Caution: Slippery

“Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well.” – James 5:14-15

Rob kept a very small vial of oil in his car in case of emergencies. He worked with the poor in the inner city of LA. He was often asked to pray for those who were at a dead end. While I watched him anoint and pray over many people, I never once saw someone leap up with instantaneous wellness. I also never saw anything that led me to doubt Rob’s faith.

What do we do with verses like this one in James chapter 5? Do we chain it to its context in the first century Middle East claiming that this instruction was only meant for the original audience? Do we take it verbatim and thereby judge a person’s faith by their ability to heal others with prayer? Do we ignore it altogether?

Every time I try to get a handle on this verse it pops out of my hands like a wet bar of soap. My experience will not allow me to transform this verse into an equation I can master. In other words, I can’t make this verse about me and my abilities. So what do I, what do we, do with it? We listen for the truths it speaks.

James connects healing to community. Rather than licking our wounds in isolation we’re encouraged to share about the hurt we carry. A common conundrum shared by contemporary ministers is the expectation to visit the sick coupled with the fact that people often do not share that they are sick. I understand that there is a time and a place for discretion yet I sometimes wonder if we are keeping ourselves from a form of healing because of the cultural value of privacy.

James connects healing to touch. The practice of anointing involved human contact. While not everyone enjoys physical contact, numerous studies point to what many of us have experienced; that a caring touch can reduce anxiety, reassure the faint of heart, and foster healing. Is it any wonder that touch is a common element in the stories of Jesus’ healing? For me, this is part of why the “Passing of the Peace” or the “Sharing of Aloha” is such an important part of Sunday worship. It’s a moment of touch, and a moment of healing.

While I still struggle to fully understand James 5, I do keep a small vial of oil in my car, just for emergencies.

Anointing God, today, may I listen with grace; may I speak with kindness; may I extend a hand of care. May I be an instrument of your healing today. Amen.