Editor's note:

In this cel­e­bra­tion of the life of Bill Vaswig, Ren­o­varé Min­istry Team and Board mem­ber James Cat­ford shares a sto­ry both per­son­al and uni­ver­sal. Bill, who in the words of Richard J. Fos­ter grad­u­at­ed this life sum­ma cum laude just two days before his 80th birth­day in 2011, lived an over­flow­ing life as a hus­band, father, Luther­an pas­tor, and friend of the Ren­o­varé com­mu­ni­ty. He also was known for his life of preach­ing and prayer. In fact, he was the founder and first pres­i­dent of Preach­ing and Prayer Min­istries, Inc., which he found­ed in 1978. We invite you to pull up a chair and learn a lit­tle bit more about the min­istry of heal­ing prayer and Bill Vaswig in this first of a two-part trib­ute and exploration.

James chat­ted with Nathan Fos­ter this week on the Ren­o­varé pod­cast about Bill Vaswig. Also, be sure to check out the con­ver­sa­tions between James and Bill about Heal­ing Prayer on our Audio and Video Resources page.

(Orig­i­nal British spellings and punc­tu­a­tion retained.)

—Renovaré Team

At the ten­der age of twen­ty-three I was assigned to lead a stu­dent out­reach pro­gram with a local church in the East End of Lon­don. The British equiv­a­lent of Inter­Var­si­ty thought I was qual­i­fied to super­vise a size­able group of young peo­ple min­is­ter­ing in one of the most deprived com­mu­ni­ties in West­ern Europe. 

On the team were under­grad­u­ates with a vari­ety of views about heal­ing. It fell to me to help them process what they were hear­ing and see­ing in a church that believed strong­ly that God heals today. I’m not at all sure that the con­fi­dence placed in me was jus­ti­fied, but I sure learnt an ear­ly les­son about God. 

I was fas­ci­nat­ed to see how the­ol­o­gy and belief played out in the way the team respond­ed to the work of the Spir­it in this front­line con­text. When heal­ing meet­ings were held, sev­er­al stu­dents sought me out to share their expe­ri­ences and seek coun­sel. Some had them­selves come from church­es that empha­sised that the gifts of the Ear­ly Church are avail­able today; yet when they saw what appeared to be a dra­mat­ic heal­ing tak­ing place they lit­er­al­ly couldn’t believe their eyes’. One young man remarked to me: I know I ought to believe what is hap­pen­ing, but some­how I can’t’.

Oth­er team mem­bers had been taught that the spir­i­tu­al gifts’ had died out with the com­ple­tion of the New Tes­ta­ment, yet they too had an unex­pect­ed reac­tion. As one put it, I realise I’m not sup­posed to believe in this stuff, but I also know that God is big enough to do this kind of thing’. 

Reflect­ing on these respons­es, it became clear that the key fac­tor here was not the­ol­o­gy but matu­ri­ty. The stu­dents who could not take it in, even though their the­ol­o­gy said they should, were less devel­oped in their knowl­edge of God than the ones that had been taught that the gifts had ceased long ago. This sug­gests a nec­es­sary cau­tion when it comes to giv­ing a com­men­tary on the high­ly-charged sub­ject of heal­ing. It is per­fect­ly pos­si­ble for peo­ple to pro­fess belief in some­thing (and even think that they believe it) but, in real­i­ty, they don’t actu­al­ly know what they are talk­ing about. In some Chris­t­ian cir­cles the know­ing’ bit of faith has become detached from the talk­ing’ bit. 

For ten years until his death in 2011, I had the joy of walk­ing along­side some­one who real­ly did know a con­sid­er­able amount about heal­ing. Pas­tor Bill Vaswig was the found­ing leader of Preach­ing and Prayer Min­istries and taught me that prayer is not just about head-knowl­edge but about the heart. It is as much about pos­ture as it is about process and that’s why books and arti­cles on heal­ing have their limits. 

Heal­ing presence

The great­est gift of heal­ing that we can give to any­one is the gift of our pres­ence. Few will argue with this. What­ev­er else is said about the work of the Holy Spir­it and the valid­i­ty or oth­er­wise of the gift of heal­ing, noth­ing can be sub­sti­tut­ed for our pres­ence with a per­son who is unwell, hurt­ing or broken. 

Bill showed me that for peo­ple seek­ing the King­dom, pres­ence is first and above any oth­er inter­ven­tion that might be appro­pri­ate. In heal­ing ser­vices where the meet­ing is full of excite­ment and emo­tions are run­ning high, the per­son­al and pas­toral needs of the indi­vid­ual can eas­i­ly be over­looked. This is espe­cial­ly true if the inten­tion of the expe­ri­ence is get­ting healed’ rather than enter­ing fur­ther into the King­dom and becom­ing more like Jesus. 

Much dam­age can be done by trun­cat­ing the good news of Jesus Christ to a set of results that approx­i­mate to what, on the sur­face, looks like a healthy per­son. While Jesus healed many who came to him, his teach­ing was that the pri­or­i­ty is what is hap­pen­ing on the inside. This is the secret work of the Spir­it where the seed is put into the ground and, by def­i­n­i­tion, dies; but then it mirac­u­lous­ly starts to ger­mi­nate and grow (Mk 4:31).

Occa­sion­al­ly sto­ries emerge of peo­ple who have been harmed by those who reduce the Gospel to a nar­row under­stand­ing of just get­ting saved’ or just get­ting healed’. But we know that God’s real agen­da is for us to become more like Jesus and to enter a deep, per­son­al and abid­ing rela­tion­ship with him. When this is under­stood as the goal then it is pos­si­ble to look at the heal­ing of the body or the mind in a much broad­er con­text. The pres­ence of a com­mit­ted, car­ing and kind per­son along­side the one who is sick can in itself bring a degree of inner heal­ing. Espe­cial­ly when that per­son is feel­ing iso­lat­ed, aban­doned or reject­ed by fam­i­ly, friends or work col­leagues. Moth­er Tere­sa famous­ly said that the great­est dis­ease in the West today is not TB or lep­rosy; it is being unwant­ed, unloved, and uncar­ed for. We can cure phys­i­cal dis­eases with med­i­cine, but the only cure for lone­li­ness, despair and hope­less­ness is love.’ In this way heal­ing is a gift that every­one can have. 

The gift nobody wants 

Over the first three hun­dred years of the Church there are reports of heal­ing being rel­a­tive­ly com­mon in the com­mu­ni­ties where Christ was hon­oured and fol­lowed. Cer­tain­ly the mis­ery of sick­ness and death was at least as com­mon dur­ing these times as dur­ing Christ’s vis­i­ble min­istry on earth, and the need for heal­ing and whole­ness was con­sid­er­able in a world that was large­ly illit­er­ate and unable to read or access the Scriptures. 

Grad­u­al­ly, the min­istry of heal­ing became restrict­ed to the cler­gy and one of the most vis­i­ble ways God shared his love with his peo­ple was with­drawn from use. In the ensu­ing cen­turies the gift fell into greater and greater neglect and in both Eng­land and France only the king was allowed to hold heal­ing ser­vices. One exam­ple is the report in Shakespeare’s play Mac­beth where, 

All swoll’n and ulcer­ous, piti­ful to the eye, The mere despair of surgery, he cures, Hang­ing a gold­en stamp about their necks, Put on with holy prayers, and tis spo­ken, To the suc­ceed­ing roy­al­ty he leaves The heal­ing benediction. 
(Act 4, scene 3

Suc­ces­sive mon­archs had the roy­al touch’ and con­duct­ed pub­lic ser­vices attend­ed by hun­dreds and thou­sands of peo­ple. King Charles X of France presided over the last of these in 1825. When we con­sid­er’, com­ments Fran­cis Mac­Nutt, that scro­fu­la was a foul-smelling dis­ease fea­tur­ing ooz­ing pus­tules, as well as real­is­ing how tir­ing and dif­fi­cult these heal­ing cer­e­monies must have been, we can see how impor­tant heal­ing ser­vices were to kings and peo­ple alike’. (The Near Per­fect Crime: how the church near­ly killed the min­istry of heal­ing. Cho­sen Books 2005, p135). 

Else­where there were small signs that belief and prac­tice had not total­ly died out. Then on 9 April 1906, at a meet­ing arranged in Los Ange­les by William J. Sey­mour, a poor­ly-edu­cat­ed African-Amer­i­can who was blind in one eye, the pow­er fell’, mean­ing a dra­mat­ic out­pour­ing of the Holy Spir­it took place. With­in a few days a move­ment, with a strong empha­sis on the gifts of the Spir­it, includ­ing heal­ing, was start­ed. From hum­ble begin­nings in Azusa Street it rapid­ly swept the world. Now the high­ly-restrict­ed roy­al touch’ was being exer­cised freely by the roy­al priest­hood’ (1 Pet 2:9) of ordi­nary peo­ple seek­ing the King­dom of God. 

On Fri­day, we will fin­ish this reflec­tion on Heal­ing Prayer with The Roy­al Touch, Part Two”. 

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