Presbyterian Faith Healer

I grew up the son of a Presbyterian preacher, living and breathing and smelling and tasting Presbyterianism.  I had only a handful of church experiences outside of it. I visited a Baptist church as a child.  Hot Dogs and Salvation. I visited the Methodist Church across the street.  Smiley people with nicer cars.  I worshiped with my Texas family, Episcopalian style.  Mystery and ritual and wine.  And a couple times, in high school, I went to a girlfriend’s country Pentecostal church. It was a holy spirit filled, and very loud service.  Imagine 75 people’s individual prayers spoken out loud at the same time, and some in unintelligible tongues.  But I treasured the experience.   I was fascinated and found beauty in all of those places.  But all I truly knew was being a Presbyterian, and yet I could not have defined it for anyone.  I didn’t truly know what we were.

What I did know is exactly what we were not.  We worshipped Sunday morning, not Sunday night or Wednesday night.  Our worship tone was reverent and even solemn at times, no hand waving or hallelujahs.  We did not get “saved” like the Baptists.  We were never dunked, only sprinkled.  We sang “There’s a Story to Tell To the Nation”, but we did not sing “How Great Thou Art”.  I had never even heard that great hymn until  Dixie Carter sang it on Designing Women.  Yes, I watched every episode of Designing Women with my wife.  No shame in that.  Delta Burke was a stitch.  We drank grape juice, never wine.  No bread, just tiny, little nibble-sized biscuits.  We didn’t talk about Jesus dying on the cross during Christmas.  And we NEVER tried to heal anybody’s physical maladies.

I’d never seen anyone try until a man in our church attempted to heal a woman during “joys and concerns”.  Joys and concerns is the time of the service when my Dad would perform small miracles himself by interpreting every last inaudible or incomprehensible word of the people standing up to share, including a woman with severe cerebral palsy.

The man, let’s call him Bob, was suffering from schizophrenia, but in retrospect it may have had little to do with what he did.  If he had been in a different church, not only would he be allowed to proceed, but he would have been joined by three or four other men; holy hype men.

Bob stood up slowly and resolutely to share, but it was neither a joy or concern.  He began,in a grand and dramatic fashion, to quote scriptures about healing.  As he spoke, and as the congregation began to feel increasingly uncomfortable, he began to reveal his intentions.  My dad listened quietly, but his eyes occasionally jutted to the back of the sanctuary where the ushers stood guard.  Ushers double as bouncers, it turns out.  It was clear that Bob was planning to heal the elderly woman in a wheelchair in the next pew.

When he finished his speech he  turned and took one step toward the aisle, but before he could take another, my dad nodded to the ushers to come forward.  My dad began to say something, but before a word could come out of his mouth, the man sitting next to Bob, an elder in the church, grabbed his arm and said “This is not the time for that.”  Bob sat down and stayed put for the rest of the service, and the ushers returned to their stations.

We’ll never really know what would have happened without the intervention.  Would he have laid his hands on her legs and healed them, or would it simply have been an unwelcome display of behavior unbecoming of a Presbyterian.  We’ll never know.

But this man is not the healer I’m thinking about today.  When I was 20 and engaged to be married to Jennifer,  I was suffering from chronic lower back pain.  The doctor said it was the product of scoliosis and there was little he could do, so he gave me drugs.  But the drugs he gave me did not take the pain away.  I tried not to complain.  Mainly, I suffered privately, as do so many millions of people with chronic back pain do every day.

Once and awhile, Presbyterian Church USA adds or changes parts of the Book of Worship.  That year, a new worship service was added:  The Service of Wholeness and Healing.  I imagine that there were many heated debates about this exotic “healing” service, but my dad was on board.  And the church trusted him.  I didn’t know what to think about it at all, but I decided to attend because I didn’t know what else to do about my back.  I wanted relief enough to step out of the comfort zone of Presbyterianism into the uncharted waters of faith healing.

At this time in the Presbyterian Church, we were trying to be a little more touchy feely.  We starting doing something called the “laying on of hands”.  This is when a person stands up in front of the church and is surrounded by others who lay their hands on him/her.  For me, this was a radical departure from the church that I knew.  This seemed real Baptisty and Pentecostally to me.  But I trusted my father on it, and there was something about the words “laying on of hands” that seemed like something that could be properly controlled.   I knew he would not lead us astray.

In this service, I suspected that there was a strong chance that someone was going to lay hands on me, an uncomfortable prospect, but I steeled my courage and got in line anyway.  The line stretched down the choir hall from the narthex (Presbyterian for foyer) to the choir loft to be healed by our guest pastor, Tom Tickner.  My dad was taking a post by the Lord’s Table (we don’t call it an altar).  I knew Tom already.  He was the pastor of one of my best friend’s church in Mustang, Oklahoma.  I knew him to be a perfectly sane and reasonable Presbyterian.    I could not reconcile what I believed was coming, with who I understood him to be.  I’d seen faith healers on tv before.

The line moved very slowly, and my palms began to sweat; however, as I stepped out of the hall into the loft, and could actually see what was happening,  I felt reassured.  He was listening and praying and laying hands, but there was something so tender about his touch on people that I began to feel hopeful.  Perhaps I could be healed tonight, I thought.

When I finally arrived before him, I noticed that the lights were set lower than usual.  The candles had more presence.  He greeted me in a low and confidential voice.  I explained my malady.  Being a liturgical service, I think that he might have had some specific words to say.  I don’t remember exactly, but perhaps it concluded with something like this.  “David, do you wish to be healed?”  I said that I did.  In saying that I did, something opened up in me.  I could feel the tears beginning to well up.  I had never cried in church before.  This was something new.  Something foreign.  He asked me to turn around.  I surrendered myself to Tom, to the moment, to God.  He put both of his hands on my back and prayed quietly, and then aloud.  His final words were, “David, I pray you find healing.”

But my back did not feel any better.  I walked away feeling like it was a failed experience.  My glimmer of faith soon dissipated.  Rev. Tom, nor God, had healed me.  I moved on, though.  There was much to be done in preparation for the wedding.

A few days later, Jennifer and I took a snowy drive up to north Oklahoma City to do something wedding related; to pick up the gown or something.   I sat in the husband area and picked up a magazine.  When I opened it, I found an article about back pain.  I read it with keen interest.  The claim was that studies were showing that 80% of back pain is psychosomatic.  It suggested a very simple exercise.  Something like this.

“Sit up straight in a chair.  Take some deep breaths and focus your attention on the part of your back that is hurting, and have a little conversation with it.  Say, “Hey, back.  Thanks for handling all of my stress and anxiety, but the brain is going to take it from here.”

I figured I had nothing to lose at that point, so I tried it.  My pain immediately and miraculously lifted from me, and 22 years later I’ve never had chronic back pain again.

So, there are several conclusions that I could draw here.

  1. Tom was a faith healer.
  2. Through the prayer “I pray that you find healing”,  God responded by  putting me in the right place, at the right time, with the right magazine.
  3.  Praying with Rev. Tom helped me think about looking for some other possibilities to deal with this, so I was just a little more observant and open-minded
  4. That moment unlocked my body’s ability to release the pain.
  5.  When the doctors failed, and I failed,  I gave it up to something outside of my control; something greater than myself.   My willingness to surrender the problem opened me up to the possibility that God could heal me if He so chose.

Any one or every one of these conclusions could be drawn and the result would be the same:  the pain was gone. I was healed…permanently.  There are many ways to respond to this kind of event, but the most important way, for me,  is gratitude.  Gratitude for my dad for taking a chance on something new.  Gratitude for Rev. Tom for his faithfulness and healing touch. Gratitude for mindfulness and the body’s ability to heal.  And gratitude for a God who will shoulder my burdens.

There have been many times when I prayed for healing since, and most have not turned out the way I hoped.  What I now know is that I had not surrendered the way I did with Tom years ago.  I was asserting my will with God.  I eventually gave up on the notion that God would give me what I asked.  But I’ve learned some truths over the years.  Truths that I could not have learned in a book or by debating on Facebook or in any way that my human mind could conceive other than by experience.  And that is this:

We do not get to choose the changes we want in our lives.  Our attempts will likely fail.  Our attempts are driven by our own weak and ill informed wills.  It is only by surrendering all that we are to a will greater than ourselves that change will occur; a change made by an all knowing, all loving Will.  This is why New Year’s resolutions fail.  This is why vows fail.  We cannot truly improve ourselves, heal ourselves.  Only God can.

It’s true that medicine and doctors can heal bones and brains, but they cannot heal hearts. Do not take my word for it.  I could not teach this to anybody, nor would I try.  We learn our truths by living.

I have not seen Rev. Tom since that night.  I would like to thank him.   I’ll bet he’s not too difficult to locate.  In some ways, this may have been the beginning of the possibility for me that God is more than an idea.  That God cares about me.  That God loves me.  That God can heal me.

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