Lay your healing hand upon us

Statue showing three children holding doves
‘healing’ – sculpture outside Ayr hospital

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Lay your healing hand upon us” by Alan Gaunt. It is a call to Jesus for healing from both physical and emotional hurts.  The healing that is sought from Jesus here is the gentle, compassionate healing of one who has suffered more than we can imagine – the “wounded healer” as he is often called.  In the first verse we ask “bind our wounds with your compassion, bring us back to health again”

The first line of the second verse “Hold us like a gentle mother” is perhaps intended as a reminder that although Jesus was undoubtedly male, he showed the intuition and empathy that are more often associated with women.  We ask him to “set us on our feet and make us strong to take life in our stride”: this is healing as the wholeness that brings confidence as well as physical ability.

The third and fourth verses move on: as we are healed by the one who was wounded, so we who are healed should seek to bring healing to others. “With the confidence you give us, give us your compassion too, so that we may offer others comfort, healing, strength from you”.

The tune by Stephen Dean is called “Susan” (I wonder who she was). It a syncopated rhythm consistently throughout, except in the penultimate bar it’s a crochet followed by a minim in the melody rather than the other way round, and that doesn’t really fit the words other than in the last verse where the stress then fall on “God’s”.

Lord of life, we come to you

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Lord of life, we come to you” by Catherine Walker. It consists of two short 4-line verses, asking the Lord (Jesus) to be our Saviour, to bless and heal us and to guide us in all life’s difficulties as well as its joys. So it covers the same sort of ground as yesterday’s song, with which it shares a Scottish tradition.

We cannot measure how you heal

Philip Ilott (1936-2010)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “We cannot measure how you heal” by John Bell and Graham Maule.

The whole area of spiritual healing is one in which attitudes vary among Christians, from those who dismiss the idea that God can intervene at all in natural processes to those who believe that any physical or mental illness can be healed with prayer if only we have enough faith. But most of us, I hope, would accept that God can and does heal, and that an apparent lack of healing in response to prayer is not the fault either of the sufferer or the one who prays for them. 

That seems to be the starting point of this hymn: we cannot understand the “how” or “why” of healing, yet “we believe your grace responds where faith and doubt unite to care”.  The second part of this first verse refers to Jesus’ blood on the cross, which is an essential part of a specifically Christian attitude to healing: Jesus, the “wounded healer”, suffered both physical and mental pain, to an extent that few humans are unlucky enough to share, and only the truly evil would wish on anyone else.

The second verse acknowledges what is increasingly understood by medical practitioners as well as faith healers, that good health and effective healing are heavily dependent on psychology and on a person’s past experience. Pain, guilt, fear and bad memories are indeed “present as if meant to last”, preventing us from achieving health in the roundest sense of that term.  The antidote to that is explained here as “love which tends the hurt we never hoped to find”.  The third verse also makes reference in the phrase “some have come to make amends” to the fact that lack of forgiveness, either for our own sins or for the ways that others have hurt us, can also lead to ill health and prevent healing.  

Many people have testified to the healing work of God’s Holy Spirit in uncovering past experiences that are at the root of later suffering.  I recently read “A smile on the face of God”, by Adrian Plass, a biography of the Revd Philip Ilott who experienced this as part of his own healing as well as being given the spiritual gift of bringing God’s healing to others.  The process was not a pleasant experience for him, and his story is certainly not one of ‘happy ever after’ (in fact he died of multiple sclerosis) but it does illustrate many of the points made above, and along the way he discovered the peace of God that can be present even though pain, which sometimes is in fact the healing that is needed.

Jesus Christ is waiting

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is the second of two on consecutive days by the Scottish hymnwriters John Bell & Graham Maule, both in the series on social justice issues.  Both of them invite us to join our own concerns with those of God. 

This one, “Jesus Christ is waiting”, has a much more active Jesus than yesterday’s.  He is pictured in various actions, beginning with ‘waiting in the streets’.  Is ‘waiting’ an action?  In Christian theology, yes.  Waiting can be about anticipation, praying into a situation knowing that God will move when it’s the right time to do so and not before.   The waiting here, though, is linked with loneliness, and we ask him to make us ‘fit to wait on him’ – a subtle pun on two meanings of ‘waiting’ in English. Are we the sort of waiters who stand around idle and lonely, or the sort of waiters (as in a restaurant) who work tirelessly to satisfy the needs of others who are lonely?

The other actions of Jesus are much more energetic: raging, healing, dancing, calling. Raging at life’s injustices, healing in response to need, dancing in triumph when goodness wins out, and calling for more people to follow his example. All these are seen in his life, indeed all are seen in his actions in the Temple: raging at the money-sellers, healing those excluded from the temple because of their disabilities, calling ‘on the last and greatest day of the feast’ (when surely there was dancing) for disciples to follow him, but also of course waiting on God in prayer.

What unites the words of the verses are that all these actions take place ‘in the streets’ – in the public realm, not in our private prayer rooms and chapels but where the need is and where our actions are visible.  And that in each verse our response is to say “I am … too”: we share Jesus’ concerns and seek to copy his actions.

I think the choice of tune – ‘Noel Nouvelet’ – is just right.  Its minor key suits the theme of dealing with injustice, but at the same time it has a lively dance rhythm (it’s described as a French carol tune) that goes with the image of Jesus dancing and calling in particular.  The verses should be varied in pace and volume when sung – slower and quieter for ‘waiting and healing’, faster for ‘dancing’, louder for ‘raging and calling’.

Redeemer Lord, your praise we sing

The last Chrism mass at Bradford cathedral in 2017 (c) Diocese of Leeds

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Redeemer, Lord, your praise we sing” by Michael Saward.  The opening line is quite generic and suggests a hymn suitable for any occasion, but as John found when preparing today’s morning prayer, this is actually a very niche hymn, intended for the annual service of blessing of oils, which happens on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday), usually in cathedrals. The Bishop blesses oil (traditionally olive oil from Israel/Palestine) and shares it among his or her parish priests to be used in their parishes in the coming year. The priests in return renew their vows of obedience to the Bishop and in the service of their congregation and community. So John is right, that it seems out of place to sing it even ten days early, in the context of private prayer or worship shared online.

Having said that, Covid has changed everything, and this year the Bishop of Leeds will bless the oil in Bradford Cathedral while the priests of the diocese join him on Zoom with their own supplies of oil to be blessed remotely.  For a religion that believes in the power of prayer to heal the sick and otherwise change lives at a distance, that should not stretch our faith uncomfortably.

What is the blessed oil used for? Traditionally for three purposes: at baptism where the sign of the cross is made on the head of the person being baptised (referenced in verse 4, “From those baptised let Satan flee”); with prayer for healing of the sick (referenced in verses 2 and 3, “give oil for our infirmity… bring healing in a needful hour”) and the separately prepared and consecrated “chrism oil”.

The use of oil in healing is not confined to Christianity or even to religious practice, and indeed I understand that the Greek word used in James 5:14 (a key Biblical text here) is ‘aleiphantes’ which means something closer to ‘massaging’ than ‘anointing’. Oils (balm) were widely used in ancient times for medical purposes, and still are. The second verse of the hymn reminds us that olive oil is a natural product from a tree.  The distinctive Christian element is to pray for God’s healing power to accompany medical treatment. 

The other two uses, baptism and chrism, are more specifically religious.  The sign of the cross in oil marks the baptised person as chosen by God to serve him in Christ as part of the fellowship of the Church. As to the Chrism, anointing the head with oil was (at least in Old Testament times) a sign of acknowledging a king or other leader as chosen by God, a tradition that has continued through the European monarchies.  It is used on special occasions such as confirmation and ordination when someone is being specifically commissioned to a role in the Church. 

So, not a hymn for today, but one to remember next week.

The Bible in a Year – 16 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

16 November. Luke chapters 6-7

This section of the Gospel begins and ends with Jesus challenging the Pharisees, in different ways.  The Pharisees seem to get a bad press in all the versions of the Gospel, because after all they were observant Jews who thought they were doing their best for God by following all the rituals and laws of the religion.  Sometimes Jesus confronts them angrily, but in these exchanges we see him taking a gentler line, just trying to get them to understand faith his way.

In chapter 6, the issue is, not for the first time, what constitutes “Sabbath work”.  To the Pharisees, it seems that any preparation of food, even the simple act of picking grains and removing the husks, and any form of healing, counted as “work” and therefore sinful if undertaken on the “day of rest”.  Jesus contests that preparing a small amount of food because you are hungry is not “work”, and neither is helping someone in need as an act of charity. “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”, he says, in other words, “I can determine what the Sabbath regulations mean in practice”.  He had a right to say that, if we accept his divinity; but even if not, the point is more generally valid that religious rules are intended to be interpreted according to the situation at hand – that was how the rabbis understood the Law.

In chapter 7, the Pharisee in question is one Simon who thinks Jesus is sinning by letting himself be touched by a “sinner” without looking into the details of her circumstances. Jesus’ understanding is quite different – he looks not at the fact of what she is doing, but why; and not at what she had done in the past but what she is doing now.  Her weeping shows that she has repented of whatever her sin may have been (possibly prostitution, although we don’t know – the woman’s “sin” may have been something else.)   Washing and anointing his feet with ointment is a sign of tribute to him, where the Pharisee refused Jesus even the expected courtesies of a social kiss and a bowl of water to wash his dusty feet.

When Jesus talks about faith, whether it is the faith of the woman who is brave (or desperate) enough to enter a rich man’s house weeping and interrupt the dinner party with her acts of love and kindness, or the centurion in chapter 6 who accepts Jesus’ authority over sickness as equivalent to his own military authority over his cohort, he means the sort of trust in God that breaks down social barriers and expects unusual things to happen for the common good. That is very different from the Pharisaic “faith” that is based on creeds and regulations.   The second type is easier to fall into than the first, but far less effective in encountering the living God.


The Bible in a Year – 15 November

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15 November. Luke chapters 4-5

Each of the Gospel writers has different emphases.  Luke was a physician and so it is not surprising that he focuses on the healing miracles of Jesus. But he focuses on other things too.  Unlike Matthew and Mark who suggest that Jesus went straight into a preaching ministry after his baptism, Luke shows Jesus preaching in the synagogues after his baptism (and after the desert temptations).  Only when he is asked to preach on the text from Isaiah about the good news being shown by good deeds does he begin to heal (4:14-19). Even then, “making the blind see” is one of only three signs of the Gospel in that passage, the other being releasing captives and freeing the oppressed.  So for Luke, physical healing from illness or disability was only one aspect of the wholeness that Jesus brought: a right understanding of God and his laws, and freedom from being put down in any way by other people, were at least as important.

Another difference is that Luke has a particular interest in demons and devils.  This is shown in chapter 4 not only in his own desert temptations, but in the demon at Capernaum (34), and the many in Nazareth (41), that recognised him as the “Holy one of God”.  It seems that Jesus knew he had to fight the devil, but wanted to put off that moment as long as necessary.  By resisting the three temptations of working miracles, seeking earthly power and putting God to the test, he made the devil go away “until an opportune time” – which might be seen as the attempt by the men of Nazareth to kill him not long afterwards (29), or as the plots of the Pharisees and the betrayal of Judas that led to his crucifixion three years later.  In between those times, Jesus seems to have been untroubled by demonic activity himself.  Apart from the very few people who genuinely suffer demon possession, for most of us the devil tempts us from time to time, but he does not stick around for long if we don’t take his bait. “Resist the devil and he will flee” (James 4:7).

Finally, I would just like to share an unrelated thought that just came to me as I read about the calling of Levi (5:27-28): “After this he went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.”

What happened to Levi’s money?  This money-obsessed man had been sitting at his booth all day raking in the taxes (some of which he would have kept for himself) then accepted Jesus’ call to follow him, and without further ado walked away.  The people around must have wondered when he was going back, but when they realised he was not returning, surely they would have rejoiced and reclaimed the piles of cash for themselves?  When Jesus calls someone to follow him, it is others who benefit.

The Bible in a Year – 7 November

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7 November. Mark chapters 6-7

In these chapters we see Jesus giving his closest disciples – “the Twelve” – an intensive training course.  For some time (months? Possibly a year or two?) they have been following him and watching him preach and heal. Now it is their turn.  They are sent out in pairs (still good practice, both for ‘safeguarding’ and as an encouragement to each other, but for Jesus it may have had more to do with the Jewish rule about the testimony of two witnesses being required to be valid).  They are told to take no food or money, and minimal clothing (6:7-11).  I have come across one missionary organisation working within Britain that applies this rule literally to their own volunteers – they must not use any of their own money, and must stay with host families and accept hospitality from them.  It’s not necessary, of course – St Paul took completely the opposite view and insisted on working for a living alongside preaching and pastoring, so as not to be a burden on his hosts.  But for these disciples, it was right, as they had to learn to live by faith.  The test of whether a village or household was willing to bear the cost of feeding and clothing these travelling preachers was a good indicator of whether they would accept their teaching too.

When they returned, tired from their ministry, Jesus took them away for a ‘debriefing’ and also rest and relaxation (6:30-32).  But it was just at that point that they found themselves followed by the great crowd of 5000 men (and women and children).  In feeding them miraculously, Jesus again gets the disciples to work – “no, I won’t feed them – you will”. By this, and the healings they had performed in the villages,  he shows them that his power can be at work in them even though he was not physically with them.  But it was not an easy lesson to learn – that same night when they were in difficulty in stormy weather on the lake, it was only when Jesus appeared that the storm was calmed – although he had probably knowingly sent them out on a stormy night as a test of their faith, and they failed.

When it comes to healing, though, faith is required in both the healer and the recipient, as Jesus found when he could perform few miracles in his own town where people did not believe that someone they had known well as a boy could be so extraordinary as an adult.

The power of Jesus is still available to those who believe – and yet the vast majority of his followers today, most of the time, do not use it.  I include myself there.  I, and most other Christians, are reluctant to try praying for people to be healed because I doubt that it will “work”. I think those who do exercise this gift must know in some intuitive way that God’s power is within them, and so must those who are healed.

The Bible in a Year – 6 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

6 November. Mark chapters 4-5

What strikes me from today’s reading in that great crowds gather round Jesus.  As I remarked yesterday, from time to time there are great preachers (though obviously none to equal Jesus himself), who draw similarly large crowds. Some of them also have the gift of healing, but not all – Billy Graham, for example, attracted many converts just with words and music, and made no claim to be a spiritual healer.  What all churches do have, though, is the Bible, and particularly the record of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels.  Why is it then that so many churches find it difficult even to get their regular members enthusiastic about Jesus’ radical teaching, let alone draw people in from outside?  Whole books have been written on the subject, but “culture” often seems to be presented as a reason – “you can’t make this ancient religion relevant to modern people”.

All Anglican clergy, and Readers such as I, are charged by the Bishop at our licensing with “Proclaiming the Gospel afresh to each generation”.  The idea is that the message never changes but the best way to present it, and the practical implications of it, do change from one place to another across cultures and down the generations.  The fact that within forty years after Jesus’ resurrection (and crucially the gift of the Holy Spirit) the Church had spread across the widely varied cultures from the Near East to India in one direction, North Africa in another, and to the pagan city of Rome, shows that culture should not be a barrier to spreading the Christian faith.  Nor is the lack of education –  many of Jesus’ hearers in Galilee would have been illiterate, which is why he spoke in the picture-language of parables, and the Church is growing today more in poorly-developed countries than in sophisticated Western or Asian ones.

One clue can be found in the story of the Gerasene man in chapter 5. Sometimes I am sceptical about the idea of “demonic possession” whether in the Bible or today – I think it has often been misused to describe people with a range of psychiatric illnesses.  But there are some cases such as this one where there is no other explanation – if he was merely mentally ill, why would he have shown superhuman strength, or why when he was healed would the pigs have rushed lemming-like into the lake?

Most of the people Jesus healed were told not to spread the word about him, but simply follow the Jewish ritual for being officially cleansed. But this man across the other side of the lake was not a Jew, as can be seen from the fact that his people kept pigs.  And Jesus actively told him to spread the word.  Why?  I think it was because Jesus knew that he himself would not be accepted by people whose whole culture and history made them opposed to the Jews. So he had to raise up witnesses – apostles – from within those Gentile cultures to be credible speakers to their own people.  We see this happening in the book of Acts, but perhaps it is this unnamed former ‘demoniac’, rather than St Paul (a Jew) or St Thomas, who truly deserves the title of “first apostle to the Gentiles”.  And whom will God raise up within your own local community, or mine, to preach the word to their neighbours, if we ask him?

The Bible in a Year – 5 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

5 November. Mark chapters 1-3

As I mentioned at the start of Matthew’s gospel, Mark is widely believed to have been written first, and although he covers much the same ground as Matthew he tells the story in a more compact way, with more of a sense of movement and excitement.

Mark is uninterested in Jesus’ birth and childhood, only the stories from his adult life. These first few chapters show Jesus appearing first as one of John the Baptist’s disciples, but being marked out by the appearance of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God as having a unique relationship to God.  Mark has no time for plot development – he reveals immediately who Jesus is, and then goes on to the miracle stories.

The idea of an itinerant religious teacher drawing crowds by his captivating way of speaking, the power of his message and the healing miracles he performed was not new.  Some of the old Jewish prophets such as Elisha and Jeremiah were similar, and right down to our own day the same can be seen with ministries such as that of John Wimber.  But most such people are forgotten soon after their lifetimes – who talks of Smith Wigglesworth today, for example?

Mark wants us to know from the outset that Jesus was not just another rabbi or faith-healer.  His opening line is “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  Gospel means “good news”, Christ (or Messiah) means “anointed one” and Jesus’ name – a common one for Jewish  men – means something like “God saves”.  So, “The beginning of the good news of the God who saves, the anointed one, the Son of God.”

Not everyone believed in him, of course.  Towards the end of chapter 3 we read of those who thought that Jesus himself was possessed by the Devil or some other evil spirit.  In explaining why that could not be so, Jesus adds that while all ordinary sins can be forgiven, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (3:29-30).  This “Unforgivable sin”, then, seems to mean doubting that a work of God really is from God, or not being able to distinguish between the Holy Spirit and evil spirits.  If you cannot see God at work, you are not in a position to receive the healing and wholeness that he offers.