August 24, 2013

Reflections: With benefits of religious life revealed, who doesn't need pastor?

By DELVYN C. CASE JR.

Who needs a pastor?

REFLECTIONS is a column written by members of Maine's faith-based community. Opinions expressed in the column reflect the author's view and not necessarily that of the newspaper.

One evening a pastor friend of mine, who was the on-call chaplain for a local hospital, was summoned urgently to see a patient. The message on my friend's cellphone sounded ominous: "Come quickly. I'm dying. I need a pastor!" 

When my friend reached the hospital, he was puzzled to find Jordan sitting nonchalantly on his bed engrossed in a televised baseball game. When my friend was able to get Jordan's attention, Jordan turned down the volume, leaned toward my friend and smiled, "I was worried about the X-ray and thought I was dying. I'm not religious, but thought I should see a pastor because ... you know. But the X-ray's OK, so I'm good."

With that Jordan turned back to the TV and the conversation was over.

Jordan's story reminds me of one of Jesus' famous parables: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.' Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink, and be merry." '

"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared?' This is how it is with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God." (Luke 12: 16-20).

The man in Jesus' parable certainly needed to call a pastor that night. Jordan thought he did. Fortunately for Jordan, his life was not threatened that July evening. Did Jordan need a pastor anyway? According to Jesus' parable, is there an advantage for seeking a pastor while one is healthy so he would be "rich toward God"?

A growing body of research affirms the benefits of religious faith and regular church attendance in adding three years to one's life. How does active faith accomplish this? First, a place of worship provides a community, a framework of support for a variety of circumstances and problems, not seen in secular institutions according to social science research. Churches have practical social services with food programs, transportation, and money for home-heating oil and other necessities for those with needs. Those who are part of a faith community are often actively involved in providing help for others. These attitudes and actions enhance one's feeling of purpose in life that augment longevity.

In addition, church attendance changes personal habits. Numerous studies have shown that whose who attend church smoke less, drink less, use fewer recreational drugs, and are less sexually promiscuous than those who do not attend church. This contributes to a healthier lifestyle that translates into longer life. 

Most importantly, attending church affects how people view the world. They have a relationship with someone beyond the material world who offers something not offered by any human. This is a relationship with a caring God who has not only created and supervises the world, but also listens to each individual's prayers and considers his or her needs.

We are promised things will be good someday, even if they are not good now: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Romans 8:28). This provides great comfort in our struggles.

The benefits of faith contribute to understanding Jesus' parable. Being rich toward God and storing up treasures in heaven rather on Earth is related to a person's attitudes and actions in terms of community involvement, lifestyle and faith in a good God in control of all that happens. The Earth-directed attitudes and actions of the man in Jesus' parable likely contributed to his shortened life because of his selfishness and self-centeredness.

Jordan's parting quip as my friend left the hospital room was, "I'll call you if I need you."

My pastor friend turned back toward Jordan, who was again engrossed in the game.

With the benefits of an active religious life for those who are healthy, who does not need a pastor now? 

Dr. Delvyn C. Case Jr. is a hematologist/oncologist, writer, playwright and consultant to the department of spiritual care at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

 

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