Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I don't really like faith healers

One of the things atheists are happy to point out is that Jesus said that if we ask anything of the Father in Jesus' name that it will be given to us and then point out that nothing like the kind really happens. Therefore whatever Jesus said (if, indeed, Jesus said it) cannot possibly be true and that any answered prayers prayed by Christians are pure coincidence at best and self-deluding nonsense all around. For the unbeliever this is all merely proof that prayer has no meaning and purpose other than some kind of placebo effect. Unbelievers also cite things like double blind studies that show that prayer has no effect on any medical conditions.

There are times when I wonder if there is more meat to this criticism than Christians feel comfortable admitting to. I certainly don't feel comfortable admitting it or granting it for as much time as I have spent praying for friends and family but when I see faith healers in action I am tempted to half-way agree.

I don't like faith healers. I really, really don't like them. I don't enjoy the idea of some self-described preacher being at the deathbed of a relative with a posse of fans inviting people to receive the baptism of the Spirit or to be slain in the Spirit or experience holy laughter and talk about how the spirit of Pentecost is the Holy Spirit power to have someone physically healed while that person is on his or her deathbed and not getting any better. I don't feel comfortable with the prospect of a third stream Rick Joyner style Third Wave charismatic anything dog and pony show going on in front of the deathbed of a family member while the family are actually not able to spend any time with the person on the deathbed who is already unable to speak, body so ravaged by sickness that the person is a shell of who he or she once was.

I don't appreciate people who don't really know the family showing up and rebuking sickness and death and telling the dying person with shouts that the person will get up and dance before the Lord with shouts of joy. What does it matter to that person if the person on the deathbed dies the next day? It's one thing to ask if people share songs or hymns or scriptures as they felt led by the Spirit and another thing to actually let that happen. The songs in the litany of faith healer activities tend to be songs cut from a certain musical mold. I won't get into that right now but there are aspects of musical affect to those songs that I have always meant to avoid in my compositional approach.

In a setting where not everyone who professes Christ really throwing open the doors to Christians saying whatever songs or scriptures come to mind might lead to things that don't feel comfortable to some holy rollers gathered with the intent of praying healing of physical disease. There might be someone claiming the promises of physical healing based on some tangential application of a promise given in the scriptures. There might be someone who considers that the strength of Christ is made perfect in the weakness of the flesh when it is not taken away. Another might consider the scripture that says that through the Spirit we receive the comfort of the Comforter and are able to comfort others with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted. Who said that? Oh, I suppose that was the apostle Paul but in a setting where people are angrily rebuking sickness that passage might not readily spring to mind or seem especially welcome when the visiting faith healer is inviting people to get slain in the spirit.

Suppose there is an Orthodox Christian there who wants to chant the Troparion? There might be a couple of people who on a day like Pentecost might think to sing Veni Creator Spiritus. Should they sing those songs? In an ardently Pentecostal setting there is an order to things even to those who do not think there is an order and some Christians who aren't from that liturgical tradition (notice I said Pentecostals actually have liturgical traditions) . As J. I. Packer once recounted decades ago, an Ethiopian Christian who recites the Lord's prayer in his native language might discover a Western charismatic interprets that as a prophecy or something entirely at odds with the actual meaning of his words.

God is sovereign and can do what He will but I have had more reason to be skeptical of claims of healing than if not most then many. When I hear some guy declare that someone was born without eye sockets and that one day someone prayed over the person and they miraculously got eye sockets and that it was reported in the news I want a headline, a by-line, and a copy of the newspaper that reported it, not just a statement made by someone working a small mainly self-selecting crowd. When someone tells me that everyone they pray for gets healed some wayor another I believe that that is loading the issue so much in advance that the person would credit their prayer as having accomplished anything, including a medical recovery done with the aid of medical procedures.

Years ago I had a catastrophic macular break. I had twenty to forty percent of the macula of my right eye tear loose. I can't read with the left eye and so, some seventeen years ago, I suddenly discovered I was unable to read. My family had been planning a trip to Montana for some time and had cancelled it due to lack of funds, which was disappointing for us. Days after this decision had been made my vision in my good eye began to fail at an alarming rate. We headed over to a clinic where a few tests were given and we were told that what was happening was either a cataract or a retinal detachment. One of my relatives who is not given to Pollyanna sentiments said, "It's probably cataracts." He was scolded by the parents. He didn't know what else to say, I imagine. I said that something told me that this WASN'T cataracts.

We were referred to our doctor who dealt with my vision in the past. He looked at my eye and said that not only was it a retinal detachment it was a pretty big, scary one. He would have to refer me to a specialist because it needed attention. I met with the specialist who told me that between 20 to 40 percent of the macula on my right eye had torn loose. This happens often in cases of severe scarring on the retinal wall from oxygen poisoning of infants who were born prematurely. That was of academic interest (fortunately, I suppose, I am often one for academically interesting things) The real nub of the situation was that if I did not get corrective surgery within 24 hours I would be blind in the right eye, completely blind in that eye. Knowing that I could not (and cannot) read with the left eye this forced us to face facts. The surgery had a one in three chance of failure. Copmared to 100% blindness a 33% chance of blindness sounded amazing!

The night before the surgery was scheduled (literally the next day) my parents took me to another town where a house church met on Friday nights. A fellow was there who agreed to pray for me and he said confidently that every person he ever prayed for was healed. It might take a while in some cases and in other cases it was instantaneous but they were always healed. I proposed that in my case healing might come about through surgery. He said without missing a beat, "It could be. All I know is that when I pray for people to get better God heals them." I remained unconvinced in that moment, to be honest.

If God was going to heal me, I thought, it was going to be because I agreed to surgery! Still, I must at least give this one guy credit for saying that God always healed people when he prayed for them but that he had no idea how God might do that healing. That was at least some measure of humility that I never see or have seen in the other ones. Since the surgery worked and I am even able to write this blog entry I suppose I can somewhat grudgingly thank that man whose boasts seemed so absurd. Still, I remain convinced that I got better because I sought the best medical care I could.

Once I was taken to a Benny Hinn crusade. The whole thing was well publicized and advertised as an opportunity to powerfully feel God's annointing and presence through Hinn's ministry. I didn't particularly WANT to go but I was still living as a minor around that time and felt accomodating to the wishes of my parents. After all, it wasn't THEM I was skeptical about. I had been hoping that perhaps God would heal my eyes but was coming to the firm conclusion that my eyes were never actually going to get better and was trying to reason through why after years of praying my eyes weren't getting better. It would not be long after that time of my life when one of them got drastically worse.

The best explanation I could come up with aside from the options that God didn't exist and that God was just not going to answer prayers at all (neither of which I considered tenable as a Christian) was that Paul wrote about a thorn in the flesh that he pleaded with God to remove three times. The response the Lord gave Paul was that His strength was sufficient for Paul, that power is made perfect in weakness. A person I shared this with said that I was really arrogant to imagine that I was as spiritual as the apostle Paul. That was not where I was going with that passage from Paul but I realized, with some disappointment, that the person I shared these thoughts with just didn't get where I was headed with the question of why God declines to answer prayers for physical healing after years of pleading.

Well, back to the Hinn crusade. The music had a weird, almost soporific, mind-numbing aspect to it. It was like something that could drone you into a frenzy. My mind was a haze amidst all the organs and shouting and singing and when the music died down at a critical point Hinn blew a puff of air into the microphone and announced that the Holy Spirit was present.

That was when I was jolted to a level of wakefulness and alertness I had never experienced before. And I felt absolutely nothing that suggested that God was at work. Something about the whole thing felt profoundly wrong, like I was wasting my time and that no healing of any sort was going to happen to me. Some family urged me to consider going forth for healing. A strange old lady named Doris I knew from the church I attended saw me as I walked forward and then just when I got there after having decided that, well, uh, maybe I "could" try going up anyway to see if this healing thing might really happen I had a firmer resolve. I realized that I not only didn't believe that God was going to heal me through this event but that if God WAS going to heal me there was no need for some famous travelling guy to be the means of that healing. If I let that be the medium then it was like I was saying I DIDN'T really trust God to heal me through some mundane, nameless person. If I was going to be healed of something it was going to be through some nobody nobody had heard of and never would.

Well, in a way that was true. You'll probably never find out the name of my eye surgeon who performed the scleral buckle that repaired my eye.

Meanwhile, I notice that for some reason Benny Hinn's wife has filed for divorce in California. I suppose the details may not ever be forthcoming but as someone who has doubted that healing comes through the likes of Benny I can't say that it's particularly heartbreaking for me. Even when I had more Pentecostal leanings I found people like Hinn problematic and I was positively skeptical about Third Wave and Brownstone and Toronto stuff. Unpublicized irreconcilable differences aren't my business, admittedly, but since I once declined to go forward and have the man with the annointing hit me with his jacket I suppose if I ever do find out I will admit to being curious.

But as my life has gone on I have found that too much of the time people who claim that God uses them to heal people are grand-standers. They often distract from the cause of Christ and end up being a discredit to Him in some way or another. The sort of healer who shows up when you call for them and is willing to dispense holy laughter or slaying in the spirit at the deathbed of someone ends up taking attention away from the dying. I suppose the person could say that the person on the deathbed may soon rise up and walk but I have not heard that this has happened. Instead I have seen the reverse, that a fellow called in to pray for healing ends up devouring time that could have been spent by family in the last hours of their loved one's life working a small posse into some kind of frenzy while the dying person looks on in mute detachment.

I don't wish to propose that no one should call on anyone for prayer. I have prayed for people who were dying in the past and will no doubt do so in the future. Part of my point is that you're not going to know when I do that and I don't wish to ever advertise services of that sort. If you are my family or you are my friend then my prayers are with you even if you're not a believer. But the point where I admit my inability to take faith healers seriously has come from direct contact and indirect contact. I believe that as a general rule these are people whose ministries are a sham and who have the brazen capacity to exploit the fears and angers and anxieties of those close to the dying and infirm as a way to gain attention for themselves. I do not contest that they are persuaded that they can pray prayers that are effectual. I have just seen those prayers given and still seen a person die the very next day after Christians forcefully and angrily rebuked sickness and death.

In such settings I keep my peace even though my convictions about the harm of such "ministries" is firm. I do not want to bring grief to those who are avoiding it and would be angry at being told that their loved one is dying and that the Lord will take that person home. Let's say that it's someone I did not want to die and wish were not dead but who is, nevertheless, dead. It is not my business to claim that a particular person should not have called in a faith healer and a posse. I would, however, never wish that anyone would do such a thing for me if I were on a deathbed. The prayers of family and friends and brothers and sisters in Christ would be sufficient. Christ who was able to heal a servant from a long way off is able to heal without recourse to those who advertise their services.

There comes a point where a person may cite a passage about how a king in Israel did not seek the Lord but consulted the physicians but that would miss the overall commentary about that king and miss that the problem was not that the man sought physicians but that he did not seek the Lord in that time. Just as those who would insist on promises from God about physical healing for individuals so those may also wrest scriptures from any literary or historical context to insist that consulting allegedly non-spiritual means of healing would be wrong.

I believe that in virtually all cases and all allegedly publicized cases of faith healers that we are talking about men and women whose conduct denigrates the cause of Christ and exploits the dying and weak for the sake of an empty end. The Spirit who comforts us in our affliction and is the Comforter in our continuing infirmity is not the spirit that these sorts of men and women will ask to be present in their midst.

They may see themselves as powerfully annointed, or they may see themselves as messengers of good news of physical healing but as I have seen them they are ultimately a great discredit to the name of Christ I am sorry that there are men and women out there who in the name of the Jesus or "Spirit power" offer ineffectual prayers and consume the last hours with a loved one being brought in to present some kind of dog and pony show. If there are people who really need that then I don't have the heart to insist they not embrace this folly ... but I don't have the heart to give assent to it and am often upset at the brazen nature of such so-called healers. I would rather they invoked the Spirit who is our Comforter in affliction than to presume upon what the Spirit will or should do in the hour of death.

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