible, and we take the leap of faith. I guess this is what Einstein meant when he said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”  

So, apologetics to me is like a compass. It points me in the right direction but it never shows me my longed for destination. It is a road that bends into a circle and as I follow it, it always brings me back to square one but with a deeper understanding of things from when I first started. It is a loop that grows bigger and bigger as I probe deeper and deeper.

Gotthold E Lessing once wrote, "If God held all truth in his right hand and in his left the everlasting striving after truth, so that I could always and everlastingly be mistaken, and said to me, "Choose," with humility I would pick the left hand and say, "Father, grant me that. Absolute truth is for thee alone."

So, for now, I choose to see apologetics as faith defending faith. And as I brave through my own trials, I will discover that sometimes defending faith takes more faith than my faith can take. When that time comes, and I nevertheless persist in my faith against all forces to give up, I can then truly internalize these words of Fyodor Dostoevski in my triumphant heart, "It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt." Cheers.

Friday, 22 February 2013

How we came about...

A friend posted this quote recently:

"... even if we knew the ultimate underlying theory, how are you going to explain the fact that we're sitting here? Solving string theory won't tell us how humanity was born." (Dr Lisa Randall, one of the world's most prominent theoretical physicists, author of Knocking on Heaven's Door)

I think there's a way to know how humanity was born. Not a perfect way though but I guess it is close enough. I know the majority will expect answers from the religious books. The Bible, the Sutra or the Koran readily come to mind. I have no doubt that among those books, there are some truth in them.

But for me, personally, the most intimate way of knowing how we came about happened a few years back. It started with a soft celebration and ended with love affirmed. Then, together, we thought about how he or she would look like.

Everything happened in our mind. It was not a world changing imagination, but it was surely a life changing one for us. We know deep inside things will be different. We know that it is only out of love that our union will bear this joyous fruit. And we also know our lives will never be the same again once our love is consummated.

This consummation happened in the most beautiful way imaginable. Purity shed its innocence and our passion blossomed. The two became one and the union was made whole. The sacred act became a sacred moment and it soon spread out to become a sacred act of creation.

From nothing came something, and from something came everything we had ever wished for. The wait was more ecstatic than the arrival. That day finally came; that day our imagination, our union and our love bore us a life. It was hope birthed, dream alive and love complete.

I know the doctors will tell us that this all has a natural cause. The atheists will condescend and say, "it's part of life and death. Nothing to go ape about." But to us, to every parents, this life defining event is nothing short of a miracle.

When it happens to you, when you know you have played an important part to create a new life, your heart readily abandons the gravity of reason and eagerly gives it the liberty to soar. For a moment, for a long time enduring, my spirit touched the Creator's spirit in the same intimate way that the deep calls out to the deep.

In that sliver of time eternal, as my spirit caught a glimpse of His glory, I knew in my heart that there is more to us than what the world of science tells me. I know that in the same way I'd  witnessed the miracle of birth with my own eyes and heart, my creator saw me in the same loving way. It was out of love that I came about. Divinity shed its freedom and He created us. From nothing came something, and from something came everything to Him.

So, if I am asked, "how we came about?" My answer is, "not by chance." Neither by mystery nor myth. We came about by love. And as I was there to witness the beginning of a new life, my creator was there too. He was there to see us through. He was there to enable life to enable life. And we saw everything; and everything to us was good. Cheers

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Miracle healing or wishful hoping?

What is a miracle? It's something that defies the laws of nature. This means that a miracle cannot be explained away by the laws of physics (or the disciplines of medical science). When healing comes after prayer, and the same can be properly verified, then one can safely call it a miracle.

However, if healing comes without prayer or happens naturally, one is hardpressed to call it a miracle. This is the bugbear I have with some churches today which have used the word "miracle” too loosely.

When we are sick with a fever, we visit a doctor and are prescribed medicine. We take it faithfully and after a few days, our fever goes down and we are cured. From fever to medicine to full recovery, the causal connection is medically explainable. No one in his right mind would deem this sequence of events a miracle. And the doctor who prescribed the medicine can be proud that his medicine did the job. 

Now, what if the patient, flushing with fever, bypasses the usual visit to the doctor and enters a church. He approaches a pastor and asks for prayer. After the prayer, almost instantaneously, the patient receives full verified healing. Now you see how many would consider this event a miracle. No doctor can satisfactorily explain how complete healing could have come about so promptly after a get-well prayer. Even staunch atheists would be equally baffled; although he'd not be so quick to give some deity the full credit. 

We are raised to think that only medicine, surgery and physiotherapy or a combination of them can cure illnesses. But, how do you explain it when one puts all his "faith eggs" into the "prayer basket" and then receives full healing? To a believer, miracles are life-changing events and a great booster of his faith. And one of the hallmarks of Jesus' ministry is what I call "crossing over to the supernatural." 

But can the "miracle healings" we are hearing about or seeing in some churches these days count as real and authentic miracles? Or can they be explained away for something less than "miraculous"? Let me give some real life examples here.

I have read about a man who had kidney cancer. He was operated on to have his right kidney and right adrenal removed. After two years, his cancer came back in the form of a malignant tumor in his intestine. His doctor sadly told him that it was inoperable. The tumor cut off his passageway and affected his ability to properly digest food and drinks. As such, in his terrible ordeal, he lost 18 kg. 

As he was emaciated, he did not qualify for a treatment course. It was at this time that he was invited to a church for prayer. He opened his heart to encouraging testimonies and was moved by faith to convert. At the altar, he was also prayed over. When asked whether he felt anything, he said no. 

That night, he recounted that he could drink Milo and biscuits. Managing to keep his food down, he was then strong enough to undergo treatment on his inoperable intestinal tumor. Although the success rate for such treatment course was a mere 7 percent, he was one of the very few whose tumor actually shrunk after the treatment. Later he was medically certified to be in remission from cancer. 

This testimony was given as a tribute to supernatural intervention. Is this a true miracle, a medically unexplained event? Should the church credit this healing as a strictly miraculous event at all?

Here are other examples. There are also two separate cases of prayers offered for a bulging disc and a bone spur in the spine. After prayer, one felt vigorous shaking all over her body before feeling sone relief from back pain. The other refused surgery and believed that she was healed after prayer. 

The problem with these cases is that there is no medically certified pronouncement that they were healed of their back condition. They could still be suffering from occasional back aches but refused to acknowledge it because of their overzealous, sometimes misguided, faith. 

I feel that the church has a part to play in fostering and sustaining this misguided belief. Especially when alleged miracles are prematurely pronounced over the pulpit in the eagerly-anticipating faces of believers, you can imagine the tonnage-load of peer pressure pour onto one poor soul to readily agree with the miracle-charged crowd so as not to disappoint them and the church leadership. 

It is nevertheless not farfetched to say that the church would have ritualistically drummed up promises and testimonies of past miracles into the suggestible minds of the congregants before the actual mass prayer so that it is easy for the congregants to succumb to the pressure (to please) or to relish the desire of basking in the limelight and become the center of attention when they testify on stage. 

Finally, there are cases where congregants were delivered from demon possession, addiction to pornography, smoking and gambling and a pending broken marriage after prayer. Do you consider them miracles or "social miracles"? Are they really unexplained events where the veritable fingerprints of the divine are unmistakably imprinted? Do they leave no room for any other more credible natural explanations? 

On these issues, we can learn a thing or two from the Catholic church. In their long history and tradition, they have canonized many past patron saints. To qualify for sainthood, three criteria have to be met. 

First, they must have died for at least fifty years before petitions for canonization can be considered by the papal authority. Second, they must have lived a morally unimpeachable life. If this second criteria is met, they are posthumously beautified. Lastly, there must be at least two miraculous healing attributable to them after their death. This means that at least two devotees must have invoked their names for healing and, as a result, received immediate and full healing. 

You may ask, how are these reported miracles tested or authenticated?

Well, at least until recently, these reported cases are rigorously and vigorously scrutinized before they receive the papal stamp of approval. All cases have to first be reported to their respective parish. Once verified, the Vatican will send a representative to examine in details  the alleged miracle. If there are reasonable cause for further investigation, a proper inquiry would be carried out. At the inquiry, examining doctors would be called to testify. Imagine having doctors coming forward to admit that the healing stumped them and they are unable to medically explain them.

This is not the end. If all seems believable, the beneficiary of the miracle will make his or her way to the Vatican city to be further examined by a group of theologians, doctors, and bishops. Most half-baked miracles would not even survive this nerve-wrecking stage. 

Foremost in the Vatican's mind would be these three questions: Is the healing instantaneous? Is it complete? Is it permanent? If so, the documented miracle would make its way to the pope himself. The Vatican's head of state, under proper advisement, will either endorse or deny the miracle. Once endorsed, the canonization is complete. 

Let me remind you that this is a long drawn out process that is very costly, terribly exhausting, and rigorously scrutinized. Not to mention that it takes decades for most cases to receive the papal imprimatur. You can say that the Catholics take their miracles very seriously. 

What is most ironical and disturbing for a protestant christian is that these miracle healing were not even carried out in the name of Jesus. Instead of the son of God, it is the dead patron saints, who were mere mortals on earth, who get the credit for the miracle healing. Mind you, they are the same miracles which were rigorously tested and recognized.

Let's pause here to heave a confounding sigh...ok, let's resume.

I think the churches' loose definition of a miracle has left many to wonder if it is truly a miracle or just our body performing it's biological role of self-healing. 

Well, I have nothing to say if the healing stumped the medical experts by satisfying the three criteria, that is, it is instantaneous, complete and permanent. I for one still believe that miracles do happen as in Jesus' days where it was documented that Jesus performed 35 miracles and 17 of them were medical in nature. Even death was not out of bound for him.

But, one has to toe the line when any reported healing does not satisfy the above three criteria. At the very least, we should not be so quick to label it a miracle without further investigating its true cause or causes. We therefore have to not only take the cautionary approach but also must be sniper-like in our investigation. 

In other words, I fully endorse the rigorous approach adopted by the Catholic church and I am reminded of what Sherlock Holmes once told Dr Watson, "Once we have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." 

This Sherlock-driven quest for the truth is admirable and should be applied with the same vigor in testing the authenticity of reported miracle healing. Alas, my lament is, how many churches follow this same exacting methodology to seek out the truth? Or, have our minds been so "brainwashed" by the deafening drumming and chanting for miraculous signs that we have sacrificed objectivity and even "sane-hood" at the altar of self-fulfilling wishes?

I recall that a senior pastor once prayed over a sick person at the pulpit and then nothing happened. The sick did not experience anything unusual. The pastor then turned to his congregation and said this, "sometimes God heals immediately and sometimes he heals progressively." Somehow, this pronouncement was assurance enough for the sick as he, with a triumphant glint, briskly returned to his seat in prayerful meditation. 

As that service was called "miracle service", nobody that night ever doubted that the case could be one where a miracle did not happen, that is, an occasion where a prayer was not answered. In fact, the impression given was that miracles could happen in two ways: instantaneously and progressively 

(Please let me qualify that I have personally attended the miracle services and had witnessed cases of quite extraordinary acts of divine intervention. But such cases are few and they are definitely not in the way it was psyched and hyped up to be. 

On the contrary, in those services, almost every single case was cavalierly  "chopped" with the "miracle stamp" without the corresponding stringent "quality assurance" check logically expected from a sherlock-driven desire for the truth. So you have a beeline of people with backaches, migraine and common cough allegedly healed by an arbitrary estimate of 70% to 90% without further verification, and they, like lemmings taking the supernatural plunge, were then ushered to the next station to have their testimony recorded. These testimonies, of dubious merits, were then recycled for future primping).

Well, let's go back to progressive miracles. My issue with it is the word "progressive". I feel that the rationale for "progressive miracle" fails in two important respects. 

First, it makes a mockery of God's many promises and acts in the Bible about healing. Jesus' healing were immediate, complete and permanent. What's more, didn't the Bible in John 14:12 says that "greater works than these shall we do" because Jesus has gone to the Father. Logically if Jesus' miracles two thousand years ago were immediate,  how is it that our prayers for the sick today are only progressive? Does "greater works" mean longer time taken for miracles to happen? That doesn't sound like "greater works" to me, it sounder more like "lesser works"? The question here is, can they be deemed as miracles at all or just well-intentioned petitions. 

In any event, what does one mean by "progressive miracle" anyway? How long must the so called beneficiary of this peculiar category of "miracle" wait before he or she receives full healing? More specifically, must one wait for a day, a month or a year? What should one do in the meantime? Stay prayerful, mindful and grateful or continue with medication or both? 

Imagine Jesus praying over the leper, the blind, the lame, the woman with blood disease and even the dead, and telling them (except for the dead of course) to wait for their full healing at an unspecified date in the future? How would Jesus be received then? What would be the reaction of his immediate audience? In any case, the last time I checked, Mark 16:18 did not read, "They will place their hands on the sick people, and they will get well in due course or subsequently or at a later date." 

Progressive miracle is also troublesome for another reason: we are limiting God and boxing up His sovereignty. Are we saying that God, the creator of all that is seen and even unseen, the maker of life, and the author of our faith, cannot be more expeditious with His healing or with answering prayers?

Another seldom explored explanation for unanswered prayers could be that the individual was not meant to be healed. Or there could be other reasons why God chooses to withhold His divine hand. More ominously, due to the mystery of His will, it could be that, in rare cases, healing was not even in the cards for the sick.

Didn't Paul pray thrice for relief of the "thorn in his flesh" and nothing came out of it? In fact, he was asked to rejoice in his condition for in his weakness, he was made strong. Isn't this redemptive suffering? (Of course, in an attempt to preserve the church's image, it would be almost "blasphemous" for a pastor conducting a miracle rally to ever consider redemptive suffering as an explanation for unanswered prayer. But instead, the explanation of progressive miracle is so readily and unconditionally offered without much reflection. It is like a default position, a catch-all miracle net with this motto: "If no immediate healing, then wait. It will come.")

Mind you, there are also reported cases where those who were prayed for sadly passed away. So, not wanting to second guess God's plan for each and everyone of us, how can one be so sure that the healing or miracle was even meant to be; what's more, progressive? 

Here is one anecdotal  account by Agnes Sanford that tarries well with what I have been writing thus far. It's a recounting of her prayer for her husband, Ted, and his struggle  with a life-threatening illness. She wrote, "But complete healing did not come. So I asked for guidance. There is a time for everyone to depart, that I know, and he was approaching seventy. I said, "Lord, how long does he have?" And the answer came, "Three years." His days were lengthened a little bit by continual prayer. He had three years and six months. But the last year and a half, after he was threescore years and ten, were truly, as Solomon said they would be, labor and sorrow. He had massive stroke...I did not pray for healing this time, for I knew that if Ted's life were prolonged it would be only labor and sorrow. I prayed only for whatever was best, trusting God to take Ted at the right time..."

At this juncture, I can anticipate your protest. You may say, shouldn't we persist anyway? What's the harm with a simple act of laying of our hands? What's the travesty with injecting a little faith, sunshine and hope in the sick and terminally ill? 

Well, the answer is "nothing" provided that the impression given is not that miracle healing is progressive (I am uncomfortable with that term because it blurs the attribution, which I will further explain below). If we respect the divine works and promises of God, then we should render to God that which is truly the hallmark of His nature, that is, a God who performs miracle as and when he deems fit and once he intervenes, it is perfect, immediate, unquestioned, and enduring. Anything less would be the wishful thinking of man.

So, should we stop praying for the sick and throw our lot with medical science? I would be a dud if I'd to advocate this. I believe in hope and ever hoping. I believe that our survival has its anchorage on hope. But, this I must be clear: saying that miracles unfold progressively or at a later date is as good as saying nothing at all. We may as well just send the sick a get well postcard and hope for the best.

What I recommend is to pray and believe with your whole heart for a miracle. But if it doesn't happen or materialize, we have to submit to the sovereignty of God. What should be our response then when our prayers are unanswered? We should approach the matter with sensitivity and acknowledge our limitations. Sensibly, we can ask the sick to keep praying and wait for a miracle like the persistent widow in the Bible. 

But note that I would not say that his or her miracle has already been "activated" and, like pizza delivery, arriving in 45 minutes, or somewhere along those lines. This approach is disconcerting because it "guarantees" a healing or miracle by bypassing God's sovereignty, and it essentially dilutes the meaning of what a miracle should be. Strictly speaking, if it is not instantaneous, complete and permanent, then it is not a miracle, full-stop. 

All this while, I have been sharing about the first flaw of describing miracles as progressive. The second flaw is this: If miracles are progressive, it muddles the causation link between attributing it to an act of God and attributing it to our own body's ability to heal itself.

Remember our above case about the man who suffered from a tumor in his intestine and he choked every time he tried to ingest food. Well, he mentioned that he felt nothing when he was prayed for. However, he testified that he went back home that night and drank cups of Milo and biscuits and got his strength back. Thereafter, he undergone treatment courses at the hospital and his tumor shrank. 

Now, since this is clearly not a case of instantaneous healing, who should get the credit for the shrunken tumor? Medical science or miracle signs? Or should God and doctors share the award together? A case of joint effort, co-partnership? You see how the two can be muddled?

How about "social miracles" of freedom from gambling, alcohol, smoking, and pornography addiction and healing of marital relationship? Is it a case of shared contribution between man and God? What if the subject is "healed" of pornography or gambling for only a season and he returns to the destructive habits later on? Should the blame be equally shared too? You see, the distinction is incredulous to start with. And because the so called miracle is so loosely defined, the causation/attribution is likewise ambiguous. 

To compound matters, nowadays, there are many well-documented cases where our body can heal itself without any divine intervention. But before I give you examples of self-healing, it would be timely for you to bear this statement by a French philosopher Isabelle Stengers in mind, "The suffering body alone is not a reliable witness to the validity of a treatment. It can happen that it will be cured for the wrong reason." 

Truly, any cure, not arising from a veritable miracle, can be a cure for all the wrong reasons, that is, it may be temporary, wishful thinking or as a result of the infamous placebo effect.

Now, let's start with this statement: The body keeps scores. In other words, the body is not a dumb mechanical device that works like a mule or a hydraulic press. Like a castle surrounded by a moat, it has a command center, that's our brain, and it has its first officer, that's our nervous system, which receives feedback from every organs of the body for central command processing. 

Our body is therefore not a passive player in defending and protecting us against the onslaught of viruses, diseases and bacteria. So you can say that our body takes our continuous survival and thriving seriously and it's function is to make sure, that we stay balanced, healthy and growing. Even as we age, and the cells in our body die off, leaving us vulnerable to all kinds of health problems, our body still fights on for as long as it can to keep us going. So, the body indeed keeps scores. 

Now comes the part about how we can heal ourselves. I am no doctor so I shall describe the process in layman terms. Our brain and the nervous system are like sentry posts, or gatekeepers, keeping watch over the biological landscape. When threatened by any abnormality, foreign bodies or injuries, our body jumpstarts the process of self-correcting healing by activating the immune system while the heart keeps pumping to maintain the flow of sustenance. Our white blood cells double up as "arresting officers", identifying the foreign culprit and jettisoning them out of our system, and as "biological janitors", cleaning the mess by sterilizing and clotting the wound, ensuring regeneration of tissues, and reducing abnormal growth. 

Of course, this process is not perfect and the immune system can go on "overkill" mode sometimes, which results in autoimmune diseases. It can also cause inflammation and blockages as a result of tending to the wounds, or cause organ rejection in a transplant.  

But overall, the body strive for equilibrium (homeostatic balance) and it is a highly sophisticated, extremely pro-active, and a well-synchronized, flexible system: a complex bio-engineering marvel of the highest order. A design exclusively within the purview of our creator's mind.

Considering all that, we are merely paying our highest compliments to our creator when we proclaim that our body can self-heal. In fact, for a Christian, the fact that our body can self-heal is itself a miracle.

But the distinction must still be made between considering miracle healing, that is, one that comes immediately after prayer, and the miracle that is our body. Our body is a biological wonder on many levels. While atheists see it as the result of aeons of evolutionary adaptability, we Christian admire it as a wonders of our creator. Seen in this light, everything is a gloriously marvel of creation, an everyday miracle.

But the discussion here is about the miracle of healing that comes after a prayer. This miracle is more specific and context-based. And the problem is whether "progressive miracle" is at all tenable or plausible (keeping in mind some of the problems we have already spelt out above).

At this junction, let me warn you that we are entering murky, controversial territories. Many atheists use the argument that self-healing disproved the existence of a miracle or at least, makes the description of it as a miracle rather redundant, and describing it as progressive only arms the atheists with more ammunition for their assault on us.

At least with veritable miracles, where it is instantaneous, complete and permanent, we have a credible and defensible stand against unyielding skepticism. Although atheists may mumble in protest against describing such events as true miracles, they will have to defer to Sherlock's acid test, "Once we have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." When a miracle is immediate, full and permanent, it is difficult not to accept it as true since whatever that remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Can we say the same about progressive miracle? 

Since this sort of miracle is not immediately manifested, but probably realized over a period of time, blurring the attribution, atheists would take this opportunity to give the credit to natural causes. And quite unfortunately, I think they are justified to do so in most cases.

Here are some healings attributed to natural causes. The first type of self healing is in the power of suggestion. There are documented cases of patients experiencing total remission from terminal illnesses just after they were given a shot of distilled water. 

The trick is to make them believe that the distilled water is some sort of new and effective experimental drug. I call this cure process a kind of faith healing because the cause of the healing is not due to the inherent medicinal properties in the "experimental drug" but in the belief that it is effective. So the drug (or distilled water) is just a tool to give the illusion of a cure. 

The second kind of faith healing is in hope or positive thinking. Note that there is nothing religious in these curative methodology. Positive thinking is in fact a good medicine, so to speak. Here again there are documented cases of Aids patients fighting off T-cell degeneration just by "keeping their spirits up". 

Although this cure may be ambiguous, doctors have credited a good attitude as having significant beneficial effects on the health of patients. So, it is not only an apple a day that keeps doctors away, daily hoping plays a pivotal role too.

The third kind of faith healing is humor. Yes, you read it correctly. Laughing is another good medicine. The best documented example is from the personal experiences of the political analyst, Norman Cousins.

He was diagnosed with a degenerative disorder which caused the breakdown of collagen. His chances of recovery is 1 in 500. Norman took over the treatment process by shelving off conventional medicine and embarking a daily diet of "Marx Brothers films, reruns of Candid Camera, and humorous literature."

In a couple of weeks, this laughter marathon, together with daily administration of vitamin c, resulted in suppressing virtually all of the painful symptoms. Soon, from a person who was nearly paralyzed, he was jogging and surfing by the beach and had returned to work. 

The fourth kind of faith healing is in doctors and surgery. In the 1990s, there was a bizarre experiment carried on two groups of patients undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. One group, the fortunate ones, received the actual surgery performed on their knees. 

But the second group undergone what I'd call a staged surgery whereby they were subject to what appeared to be the entire surgical procedure, except that they were not operated on. However, the staged surgery was so real that the patients did not suspect a thing. What is remarkable is that this group improved after the fake operation! 

Even more astonishing was that they continued to improve, walked better and slept more soundly, after they were told the truth, that is, they did not receive any surgery. Are they too suggestible or is the mind a powerful agent for healing?

The fifth kind of faith healing is in community and love. It should be noted that in certain parts of the world, like Okinawa, Costa Rica, Southern California, to name just a few, the population generally lives longer life. Of course, one of the undeniable causes of longevity is good health. The reason for this is not so much in their diet or in physical exercises. But, as you'd guess it, the cause is in the health benefit arising from engaging in a close-knit community. 

In fact, in a little town called Roseto, Pennsylvania, it is rare to see a town folk under fifty collapsing from  heart attack. This interesting observation spurred a study with surprising conclusions. At first glance, nothing exceptional was found. The population of Roseto were generally overweight and many of them smoked. In terms of their work, they were not immune from occupational stress since most of them worked for long hours. 

So, what is the magic bullet that prevented them from suffering heart attack before they hit fifty? Well, the answer is in the community as a whole. The study reveals that "multigenerational homes" were the norm. Everyone also "radiated a kind of joyous team spirit as they celebrated religious festivals and family landmarks". The health benefits to be reaped by what the authors of the study call "the power of clan" is remarkable. 

Despite their generally unhealthy lifestyle with long stressful hours of work, the communal and civic spirit shared by the population kept their heart beating longer and stronger than those who isolated themselves in an island.

I find it here appropriate to quote the lugubrious words of the famous cancer surgeon, Bernie Siegel, author of the best selling Love, Medicine and Miracles: "I feel that all disease is ultimately related to a lack of love, or to love that is only conditional, for the exhaustion and depression of the immune system thus created leads to physical vulnerability. I also feel that all healing is related to the ability to give and accept unconditional love...The truth is: love heals." So, a community where relationships thrive is a "hot-spring" for the body to remain healthy, strong and resilient.

The sixth kind of faith healing is a potpourri of meditation, qigong, yoga, acupuncture, herbal treatment and general relaxation. There are in fact cases of patients experiencing positive relief after undergoing sessions of acupuncture and herbal treatments. Although there are recent books written by medical experts denouncing the validity of such treatments, it is difficult to tell those patients who have benefited from them that their recovery is largely due to the phenomenal effect of placebo or self-healing.

But is placebo healing authentic healing? A Harvard professor Richard Cabot's biting reply tells it all about where he stands, "Every placebo is a lie, and in the long run the lie is found out. We give a placebo with one meaning; the patient receives it with quite another. We mean him to suppose that the drug acts directly on his body, not through his mind." 

Well, many, who adopt a more holistic view of medicine, will generally disagree with this rather parochial view. If we believe that our body keeps scores and it is not a passive recipient of any administered treatment, then we should allow our body untethered freedom of expression, which includes respecting it to do its job of healing and growth in any way it deems fit. 

In this light, I personally feel that our body draws strength and vigor from different modes of healing; which not only includes the conventional surgery and medication, it also  encompasses the curative and ameliorative effects that comes with hoping, positive feelings, love, relationships and community, and a sense of calm, peace and relaxation.

In one sentence, I think one should not be so quick to dismiss the unexplained benefits of the placebo effect for the simplest reason that it is unavoidable since physical recovery is a triumvirate of western medicine or surgery, community of loved ones, and personal hope. 

Lastly, there is a rather maverick science known as the psychology of psychosomatic disorder. This discipline treats illnesses from a purely psychological point of view. In brief, all physiological disorders, from migraine to cancer, from tinnitus to sexual dysfunction, and from skin problems to chronic fatigue, have their root cause in our unconscious rage, emotional pain and sadness. These unconscious emotions are created and suppressed by us as a defence mechanism against life's disappointments, past traumas and violent upbringing. 

As such, our healing begins with "not a leap of faith, but a leap of understanding." So treatment starts with a formal acknowledgment that our physiological pain comes from our years of accumulated emotional pain, anger, pressures of life, guilt, shame, fear and insecurity that are bursting at our unconscious seams. 

Thereafter, the recovery process consists of attending group meetings to disclose the history of emotional angst, accompanied by short-term dynamic group psychotherapy, interim evaluation and consultation, and individual therapy. Doesn't all these sound a little familiar, like attending church services and immersing oneself in worship, giving oneself to repentance and prayer, and allowing for sweet abandonment?

So you see, bodily healing comes in many forms. It can be a miraculous touch of God. This is so if the healing comes after prayer, that is, it is instantaneous and subsequently verified to be complete and permanent. Sacred miracles like that are in my view works of divine intervention and it is hard for any skeptic to disprove. Although they may resist any desire to convert, they would be hard pressed to argue otherwise. One just have to read about Jesus healing the blind and raising Lazarus  to be persuaded that such acts leave behind the veritable fingerprints of God. 

But the problem becomes almost intractable when we trivialize or make flippant our definition of miracles to qualify it as "progressive"; thus giving the impression that it needed some time to take full effect. The main problem is that the causes for this kind of "qualified miracle" are unclear; at times, even confusing. It also opens the pandora box for endless skepticism, mainly leaving room for interpreting the act as a form of self-healing by way of suggestion, positive affirmation, humor, communal rapport, meditation, group therapy and personal catharsis. 

I have come to end of this letter. I hope I have put my point as clear as my limited knowledge allows. My hope is to clear the haze on what miracles should be. To me, it is something almost magical, pristine, inspirational, life-affirming and transforming. We undermine the sublimity of its awesome power by bending its definition to suit our own personal agenda or to fit God into our own preconceived, pigeon-holed theology. 

At times, in a congregational context, I think we should let God be God and leave him to minister to those sincere souls whose invocation for a miracle in their life apparently fell on deaf ears for whatever reasons. In other words, in the area of unanswered prayer, we should let God be His own advocate, refrain from  putting words into his mouth, and resist the temptation to help Him along. Cheers.