” Bless the Living One, O my soul,
and do not forget all Their benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,…” – Psalm 103
As I reflect on the Psalmist’s words, fleshing out who this “Great I AM” is revealed to Moses in Exodus 3-4, I find myself stumbling a bit over this description of Yahweh, whose name is usually translated “The LORD”, but which I render “the Living One” here as an allusion to God’s explanation that Yahweh is the I Am in opposition to gods that are not. This Living One or One Who is “heals all our diseases”.
I remember as a young boy in the Church of God movement in which I was blessed as a baby and raised, hearing a lot about healing. Though this particular Church of God movement was not the Pentecostal movement called Church of God, but instead a Church of God group that was a spin-off of the Seventh Day Adventists, boy did they believe in
healing.. I was told coming up how daddy and momma tried real hard to become parents to no avail. And how they went finally, in an act of desperation and faith, came to the preacher at the Church of God and he (yes, these churches only had preachers who were “he’s”: no women preachers since Jesus wasn’t a woman, after all) took healing oil, anointed momma like it says to be anointed in the book of James, and “bam!” next thing we knew my big brother was on the way. And then, one after another, each of the rest of us four children came into the world. Growing up with that story of anointing and healing inspired me, especially with a name liked “Micah” taken from the story of the Bible prophet, to see my life as having begun with great purpose. To see myself, like the Psalmist in Psalm 139, as knit together even in my mother’s womb with potential to be one who, together with God, helped the world become more beautiful and whole.
Yet I also remember growing up hearing a counter-story. Each of us, when we got sick, in turn, had the preachers of the church come, take that book of James healing oil and smear it on our foreheads, praying for God’s healing presence to be known. So many stories were told of how it brought healing and comfort to us. Daddy told us too, though, how one of us had oil placed on their head, when dealing with meningitis. Like a snap of the fingers, that meningitis went away. Yet, years later, this dear little one developed childhood diabetes. And all the anointing and praying in the world wouldn’t take it away. Daddy agonized over that. How could God be healer, if God touched us in so many healing ways through their faith and the preacher’s hands, yet also didn’t heal something as serious as diabetes?
Later, other conditions of all types struck our family and each of us in turn struggled over how to understand God as the Living One “who heals our diseases”.
Later on in life I became involved with the charismatic movement, largely through the campus Christian club in my high school. I learned in that group to open up and talk to God as to a friend. I learned it was ok to feel deeply when it came to my relationship with God. I began to learn to find a kind of peace with my body since dancing, raising hands, and shouting all could be ways of connecting with God.
That said, I still to this day remember a horrifying scene when one of the young men in the group had a guy come in with a noticeable disability and decided, out of both probably a sense of compassion and also a desire to see something miraculous happen, to try to reenact a scene he’d read about in the Bible and likely seen others try to re-enact at a revival meeting, by stretching out his hands over this person’s head, claiming verses like this one as iron-clad promises for all time, and commanding the person’s disability to leave them. I was terrified by the sight, but – and I still feel sheepish and embarrassed to admit it – feeling pushed by the group to join in, I too quietly stretched out my hand. I still remember the look of sheer terror in that young man’s eyes, and also remember all that happened is he, and all of us, were terrified. Those who believed a miracle would happen were disappointed.
In both traditions, there is a way in which this talk of God as healer almost became imagining God as some magic force we could control. Like a budding witch or wizard in some Harry Potter book, we thought if we could just learn the right words (be they Psalm 103 here or Isaiah’s “by his stripes, you are healed”), develop the right mental attitude (believing they or we were better), then we could force some kind of physical change in another. In many ways we tried to turn a concept with deep spiritual significance, healing, into a kind of magic or sorcery.
Clearly, this is not how God works. It is not the way the Living One revealed to Moses, the Living One described in Psalm 103, chooses to act in our world.
I can list countless folks I have encountered whom I have seen experience kinds of healing – some physical, some emotional, some connected to healing of relationships – in a way clearly connected with faith, prayer, or spiritual practice. In fact, I can think of times I was granted the privilege to have my words of prayer, my laying on of hands, even yes my use of anointing oil like described in the Bible, as a part of another’s healing process.
I can also think of countless times in which people prayed fervently, people had great faith in God, people did their spiritual practice, in which people called their religious leaders (at times, I myself was that leader), and yet the illness did not end, the disability remained or even became more pronounced, the emotional damage remained, the broken relationship became even more pulled apart.
I do not know why this discrepancy is a part of our experience. I do not pretend to have answers.
One thought flows from my own experience, though. Perhaps the greatest experience of disappointment in praying for healing was my late wife Katharine. She struggled with a number of health conditions, from her childhood on, which ultimately led to her death. She was born with a condition called spina bifida which led to partial paralysis and her to spend most of her life moving around only with help of crutches. Later in life, this condition became more exacerbated and led her to require a wheelchair to move around. Ultimately, a side effect of this condition was a condition called Arnold Chiari malformation in which her brain stem slowly slid out of her skull. I remember praying long and hard the condition would stop, her life get better, so we could have a long happy life together. It appeared it had, so the doctor called off a brain surgery to save her life, at the cost of more and lasting symptoms as side effects of the surgery. Then one morning I woke to find her still as a stone, breathless. The coroner’s report some months later said her brain stem had slid out in her sleep.
I was heartbroken, sad, and angry that my prayer for Katharine was not answered, while her own regular prayer – Lord, if I ever will get to the point I would be hooked to machines and unable to do the things I love, take me home in my sleep – was answered so clearly. Why? I would shout at God. Why answer in this way? Why not heal her?
This is a question many people asked throughout her life. Her parents, I am sure, had asked why she was born with a neural tube defect? Why could prayer and medicine, surgeries and physical therapy, not completely resolve this disabling condition? When she became involved with the church and attended Christian school, she had many a person do to her as was done to that young man in my Christian club: hands were laid on her, words spoken, promises claimed. And many, many times, words claiming to be of God were spoken: “You will walk”.
In looking back, no longer stuck in the pain of grief after her passing, I can remember the words she would often say when answering this question to others for herself.
“I never viewed my disability as a curse. I didn’t grow up thinking it was something God needed to deliver me from, anymore than you need to be delivered from your eye color, your hair color, your skin. I viewed it as just part of who I was, and I asked the question: God, why did you make me this way? What can I learn from it?
“I found sometimes it was frustrating that the way I had to move around in the world was different than people. I moved slower with crutches. When I was in a wheelchair, I sometimes couldn’t reach things that were high up. But you know what? I saw things. I saw things people moving more quickly didn’t. I saw people that those who towered over everyone didn’t see.”
And this was so true for her. Though Katharine never got to throw away her crutches or her wheelchair and, in fact, had her health become more debilitated every year I knew her, she saw others in ways I only learned to see them through her example. She saw people hurting, in need, oppressed, and in her own way she did walk. She may have moved slower or differently, but she was ever on the go. Speaking out. Fighting injustice. Calling people to change this world. To heal what was broken.
She discovered a way to turn her experience of limitation and even of pain into a source of resiliency, a channel of new life for herself and others.
I wonder when I think of her example if it points a way forward in this quagmire we find ourselves in, wondering how God can be healer in a world in which illness, disability, broken relationships, and broken hearts still abound.
Could this be less about always removing the source of struggle, and more about being the source of resiliency that allows us to become whole?
In Katharine’s life, she discovered a resiliency at the heart of her life, a resiliency she said was the gift and Spirit of God, which in many ways allowed her to out-shine many who never experienced the disabling conditions or barriers she did. I could list so many other examples of people who faced into equally difficult situations of limitation and pain who also found a resiliency like hers.
And, yes, for some, this resiliency also flows forth into transforming the situations in which they find themselves. They are able to find better physical health. They are able to find healing of different forms from emotional and psychological damage. They are able to heal the relationships that matter which have become broken.
Are not these paths both gifts of the same living presence?
In my mind, perhaps they are. Perhaps these are both ways in which the presence that is life itself surrounds, embraces, and moves through us. These are out-workings of the Living One, the One who is. Wherever such resiliency breaks forth, life happens. And that life is the fingerprint or footprint of the God who is the Great I Am, pure life and being itself.
In closing, I am drawn to the words of German theologian Jurgen Moltmann about the ways in which God’s presence is experienced both in the presence of what we regularly call healing and what we regularly call disabling conditions. Some of his language is dated, but I think Moltmann beautifully describes the ways in which such resiliency and openness can be found in both paths, as the life presence that makes us whole. Or, as it is said in the Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit and Her mother love.
“Accounts of the charismatic movement often sound like American success stories. But the religion of success makes no religious sense in the pains, the failures and the disabilities of life. The theology of the cross doesn’t fit this officially optimistic society or its civil religion. But the apostle Paul discovered ‘the power of God’, not just in the strong places of his life but in his weaknesses as well: ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’ (II Cor. 12.9). That is why he boasts of his weaknesses to, the ill-treatment he had been forced to suffer, the persecutions and fears which he had to endure. For the apostle these meant participation in Christ’s sufferings and were a charisma: ‘For even if we are weak in him, we shall live with him by the power of God’ (II Cor. 13.4). So he expects that in the community of Christ there will be strong and weak, educated and uneducated, people who are good to look at and the plain. No one is useless and of no value. No one can be dispensed with. So the weak, uneducated and ugly have their own special charisma in the community of Christ’s people. Why? All will be made like in form to the crucified Christ, because the crucified Christ has assumed not just humanity but also the misery of humanity, in order to heal it.
“‘What is not assumed will not be healed’, says one of the principles of the patristic church. But whatever has been assumed by the Son of God who became human and was crucified is then also whole, good and lovely in God’s sight. It is important to recognize this divine radiance in the people we call disabled, so that in the community of Christ’s people we can overcome the public conflict between the non-disabled and people with disabilities.
“The disabled are not just handicapped by mental and physical difficulties. They are also handicapped socially by the strong and effective who put them down as ‘disabled’. The disabled can be robbed of their independence, not just when they are pushed out of public life, but also through the solicitude and protective care they are given in homes. If we want to change this we have to stop staring merely at the disablement and see the person who is disabled. Then we can also perceive that every disablement can become a charisma. God’s strength is also made perfect in disablements. Those of us who are not handicapped generally stare most at what another person lacks or has lost. But once we forget our own scale of values, we discover the value and dignity of a disabled person and notice its importance for our life together. Anyone who has experienced a disabled person in their own family – and my elder brother was severely disabled – knows how important they are for a family, and can discover what God is saying and doing through the charisma of that disabled person. If the splendour of God’s love falls on a life it begins to shine. There are handicapped people in whose faces we can see this light particularly clearly.
“Finally, according to Paul the body of Christ – if it is to be the body of Christ – needs not just strong members but weak ones too, not just effective and successful performers, but disabled members as well; and God gives the weak and disabled ones the most ‘honour and glory’ (I Cor. 12.24). Why? Surely because ‘the body of Christ’ is the community of Christ who is risen and was crucified, who is exalted and was humiliated. The astonishing energies of the Spirit reveal God’s marvelous power to rise. The weaknesses and disabilities and the sufferings of the Spirit reveal the even more marvelous suffering power of God. For that reason there is no good charitable ministry by the non-disabled to the disabled unless this first of all recognizes and accepts the charitable ministry of the disabled to the non-disabled. Congregations without disabled members are – to put it bluntly – disabled congregations. In the Christian sense, every congregation is a diaconal congregation; for charisma always means diakonia, service or ministry. The great charitable works of the churches are necessary, but what we need is to bring to life diaconal congregations made up of non-disabled and disabled people; congregations which look after their own disabled members themselves as far as possible.”
The Source of Life 66-68
In his autobiography he expands on this subject a bit more:
“What meaning does a disability have, and how can the segregation of the disabled from the society of the non-disabled, the capable, and the successful, be overcome. ‘It is not we who are your problem – it is you that are ours’: this cry of disabled people shows that there are not merely personal disabilities; there is the social disablement of the disabled in addition. The sight of disabled people easily upsets the mental equilibrium of the non-disabled, and they shrink back. They do not see the disabled person but only the disability. The result is the ‘leper syndrome’, to use the phrase of scientific studies. People who are ‘different’ are not welcome, but are generally merely put up with; and that destroys their self-confidence. The fear of the non-disabled has to be overcome, for this makes them strive after a human image of performance, enjoyment, beauty, and power and makes them apathetic towards the sufferings of others. Once this fear is overcome, the depressions of the disabled can also be surmounted. Jesus established ‘ the kingdom of the Son of man’ at the very place where that leper syndrome is dominant: he accepted the blind, the paralyzed, and the mentally disabled and ‘rehabilitated’ them with God and human beings. In fellowship with him, Christians will seek the fellowship of the disabled, for these are Jesus’ friends; and they will protest publicly against the social disablement of the disabled. The human rights of the disabled include the right to be listened to, the right to be adult, the right to love. It is only when the non-disabled cease to be a problem for the disabled that the problems of the disabled can also be solved.
“[…] It is not easy to arrive at self-acceptance and self-love if one is disabled. But in the experience of God’s love one can also love what God loves: oneself. ‘What is not assumed cannot be healed,’ was a principle of patristic theology. In Jesus Christ, God has accepted the whole and true humanity and has made it part of his divine life – mortal humanity, too, and also disabled humanity. In this respect there is no reduced life and no disabled life either. Every life is in its own way part of the divine life and a reflection of God in the world. The moment we talk about ‘disabilities’ we are taking as our standard the perfect, the capable, and the beautiful. But that leads us astray. Isn’t every disability an endowment of its own kind too, and one which must be respected? In the community of Jesus, aren’t ‘disabilities’ also ‘charismata’ of the Holy Spirit? When Paul talks about the gifts of the Spirit, he doesn’t just name capabilities but the lack of them as well. Not just powers but also weaknesses (2 Cor. 4.7). ‘Everyone as the Lord has called him’ (1 Cor. 7.17): that also applies to a condition which others call disabled. This perception must lead to the building of a new fellowship of mutual recognition and varying interests among the ‘disabled’ and the ‘non-disabled’ in the community of Jesus.”
A Broad Place, 207-208
I would love to hear your stories, too, and how you have navigated this divide in your own spiritual experience.
May we all find this resiliency and embrace it in all its forms, both in our lives and the lives of others.
Your progressive redneck preacher,