A Journey Into Healing
by Charles P. Gibbs

        When I was six my family moved from a small town in New Mexico to an eighty-acre farm outside Tulsa, Oklahoma. Our recently-acquired television, a large black and white model, made the move with us. When we tired of exploring the pastures, ponds, and woods that were our new home, we explored the world, new for us, of television.

       Saturday morning was our prime time. "Mighty Mouse" was a favorite of mine -- "Here I come to save the day! That means that Mighty Mouse is on his way!" I also enjoyed watching Irish Mike Clancey and clean-cut Danny Hodge, who could flatten a pair of pliers with his bare hands, mete out sure justice to the masked villains, the Great Bolo and the Mighty Bolo, on "Championship Wrestling." Both shows offered weekly affirmations of the predictable, if suspenseful, triumph of good over the threat of evil. The lessons, if not the theatrics, of those two shows blended well with what I learned in Sunday School at a local Episcopal Church where we studied stories and memorized verses from the Bible before going into church with the big people to sit through interminable and often incomprehensible prayers before approaching the altar rail to receive a blessing as the bread and wine passed by.

       Oral Roberts, a fervent Pentecostal preacher-healer, with a building near downtown Tulsa called the Abundant Life Tower, also had a TV show on Saturday morning. Though it was religious, it seemed to have more in common with "Mighty Mouse" and "Championship Wrestling" than with church as I experienced it. It was my introduction to the ministry of healing.

       Oral's weekly television show included his fierce exhortation to turn our sinful selves over to God to receive healing and abundant life (some portion of which should be directed toward doing God's work through Oral Roberts' ministry). It also included a call for those seeking healing to come forward for Oral to lay his hands on them and pray for their healing.

       He was a powerful and theatrical prayer, with large and powerful hands and a voice to match. When he laid his hands on someone and asked God to HEAL, you could feel the power, and witness the miracles, as people who struggled on crutches up to the stage cast their crutches aside and walked away. People, cured of everything from cancer to vision problems, returned radiant to their seats as Oral proclaimed another victory of God's healing power over the power of sin, death, and the devil.

       My younger brother, Eric, who had Down Syndrome, was transfixed by the program. When Oral would turn to the TV audience, put his hand in front of the camera, and urge those watching at home to come forward and put their hand on his hand as he prayed for their healing, Eric would always move to sit right in front of the TV and place his small hand on Oral's large hand to receive a prayer to HEAL.

       For my part, I decided early on that Oral Roberts was as much a fake as the Great and Mighty Bolos, and my experiences taught me that God had more to do with memorizing Bible verses and incomprehensible prayers than with healing people.

       So, without really thinking about it, I dismissed the idea that the laying on of hands for healing might in any way be a channel for God's action. I also tacitly accepted a theology that made Jesus (who on an intellectual level was advertised as fully human and fully divine) so thoroughly other that it never occurred to me to ask why, if healing was such a central part of Jesus' ministry, it wasn't a visible part of the church's ministry. In my thirties, I carried this unreflected dismissal of healing ministry with me when I went to seminary. But then I began to awaken to new experiences that challenged me reexamine my tacit assumptions about healing.

       In the middle of an intensive 10-day seminar called "Companions on the Inner Way" I experienced my first "healing" service. I remember a dimly lit chapel. A healing station -- a chair and two members of the seminar staff -- in each of the four corners of the room. As the time to move to a healing station began, I found myself flooded with resistance. From one side came a voice dripping with skepticism reminding me that healing was Oral Roberts' fakery. From the other side came a taunting voice that said strong people didn't need healing. Only weak people who had something wrong with them needed healing. The two voices resolved into a clear message: "Stay in your chair. You're fine, and just a little stronger that these other people."

       But as I watched people going forward for healing and watched the healing teams laying on hands and praying, a yearning, from a place far deeper than the voices of resistance, awakened within me. I realized that I yearned for healing in my broken relationship with my father.

       I sat in a turmoil of fear, resistance, and yearning; no longer sure what it meant to be strong or to be weak. In one moment, I found myself critically evaluating the healing teams, and dismissing my deep yearning. In another, I found myself crafting a perfectly-worded request for a prayer for healing, as though containing this yearning in careful language would protect me from being one of those fools whom I'd seen struggle up the aisle to Oral Roberts.

       Then I found myself standing and walking up the aisle. A lifetime of Episcopalian reserve screamed at me to stop. My legs shook. But I didn't stop. Somehow I accepted a grace that had come so naturally to my brother, Eric. Though his intellect was severely limited, his intuition showed him that God's power can flow through even the most imperfect channel. Eric was not too proud, or too judgemental to reach out for help. As I walked up the aisle, lit by the light of flickering candles, I set my pride and judgmentalism aside and acknowledged to myself my deep yearning for God's help. Still shaking, I sat in the chair that a few minutes before I had been sure I would never need. When the two people, who I was convinced weren't nearly spiritual enough to be healers, placed their hands on my shoulders, I felt an energy flow through me, melting open a door I hadn't know was closed. Before I could state my carefully crafted question, I began to weep.

       They stood with me in my weeping, silently supporting me until I was able to stumble out a plea for healing of my relationship with my father, who had largely abandoned our family when I was in my early teens. They offered a prayer. I thanked them and returned to my seat, cleansed by my tears, aglow with energy, and wondering what would happen next.

       In the weeks following the seminar, nothing magical happened. No unexpected calls from my father, who had been living in Venezuela for more than a decade and whom I hadn't seen for five years. No miraculous change in a broken relationship. But the door that opened within me that night gave me entrance into a deeper level of life. Into a deeper experience of God's impulse for healing. Into the hard work to heal what the damaged relationship with my father had wounded within me.

       I suppose you could say, in biblical language, that demons were cast out of me that night. Or that light was shined on demons I was only dimly aware existed, and seeing them in the light I was able to work with them and, with God's help, to transform them into angels. That night was the beginning of a long, and often-interrupted journey into a ministry of healing. Contrary to the impression I formed as a child, I came to see that healing was central to Jesus' ministry, and to the ministry of those who chose to follow Jesus. And I have come to believe that God calls each of us, and each community of faith, to this ministry, both for our own healing and to become channels of God's healing love flowing through us to others.

       A pivotal point in my healing process came about a year after the healing service when I experienced a healing of memories with my spiritual director. At his instruction, I settled into silence and bid a memory of my father to emerge so that I might seek healing. Almost immediately, I found myself in the midst of a childhood experience that made painfully, vividly immediate my father's distance, arrogance, and overbearing authoritarianism. I could hear myself, maybe ten-years-old, with tears in my eyes, saying, "I hate him." I could feel the hate as if I were again that ten-year-old boy. And more profoundly, deeper than what that boy felt as hate, I ached with the need both he and I felt, but found difficult to acknowledge, to be held by our father. To be accepted and not judged by our father. To be loved by our father.

I set my pride and judgmentalism aside and acknowledged to myself my deep yearning for God's help

       As I faced that yearning, the scene I had reentered transformed itself. I was not longer in my old back yard, but standing on a beach at sunset. As I looked down the beach, into the setting sun, I saw my father grow smaller and smaller as he walked away from me. I realized that there was nothing I could do to cause him to turn around and come back to me. A wave of profound desolation swept over me.

       Then I became aware that someone was standing at my side with his arm around me. It was Jesus, the healer. Jesus, the lover. As surely as I knew that my father had abandoned me, I knew that Jesus would never abandon me. I realized that healing would come, not from continuing to pursue the figure walking away from me into the sunset, but in learning from the person standing by my side. I wept for what I had lost; and for what I had found.

       When I left that place, and returned to my life in the present, I found myself, with the grace of the one who loved me and wished me whole flowing through me, forgiving and loving my father in ways I hadn't imagined possible. I found myself forgiving and loving myself in ways I hadn't even considered. In that love and forgiveness, a little child within me was freed to experience joy in a new way, freed to take risks, freed to grow, freed to receive gifts and to be a gift. I experienced a healing that day from Jesus' hands.

       That healing helped me see that Jesus' and the apostles' work as healers went beyond seemingly miraculous cures of physical and profound mental illness. Their healing helped loose the bonds that prevented seemingly healthy people from living full, joyful, God-centered lives. I came to understand healing as a process that enables us to experience eternal life, life grounded in loving God with all our being, loving ourselves, and loving our neighbors. The signs of this life are a deep and abiding sense of gratitude and joy, a sense of wonder, a commitment to live in a way that uses the gift we are and the gifts we possess to God's glory and the welfare of God's people.

       Somehow, my brother Eric knew that. Even though he went through life with a "mental age of four", he knew what so many people, including my father, never know -- that each of us is loved unreservedly by God and we need only be ourselves to be icons of God's healing love in this world. Eric wasn't perfect. But he was authentically himself, and he was completely open to others. By his witness, he healed many people of a debilitating prejudice against someone different. He helped soften hard hearts. He helped people love others and themselves a little more. He was an agent for healing. Did he get that from Oral Roberts? I don't know. But if we're ever reunited in some other life, I hope that I'll see my father, my brother, and Jesus waiting to greet me, their arms around each other, in love.

       All life is about healing, really -- healing ourselves, healing those we know, healing our world. We can receive a foretaste of that healing in an inspired moment, as I did at my first healing service. It can be a gift we receive with bread and wine at the eucharist. But healing is a process to be accomplished intentionally and over time. Each of us can experience healing each day. Each of us can be a channel for healing each day. We can struggle all we want to understand what it means that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, but Jesus, himself, made it clear that the power of God working through him could work through his followers as well. If we are his followers, we need to accept the challenge of his call that we be healers, and begin to explore what that might mean specifically for us as individuals and for our community of faith. From my experience, if we answer the call -- whether it is to a ministry of laying on of hands, or a ministry of reconciliation in our own relationships, in our work lives, in our world -- we will both experience healing ourselves, and discover that God can and does work through us for healing of others.

       It's important not to decide ahead of time what healing will look like in a particular case. Eric clearly experienced healing even though the external conditions of his mental retardation didn't change. I experienced healing even though my father never chose to reenter my life and the only time I saw him after the healing of memories experience was when he lay dead in a casket in a funeral home in Caracas, Venezuela. People with a terminal illness can experience healing, even though the course of the illness is not reversed. And people with a terminal illness can experience a spontaneous healing of the illness. It is a mystery why some people experience physical healing and others don't. It is important not to limit God, or to blame a sick person for their illness. It is important to be an open channel for God to use as God wills. For that to happen, it's important to set aside ego investment in results, or in what we're accomplishing.

       Which brings me back to Oral Roberts. I recently returned to Oklahoma to visit my mother and found myself watching a rerun in black and white of an Oral Roberts revival in Billings, Montana in 1955. I watched it with eyes very different from when I was a child. Oral and his show still seemed excessively theatrical and at least a little fake, like professional wrestling. But in the same way I don't doubt that there is great power at work when professional wrestlers are putting on their show, I don't doubt that, even though Oral's ego is formidable, there is a great power that wants to work through him. It is God's power to bring wholeness of life, to bring healing, even to bring a cure to the illnesses that threaten to deprive us of life.

       We are called to be channels of that power. If we give ourselves to that calling, we can discover the healing love of God filling our beings with light and joy, and flowing through us to others in need. The ministry of healing is a mystery that we are called to live in. I invite you to open to the possibility that an essential dimension of being one of God's friends is opening to God working in and through you for your own healing, and for the healing of our world and all that is in it.

Charles Gibbs is rector of the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco and vice president of the United Religions Initiative. He lives in San Francisco with his wife Debbie, son Ben, daughter Naomi and their dog, Mr. Joe Easy. He believes healing is one of the forces most needed in our world today.



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