The Common Touch
The New Testament makes frequent, explicit reference to the link between Jesus’ teaching and healing. Matthew tells us that Jesus went about all the cities and villages teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness." The early church recognized healing as one of the visible gifts of the Spirit. Throughout history the church has repeatedly reclaimed this intimate association between faith and healing, most noticeably in the development of "homes for healing," which still bear their ancient Christian name in Latin, hospitium.
Given this well-established background of healing, what has happened to healing in the life of the local church? I am not talking about the ministry of medical care in the specialized, scientific and professionalized hospital, but about gifts of healing in the midst of congregational life. We recognize the importance of teaching in the contemporary church, but what happened to its biblical twin, the ministry of healing? Many congregations that I visit proudly show me their "educational wing," but not one has ever taken me to see their "healing wing."
Yes, a few congregations maintain the biblical link between healing and faith by employing a parish nurse. I have seen programs that assist young mothers with their children and reach out to the elderly, especially in impoverished urban areas. And a few congregations assemble the skills and wisdom of a full medical team. Working mostly in suburban settings with more affluent patients, these clinics have developed pioneering programs of holistic medicine for the whole family. When visiting such places, I am inspired by their fundamentally spiritual response to the constantly expanding need for medical attention and healing in our society. I am even more impressed with these congregations' courage in the face of denominational indifference.
Special worship services are a more frequent response to cries for healing. These events rally scriptural resources and ancient prayers, and combine the practices of laying on of hands and anointing with holy oil. With liturgies that range from ancient Latin to contemporary slang, from Catholic orders to charismatic traditions, no service is more broadly experienced while directed to individual participants. Healing is also at the heart of pastoral care. This is both a pastoral burden and a delight. We pastors visit parishioners in the hospital, pray with the parents of a newborn child, share the moments before surgery with a mid-life parishioner and gather with a family as the last breath of a life slips away. The Great Physician is present, too. In less dramatic but equally satisfying ways, pastoral counseling shares this quest for healing. Whether we are engaged with a troubled teenager, with a couple whose relationship is "on the rocks" or with a person who feels worthless without employment, counseling may be the most obvious form of healing in the parish.
But other incidents of healing occur that are less easily recognized. If healing often takes place through the laying on of hands, then every authentic touch can be as therapeutic as Michelangelo's creative moment in the Sistine Chapel. When congregations gather for worship and fellowship, and members reach out to touch, shake hands, embrace and encourage each other, they are "laying on hands." When we genuinely forgive others and feel ourselves forgiven we, like the paraplegic lowered through the roof to Jesus, are restored to walk upright again. The most pervasive acts of healing can occur when touching is a heartfelt act of forgiveness, when it restores and empowers both us and others to be the people the Creator intended us to be.
I have a powerful and frightening memory from my pastoral ministry. I know that I healed a parishioner. I did not set out to do so. I was visiting her in the hospital in what everyone thought were her last days. We prayed and she got up and-almost immediately-went home! (No, I did not consider a career in television preaching!) I was overwhelmed, and scared by the power of our prayers. Both she and I realized that this was the effect not of one person's prayer, but of the prayers of the whole congregation and the power of the Holy Spirit.
I recall this now to affirm that healing sometimes takes dramatic forms in the midst of congregational life. When that happens, it should be awe-filled. But God is also actively healing our lives with the common touch when we reach out to care for others.