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Faith healing that works

01.21.07 | 4 Comments

I grew up a charismatic, fundamentalist, evangelical United Methodist. We fashioned ourselves a lonely remnant trying to keep true faith alive among the frozen chosen.

So if we wanted to be around other charismatics, we had to make field trips. Whenever our televangelist heroes came into town, we would carpool out to the megachurches. At the end of every service would be the altar call, and at every altar call there would be prayers for healing.

We learned tricks we could use to help people make those first baby steps of faith. I can tell you how to heal someone when one leg is shorter than the other. (You pull on their leg.) I can tell you how to make reluctant first timers fall out in the spirit. (Push down on their head.)

Lots of folks went home believing they were healed. For at least 99% of them, the placebo effect would wear off in a couple of days or a couple of weeks. I can explain all that now: there were reasons they believed they were healed, there were reasons they weren’t healed, and there were reasons why we kept praying for healing, week after week.

People need compassion. And people in community need to see each other practice compassion, to believe together that they are a compassionate community. Prayers for miraculous healing come from a deep compassion, a deep desire to end the suffering of the person next to you in the pew.

But those prayers also come from a deep desperation. When cancer strikes or disability presents itself, we can all become desperate. We find that—however much faith we have in modern medicine and the support of friends—that reason can fail us.

When my cousin Scott turned eight, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His parents brought him over so we could spend one last weekend together before the illness set in, in full force. At my parents’ urging, they took Scott to meet the infamous televangelist W.V. Grant in hopes of a miraculous healing. Scott was not healed.

A friend tells me of the preacher calling him up to the altar every Sunday to be healed of his disability. My friend was not healed. It was his church that needed healed, of a desire to erase a childhood disability that confronted their faith week after week.

There are reasons, I know now, for all these things. But I can’t explain them all, because, sometimes, the prayers would take. Those are the stories I can’t explain.

In high school, we prayed for my friend Jason to be healed of his family history of alcoholism. He fell to the ground and went into a trance. He told us afterward he felt a painful clawing at his heart that, after several minutes of struggle, suddenly let go. Jason was a different person after that. He didn’t take up his family’s alcoholism, and somehow seemed more free, more at peace. I have to think that that experience—whatever its reasons—had something to do with that. If that is what healing means, then Jason was healed.

There were other times. There was the time friends and family prayed for my father as he lay in a hospital bed awaiting traction for his severe back pain. After they were done, he got up and checked out of the hospital.

There was the young pharmacist at church, who after a desperate midnight prayer, found himself no longer struggling with an addiction to cocaine.

There was the time a friend of the family suddenly recovered from a stroke. And there were others.

It doesn’t matter so much to me now whether or not they were actually healed. And if they were healed, it doesn’t matter so much to me why.

Because I know this: It was through those experiences that we practiced compassion, and community, and gratitude. And I don’t have to agree with them about the cause to appreciate that.

(Delivered earlier today at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta as a prelude to the sermon.)

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