Monday, September 10, 2012

The Elephant Man - "I can care for you, but I can't cure you."

The film depicts the Circus traveling through London and the curiosity of the “Elephant Man” spreading far and wide.  He was the best freak show there ever was.  Crowds would come to jeer at him, laugh, scream, and torment him.  That was until he was discovered by Dr. Frederick Treves.  The Doctor initially wanted to make a name for himself, but soon discovered the man, really the child, who people called “The Elephant Man” was not a specimen, but a human being, a child trapped in a grotesque body.    

He takes “The Elephant Man” away from the circus, and the crowds, and his abusive owner and begins to treat him and heal him in the hospital.  It is there, one-on-one, that he first hears “The Elephant Man” speak.  Dr. Treves discovers that not only can he speak, but, he has a name... John Merrick.  The only thing that John carried with him his entire life was a small, framed portrait of his beautiful mother.  He carried her picture in the hope that one day she would be able to love him.  

During the film there is a transformation, not only in John, but in the Doctor.  The two of them actually become genuine friends.  Dr. Treves discovers that John is far from dumb, rather he is quite refined, he can read, he is an artist, he admires the theater and above all loves the Lord.  

There is   a powerful scene where the Doctors are arguing about whether or not John can be helped.  They step out of the room and close the door and get into a heated debate… until they hear John speaking to himself behind the closed door.  They overhear him reciting the 23rd Psalm.

The LORD is my shepherd;
there is nothing I lack.
In green pastures he makes me lie down;
to still waters he leads me;
he restores my soul.
He guides me along right paths
for the sake of his name.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff comfort me.

It’s then that the Doctors realize that not only is John a human being, but he has obviously been through much suffering, and has turned to the Lord to be his comfort.  

Dr. Frederick’s superior asks: “Can you imagine the kind of life he must have had?”  Dr. Frederick replies: “Yes, I think I can.”  Very somberly and gravely his superior speaks “I don’t think so.  No one could possibly imagine it!  I don’t believe any of us can.”  

These two doctors begin to see this man not as a specimen, but now with great compassion.  By realizing that John had suffered so much in life they were able to see him with compassion.

Now imagine this in the Gospel that we hear today.  There’s a crowd gathered around a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment.  I imagine the crowd acted very similarly screaming, laughing, jeering... and Jesus with great compassion “took him off by himself away from the crowd.”  

What must it have been like for this man?  One moment he is in the midst of the crowed, probably afraid, sad, rejected, humiliated, he meets Jesus who takes him away from all of this, and in the next moment he is alone with the Good Shepherd.  I think, like any of us would do to our child who is hurting, we would first remove him from that circumstance and then one-on-one speak to them, affirm them, love them, and care for them.  

There’s a scene in “The Elephant Man” where this happens.  “The Elephant Man”, John Merrick, says to his Doctor: “There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you for some time now.”  “What’s that?” Dr. Frederick Treves asks.  John, who is visibly choked up and vulnerable, asks in a very childlike way: “Can you cure me?”  His Doctor pauses and responds very solemnly “No...  We can care for you, but we can’t cure you.”  John replies, matter-of-factly, “I thought so.”  

The two become so close that Dr. Treves invites his wife to meet John.  As with most people she is initially repelled by the look of him but she overlooks this and treats him very kindly.  She gently takes his hand and says: “I’m very pleased to meet you, Mr. Merrick.”  John begins to mouth the words “I’m very pleased…” but then he breaks down and cries looking away.  “What is it John?  What’s the matter?”  Asks Dr. Treves.  John looks down and says “It’s just that I… I’m not use to being treated so well by a beautiful woman.”

As the film continues more and more people begin to treat John not as a freak, but as a real person.  He begins to shine.

Near the end of the film, Dr. Treves has a heart-to-heart with John and he tells him he is so sorry for all of the hurt that he has endured in life.  John says something rather surprising back to him: “I am happy every hour of the day. My life is full because I know I am loved. I have gained myself. I could not have said that if it were not for you.”

So John Merrick was never cured, but he was cared for... he was happy every hour of the day because he was loved.  So in a way he was healed.  

Just as Jesus takes the deaf and dumb man away from the crowd to himself, and as the Doctor took John Merrick away from the freak show he was living, we are too experience this as well.

First of all, we have all probably experienced some rejection or abuse in our life.  Try and think of the moment which is most painful for you.  Recall a time when you felt completely alone, abandoned, helpless, ridiculed, or rejected.  Now, imagine Jesus coming into that moment, taking you aside, away from the pain, blessing you, healing you, and encouraging you.  

This is a type of healing prayer, and He can do this with all of our painful memories.  Allow Jesus to come into the moment, relive it with Him, and then let Him take you away to Himself, affirm you, care for you, and heal you.  When we experience a moment like this we will then be able to

Secondly, realize that this continues to happen today.  I think our schools have come a long way with the anti-bullying programs.  But it still takes one child to be strong, to stand up for the one being picked on.  And unfortunately it doesn’t stop when we become adults.

Last week I had the funeral for a man who had committed suicide.  My heart ached as I listened to his brothers talk about how much he had been bullied when he was younger.  At the age of three he had developed cerebral palsy and was relentlessly picked on as a child.  They said to me, “Father, I don’t think he ever got over that.  He went on to live a fairly normal life, but I don’t think he ever got over all that rejection as a child.”  

If you see someone being bullied or picked on, do something or tell someone until it stops.  You can become like Jesus in these moments because you can literally save this person and take them away from such a helpless situation.  

Imagine a parent watching their child at a soccer game and the kid does something really stupid, like kicking the ball into the wrong goal, and the kids and maybe even other parents are laughing and name-calling.  That parent is hopefully going to go to that child, take them aside, comfort them, encourage them, and protect them.  

You can do this for other people.  Jesus continues to do this ministry of healing for us today.  Let him take you away to himself and heal you and let him heal others through you.  

As John Merrick discovered that though he couldn’t be cured he could be cared for… he was happy every hour of every day because he was loved.  May we too experience this love and share it with those who are rejected.  Though we may not always be able to cure them, we can care for them.


  1. What a wonderful sermon! And exactly what I needed to hear this morning.

  2. Thank you Father, makes me really think how I can be the one caring and sometimes look to Jesus to comfort me and care for me.

  3. Thank you Father, makes me really think how I can be the one caring and sometimes look to Jesus to comfort me and care for me.

  4. Thank you Father, makes me think about being more caring towards others and how to let and look towards Jesus to care for me.

  5. What a lovely sermon! I agree, we have so much to learn from "John" Merrick's example of forgiveness and forbearance.
    You might be interested in a brand-new biography of the "real" Elephant Man, Joseph Carey Merrick, who was as kind and forgiving as he appeared in the movie. He was never enslaved by a brutal owner, but he did earn a living in the sideshows and like the film, he was hounded in the train station by a cruel mob. He lived at the London Hospital, thanks to Frederick Treves, and made many model churches as gifts for friends.
    "Measured by the Soul," by Jeanette Sitton and Mae Siu Wai Stroshane, is available at Lulu(dot)com and will soon be on Amazon.
    Mae Stroshane
    Friends of Joseph Carey Merrick


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