Presbyterian churches are organized in geographic areas called presbyteries. When these ecclesiastical bodies gather in their periodic fashion the meetings are referred to as boring, mind-numbing, or colossal waste of time. Unless you are speaking with a hopelessly addicted presbytery junky, you will only rarely hear the words “presbytery”, “Holy Spirit”, and “powerful” in the same sentence, much less the word “miracle”.
But the miracles of our just concluded two day meeting of presbytery began on Friday morning at our brief opening worship service. The preacher was an older gentleman recently brought out of retirement to spend a year or two helping one of our churches to heal. I think he amazed everyone there by stating that he not only believed in, but also practiced, the ministry of healing.
I know. A Presbyterian pastor – a retired Presbyterian pastor – with decades of faithful service to Jesus within the denomination, who has the gift of healing (he also admitted to the gift of tongues, of all things). As he told us the story of how this had come about, and how the Spirit had used this gift, it became obvious we were witnessing a miracle.
As you may know, there is nothing medically, nothing at all, that can be done for ALS. While there are rumors about drugs beginning to be tested, those of us with the disease now will never benefit. Quite literally the only shred of hope is a Divine miracle – which I have been open to! Many of my more Charismatic friends (you know, the people with experience in this stuff) have prayed for me on numerous occasions. But here was a pastor from my own faith family who had the Spirit’s gift of healing. What was the Spirit preparing to do here? Was this the time for me to be healed?
At the end of the service the pastor sat down right in front of me. I took the opportunity to write and hand him a note that said, “I am dying from ALS. Would you be willing to pray for me and anoint me for healing here at Presbytery?”. He took my note, read it, looked back and gave me a little nod. He folded up my note, put it in a pocket and I sat back wondering what would happen.
Nothing happened the rest of the day regarding my request. I had no idea when or how Pastor George would handle this, but it was in the Spirit’s hands so I went about the day focused on what was at hand. The next morning’s worship service held the next miracle.
Methodist districts have superintendents, Catholic diocese have bishops, and Presbyterian presbyteries have, well, presbyters; for some reason they come as either executives or generals. Whether an executive or a general, presbyters tend to be rather vanilla in the their theology, being consumed with the denomination’s unofficial motto “all things decently and in order” (which may account for the denomination’s discomfort with the Spirit Who has a reputation for challenging notions of order and decency). Executive presbyters or general presbyters, let alone a TGP (Transitional General Presbyter, I kid you not) are not expected to publicly associate themselves with something so theologically challenging to decent orderliness as a service of prayer and anointing for healing. The miracle that Saturday morning is that our TGP led our opening worship, a service of prayer and anointing for healing. That’s right, Presbyterians from around the state of Wyoming were laying on hands, anointing with oil, coming down front, openly asking for the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, led by someone whose official title is so technical it doesn’t seem leave room for spiritual risk taking. But it happened.
Joining TGP Steve up front were pastor George from the day before, as well as a second pastor. Looking back on it, having three people prepared to minister in that way represented faith on Steve’s part. I have witnessed Presbyterians responding very hesitantly to this kind of thing, so to imagine three ministers would be necessary was thinking big. Or perhaps it was simply obedience to the Spirit’s leading, because the response was instant. With little hesitation people came forward to ask for healing, as others came and went to join in praying for others. It all ebbed and flowed, accented with tears, hugs, and tremulous smiles.
I went down front to wait my turn with pastor George. I didn’t feel excited, nervous, or uncertain; just quietly confident that God’s will would be done. When my turn came I knelt in front of pastor George. I began to sob. I’m not sure what I sensed I was surrendering to God; my health, my desire to be healed, or merely myself in general, I don’t really know. I was aware of pastor George praying, but I don’t remember what he prayed. I was aware there were people surrounding me, placing their hands on me; I remember the anointing oil being put on my forehead. And I remember that at that moment I felt …
Nothing. Not a twitch. No sudden restoration of bodily strength, no overwhelming peace or sense of well being, no inexplicable warmness. Not a thing. Oddly, I didn’t return to my seat with a sense of let down or disappointment. I just had a quiet confidence that God’s will was being done.
The next day though, I turned all of this over in my head as I a laid down to sleep off the effects of ALS induced exhaustion. I couldn’t believe that God had not met me there in some way. What had it been about? I began to recall the warm greetings and conversations I had experienced the rest of that day. It was like following the concentric ripples on a lake back to the the center of the ring. They led me back to my knees in front of Pastor George to what he said right after he finished anointing me, “You are so loved. Stand up and look at all these people.”. I remembered doing that and finding the people who had been right next to me, joining in prayer. As I drifted off, I realized the Spirit had spoken with crystal clarity in that moment, “God loves you so much.” Since then, I have learned that Pastor George’s words to me were, “Not many men are this well loved. Turn around and look.” I was not aware at the time there were folks all down the aisle, along with those right around me, linked hand to shoulder with me. Not only does God love me, but now I understand that I am loved by God’s people as well.
It is one thing to believe in the theology of God’s love, and the corresponding love of believers for one another. It’s overwhelming to be immersed in the midst of that love not as an abstract truth, but as a concrete affirmation. I don’t want this affirmation to roll off my back, but to pierce me to the heart, becoming my reality, and the reality of us Presbyterians in our state, a blazing warmth that the breath of the Spirit will blow into a conflagration that envelopes our families, neighbors, churches, and communities. Lord, start with me.