Sugar Pill

Over the past few years modern medicine has discovered a phenomenon called “placebo drift”. When scientists want to prove whether or not a drug is effective they compare it to a placebo which is a pill that doesn’t have any effect on the body – or does it? It turns out that these sugar pills seem to be increasing in strength, that is, patients in clinical trials are more responsive to fake pills than they were in the past. One possible explanation is conditioning reinforced by cultural norms, popular media and intense pharmaceutical advertising. We believe that just seeing a doctor and taking a pill is good for us, and this belief is so strong that it can improve depression or high blood pressure. Our faith in a pill, even a sugar pill, has the power to heal us.

In the Gospel according to Mark we find the blind man Bartimaeus who receives his sight.  Jesus says to him, “Go, your faith has healed you”. Was the Nazarene on to something here? Certainly. Physicians have always recognized the healing power of suggestion and snake oil. When we believe wholeheartedly we will get better, we get better.

I suffer from allergies and asthma, and over the last few weeks the weather here in Buenos Aires has been getting cold and damp as we head deeper into autumn. This climate wreaks havoc on my respiratory system. Normally when I cough and wheeze I reach for my inhaler. Now I’ve been reaching for something else… prayer.

I don´t pretend that prayer should replace conventional medicine, but is faith in the ethical dilemma presented by Big Pharma and their clinical trials any safer? Jesus used spittle and dirt as his elements of healing. The big drug companies employ potentially lethal substances. Their primary objective is to make money and, therefore, the validity of their studies requires serious questioning.

Still, my training as a physician prejudices my reasoning here. I want the pill or puffer to make me better. It’s quick and easy, but it comes with a cost both monetary and biochemically.

Last night I awoke short of breath with an audible wheeze – classic acute asthma episode. So I prayed for the Lord to heal me. I prayed for Him to mobilize my body’s natural resources to stop the wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. And it worked. I didn’t have to expose myself to any drug, and I saved myself some money to boot. God’s gifts are free.

Some might say that it was meditative relaxation that resolved my symptoms, but my faith in God is what allows me to even begin to believe that a prayer could halt an asthma attack. Meditation alone could help, but faith supercharges all things and might even give sight to the blind.

Side effects? None… except hopefully more trust in God.

I plan on exploring this more and maybe later today I will post the prayer that I pray when I have an asthma attack.

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I have nothing to teach you

Living in Buenos Aires presents me with a variety of challenges. Hour long bank lines and cramped train rides where you unwillingly get intimate with your neighbor are but a few. This new challenge will force me to dig deeper. In Buenos Aires a villa is basically a slum. A place where people suffer.

Providence brought me to Villa Uzal about 15 minutes from my home to converse with a young man, C., who grew up in the streets of this neighborhood. He returns often as his extended family still lives there. C. tells me, “La villa te absorbe.” Meaning, the place sucks you in.

So he tells me his story. Of a past full of drugs, cars and crime. Of lifting himself out of it all practically on his own. Of children stealing and dying and luxury sedans wheeling into the villa to do commerce. Of his dead brother-in-law, killed in a shootout. Of another family member and friend killed. And another. And another until I’ve lost count. He tells me he worries about the 14 year old kid on the corner with his baseball cap skewed sideways. This kid’s brother was shot in the belly while the kid watched. And even though he’s incredibly bright, C. tells me, the kid will need a lot of attention and patience to not end up in prison or full of holes in his chest. I hear about the 17 year old girl with a mentality of a ten year old, pregnant by abuse and infected with HIV…  La villa te absorbe…

C. was trapped, but he escaped – without faith in Jesus Christ. By nature he worries about the kids in the street that he knows are stealing from the chance for a better future for his neighborhood. He does all this without faith. So by what right or by what reason do I have to teach or advise him of anything? The answer? I have no right and no reason at all. My innate strength and goodness are puny in the shadow of this young man tattooed with ink and pain.

We look down the main corridor of the villa watching kids scurry after a ball, and I hear him tell it as if describing a late summer storm. Behind the soft pitch of his words his clear green eyes deepen saying, “We’ve seen some things. Man, we’ve seen some terrible things. The seeing made us suffer and cry. This is all we’ve seen since he was a baby; he hurts and he needs. But just listen. Just listen for now.” And so here the Jesus in me found a way to act and to heal. By just listening for now. As a person, there’s little I can do for this young man known for his work ethic and for pulling his family out of the misery. But if I impose my limitations on the Lord, then I make God quite small.

I just have to step aside and let Jesus do His work.

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The picture in this blog is of the famous Villa 31 in Buenos Aires. Villa Uzal, where C. comes from, is another smaller slum on the outskirts of the city.