By Rev. Bob Thompson
Romans 8: 26-28
Selected readings from Michael Dowd
Most of you know that I am on the committee searching for a new minister for Winfield. I share the opinion that we are not so much interested in a minister who can tell us about the books they have read, or the theologians they agreed with but one who can also share their own personal experience of the faith.
I’m hoping that, as we are in discussions with people who might want to come to Winfield, there will be opportunities for them to share some of their experiences. For instance, I would like to ask about prayer – who do they think they are praying to, and what experience have they had of prayers being answered. I want to hear if they can speak from their heart, as well as their head.
In all of that, I’m not suggesting that I will be looking for someone who agrees with my theology or has had the kind of experiences I have had. I have learned more about my own faith from people whose experience and beliefs are far different from mine - as long as they are speaking from their hearts.
This might be clearer, if I answered my own questions – who do I think I am praying to?
Joe and his wife came to our church in Vernon, after they had retired from teaching. They soon became very active in the church, though Joe’s mobility was pretty much limited to a wheelchair, because a stroke had left his left arm paralyzed, and his left leg very weak. After a few years, he came to the Worship Committee, with a proposal that we start having healing services as part of our ministry. The Worship Committee agreed – we would have services of anointing with oil, laying on of hands, and prayers for healing, once a month. And I would be the one conducting the services.
Though I agreed with the decision, I was left with questions about what I really believed would be happening there. I felt I needed to answer those questions, if I was to have any integrity in conducting the services. I was not seeking what the church believed about healing prayer – I didn’t have any right to make that decision for the church – but at least I needed to answer the questions for myself. I began that search with two givens, as far as I was concerned.
One was that I wasn’t called to be a healer. I felt that the call was to represent the congregation – laying on hands on behalf of the community. My hands were no more skilled than anyone else’s. As I reflected on that over time, I remembered those stories of healing from Jesus’ ministry, where he said that it was the faith of the people that healed them. He had done nothing but suggest to them that they could be whole if they believed. And that is what happened. So, I felt I was on firm biblical ground there.
The other given was that I knew I would not plead with God to heal anyone. If God was about healing, then he should just do it. We should not have to beg. Over time, as I reflected on that, I realized that both scriptures we have – the big scripture, nature – and the little scripture, the Bible – both say that healing and wholeness is the nature of God. That is who God is. We don’t have to ask God for healing. That is already happening. Continually. Praying for healing and wholeness had to be about something other than pleading with God.
It slowly became evident to me that our prayers for healing were not directed at God – they were directed at the person for whom we were praying. We were created to be whole and well, and when we were not well then our body went to work trying to return to a state of wholeness. And wellness. We needed to make sure that we were focused on returning to that state – that our minds and hearts were in sync with our bodies in working for healing. And that was not a psychosomatic healing – it was not mind over matter. It was that our bodies were already struggling to be well, and that we needed to be working with them – heart and mind as well as body. And if the focused energy of the person could help the healing process, then the focused energy of the whole community could offer so more strength to their struggle. And when we laid on hands and prayed, we didn’t try to predict what kind of healing was needed. How could we? The prayer was that they would receive whatever they needed for healing. That is why I believe that we don’t need to know what the illness or sickness of the person is. We don’t even need to know the person. We only need to hold them in love in our minds and hearts, and pass on to them strength for the journey ahead.
The second question I want to ask – and answer: What are my experiences of prayers answered? And I want to give three examples from those prayer services.
Joyce was an older lady who had struggled with kidney failure over a long period of time, and she was currently on dialysis. She came to the first Sunday healing service – she knelt while we anointed her with oil, laid hand on her and prayed for whatever healing she needed. She phoned me the following Wednesday to say that she had just received a phone call from Vancouver, saying that they had a kidney for transplant. Did I believe that was as a result of our prayers the previous Sunday? It didn’t matter what I believed – she believed it was the answer to those prayers.
The transplant operation was successful, up to a point, but it left me with some more questions to ponder. After the transplant, her health got better – she was no longer on dialysis. But she had been sick for too long, to return to full health. She had about two years of better health, and then that kidney failed, and within a week, she died. That left me with more questions about what I really thought would happen, when we prayed for healing.
When I moved to Vernon, Elsie was confined to a wheelchair because of rheumatoid arthritis. She came faithfully to the healing prayer services, but she never left her wheelchair. But she swore to us that, after a couple of years, the pain went away. She was pain free. Her doctor asked her how she had become pain free and she told him about the prayer group. He asked her if it was open for anyone to come to. She was afraid that if too many people came, the power of the prayers would be diluted. She told him to find his own prayer group!
The healing services moved from an early morning prayer service to the regular Sunday morning service, with several stations to which people could come for the anointing and laying on of hands. At one of those services, John came to my station. I knew why he was there, and it was a very emotional experience for me. He was scheduled for a doctor’s appointment the following Thursday, to find out whether a cat scan showed evidence of a brain tumor. After the service he said to me that, as he stood following the anointing and laying on of hands, he was bathed with a feeling of being okay. It had nothing to do with the outcome of the doctor’s appointment. He simply felt that whatever lay ahead, he would be okay. He was already healed.
Though I was not the one responsible for starting the healing ministry in Vernon, I think it was one of the most meaningful things that happened during my time there. And it also left me with the conviction, that the community, gathered in prayer is one of the most significant signs that we are a kin-dom community.