Accounting for the Weird Stuff

21 December 2018

We do not live in the world materialists think we do. Here are a couple of experiences for the sake of illustration:

***

A few weeks ago on a Sunday night, I had a dream about a friend of mine. We hadn’t been in touch in about 6 months, but I dreamt that she had come to me for a massage. at 9:30 the next morning, she texted me: “My back is really hurting and it’s not getting better. Is there any chance you could fit me in today?”

***

A couple years ago I was working with a friend, giving a deep and fairly intense massage. It was only my second of the day, and nowhere near being physically taxing. As I was nearing the end of the massage, I was working on her arm when I suddenly couldn’t get enough air. My diaphragm just wouldn’t relax, and my breathing went to crap. I checked my body mechanics, grounded myself, all the usual things — nothing. My breathing was still a mess. I continued to work and hoped it would pass. (My friend later told me that she could hear my irregular breathing, and was beginning to worry about me.)

Then it suddenly occurred to me to ask her: “Is there something going on with your diaphragm?”

She said yes, as a matter of fact, she’d been having problems with her diaphragm, but she hadn’t asked for diaphragm work, because we only had 90 minutes, and we were already focusing on a fairly long list of other things she felt were a higher priority. As soon as we were talking about it, my diaphragm calmed down, and I could breathe normally again.

Of course, after I finished her arm, I did some diaphragm work, and then moved on with the session as planned, and all was well.

***

Far from being unusual, these kinds of occurrences have grown commonplace in my life and work. While as single, one-off events they might be dismissed as nothing more than odd coincidences, as trends they require explanation. As Christians, we don’t believe in a chaotic world; we believe in order. We believe that phenomena have an explanation. And so we seek one, and we must do so like Christians.

As Christians, we also believe there is more to the world than matter in motion. We may not believe God created the world and Jesus walked on water and rose from the dead, and then retreat into our best Richard Dawkins impersonation when we are confronted with continuing manifestations of the world as more than matter in motion.

So how do we engage in the task of giving an account for the world with the full range of our worldview in play?

Stay tuned.

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Steps Toward Recovery

2 November 2018

If we’re going to recover obedient healing ministry in the Church — healing that is biblically faithful, and actually works, then we’re going to have to give some thought to how we do this. What follows are some largely random reflections about doing it.

We aren’t going to get very far sitting on our collective butts thinking holy thoughts. Theory without practice is a disease, and too many of us have it. The only antidote is getting out there and trying things. See what happens in the world God actually made, not just what we think might happen if we actually, you know, did stuff.

We need to be active seekers and curators of experience. We need to try things, and we need to remember what happened — especially if it was something weird that we have no category for. The experiences that are way off the map — those are the ones that help us revise our maps. We aren’t going to learn much if we ignore the weird stuff.

We need to be biblically faithful. If Scripture gives us reason to expect something that is outside our experience (like, say, miraculous healing), then we need to lean into that. If Scripture tells us not to do something (like calling on other gods), we need to obey that.

At the same time, we need to pay careful attention to what the Bible does, and does not, say. Our deeply disobedient tradition will tend to protect itself by calling things “unbiblical” that are necessary and proper, but simply not attested in Scripture. Like, say, a particular tune for Psalm 23. There’s nothing biblical about assigning that particular tune to that particular psalm — but we have to use some tune, and if this one works, why not?

We need to pay attention to what we don’t know about first-century practice. The things that were obvious to them are opaque to us, because nobody ever wrote them down — things like order of service, specific details of church governmental structure, tunes for the Psalms, the exact technique for laying on hands, the selection of an oil for anointing, and so on — none of these things has been preserved for us in Scripture. But we have to do something.

We need to become masters of good and necessary consequence. If we are called to lay on hands, then we must lay hands in some manner. If we are called to anoint with oil, then we’re going to use some kind of oil. There’s nothing essentially biblical about resting a hand over the heart or using bergamot oil, but is there anything wrong with it?

We need to become masters of observation. If one manner of laying on hands has an effect that another manner does not, we should notice. If one oil has an effect that another does not, we should notice. Growing in skill means noticing these things, and doing what works better.

We need to pay attention to our whole family tree. Not every branch of the Church has been as disobedient in this area as we have been. We can learn from the experiences of other saints, widely separated from us in time, space, and ecclesiology — but united to us in Christ.

We have to be ruthlessly honest students of what works. An approach with an honorable pedigree may fail because (a) it just doesn’t work, (b) it requires skill or character we don’t have, (c) we misunderstood, or (d) some other reason we didn’t think of. But if it doesn’t work for us now, it doesn’t work for us now. We might revisit it later, with a better understanding. In the meantime, we’d better try something else.


Recovering Obedience: How It Works

26 October 2018

Jesus healed people. He taught His disciples to heal people. He told them they would do greater works than He — and they did. The early Church was known for its ability to heal. The Church today is not. Something has changed, and not for the better.

Early on, we were obedient to what Jesus had trained us to do. Somewhere along the way, we lost that habit of obedience, and today, the people who lean into healing ministry are an anomaly in the church. We think they’re weird, and look on them with suspicion. We’ll talk some other time about how this deplorable state of affairs came about, but today, I want to look at fixing it. When disobedience has become the tradition, and obedience is weird…that’s pretty much the definition of worldliness. What does it take to reverse that?

I had never really engaged that question until about 10 years ago. I was still a few years away from my paradigm shift on healing ministry, but God challenged me in the area of worship — specifically, singing psalms. Now in the modern church we sometimes draw on a psalm as inspiration for a worship song, but we don’t really sing the Psalms. This is a serious problem, because the New Testament three times says we should. So I was challenged that — as a matter of simple Christian obedience — I needed to become a Psalm-singing person. But I had no resources, no tradition to draw on. My church just didn’t do that. No church I’d ever been part of did.

So for the first time in my life, as a seminary-trained pastor, I embarked on a quest to obey the Bible in a way that was entirely outside my tradition. It was going to be life-changing, in three ways.

  1. The practice of immersing myself in the Psalms absolutely transformed my relationship with God. I became able to speak with God with complete honesty. Worship became much sweeter. Where once prayer had been the weak point of my spiritual life, it became a place of strength.
  2. This was the first time I had seriously contemplated that my tradition might be content with disobedience to the Scriptures, and might be seriously resistant to becoming obedient. Once I experienced that resistance in the area of worship music, I began to wonder if there were other areas where we had allowed our disobedient tradition to trump the Bible. Turns out, there were….
  3. I learned valuable lessons about the process of recovering obedience in an area where I — and my people — had once been so thoroughly disobedient that we couldn’t even imagine what obedience would look like.

That third area is the one I want to focus on today. Let me briefly sketch what happened when I became a Psalm-singing Christian, and then I’ll pull some lessons out of that experience. In upcoming posts, I hope to look at how that experience might apply to recovering healing ministry.

As I said, the starting point was a relatively innocuous observation: three times in the New Testament, we are instructed that we ought to sing the psalms. It does not say that we should sing the biblical Psalms exclusively, but it clearly means we ought to sing at least the biblical Psalms. And as a leader in my commmunity, I had a responsibility to recover this obedience, first for myself, and then for the community I led. Which meant we were going to have to introduce Psalm-singing into our congregational worship. (To be clear, the Bible does not say we must sing Psalms in congregational worship, but since that is where Christians learn to sing, it was a matter of practical necessity. And anyway, it just makes sense — if we become a Psalm-singing people, then wouldn’t it be natural for us to sing the Psalms when we come together to sing?)

My first problem was, how do I even do that? When I open my Bible to the Psalms, nothing I see there suggests that I would sing them. There’s no music. The lyrics don’t look like lyrics, or have a rhythm to them. I could handle re-translating the Hebrew into something more like song lyrics…barely…but even if I could handle the lyrics, I’m not a songwriter. I clearly didn’t have the resources to do this all by myself. So I began to look around for help.

I found out that not all the branches of the Church had forsaken Psalm-singing. Some of the older traditions had retained a tradition of chanting the Psalms from very early times. It doesn’t sound anything like a song to modern ears, and I was certainly not going to be able to introduce it into congregational worship, but it was a start. Some other traditions recovered Psalm-singing during the Protestant Reformation: I discovered the Genevan Psalter, the Scots Free Church, and some others. Some of these traditions refused to use musical instruments. Some of them were committed to singing the Psalms exclusively. I disagreed with them on both of these points, but what they had to offer was still helpful. I didn’t need to agree with them on everything to profit from their obedience in an area where I had been disobedient.

I quickly discovered that I was not a good judge of what was going to work and what wasn’t. Some of what these other communities had to offer was a terrible fit for us — musically bad, poor translations, or just not singable. I mostly discovered what wouldn’t work by trying it. In the beginning, everything we did was clumsy. Let’s be honest — we were bad at this. Of course we were — we’ never done it before. We had to just keep going and trust that God would bless our faithfulness. He did, and we got better. Over time, we gained skill, and noticed that some things worked better than others — so we dumped what wasn’t working, and kept what was.

Over time, God blessed our faithfulness. God gave me access to some good musicians, and together we began to develop a corpus of singable work. We began to gain some strategies for consistently getting good music. One of the better ones was finding time-tested folk tunes, then translating Psalm lyrics to match the meter of the folk tune. We got some really good, really singable music that way. Over time, we began to be good judges (in advance) of what would work and what wouldn’t. We still don’t have the whole Psalter rendered in good poetry and good music (yet), but we have about a third of it in a form that’s poetically good, understandable, and singable. And we keep adding to the body of work.

Coming back to healing ministry, here are some lessons from the Psalm-singing experience that I expect to apply:

  1. I can’t do this all myself. I don’t know what I’m doing. My whole tradition doesn’t know what it’s doing.
  2. Our first attempts at obedience are going to be bad. (And some of them have been!) We will be clumsy and unskilled and ineffective. But God will be kind to us, and we will get better with practice.
  3. It’s not enough to cover myself with a verse and say I’m being obedient; it has to actually work. In the beginning I will be a terrible judge of what will work, so I’m just going to have to try different things and see. But I need to pay attention to the results.
  4. “It’s not working” is not a reason to give up. We can’t get more effective at something we’re not even trying. We keep going, and trust God to reward our obedience with increased skill and discernment. I’m not going to pray, “God, please show me how to be awesome at this, and then I will start trying to obey.” I’m going to pray, “God, I’m trying as best I can to be obedient. Please bless my honest attempts and guide me into more skillful obedience.”
  5. Not every branch of the Church’s family tree will be as sterile as mine in this area. Other Christians will have retained or rediscovered obedience, and they will have things that can help me. Those Christians will have their own areas of disobedience, misunderstanding, legalism, and so on. But I don’t have to agree with them on everything to profit from their obedience in this area.
  6. Not all the resources I need will be inside the Church. Folk culture tends to preserve things that work, even in areas where the Church isn’t really paying any attention.

There are probably some other lessons in there, too, but these are the ones that occur to me right now.


Spiritual Healing is a Thing

5 October 2018

I grew up in a church where “spiritual healing,” to the extent that it was discussed at all, was understood to be talking about healing the rift between us and God in a conversion-at-a-revival-meeting kind of way. (For those of you who know the theological language, that meant spiritual healing = justification by faith, and that was all there was to it.) I vividly remember the day I realized there was more to it than that. I was in a course on healing prayer, and our teacher pointed out that Jesus Himself said that He came to heal the brokenhearted. And then one of the facilitators began to tell story after story of spiritual healings she had seen–her own, and others’.

I left class that day deeply discouraged. Does that surprise you?

I had already learned the hard way, at the age of 16, that knowing things wasn’t enough–I actually had to forgive the people I had grudges against. Hard as it had been, I had done that (until I reached the point where I was totally unable, and then God worked a miracle–but that’s a story for another time.)

I had been taught (not explicitly, but by implication) that once I had given forgiveness, I would grow automatically through mastering the doctrine–the religious ideology of our tradition. I had given myself to that task, and I had been successful. I was a fair-haired son of our tradition, a rising young theologian.

But forgiveness is not healing, and studying is not healing. Forgiveness lays the necessary groundwork for healing. Studying can bolster your faith that God can heal. But laying the groundwork and believing that it’s possible is not all there is to it. The initial act, the sin against me, was like getting a splinter shoved into my skin. Holding a grudge was like letting it stay there and fester. Forgiveness was like pulling the splinter out and cleaning out the pus. But that does not magically close the wound — there’s still the actual healing to be done. It’s not automatic, or at least, it wasn’t for me.

I hadn’t healed. I was still carrying significant wounds, and suddenly I knew it. As far as I could tell, I still had a long, long road ahead of me. I hated it. I wanted so bad to just be done, and I wasn’t. I wanted to leave that healing prayer class, and never come back. I wanted to pretend I didn’t know.

But I stayed, and I asked God to work. He did. The road was not easy, but neither was it as long and grueling as I’d feared, because God is gracious. When we are injured, He gives back to us. But that’s a tale for another time.


Review: Healing Prayer Training

28 April 2013

A while back God began leading me to lean more heavily into the supernatural. As Christians, of course we believe in the supernatural in the sense that it’s in our doctrinal statements, but from day to day we often expect nothing supernatural to actually happen.

God was gentle with me and brought me along a little at a time. There was a whole journey preceding this that developed my prayer life from my biggest spiritual weakness into an area of strength (about which more at another time). Then God began to show me that when I come into His presence in prayer, I don’t do all the talking — He speaks to me, too, if only I’m willing to listen. (And to others. I’ve had the pleasure of introducing a number of people to hearing God — about which more later.)

About the same time, I was re-examining the Scriptures on prayer and found that God was directing me to pray for miraculous intervention in other ways that went well beyond simply hearing God (about which, once again, more later). Last spring, I took time off work to go to a conference that was addressing some of these issues, and then ended up not having the money to afford the actual conference. Talk about frustrating.

Then, this fall, I came across a flyer. The Anglican Healing Mission was holding a series of classes on healing prayer. I’d never heard of the Anglican Healing Mission, but it was $40 for four Saturdays worth of training, and the course came highly recommended. So I scraped together $40 and went.

That, Gentle Reader, was a life-altering decision.

The material was from Francis and Judith MacNutt of Christian Healing Ministries in Jacksonville, Florida, and over the course of the last several months I have taken their Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 classes. Each level involves about 13 hours of instruction, and the way the Anglican Healing Mission does it, each level is spread over two months (we met the second and third Saturday of the month from 10 to 3). Have a look at their website to see all the topics covered.

In exchange for enough money to cover materials and a few Saturdays a month, I got to hang with people who have a great deal of experience in healing ministry, and let me tell you, it was absolutely worth it. The MacNutts bring decades of experience in healing ministry, and their teaching involves a great deal of wisdom and common sense. I can’t tell you how many times I heard them say that there’s no formula, that it’s not magic, that this ministry is about what God wants to do, and nothing more or less than that.

On any given Saturday, we would gather, hear three or four lectures from the MacNutts, supplemented by our facilitators from the Anglican Healing Mission, and then the real work would begin. After the lectures came the practicum, in which we would apply what we were learning — right there, right then.

Now, I can just hear the growling from my former tribe members. The way it usually goes is something like this: “Well of course I believe that God still heals miraculously today — He’s God, He can do anything He wants. But I don’t believe He does it on demand.”

Me neither, guys, and you know what? In twelve full Saturdays of classes and practicums, I never heard anybody demand a healing, nor did I hear anybody advocate demanding a healing. I saw lots of prayer for healing, though, and I did see some people healed. The most visible thing I saw was a guy who came into the building with a bad limp walk back out with his knee injury completely gone. That was pretty cool — and the guy with the limp was as surprised as anybody — but that was far from the most spectacular healing I saw.

The most spectacular healing I saw was within me. Time would fail to tell you all that happened, and some of it is too personal to share anyhow, but let me put it this way: Jesus said He came to heal the brokenhearted, and He said that He is with us always. I knew these two facts long before I began training in healing prayer, but I had very little experience of them in my life. In the last nine months, I have repeatedly experienced Jesus’ presence and closeness with me in a way that is unprecedented in my life. He has, in encounter after encounter, been present for healing of many hurts that I thought would never really be healed. I have seen curses broken, my own idolatrous vows renounced, besetting sins driven away miraculously, and much more. I knew God would do anything to get us into heaven, but I never really believed that He’d do whatever it took to make me whole here and now. The God I grew up with would use me up without a second thought, and make good on it somehow by showing me the grand plan in eternity. There’s an element of truth in that. There is. But there’s a lot more to God than that, and eternal life begins here and now. In the past nine months I have experienced that as never before, largely through the ministry of the Anglican Healing Mission.