Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praises. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the assembly, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will heal him who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
James 5:13-15, World English Bible (a public domain translation)
Today, for Lutherans, is the 6th Sunday after Epiphany. And at the Lutheran church which I attend on a somewhat regular basis, we had a very interesting service. It was the “Service of the Word for Healing,” based on the apostolic instruction given in James 5:13-15. This service is a yearly tradition at that church, and during the service there is a time set aside for worshippers to come forward to the front of the sanctuary, where Communion is normally dispensed, and to receive prayer and the anointing with oil from the elders.
Today was only the second time I have attended such a service at that particular church, and it got me thinking. (I should mention that my attendance at such a service at that church was not my first experience with a healing service. More on that below.) The pastor preached an excellent homily from Mark 1:40-45 about our Lord's willingness to grant the requests of beggars – especially those in need of healing. Then there was a time of general prayer, followed by the invitation of those who wanted to come forward for the anointing of oil and prayer by the elders. The invitation was low-key in a typically Lutheran way, not like the high-pressure “altar calls” so prevalent in many evangelical megachurches.
And people came. As they came, I thought about the passage in James. By coming forward for individual prayer and anointing, a person is basically admitting two things: first, that he is not physically superhuman, and secondly, that he is not morally superhuman either. I remembered also the shyness bordering on terror which I experienced the first time I attended a so-called “healing service” supposedly modeled on the instruction in James 5:13-15. It was during an “All-Night of Prayer” at the abusive church I used to attend long ago, that we took some time to pray for the sick and otherwise needy and to perform the anointing with oil.
(One note about my former church: it inspired a lot of blogging and writing on my part. If ever I needed help in launching a literary career, I guess the Assemblies were good for something. I vaguely recall hearing Joseph Wambaugh saying on some late night TV show that writers need at least one nervous breakdown in order to boost their output. My breakfast club of a church wasn't quite that bad, but it came close. Maybe I can get some money from my story one day ;) You can't make this stuff up.)
Anyway, my former church had a culture which fostered an exaggerated show of outward righteousness, as an aid in competing for prized positions of privileged ministry. To ask to be anointed with oil was asking for trouble, as it was an admission on your part that you weren't picture perfect and didn't have every hair in place. Such an admission could and would be used against you. (I found that out the hard way.) Today as I remembered this and our former head honcho and his deputies (the “mature,” the “victorious,” the “overcomers,” the “prominent men”) praying prayers of pious exaggeration for those who actually did ask for anointing, I thought about the secret lives of these men and the scandals which would later destroy their churches, and I wondered if any of their high-sounding prayers ever made it beyond the roof of the building.
Fast forward several years to the first time I attended a Lutheran “Service of the Word for Healing” at the church I now attend. Gone is the freaky experience of abusive, fringe evangelicalism. Instead, the people at my church are all quite mellow, uncomplicated and easy on the nerves. Many of them are older. (Some are over eighty years old.) The pastor is very down-to-earth as well. Yet at this “Service of the Word for Healing,” I feel a bit of the same shyness bordering on terror. I would like to go forward to receive anointing – but a wall of impenetrable reserve surrounds me and I keep to my pew – even as nearly the entire church, both young and old, goes forward to participate in the anointing service. The service ends, and I have not gone forward.
My mind returns to the present this morning, as I am sitting in my pew and once again I hear the invitation for those who want prayer and anointing to come forward. Again there is the shyness and terror. Yet again, I see nearly the entire church going forward to the altar. My turn comes. I have needs. I have sins. And this time, I make a choice and find myself in the aisle, walking forward with the rest. And it's as if Heaven itself is shouting at me, “Welcome to the club!”