Life as a Holy Roller
Young and old, they lined up to get healed. Old farmer's wives with calloused, misshapen hands. A pot-bellied guy and his bum knee, souvenir of an athletic youth. Willowy teenage girls with their eyes closed, arms raised, illness unspecified.
On some faces you saw quiet expectation. Others seemed so weary and careworn that their only act of faith was to shuffle into the prayer line.
I found myself at the tail end of it, so I had a long time to watch and listen. Because of my own stupidity -- exercising in bad shoes or no shoes, then ignoring the pain -- I'd developed chronic Achilles tendinitis. I'd had it for three years, and nothing seemed to help much. My balance was shot; try doing anything but walking gingerly in a straight line when you have two bad ankles.
Compared to some of these other folks, my problem seemed trivial. Other than the annoyance of hobbling around at times like someone 30 years older, I had no major complaints about life. It wasn't like I was gonna die.
Now the evangelist of the evening was an odd dude, a retired Army officer with a high-pitched laugh that put me on edge. He walked slowly among the crowd of 50 or so people; occasionally he'd stop, cock his head and smile broadly at nothing in particular. I wouldn't say he was a dazzling preacher. Solid and biblical, but no T.D. Jakes.
But that sense of expectation was there, something you only find in Pentecostal or charismatic churches, like this one on the outskirts of a small town in Wisconsin, my home state. A collective belief simmering among us that God could step outside the bounds of natural law at any time and touch us in our earthbound state.
I kind of cringed when the evangelist walked up to one lady and prayed fervently for her leg to be lengthened. "Line up with God's Word!" he barked. "Line up!" Memories of W.V. Grant, the disgraced Dallas faith healer, flashed before me. He'd supposedly been busted on camera for faking healings just like this.
I suppressed the urge to judge. Instead I reasoned inside. Surely God can do it, I said. But will he? And why is it so hard to believe? I found myself repeating the conflicted words of a man from Jesus' days: "I do believe. Help my unbelief."
When the evangelist came to me, I mentioned my sore ankles, maybe a little bit sheepishly. He crouched down, touched them and briefly prayed.
"Line up! Line up!"
Immediately afterward he looked up at me. "How does it feel?"
Actually, I hadn't felt anything. I told him I could only figure out whether something had happened by walking down some stairs. For whatever reason, my ankles were always at their gimpiest going down stairs.
I stepped onto the carpeted stage and descended a few stairs.
"They're still sore," I said. "But they feel better than they were."
The evangelist wasn't satisfied. He prayed again. Then again. I walked up and down the stairs. Each time, I felt less pain than before.
Finally, I confess, I just decided not to monopolize the man's time anymore.
My ankles do seem better, I thought on the way home that night. But when I climbed a flight of stairs to my bedroom, I could feel some pain again.
A weird thing happened as I lay on my back in bed. I felt a sensation of heat in my ankles. Nothing extreme, but certainly noticeable. I kind of figured it was the Holy Spirit; I'd heard of things like this. My faith level blipped ever so slightly.
Why is my faith so pathetic? I asked inside. It probably had something to do with growing up in a doctor's house. I was always immersed in talk of the natural causes and consequences of illness; my dad would calmly and dispassionately correct the mistaken notions and imagined correlations that so many patients offered up: "I ate a Zagnut bar -- then I got this pustulating wart!"
The acid test came in the morning. I knew what to do, but I was a little reluctant; didn't want to be disappointed. Finally, I pressed my index finger against my right Achilles tendon, the really bad one. This would usually cause sharp pain.
I felt nothing. I fingered a tendon as supple as a thick rubber band.
I got up, walked down that flight of stairs at my father's house. My right ankle was weak and a bit wobbly—I'd been favoring it for three years -- but there was only the slightest twinge of pain. My left ankle felt good as new.
On June 28, 2006, I was supernaturally healed of chronic Achilles tendinitis. I told my husband. I told my dad. I e-mailed my fellow Bible Girl, Stephanie Morris. No, I never saw a doctor. Didn't need to.
Three years of pain: gone in the morning. Case closed.
So praise Jesus, right? Uh...no? Whoa! Whoa! Why is it that some people have an almost obsessive need to invalidate the supernatural?
Oh, I see. You're so much more sophisticated than me, a silly Pentecostal.
You know, I really wrote this column backward. I read something in the latest issue of Christianity Today that ticked me off. Ted Olsen wrote an opinion piece titled "What Really Unites Pentecostals?" In it, he argues that Pentecostals are no longer defined by their belief in speaking in tongues and other "charisms," or supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit. Instead, what binds Pentecostals today is their belief in the "prosperity gospel," which he doesn't define. (I've written about prosperity before, see here and here.) Olsen writes:
"As common as belief in miraculous gifts, however, is faith in the prosperity gospel. Renewalists overwhelmingly agree that "God will grant material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith." In Nigeria, 95 percent of Pentecostals agree with that statement, and 97 percent agree that "God will grant good health and relief from sickness to believers who have enough faith." In the Philippines, 99 percent of Pentecostals agreed with the latter statement."
I don't know how or if this poll accounted for cultural differences, but I have spent time in both Nigeria and the Philippines. Nigerians, according to one study, are the happiest people in the world, something that's mind-boggling when you consider the problems, including stifling poverty, that their country faces. If there exists a national disposition, it is a quietly optimistic one. What I can't fathom is why their affirmative answer to the question posed is tantamount to belief in a presumably false or doctrinally aberrant "prosperity gospel." Olsen continues:
"It is true, as this magazine has been saying since its inception, that Christians in the West need to listen to Christians in the majority world. Those Christians will mostly be Pentecostals. "I don't think it's too farfetched at this point to seriously consider whether Christianity is well on its way to being Pentecostalized," Pew Forum director Luis Lugo told reporters.
But for now, as the Pew Forum survey shows, Pentecostalized Christianity is nearly synonymous with the prosperity gospel."
Baloney. Make that the slimy, generic sliced variety.
"So while we listen to our brothers and sisters, we also need to proclaim biblical truths that counter the "health and wealth" message. The spiritual gift most needed in the 21st century is the gift of discernment..."
Hmm...yes. The arrogant, dismissive thinking of a white, middle-class evangelical tradition that valorizes the intellect above all else as a means of knowing God.
Do you want to know what binds Pentecostals together? Do you want to know which historic Christian concept they've reclaimed for the entire faith?
An expectation of the supernatural. Based on a simple faith that Jesus Christ is indeed "the same yesterday, and today, and forever."
You know, the Jesus who healed the sick, cast out devils and freed the captives from their prison of sin. That guy.
Now I sometimes feel slight soreness in my right ankle. Oddly enough, I experience it most often if I walk with a limp. I think I'd actually programmed myself to limp, and occasionally I forget that it's no longer necessary.
But I'm healed. I remind my husband from time to time, probably with just a bit of incredulousness: "By the way, I'm still healed."
I may be some doctrinally suspect, intellectually inferior holy roller, but I'll take my supernatural healing and run with it, thank you very much. —Julie Lyons
A Bible Girl postscript: Usually Bible Girl is posted on Thursday. Sometimes, like today and last week, it gets posted on Friday. A couple times it went up Wednesday. The best way to keep track is by signing up for the weekly Bible Girl alert here.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.