hand holding younger hand with IV inserted

It’s impossible – in the middle of a pandemic – not to notice how often the sacred texts of my religion reference healing. In the stories and psalms of my prayers these past few weeks, I can’t avoid words of healing: One psalm sings of the One who “heals all our diseases.” Another describes suffering souls saved by a God who “sent out your word and healed them.”

Yet, if both gifts were within my power to offer in abundance this week, the hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 would pick Personal Protective Equipment over my prayers. And I wouldn’t blame them.

With no power to prescribe or operate, how can I speak these days of healing?

Earlier this year, it was my honor to hear a story of healing first-hand. As one of the Board of Directors of the United Way of Jackson County, I got to receive the gift of someone’s story at our all-day annual retreat. A guest speaker described for us her ten-year journey of recovery from schizo-affective disorder, PTSD and depression. As a participant of the “In Our Own Voice” program of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, our speaker said that telling her story in itself was part of her healing, a recovery that remains an ongoing process. “Each time I learn a little bit better how to cope,” she said. It wouldn’t have begun without other human beings helping to make a way. When she was finally able to open herself to what she called “the risk of living,” it was because of a support network, beginning with a doctor who did not shame her suicide attempt, but rather showed concern and care.[1] “I did not recover from pneumonia all by myself,” our guest told us. “I did not recover from depression and PTSD all by myself.”

This should come as no surprise to us. None of us heals from sickness or disease on our own.

In the stories told about Jesus, one illustrates this almost in hyperbole. Jesus is teaching to a packed house. So packed, in fact, no one can get in. That doesn’t deter one group of friends from carrying a paralyzed man to Jesus. They go up on the roof, dig through it, and lower their friend inside.Friends so dedicated they will dig through the roof when they can’t get through the front door. “Jesus saw their faith…” Their faith – the friends’ faith and dogged determination to bring their friend close to the power at work in Jesus. Neither Jesus nor the storyteller tell us anything about the disabled man’s faith. That’s not what concerns them, and it’s not what brings the healing in this story. It’s also not the inability to walk that seems to be the problem at first. Moved by the friends’ faith, Jesus first forgive the man’s sins. It’s only when a controversy erupts in the minds of the legal experts muttering silently to themselves nearby, that Jesus floats the idea of fixing things so the man can again walk. It’s almost as if healing the physical ailment happens primarily to prove to the skeptics around him that Jesus does in fact have the power to do both. He is claiming his authority, and that title “Son of Man” comes with a slightly apocalyptic accent: An ambassador of that day, the scriptural euphemism for when God will restore everything. Jesus goes on to heal over and over again. But it isn’t only in Mark’s day that healing stories generate controversy.

Mark tells 17 miracle stories about Jesus in the first nine chapters of his gospel, and most of them are stories of healing. So, why don’t we hear more about healing in churches like mine? I remember fielding a few awkward questions years ago during a week with the Iona Community in Scotland, as we approached the Tuesday night gathering, traditional a “service of healing.” With some embarrassment, one house-mate for the week admitted they never could tell what Americans might expect from a healing service: people falling down and convulsing… or something else. And this is partly why we don’t hear much about healing in space like this: Because preachers like me are scared and skittish about it. We worry that to talk about healing means to somehow broadcast the message that we reject 2,000 years of science and medicine even when we don’t. We worry that to talk about healing might imply that those of us who haven’t had the physical ailments fixed, that those whose loved one did not recover from cancer or whose friend was not able to withstand the pain of depression – that to speak of healing would somehow imply that God did not hear those prayers. And we worry, too, that to talk about healing may create the impression that we devalue humans who live with disability and/or illness as somehow less than complete, as broken or less-than. These are some of the worries a couple of my church folks tangled with when they offered earlier this year to lead a class on Healing in the Christian Tradition. When it comes to healing, we have so many questions and so much confusion. Healing in our tradition carries baggage, spiritual and social.

But I come from a family that lives in the Venn diagram of healing where the science of medicine and the care of the soul overlap one another. Half of my family work in health care – emergency medicine, nursing, pediatric, cardiac care. I also live in a community with some of the lowest rates of vaccination in the country. Which puts me in this awkward place on the subject of healing. I believe both: 

  • the planet and our bodies possess capacities to heal that in our technological and capitalist, climate-consuming society we have lost, capacities which we must recover and reclaim or be doomed, and
  • that the power of the human mind disciplined by science, through testing and study and research can and will find breakthroughs that save lives

What we need is less Benny Hinn and more Jesus. What we need is to pay less attention to televangelism’s spectacle and more to the person no longer sitting next to us in the pew (in these weeks of “social distancing”) but on the other end of the phone. Because 2,000 years later, even in a very different culture, the power of God in Jesus still heals. “It’s important to remember that the question raised by Mark’s original audience would not have been: ‘Can Jesus do miracles?’” New Testament scholar Bonnie Thurston writes. “Their world accepted and was filled with miracle workers (some of whom we still know by name: Eleazar, Honi, Hanina ben Dosa, Apollonius of Tyana – were some of the superheroes of the healing world at the time). The crowds around Jesus would not have asked, Does Jesus do miracles? Instead, they would ask: ‘By whose power does Jesus do miracles?’ … and to what end? There are plenty of places Jesus specifically denounces the idea that illness or disability is punishment for sin. Mark relates miracles stories, in part, to demonstrate that Jesus manifests the power of God.”[2] In the story about the roof-digging friends, Jesus is not making just one human – but a community – whole. “The healing Jesus heals whole people, spirits and bodies,” Thurston writes. “Jesus ‘puts people back together.’”[3] And a large part of what gets “put back together” for the man who is paralyzed, for the woman from NAMI telling her recovery story, for each one of us, is the bond that illness and brokenness so often sever between human beings and the source of life.

What I found most beautiful about the healing service in Iona Abbey was how those who “carried the mat” (as it were) and those who needed and received the healing kept switching places. We were invited to step forward and kneel on a circle of cushions around a candle and a cross. We would step forward and kneel down while another person laid a hand on our shoulder and prayed either for our own need or one sent to the Abbey from somewhere else in the world. Then the one who received the healing prayer stood up and traded places with the one who offered their hand in help. On those Tuesday nights in the Abbey, the Iona Community offers by way of explanation some words Concerning Prayer for Healing and the Laying on of Hands:

“We each stand in need of healing, but in this ministry we recognize also the social dimension. The healing of divided communities and nations, and the healing of the earth itself, have their place alongside the healing of broken bodies, hurt minds and wounded hearts, and of the hurts and divisions within ourselves. So too our prayers are complementary to the work of medicine and other forms of healing, which are also channels of God’s loving and transforming purpose.”[4]

It’s not the healthy who are in need of a physician, Jesus says. The transformation we most need may not be the one others around us assume. But that is the Gospel: “God restores you, God forgives you, God heals you.”[5] And it often takes the faith of a community to carry us where we need to go to heal. In another story, Jesus meets another paralyzed man, ill for 38 years and languishing alongside a healing pool for “a long time.” Jesus asks if he wants to be made well. But this fellow has no one to put him into the pool when the healing waters have been stirred.[6]

Catherine[7] had a pattern. Usually, when she called me to schedule an appointment, she was drunk. Those calls came during the day. Realizing she’d likely drunk dialed, I’d talk to her for awhile, trying to discern whether she was a danger to herself or her three little boys. We would schedule the appointment she requested, and then the night before or early the morning of, when she could be sure I was not at my desk, she’d leave a message on the office voicemail to cancel. In those messages, she usually sounded sober. This went on for a few years, as we tried to be her church through a couple hospitalizations for drug and alcohol addiction and other kinds of self-harm – all while her partner worked a low-wage job to care for those small boys.  When we finally did meet and talk frankly during one of those stretches of sobriety after a hospitalization, Catherine asked to be re-baptized. She desperately wanted healing – a new life. Though in our tradition the promises never need re-done – you can’t do anything bad enough for God to stop loving you – they do sometimes need remembered.So, a few months after Catherine asked to be re-baptized, we gathered in a small circle around the baptismal font on a Sunday afternoon. Catherine stood there, her partner by her side, together with three friends from her recovery group. She confessed the words and actions she most needed to unburden herself from. She asked for forgiveness, from God and others, for the things she’d said and done that had broken those relationships or caused harm. She asked for forgiveness. But you know what? We didn’t let her do all that alone. We all prayed for our own forgiveness, too, for our own healing. Then, I poured water into the font and traced, with water and oil, a cross on Catherine’s forehead, saying “You are and always will be: a beloved child of God.” No matter how many relapses happen from here. Catherine wanted – she needed – to hear it said out loud.

We need a community, so often, to carry us where we need to go to be healed. That’s why a few months ago – before “physical distancing” and the suspension of church gatherings – I invited willing souls to get within arm’s reach of someone and lay a hand on their shoulder or hold their hand. The blessing I most often offer a suffering person comes from the Iona Abbey prayer book, and I offer it with prayer and – if welcome – an anointing touch of oil. As I read this blessing, some repeated after me; some simply received:

Spirit of the Living God, present with us now,

Enter you, body, mind and spirit,             

And heal you of all that harms you.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

In every state where neighbors “Stay Home to Save Lives,” we offer that blessing from further away, but with a deeper social solidarity than ever before.

[1] United Way of Jackson County is partnering with Medford Chamber of Commerce and Jackson County to offer free Mental Health First Aid trainings multiple times in the year ahead for this reason.

[2] Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, Augsburg Fortress, 2002), p. 26. 

[3] Thurston, p. 29.

[4] The Iona Community, Iona Abbey Worship Book, (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2001), p. 88-91.

[5] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Jesus Heals and Teaches,” I Love to Tell the Story podcast #391, www.workingpreacher.org

[6] John 5:1-9

[7] The name and some of the details of this story have been changed to protect privacy. A version of this story included in “Saving Sin?” sermon Feb. 19, 2017.

Pasting here…