This may be hard to believe, but shortly after tumbling about a thousand feet down a rock- and ice-covered mountain and suffering multiple injuries from head to toe, I had to laugh.
Despite the trauma, despite the pain, and despite the fact that it would be hours before anyone would find me laying flat on my back in the middle of nowhere, the words of a familiar hymn came to mind and made me smile. And then chuckle.
“Shepherd, show me how to go,” the hymn, written by Mary Baker Eddy, begins, “O’er the hillside steep.” (Did I happen to mention how I found myself in this predicament?).
“How to gather, how to sow, / How to feed Thy sheep.” (And did I mention that the only thing left in my rucksack was an apple?).
“I will listen for Thy voice, / Lest my footsteps stray; / I will follow and rejoice / All the rugged way.”
Tell me these words weren’t written just for me. And tell me that their coincidental references to rugged hillsides and wandering footsteps aren’t just a little, well – funny.
I was barely fifteen years old at the time but this wasn’t the first time – and thankfully not the last – that God had used humor as a gentle yet effective way of reminding me that He was on the scene and that everything was going to be okay.
Although most of my injuries were pretty obvious – two broken legs, a broken hand, and what felt like a pretty banged up face – there were other, less obvious problems I was dealing with, including hypothermia and internal bleeding. Yet simply knowing that I was in the presence of the Divine was enough to keep my thought from lapsing into fear and helplessness and just letting go, perhaps slipping even further down the mountain.
About three or four hours later, just before sunset, a rescue team arrived and airlifted me to a nearby hospital.
By the time I arrived my parents were waiting for me in the emergency room and were, of course, deeply concerned about what had happened. Here again, all it took was a moment of divinely inspired levity to remind them as well that everything was going to be okay.
“Is he allergic to any foods,” the admitting nurse asked my mom.
It was at this moment that I became mentally alert, although my eyes were still closed. In the split second between the nurse’s question and Mom’s response, it occurred to me to say “asparagus,” knowing that by doing so it would reduce the chances of my being served what was then a dreaded vegetable.
“Asparagus,” repeated the nurse.
And then, with what I’m sure was a smile on her face – not to mention a great sense of relief – Mom said, “He’s not allergic to anything; he just doesn’t like asparagus. Obviously his sense of humor is still intact. I’m sure he’s going to be just fine.”
Although my parents and I had relied successfully on prayer in lieu of medicine many times before – even in emergencies – given the seriousness of the situation it seemed wise to go ahead with the various operations being recommended by the team of doctors assigned to my case.
Of course, praying for a healthy body isn’t new. Far from it. There are many stories of physical healing throughout the Bible as well as contemporary examples of people from a variety of backgrounds who pray regularly for this kind of help, and with good results.
According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, the number of people who pray for their health increased from roughly 14% in 1999 to nearly half the adult population in 2007. In a related survey, conducted about the same time, the Pew Forum found that 36% of respondents reported “experiencing or witnessing a divine healing of an illness or injury.”
For years medical researchers have been trying to figure out if a prayer-based approach to health is good, bad, or indifferent. Ask Candy Gunther Brown, associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University, and she’ll tell you that part of the problem is in how their studies are conducted.
In an article published in Psychology Today, Dr. Brown notes that in one of the most well known studies – a study that concluded that prayer could actually have an adverse effect on health – there was a fundamental flaw. Apparently a large number of those asked to pray for the recovery of coronary patients belonged to a religious group that considers intercessory prayer useless. Rather than proving anything definitive about the effectiveness of prayer itself, this study would seem to indicate that the thought of the person praying – or, by association, even the thought of the medical doctor – could play a larger role in the healing process than previously assumed.
In my own case I was fortunate to be surrounded by a group of individuals – medical staff and family members alike – who all expected me to recover; this, despite the fact that the original prognosis, as my father told me some years later, was rather grim. Although it took awhile for me to fully recover, I began seeing the effects of my own and my parent’s prayers right away.
During an operation to repair what was diagnosed as severe internal bleeding, the doctors found that there was actually nothing wrong. As one of the members of the surgical team put it, “Someone must have gotten in there before us.”
On another occasion, immediate surgery was scheduled for a condition that wasn’t progressing as expected. My parents and I asked if it would be okay if we postponed the operation for just one day to give us an opportunity to pray about the situation. The next morning new x-rays were taken which showed dramatic improvement. Instead of carting me off to the operating room plans were made for me to complete my recovery at home.
As for the “banged up” face, my doctors thought that plastic surgery might be required. Instead, every last scratch and scar was quickly healed without any intervention.
Today, many years later, not only have I been able to walk across the Grand Canyon in a single day and ride my bike for as much as two hundred miles in a single stretch, something curious has happened to my taste buds as well. Asparagus has now become my favorite vegetable.
Leave it to God to have the last laugh.
Eric Nelson is a Christian Science practitioner whose articles on consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national publications, including The Washington Times. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.