I am in the middle of a DMin program and challenged myself to write a bit this summer before classes resumed in August. I woke this morning with a bit of urgency (caffeine-induced urgency, to be exact) to get some thoughts down. I really don’t know if anyone will read it or even care. That doesn’t matter to me, at this point.
My current topic is seeking to discover the way spiritual practices help us engage the Scriptures. As a protestant, I believe that the Bible informs, guides, and inspires our beliefs, our practices, and our mission into the world. In the current postmodern context, Bible reading is challenged; the exclusive claims within it promote a skeptical reading from postmodern minds.
However, the postmodern world values the elements of story, community, and wonder. My basic hypothesis is that creating an environment where spiritual practices exercised in the NT community are normal ways of life in our current church communities, perhaps we can bridge the gap between a 21st century reader with a 1st century text. If our story today resembles the story of the early church, perhaps the content of the Scripture will be received more readily and faithfully.
Enter the practice of healing prayer. Throughout the NT, we see God’s people engaged in praying for the sick. By my rough calculation, nearly 1/5th of Mark is either Jesus healing someone or teaching about healing. Nearly every chapter of Acts has a miracle narrative in it. James 5:13-16 displays that praying for the sick in a local congregation was normative, at least in the churches James was a part of.
Here are some early thoughts on healing prayer:
1. Healing prayer is Eschatological- when the new heavens and new earth appear, we will be given new bodies that will be animated for the eternal life we will share with God. Until then, we have bodies that are subject to decay and will expire. Healing helps us to be reminded of our future hope that is breaking into the present through the power of Jesus Christ. When terminal cancer is reversed and a patient thought to have been close to dying because of cancer gets better, we can rejoice not only in that person’s healing, but also in hope that death will be completely conquered and God’s people will be rescued when Jesus re-appears.
2. Healing prayer is Sacramental- this is closely linked to the eschatological idea above. On this side of the new creation, not everyone is healed. For those who struggle with illness and see one of their friends healed through prayer, they can rejoice with them. Even if that person remains sick, the healing of their friend is a reminder that God will set them free from their illness, either in this age or in the one to come. It allows us to look back at the life/death/resurrection of Jesus in the past and look forward to the future with Jesus’ return. This is the role of any sacrament; to collapse the time between the past and the future into a present moment, meeting with the resurrected Christ in real-time.
3. Healing prayer is benevolent The practice outlined in James 5 is important. The local church in James 5 had both people who were healthy and those who were sick. Both camps need one another. That local church was not homogenous, but had folks with plenty and those in need. Anglican sacramentalists are fighting today to remove ‘in proxy’ healing prayer liturgies because they promote a context where we are praying for people who need healing who are not physically in our midst. James 5 sketches healing prayer practices for people who are physically sick ‘in our midst’. The right rendering of James 5:14 is “the prayer over the sick” not “prayer for the sick.” (Prayer “for” the sick can happen if the sick person is absent or among us. Prayer “over” the sick happens when both healthy and sick rub elbows together.)
4. Healing Prayer is Mysterious- everyone who is prayed for does not recover. This is mysterious and allows us to trust in the tension between God’s faithfulness to His promise to be our healer and His freedom to do whatever He wants.
5. Healing Prayer is Extraordinary- Perhaps it was from the influence of Modernity, but we tend to segment life into spiritual/physical, supernatural/natural, and sacred/secular divisions. This dualism doesn’t appear to square with the Jewish consciousness that the Christian story has its origins from. Life isn’t broken up into these divisions, but is experienced holistically. My friend CJ has been helping me change my language in referring to miracles as “extraordinary” events, rather than “supernatural” events. This appears to be more of the biblical idea and helps preserve a holistic idea.
6. Healing prayer is Disarming- Healing prayer is a messy ministry. The average person in our congregation has a tension with healing prayer. On the one hand, congregation members normally pray for sick friends and believe God can heal them. On the other hand, the images of faith healers with neurotic personalities, constant pleas for money, and scandals turn off the average congregant to ‘hitch their wagon’ to such a type of ministry. It would be really disarming if average “Jimmys and Janes” outfitted with skinny jeans and v-necks (rather than tacky suits and weird hairstyles) engaged in healing prayer ministry in homes, dorms, hospitals, markets, and Starbucks coffeehouses (instead of on camera or in gigantic mega-church buildings). I think it would be a beautiful image.
7. Healing Prayer is Mobilizing- As a pastor, I’m discovering the need to equip rather than to instruct. Our people are growing to the point of being released into mission, only to find that they have no place to go serve, or have rather static positions to volunteer. Healing prayer could be a stepping on point for ordinary people in our crowd to help care and nurture the people of God and to engage in outreach. Ramsey MacMullen notes that the primary form of evangelism in the Roman Empire from 100-400 AD was healing prayer as the early Christian movement prayed for their neighbors and friends. Even that rascal Tertullian commented that they needed to teach their young people to cast out demons, because it would be more exciting than going to the Gladiator games of ancient Rome.
Just some initial thoughts… more to come. Needed to get something on paper or, on the web, I guess.