HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

 

January 7, 2008

 

 

Faith-Based Mutual:

From the Confidential Files of Dr. Christopher Jacques

 

John R. Guthrie

 

 

The senior’s group, Eyes on Glory, at Austerity’s First Church prayed Mr. Malcolm Boyd right out of the coma he’d been in for six weeks after suffering a stroke. The doctors had already told his family they needed to prepare for the worst. Even after he woke up, the prayer chain continued for six months. Then one Sunday morning here came Malcolm, his great grandson rolling him down the aisle in a wheelchair. The musical director saw him entering, turned and whispered to the pianist and the choir, and signaled the 18 piece orchestra. They broke into a rousing rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

Malcolm was unable to stay for long because he repeatedly nearly slid from his wheelchair twice because the seat was slippery wet. He had problems with bladder and bowel control. But though he and his head was resting on his right shoulder and his tongue hung from his mouth as he was rolled away, the congregations waved bye and smiled as they continued to sing.

Preacher MacLeash picked up his prepared text, one based on Leviticus 20:13: and dramatically sat it aside. He preached instead a rousing and inspired extemporaneous sermon on the power of intercessory prayer. The case of Malcolm Boyd was just one of the miracles that occurred due to prayer at First Church. First Church is located on Main Street in the small town of Austerity. Austerity is in the rolling foothills of the Smokey Mountain chain of the Appalachians in the northwestern corner of the uniquely colorful and lovely state of South Carolina.

 

The Monday after Christmas that year at Austerity’s First Church, Jed Raney, the proprietor of the Raney Insurance Agency (Life, Health, Auto, Annuities), bent from the waist to pick up the pulpit Bible. It was the King James Version, complete with apocrypha, beautifully bound in goatskin leather with art gilt edges and the words of Jesus printed in red, a product of the renowned printer of Bibles, the Cambridge University Press. It retails for over $500. It is immense.

Jed volunteered to come over to Austerity’s First church for a couple of hours that morning to help with cleaning up following the Christmas pageant. The pulpit, which had been moved to the wings for the Christmas pageant, was a massive piece, solid walnut with heavily carved scrollwork around the top. A cross is built into the trim on the front for added sanctity. It’s heavy enough that it had to be brought out of the 18 wheeler that delivered it and placed on the dais by a full-sized fork lift powered by golf cart batteries. The fork lift hummed down blue-carpeted aisle like a June bug, the pulpit held high on its forks as if it were the Arc of the Covenant.

Jed was 30 pounds heavier than when he’d played center on the championship Austerity high school football team of 17 years ago. Despite Pastor MacLeash’s admonition to wait until help arrived, he leaned into the pulpit and pushed as if it were the sled on the training field of those bygone days of high school football glory. Instead of sliding, the pulpit tipped just enough for the Bible that lay on its slanted book stand to clump to the floor. Jed, like most raised-right southern boys, had been taught as a child to respect the Bible, to never place another book on it or otherwise mishandle it. He was chagrined. He bent from the waist to retrieve it, but as he snatched it to his chest and stood again a little too quickly, something snapped in his lower back. He experienced a pain like the liquid fires of a flaming hell radiating across his lower back, worse than anything he had ever experienced. He gripped his back, the Bible tumbling to the floor unnoticed again, then sank to the floor in a sitting position, attempting to find a position of comfort. But none was to be found so he sat with is back against the pulpit. “Preacher MacLeash,” he cried.

“Yes, Jed, everything OK?” Rev. Macleash called from somewhere backstage.

“Preacher, come quick. I’ve just played heck.”

 

They brought him to Dr. Christopher Jacques’s clinic lying on the seat in the back of the church van. He was half carried, half walked through the back door. Though he prided himself on never being a pain person, his face was contorted and suffused as he grimaced, his fists balled, perspiration beaded his forehead. Pearl, his wife, soon arrived and stood at his side.

After examining him, Jacques said, “All the evidence suggest a severe muscle strain, but at this point we can’t rule out a ruptured disc. One approach is to admit you to the medical center and put you in traction.”

Jed, more comfortable after receiving 100 of Demerol by injection, said, “Doc, I gotta stay home.”

Dr Jacques evolved a treatment plan involving ice, heat, Demerol tablets and prescription strength muscle relaxants for up to 48 hours, then milder analgesics and ice packs as needed. “Without substantial improvement with 3 days of strict bed rest, though, we should consider getting Dr. Sanchez, the neurosurgeon, to do a myelogram,” Dr. Jacques concluded.           

By the next morning, Jed’s back hurt badly again, Demerol tablets and muscles relaxants not withstanding. He was a teetotaler due to religious conviction, the exception being during the once-yearly extravaganza involving the Regional Association of Insurance Brokers Convention in Atlanta. But the morning after his back injury, that original Demerol by injection had worn completely off. So in spite of caveats to the contrary, he asked Pearl into going to a liquor store to purchase some for pain relief. Pearl was a dutiful spouse, one who believed in preacher MacLeash’s oft-repeated adage, Wives, submit to your husbands as if to the Lord. For a husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church. She went, but she parked half a block a way, hoping no one would see her car near the liquor store. She then walked briskly to the small red brick building that was Papidopolis’s ABC. She looked quickly around, then dodged in. George Papidopolis, a brown-complexioned man of considerable proportions with a bristle of dark mustache and a balding pate, smiled a smile that somehow made Pearl think of a terrorist. He said in his gravelly voice, “How may I help you, Ma’am?”

Pearl said, “Oh, I don’t know. I just have to get something for my husband. He’s having severe pain and needs something for that. We really aren’t drinkers but….”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Papidopolis said, sighing inwardly, for this furtiveness about entering an ABC store was one he was familiar with from many from many of the citizens of Austerity. “Brandy!” he rumbled cheerfully, “Christian Brothers Brandy. It’s known for its medicinal properties. And it’s made by a religious order in the San Joaquin Valley of California.”

“That sounds just perfect. We don’t actually use alcohol, you see, but…”

“I understand perfectly. Good choice, though, Ma’am.” He was already placing the black and white labeled bottle in a brown paper bag. “Some people drink it straight, some mix it with water, some with cola.”

Jed‘s agony had increased by the time Pearl returned with the brandy.  He grabbed the bottle, mixed it with neither water nor cola, but gulped it down straight as a chaser for two Demerol tablets.  He waited a few minutes. He felt a buzz, but his back was still cramping in the most agonizing way. He took another Demerol, hesitated a moment then poured three muscle relaxants into his palm and washed them down with brandy. 

With the potent and dangerous combination of high octane brandy and enough Demerol and muscle relaxants to down a bull elephant on board, Jed slept, mouth open, for 14 hours, snoring like a chain saw. But his chemically induced sleep was strange, fitful and dream-filled, one in which he found himself transported to a different place and time. He stood alone on a mountain top. The wind swept through the peaks and valleys shrieking like a lost and wounded thing. As he looked about, he realized that the mountain was either the one on which the church retreat across the border in North Carolina, Pulpit Crest, stood, or perhaps far-away biblical Mount Sinai, or perhaps in a way he could not, understand, both at once. Either way, he found a strange peace once he recognized this geographical improbability, for both Pulpit Crest and Mt. Sinai in their own way were sacred and holy places, oracular and mystical in their power; places of divine revelation. His eyes were drawn toward the peak of Pulpit Crest/Sinai. There stood a structure there very similar to Austerity’s First Church, a building with columns in front like Tara. The steeple though, reached so high it was lost in the dark and roiling clouds above. There was a sudden bust of light somewhere behind the building and boom like thunder. “Volcano?” Jed asked himself. The structure now radiated light through its immense stained glass windows and through its wide-open front door, light that beamed forth like a search light. He was awed by it, and sank to his knees. It was at that moment that he heard the voice, a voice as mighty as the whirlwind, the voice of Judgment, coming from somewhere in the clouds above; “Jed, my son, I have a plan for you. There is a way for you, a way of faith….” The voice continued, explaining what he must do. Then there was silence. The light diminished. The scene faded.

As his eyes blinked open, Jed felt disoriented, terrified, his heart beating at a brisk tempo. 

“Pearl! Pearl!” he called.

Pearl, responding to the anxiety in Jed’s voice, came quickly. “Jed, Honey, what is it? Are you OK?”

“Did you…hear anything?” he said.

“Hear what, Jed?”

“Thunder, a voice…it was so loud.”

Pearl looking a bit perplexed, said “Jed, Dear, I didn’t hear a thing. You know, might be a good idea not to mix even medicinal brandy with those pain pills. Dr. Jacques said…”

Jed took a deep breath, then said, “Yeah…but I had a dream...so real. Maybe it wasn’t a dream.”

“How’s your back, Hon?” Pearl said, brow furrowed.

Jed sat up, feeling his back. “Pearl, I can’t believe it. My back doesn’t hurt at all. Just a little soreness.” He paused a moment before continuing. “Pearl, something important’s happened…” He started to tell her the whole story of the mountains, the voice from above, then noting Pearl’s furrowed brow, thought better of it and was silent.

Instead he said, “My mouth is dry.” 

“Let me get you a diet cola, Hon. It’ll just take a minute.”

She was soon back and handed the cola to Jed. Jed was sitting propped against the pillows. He looked thoughtful as he sipped, then gradually more focused, excited even.

“You feel better now?” Pearl asked.  “You were pale as if you’d seen a ghost when you woke up.”

“Honey, maybe I did…” he answered cryptically. “Bring me some paper and a ballpoint pen, please. I’ve got to write some things down!”

Jed wondered why he hadn’t thought of the business plan it without divine inspiration. He labeled the rough draft and underlined it:

A BUSINESS PLAN

for

FAITH-BASED MUTUAL INSURANCE GROUP, INC:

Affordable Life and Health for the Chosen

From the Offices of

Jedidiah Raney, Certified Financial Planner, Chartered Life & Health Underwriter

 

Preacher MacLeash himself not only had preached more than once on the efficacy of intercessory prayer. He’d even quoted a study from some medical journal by Christian physicians on how intercessory prayer favorably affected the outcome for even the most moribund of patients. If it could shorten convalescence and prevent premature death, insurance would become more affordable while profits would increase proportionally. Why had no one incorporated that into a business plan before? Lack of faith! America had already excluded God from the classroom, and prayer and scripture from public places.

He’d met actuaries at the Atlanta convention numerous times and heard them speak. They did not impress him as being saved. Their names were usually strange; Levitsky, Goldstein, Wasserman. A plan involving prayer chains that originated in First Church Austerity would obviously beat the odds of the supposedly scientific annuity tables just as surely as Intelligent Design and the book of Genesis had defeated Darwinism.

He recalled the case of the comely Megan Satterfield, she whose lovely mezzo-soprano voice added to the choir. One Sunday morning she stood before the entire congregation and testified that a lump in her left breast had miraculously disappeared after 28 days of prayer by Sunday School class for young adults. “Isn’t our God a great God?” Preacher MacLeash had cried out, pointing in the general direction of Megan’s well-formed left breast. Jed and doubtless many others in the congregations found great joy in contemplating the ever-shapely, now perfected-by-prayer bosom of Miss Satterfield that Sunday.

Jed planned to use the First Church congregation as the start-up group for Faith–Based Mutual Insurance Group. In the case of illness or accident, a prayer chain would be established immediately-- one that would reduce both the death rate and producing shorter and less complicates convalescence. Praise God!             

He consulted with Paul Long, Esq., a savvy if aging investment-oriented lawyer who had garnered a great deal of real estate in Austerity. He had also been a deacon at First Church for decades. Though Deacon Long had a little problem remembering some of the details of the plan for Faith-Based Mutual, he signed on as corporate treasurer and began the paperwork to incorporate the new endeavor. Preacher MacLeash was asked to become the third and final corporate officer, the first-vice president. He looked thoughtful, then said, “Jed, thank you, but man cannot serve two masters. It might represent a conflict of interest.”  He did, though, agree for a modest monthly stipend to be the company’s chaplain, a position that required only that he open the meetings of the board of directors and the stockholders with a prayer.

With his well-known and well-respected allies, selling the plan to individual members of the church was easy. Jed soon refined the plan, allowing members who had bought into the corporation to sell shares to new members. Within three months, Faith Based Mutual Insurance Group was paying dividends to shareholders, first a nickel, but with aspirations toward much more.

Jed called and asked to come by Dr. Jacques’s house. Once there, he said, “Doc, I’d like to share with you an exceptional financial opportunity, one from which  your brothers and sisters in Christ, I can’t name them due to confidentiality rules, but people  you and I both know, trust and respect, are partners in. We’re already paying dividends and aiming toward annual profits on their shares of upward of 20%. Our goal is eventually to achieve 43% a year based on the best projections available. It’s a faith-based concept, one limited to Bible-believing Christians.…”

Dr. Jacques, rubbing his chin, hesitated for a moment then said, “Jed, it does sound good. And I’m happy for your success. But my background is scientific and medical. I’m a pretty fair Doc, but need to just stick with my financial advisor.”

He looked almost as if he might weep at Jacques’s lack of perceptiveness “Well Chris, I hope you’ll pray over this. You remember the choir singing last Sunday; ‘Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling?’”

“Sure, I remember. My Mama used to love that hymn.”

Jed, looking as sorrowful as a basset hound now, said, “Chris, this time the Savior is calling us to work toward a Christian community. That includes Christian in this case life and health insurance based on the power of intercessory prayer. When He knocks, Chris, why won’t you answer?”  

 

Paul Long, Esq., was admitted to the Austerity Regional Medical Center Intensive Care Unit with a fever and shortness of breath. There, despite a prayer chain of unheard of intensity and range and the excellent care of geriatrician Dr. Paul Schapiro, Paul Long, Esq. promptly turned his face to the wall and died. He was 88 years old. As his estate was examined, it was determined that certain of the corporate papers for Faith Based Mutual had never been processed with the Secretary of State’s Office in Columbia. Paul was a bit forgetful in recent years. But it was only, Jed noted, after they began selling to Methodists and Presbyterians that things started to unravel. 

 

Dr. Jacques stopped by the pathology lab at the hospital to check on the results of the post-mortem for Paul Long, Esq. Dr. Hillary Stein, the pathologist, he of the steel-rimmed glasses, stood beside his white porcelain autopsy table with the gutters along the side, drinking his morning coffee before beginning a post–mortem on the sheet-draped corpse on the table. It’s been said that it’s probably fortunate that Stein’s patients are all dead before he meets them. He’s generally a man of few words, more a practitioner of the science of medicine than the art. He’s also much respected in judicial circles as a forensic pathologist. More than one judge has described him as a man of fearless and unimpeachable integrity. Stein’s diener, Willie Posey, the black man who worked in pathology forever, removed the sheet from the corpse, revealing a withered and elderly woman, the stigmata of arthritis readily visible on her hands and fingers.

Sipping his coffee, Stein said in response to Jacque’s question, “Paul Long? Nothing surprising medically. He died from bilateral pneumococcal pneumonia secondary to influenza.” He sipped his coffee again, then said, “Chris, have time to chat in my office for a few minutes?”

“Sure, Hillary.”

 “Cover her up again, please, Willie.”

The sheet rustled as Willie re-covered the corpse. 

Jacques and Dr. Stein settled into Stein’s tiny office at the edge of the lab, one where every horizontal surface was stacked with files and journals and books. Like everything else in the pathology department, it smelled of formalin.

Stein said, “Chris, after Paul Long’s death I became aware of his involvement with something called Faith-Based Mutual Insurance Group, his primary insurance carrier. He also had Medicare A and B, fortunately for the hospital, but Faith-Based Mutual…what is your understanding of that?”

Dr. Jacques replied, “Jed Raney, who owns the Raney Insurance Agency off Main Street developed a business model based on intercessory prayer. They figured that with a prayer chain composed of all the First Church members praying for anyone in the group who was sick or dying, they could beat the odds of the actuarial tables, have shorter periods of convalescence, pay out less, charge less, and get a greater return on their investment.”

Stein snorted.

Jacques said, “I’ve wondered, though, Hillary, about studies I’ve heard of but not read that purportedly showed the strength and efficacy of intercessory prayer.

“They’re invariably seriously flawed,” Stein said. “The one common denominator is that they are conducted by physicians who may be good and well-wishing practitioners and effective wheel –horses in the field, but who are not necessarily trained in rigorous scientific methodology.”

“Not surprising.” Jacques said, thoughtful now.

Stein continued, “The researchers may vary greatly in their scientific ability, but they do have one thing in common?”

“And what’s that Hillary?” Jacques said.

“They seriously, desperate, wish to prove that Jesus is The Man. So without fail, their results are not reproducible under valid scientific conditions. Never! Not even once. There is no peer review except by other supernaturalists. The ‘scientific’ articles used as primary and secondary references are often from publications that are essentially journals on the supernatural.”

“So,” Jacques said, “there are no adequate controlled studies of this intercessory prayer phenomenum; no data that substantiate the underlying thesis for Faith Based Mutual Insurance Group?”

“None of the rigorous ones are supportive. Hucksters since time immemorial have flourished by selling verbal snake oil and calling it prayer. Probably the best study available is an extended one reported in the American Heart Journal.” Stein pulled a bound set of journals and flipped it open, searched a bit, and handed the opened journal to Dr. Jacques. “Read the abstract, Chris.”

Jacques read aloud from the summary paragraph, “...no evidence that intercessory prayer is efficacious in cardiac patients. Patients who knew they were being prayed for, however, did show a higher incidence of complications than patients who were not prayed for….” Jacques folded the bound journals, and handed them back. “So, prayer, for at least those who knew about it, was counter-productive. For others it made no difference. So much for Faith-based Mutual, huh? There was an associated sales program, incidentally. I have the impression that it was essentially pyramidal.”

“Mathematically bound to fail as well as illegal,” Stein replied. He leaned forward. “Tell you what, Chris, old friend. And I’m willing to bet, say, one Shekel on this. If we don’t see Faith-Based Mutual collapse pretty soon, if it flourishes, and intercessory prayer keeps the clients off my autopsy table, you’re going to see me over at First Church. I’m going to dance down the aisle shouting, ’Praise Jesus, He is Lord.’ Then I’ll ask you to be a consultant in helping me form the flagship chapter of the Austerity, S.C. Chapter of Jews for Jesus.”

Jacques laughed out loud. He’d never heard Hillary make a joke before.

 

Dr. Jacques was preparing to pick up his briefcase and walk out the kitchen door two months later when the phone rang.

“Hello. This is Dr. Jacques.”

“Doc, Jed Raney! I’ve gotta see you. Right away. It’s my nerves, Chris, they’re all torn up.”

“Why sure, Jed,” Jacques said. “I’m just leaving for the clinic in a moment. Meet me there. I’ll ask Anna Jolly to put you in my office first thing.”

Dr. Jacques and Jed were soon sitting together.

“Doc, nerves are so torn up I can’t think. One of Sheriff Sam Hatchette’s deputies delivered a subpoena from the state Attorney General, the same phony that claimed to be running a God-fearing, family values-based campaign to get elected. My”

“Jed, I can see how you’d be upset,” Jacques said. 

Jed continued, “It’s the liberals, Doc, Secular Humanists, Atheists, Darwinists and a good sprinkling of good old-fashioned Communists. They’re attacking Faith–Based Mutual and me. They don’t want it to succeed. Christians are under attack all over! If I weren’t a Christian, I’d go have a drink.”

“Jed, I’m sorry this has happened. We do need to talk about that. But may I ask you, have you retained a lawyer?”

Jed sneered incredulously, “No. My lawyer is dead, Doc. Paul Long was my business partner, too. Pray for me Doc. Prayer is the strongest medicine of all. Doc, do you ever prescribe nerve pills? Really strong ones?” 

 

 

Dr. John R. Guthrie practiced family medicine in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia for years. As an adolescent he was a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman and later served as a physician in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Southern California and is a writer and social activist.

 

 

 

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