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“the Lord will raise them up”: Healing and the Church

Holy Oils in the aumbry at the new Roman Catholic church in Little Walsingham

Aumbry with Holy Oils. Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. Photo from Flickr used under CreativeCommons Attribution NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.

On September 30th, parishes that use the Revised Common Lectionary will hear these words from the letter of James: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” (James 5.14-15).  Hearing this lesson provides a great opportunity to hold up and to celebrate the healing ministry of the Church.  The Reverend Daniel Graves, Priest-in-Charge of Trinity Anglican Church in Bradford and compiler of the marvellous collection of healing prayers Prayers for Healing from the Anglican Tradition has kindly taken the time to help us to reflect on the sacrament of healing.

I began by asking him “what story about your involvement with healing could you share that shows why it’s a significant part of your ministry,” and his answer was–well, his answer was that our entire faith is about healing. Fr. Graves writes:

For so long, the healing ministry of the church has been marginalized.  I think this is because healing has, to a large measure, been appropriated in very narrow terms by what we would call “faith healers.”  I should never wish to pass judgement on the validity of what they do or the healings that appear to take place through their ministry, but I have long seen a disjunction between a ministry that is obsessed (very narrowly) with cure, and the God who reaches out to us in Christ seeking to restore us to fullness of life in all of our very being.  In many cases, such faith-healing is so sensationalistic and driven by the personality and charism of the healer that we lose sight of a couple of things.

Healing takes us beyond ourselves.  Healing draws us into the life of God.  The work of salvation wrought in the Incarnation of our Lord is the work of healing.  Healing is our theosis. It is how we partake of the divine life in this world.  When we are cure-obsessed two things happen, it becomes all about the physician (I mean the human one) and his or her charism, and the disease or ailment.  True healing is about God’s hope for us and the breaking through of the Kingdom of God.  True healing is about God’s gracious reaching out to us in restorative and reconciling power. Is that indeed what Jesus Christ is, the power of God reaching out to us?  With the Incarnation as the type of our healing then, we must own the passion, the crown of thorns, the wounds in order that we might offer them up to the one who takes them to the cross and then transforms all suffering in outstretched arms.  The arms that are nailed tight are the arms that embrace in healing love at the Resurrection.

To be a minister of healing, is to always hold these things in mind. The healing ministry is essentially evangelistic.  I don’t mean this in any kind of partisan/churchmanship way, I mean it in its most fundamental sense. Healing is what the very gospel is about. It is what God is doing in Christ. God in Christ is healing the cosmos, restoring, reconciling, rebirthing.  To imagine healing only as cure is to preach a fragmented gospel.

This is all to say that the stories that are most important and significant in my ministry are those stories in which God touches the lives of people in unexpected and restorative ways.  By this I mean when God reaches out to those who find their lives overcome by pain, brokenness, sadness, illness, disillusionment or despair, and they experience that moment of conversion in which they realize that their pain, disability, regret, sin, or whatever it is that has separated them from God, does not define them, but rather it is God’s love that defines them.  In some cases this will involve the restoration of bodily health.  Sometimes that might be what we have traditionally called a miracle. These sorts of miracles in the gospels always point to the greater restorative and reconciling mission of God.  However, each time someone comes to that existential moment in which their angst threatens to defeat them, and they realize that God in Christ is cleaving to them and that it is his story that will define them, not fear or anything else, even death, now that’s what I call a miracle.  That’s why I am in this business.  I believe with all my heart that this is what God does.  Our role as minsters in healing is to help people see God’s healing work in their lives.  I have written elsewhere that much of what we are doing is widening our peripheral vision so that we might see God at work in Christ in the most unexpected places. God is working healing power in most people’s lives and because we as the Church have taught them such a narrow view of healing (or have failed to teach anything about healing at all), they fail to see it.  I work is to proclaim God’s healing love, and help them to see where God is already at working transforming them, healing them, forgiving them, reconciling them.  And lest I be misunderstood on this point, this is not about pushing down our pain, or ignoring it, or wishing ourselves out of it by positive thinking.  No, this is much more radical.  This is about hope.  Hope only comes when we choose to say no to a fear that shapes our narrative, and no to the illusions that we create to quell our fears.  Hope comes when we realize that we are fragile, vulnerable people, when we realize that we will inevitably die.  Hope comes when we lay hold of the cross that is imprinted on our foreheads in baptism and the promise that we are Christ’s own forever.  Hope comes when we, in all our brokenness and pain say, “whether I live, I live unto the Lord, whether I die, I die unto the Lord; whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s.”  I am the Lord’s if I am sick or well.  What I acquire and achieve in this life is no more my story than cancer or a terminal illness.  Jesus Christ is my story, and his love for me.  This is healing.

 

My second question for him was what he wished every Anglican knew about healing liturgies and the Church. He writes:

Of course, every liturgy points to the God who comes to us in the Incarnation; every whether it be Mattins, Evensong, Holy Communion, or explicitly healing ministry, such as liturgies of anointing or the laying on of hands, are liturgies of healing.  In each liturgy God’s saving work in Christ is recounted.  If we fail to accomplish telling that story in the words or actions of the liturgy, then it’s not a liturgy.  There are a wealth of resources from around the Anglican Communion that provide resources to augment and enhance our existing liturgies. To be frank, the BAS is a bit weak in terms of the offering resources. Some of the best prayers for healing in the BAS are the psalm prayers, which is why I included so many of them in my collection Prayers for Healing from the Anglican Tradition (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2010).  What I would most like to say about incorporating “healing components” into the existing liturgies is to be very careful not to create liturgical embolisms.  That is, don’t inject a prayer or rite into the liturgy so that it jars or distracts from the whole liturgy.  Think of the entire liturgy as a holistic, cohesive act of praise and re-enactment of salvation history.  Think about the laying on of hands or anointing with oil are dancing with the Eucharist or whatever other liturgical form you are using.  Healing shouldn’t just sit there in the middle of the service, replacing the prayers of the people, or taking place almost as a “side-show” for the really spiritual people while the regular folks “just” take Communion.  This is all common sense, but it is hard work in terms of liturgy-planning to get it right. People will continue to see the healing ministry as marginal as long as we liturgically marginalize it or treat it as something “other” or  “extra” to the liturgy of the day.  Healing IS the liturgy of the day.  It is what God is doing for us as individual and as a community when we gather and pray in community.

 

Our thanks to Fr. Graves for taking the time to offer his reflections. They leave us with a wide variety of topics to respond to. Have you experienced the laying on of hands or being anointed with oil? What did that moment feel like for you, and how has it helped you? What did you make of his distinction between God’s healing and the idea of cure? What are your plans for September 30th, when we’ll hear the passage from James?

 

Matthew Griffin

About Matthew Griffin

I'm a priest serving in the Diocese of Niagara, with both a pastoral and an academic interest in the relationship between liturgy and theology. I enjoy reading, cooking, and spending time with my beloved and our young son.
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9 Responses to “the Lord will raise them up”: Healing and the Church

  1. Joanne Davies

    As a chaplain, my world of laying on of hands and anointing exists almost entirely at the bedside of the dying, the very sick, the very sad and the very fearful. It has been my experience that the cure, from our prayers together, that they are looking for is hope, a miracle of enduring love into death to the unknown of forever. Because hope has sometimes been lost in a world of pain and loneliness.  And hope opens us to noticing God in the now we have. And my patients are looking to experience God’s embrace in the smelly uncomfortable painful fearful place they are in. The simple clear words of the BAS work well and beautifully in my setting. Clarity about what we mean is so important. And I have learned that most particularly what is wanted is that I add to these words of the set liturgy and pray from my heart before I anoint and that I relax into my faith and clearly show I believe and call out to God’s love and presence for them. And to show I am in the room with the patient because present and incarnate relationship is so important to hope. So over my years as a chaplain my extemporaneous prayer has increased, gained clarity too and developed  while surrounded by the foundation of our wonderful written words.

    My experience in a parish liturgy is somewhat limited as a priest but very varied over my lifetime as an Anglican. I have found no matter how it was introduced, because that is something I think that needs to be decided as part of the culture of each community, as long as the moment of prayer together in the anointing is safe and unexposed and can be trusted, and offers the relationship Christ calls us to have together, well the moment becomes as paused in God’s time and healing as at the bedside when it is just me and the patient and God rejoicing with us.

    How do I know to describe it as I have?  Yes I am speaking from how it often feels for me  and that so helps me in my faith as I work as a chaplain. But I have also been gifted by people telling me about their time after the anointing and the sense of renewal the anointing gave them and the hope that guided their own prayers afterwards.

  2. I’ve often wondered if, as the minister of the Sacrament, through whom the Holy Spirit flows (I could get into trouble here, but bear with me)  – since you are the one who is administering the consecrated Holy Oil –  do you, the priest feel some sort of ‘healing’ or blessing or something indescribable but is just ‘there’?

    I guess what made me think of this was as an analogy to Jesus ‘feeling’ something when the woman with the haemorrhage touched His garment from behind.

  3. I’ve often wondered if, as the minister of the Sacrament, through whom the Holy Spirit flows (I could get into trouble here, but bear with me)  – since you are the one who is administering the consecrated Holy Oil –  do you, the priest feel some sort of ‘healing’ or blessing or something indescribable but is just ‘there’?

    I guess what made me think of this was as an analogy to Jesus ‘feeling’ something when the woman with the haemorrhage touched His garment from behind.

  4. Matthew Griffin

    Indescribable might be the best word for my personal experience. In hospital visits, in extremis, my experience with prayer for healing has almost always been with the family gathered around and there’s a grace, a sort of floating-ness to the experience.  I feel suspended in the moment as we pray together, and there’s a giftedness in the moment of tracing a cross with the oil that I don’t know how to talk about.

    When at my current parish we anoint in the context of the Sunday eucharist, I feel exhausted afterward in a way that feels very different from the joy of presiding at the eucharist and the blessing of being able to administer that sacrament. It’s not a bad tiredness, but it’s both physical and emotional: I’ve learned not to schedule anything after such a service, because I won’t have energy for it.

    In both cases, I feel a deep sense of connection and belonging: I’m closer to those I’m praying with and for, and the sense of the Spirit drawing us together in praying for wholeness is palpable.

    I’d be very interested to hear how others would respond to Charlie’s question!

  5. A great question. I agree with Matthew, especially in regards to the Sunday Eucharist. The sacrament itself if both energizing and exhausting, and most of us are all too familiar with the necessity of the Sunday afternoon nap. However, your question most powerfully brings to mind experiences of praying with others at the time of death. I’m not entirely sure how to describe it, except to say that an overwhelming sense of peace is immediately present.

    On the other hand, I think it’s just as important to admit sometimes, whether due to exhaustion or distraction, I just haven’t felt it. I hold on to some of those experiences, though, because often the other person has confirmed what I think we all need to remember: sometimes God continues to use us, despite our weaknesses.

  6. goodness gracious Jesse! trying out your offsprings’ Hallowe’en costume a bit in advance? Very good, I must say ..  🙂

  7. Not at all! I’m not claiming anything spooky. It really is an honour to be with someone in their final moments. For many, it’s just another kind of healing. And peaceful. Whether you want to call that a spiritual experience or a physical reality God has made part of the human experience is up to you. But there is a sense of the Spirit.

  8. sorry Jesse, it was your new ‘avatar’? that I was admiring – yes – admiring, not criticising.

    One other reason, now that I remember it was that when I was doing my hospital chaplaincy training in the 70’s !-I found that just the talking and praying with ‘my’ people left me ‘enriched’ somehow.

  9. Ah! A doodle by a colleague here in Toronto. Long story short: I had to phone in for a meeting, and the sketch represented me in the room.

    Wherever two or three are gathered, right?

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