Speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.

 

I spend a good deal of time defending evangelicals, both in the real world and in the virtual one. I’ve begun to realize, however, that I’m often defending aspects of evangelicalism that I don’t care for myself. For example, in a discussion that followed my Her.meneutics post on “Hooking Up,” I defended followers of Bill Gothard against some rabid criticism, even though I deplore the sort of legalism Gothard represents. And last year, at Brandeis University, as one of two evangelicals amidst a dozen or more religion journalists doing a fellowship on Judaism, I repeatedly defended evangelicals against negative stereotypes that I myself have pondered in print.

I bring this up because, now that I’m home, I don’t fit easily in some of my old evangelical circles. Not that I ever did, but it’s been a while since I’ve been immersed in certain of our popular religious practices. I find myself shocked at things I once gave ne’er a thought to. I had hoped, for instance, that attending a Bible study led by a dear friend and wonderful teacher would bring me comfort. Unfortunately, I don’t care for the Bible study material we are using. It wants to turn the Bible into a self-help manual and its characters into heroes, and I don’t. I’m also tired of studying the Bible to extrapolate every last ounce of possible meaning out of it. It follows then that I don’t want to rip it into shreds and remake it in my own image. I mostly just want to read it for the comfort and correction I find in it.  So, there’s that and then the study group is composed of women from both sides of two church splits I lived through. There’s nothing awkward in this, except that I get a clear picture of where I’ve been and see pretty clearly that I no longer belong there.  I love and appreciate those places, but rarely find comfort in their forms of worship, whereas I always find comfort in the Anglican liturgy. Always. Never once in my three years as an Anglican has it failed to do its work on me. I live for Sunday worship because Sunday worship imbues me with the power and peace I need to live. (Worship is about God, but it gives back.)

I mention this because it relates to the topic at hand. That topic is pain. Deep, abiding psychic, spiritual, emotional pain that sometimes lasts for days on end.

Last night I was in that kind of pain, and so I picked up Nancy Guthrie’s book, Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow. I’m skeptical, not of Nancy mind you, but of my evangelical tribe’s tendency toward weak tea. I began reading nonetheless.

In chapter 3, she deals with those who would suggest that our children ( hers, and mine by inference) who died would have been healed if only we (or they) had had more faith. Nancy chose the story of Jesus healing the leper in Mark 1: 40-42 as her text for dealing with this issue. She came across the passage in the months after her daughter Hope died and says it hurt her feelings to think that Jesus was not willing to heal her child. I know exactly what she means. On the morning Gabe died, I said something to God that I don’t recall ever saying to Him before. I lay in my bed, and said, “God, if I were honest, I’d tell you I don’t think you love me anymore. How could you let my children …” A little while later, I said something harsh to Gabe about him wearing a dirty, smelly shirt to work again, and then went for a long prayer walk so that I could get my thoughts back in line with the truth of God’s word and affirm my trust in His love for me and my children. Before the day was done, my son was dead.

Nancy’s implicit trust in God led her to dig deeper into the Scripture to find out what Jesus was really communicating through his miracles (particularly the healing miracles). She came to the conclusion that if Jesus’s healing ministry had been mostly about healing physical sickness, it would have been more pervasive and central to his focus. Also, physical healing is by nature temporary and God didn’t come to earth for a temporary fix. In John 20: 30-31, we learn that the purpose of Jesus’s miracles is that we might believe, and believing, “have life by the power of his name.” Jesus’s priority was our deliverance from the ultimate source of our suffering and that is the sin that separates us from God. About the fall, Nancy writes:

Into the purity of the world God created, sin brought a poison that penetrated everything. And into the relationship we enjoyed with God, sin built a barrier. We went from being at peace with God to feeling threatened by him. Guilt and fear took over where innocence and openness had once ruled.

Ever been there? I have, at least once in the past 24 hours. And yet, she reminds us,

There is a day coming when death and disease will be healed for good. That is our sure hope in the midst of sorrow.

The passage that penetrated my pain last night is this one:

When Jesus said, “I am willing. Be healed!” to the leper, he was saying that he wants to cleanse us from the pervasive sin that will prove eternally fatal without his healing touch.

And now I realize that Jesus turns toward me when I call out to him for healing. Now I can hear him lovingly responding to me, saying, “I am willing. Be healed.” He is at work in my life, bringing healing to the wounded places where sin has left its ugly mark. He certainly isn’t finished yet, but I know the day is coming when his work in me will be complete.

I’ve also come to peace realizing that Jesus did not withhold his healing touch from Hope or Gabe. He has taken them to himself and will, at the resurrection, give them glorious bodies (Philippians 3:21). And this is no get-God-off-the-hook cop-out. It is everything we would ask for and long for.

It is the last paragraph that stuck with me as I went into today. I don’t want get-God-off-the-hook cop-outs. I want the truth. And the truth is that Gabe’s brain was sick from neurofibromatosis, from years of asthma-related oxygen deprivation, from inordinate guilt emanating from suicidal depression, from … The truth is his resurrected body will be tumor-free. The truth is the impulsivity and feelings of aggression that are common to both NF patients and suicide victims will be gone forever. The truth is he will breathe easy and never again have to say no to an invitation because of a household pet. The truth is he now knows and will for all eternity know that he is loved and lovable and lovely. The truth is it’s not my fault.

I didn’t process all of that last night. I simply held the last paragraph in my mind and went to sleep. This morning, I was still in pain.  At church, neither the opening hymns nor the visiting priest bade well for healing, and yet heal the liturgy did. I took note when the priest used alternate phrasing in the prayer we say before taking communion. Phrasing that echoes what Nancy wrote about from Mark 1. It is a sentence that I silently add every week and keep wishing our rector would use instead of the other. It is a piece of the reason why the liturgy never fails to do its work on me. There is power in the prayer:

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but speak the word only and my soul shall be healed.

He is willing, and so I am healed when I take his body and blood into my own in faith. There is power in the blood. One mustn’t forget that. Afterwards, we echoed these sentiments again as we sang the African-American Spiritual, There is a Balm in Gilead. It goes:

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

If you cannot preach like Peter, if you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus and say, “He died for all.”

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul. …

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work has been in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. I cannot preach like Peter; I grapple with too many negative triggers and questions. I cannot pray like Paul; I don’t know how anymore, except in the most general terms. I can tell the love of Jesus though, and say, “He died for all.” For all the broken, battered and bruised. For all the sin-sick lonely souls. For all the high and mighty liars. For all the orphaned, starving children. For me. For you. For Nancy. For her Gabe. For mine. For evangelicals and our critics.  For every tribe—past, present and future. There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

Notice, if you will, that the day’s healing was found in drinking from deep evangelical wells.

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