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?