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.
- 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.
- 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….
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.”
- 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.
- 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.