“Philip went down to the city of Samaria
and proclaimed the Christ to them.
With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip
when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing.
For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice,
came out of many possessed people,
and many paralyzed or crippled people were cured.
There was great joy in that city.
Now when the apostles in Jerusalem
heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God,
they sent them Peter and John,
who went down and prayed for them,
that they might receive the Holy Spirit,
for it had not yet fallen upon any of them;
they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Then they laid hands on them
and they received the Holy Spirit.” –Acts, Chapter 8
I was 23, a newly “born-again” charismatic Christian, and the church I attended “worked in signs and wonders,” as they boldly proclaimed. The “laying on of hands” was a custom of nearly every three hour or longer service I went to. They boasted of miracles, but they were always the kind that you really couldn’t verify unless you knew the person outside of church. I heard wondrous stories of headaches vanquished, back pains healed, and depressions cured.
I never did see a crippled person begin to use their limbs again. I never saw a paralyzed man get up and start running around the sanctuary, praising God. I was saddened to only hear of minor maladies that could just as easily be handled by drinking a beer and taking two Motrin. Old military medicine.
There was great joy in our midst, however. Or at least it appeared that way. There were hugs a-plenty and so many “Praise Gods!” I was told what a great work Christ had done in my life. That I was delivered! That I was free! After all, hands were laid on me and demons had left me by the legions. All I had to do was believe it.
The more that hands were laid on me, and prophetic words spoken over me, the more depressed I became. I felt like I had this monumental void to fill with my works. It was prophesied that I would take the Gospel to the nations. It was spoken over me that I would impact thousands and thousands of children. (I think this was their clever way to keep me motivated as their children’s pastor and outreach evangelist, believing I was doing an incredible amount of good, and that I better not let God down by slacking off. I mean, thousands of children were depending on me.) I was filled with pseudo-power; while I thought I was going about doing good, I was really becoming something mighty in my own eyes. Not a humble servant, but a so-called “mighty man of God!” A Holy Multi-Level-Marketing Diamond Club Soul-Winner!
I don’t think the laying on of hands was supposed to be a magical, manipulative skill. Interestingly enough, this Sunday’s gospel reading omits the passages about Simon the Sorcerer. I don’t know if Simon had the power of God or not, but he was amazing people with his words and his laying on of hands. People loved him. Many times in our church, the laying on of hands was tied in with monetary offerings, like it was possible to gain favor with God and receive this great power by giving financially. I assume it’s easier to take from people when they are either at their spiritually lowest, most desperate state, or just intoxicated with the laying on of hands. I never felt good about this.
I left years, years later, with a gaping wound in my soul. I’ve not found solace anywhere. I’m a wanderer, a true Sick Pilgrim. I am now a non-Mass attending Catholic. One of the last things my sponsor said to me when I stopped going to Mass was, “If you don’t partake of the Eucharist, you will have no life in you.” Like a reverse laying on of hands, he told me the power of the Holy Spirit would leave my life.
I’d love to be able to write you stories of a changed life, that all was made better that moment I “accepted the Lord as my Savior,” or when the hands were laid on me and I was filled with the Holy Spirit, or even that moment when I was anointed with oil and become a Catholic. I’d be lying.
Friends, I don’t have this figured out. I barely know who I am anymore. Even less than that, I hardly know what I believe. Pray for me, and I’ll breathe a prayer for you.
Just don’t ask if you can lay hands on me when you do.
John Robinson is the administrator, with Matt Lafleur, of the Sick Pilgrim online community. He’s also a teacher, a Boston sports fan, a heavy metal enthusiast, and tattoo aficionado.