Miracles?

This past Sunday at Bloom, working as we are through the book of Matthew, we ran into this text:

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. 25Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. – Matt 4:23-35

… which brought up the interesting subject of miracles.  In all honesty I must confess that as a born and raised Pentecostal/Charismatic, I have had a somewhat up and down relationship with the miraculous.  I have seen and heard and been part of enough stories of miraculous healings and the like to know that they can and do happen; I have also seen enough goofiness and manipulation and truth-twisting to have what I consider to be a rather justified sense of skepticism.

In fact, at one point I nearly left “the whole charismatic” thing behind.  After having spent four years in the Bible belt going to a pentecostal/charismatic college, and another four years before that in a high school where the headmaster mercilessly, daily, beat the signs-and-wonders-horse with a stick, I was sick and tired.  Sick of all the distraction that it seemed the pursuit of the miraculous caused, tired of the ways in which it seemed the promulgators of the miraculous twisted and abused it.  My decision to go to seminary back in 2003 was in part motivated by a desire to extract myself from the charismatic milieu in order to try and think clearly about whether or not “that whole thing” was biblically defensible.  If an honest study of the text of Scripture demanded it, I was willing to walk away from it all.

What I discovered rather astounded me.  Not only was the miraculous “given room” in Scripture; it was positively commended.  In fact, I soon realized that “cessationist” exegesis (Cessasionism is the doctrine that the signs and wonders ceased with the closing of the canon of Scripture) was probably the worst exegesis I had ever seen.  Quite simply, it was impossible to ignore that insofar as the long-awaited prophetic “age to come” had dawned in Christ, an age which would be marked by the dramatic incursion of God to renovate his creation with his powerful transformative presence (see Isaiah 35 for example), signs and wonders should be expected.  A new chapter had turned on cosmic history, and the renewing, liberating presence of God was now loose in the world.  Should we expect any less?  I was jubilant.  I could throw away the ca-ca of modern charismatic culture but retain the basic intuition that God was ALWAYS-ALREADY NOW IN CHRIST, ready to save and deliver and redeem and heal and transform by his powerful presence.

Sadly, I also discovered that most of the people I knew in seminary had a hard time with the miraculous.  I shall never forget the day in class when one fellow student asked the class to pray for a friend of his whose brother had a brain tumor and was nearing death.  One student volunteered to field the request, and his prayer went something like this:

God, thank you that you are with us in suffering.  Help this man and his family know that you are near them as they walk through this.  Give them a sense of peace and calm and security, and teach them to persevere in this trial, so that you may be glorified.  Amen.

At that, my charismatic soul got a little annoyed.  Okay, a lot annoyed.  I remember thinking, “BUT YOU DIDN’T PRAY FOR THE TUMOR!  The tumor was the request!  That God would heal the man of the tumor!  I mean sure, comfort and peace and learning to persevere are great and all, but that’s not what was asked for.  HEALING WAS WHAT WAS ASKED FOR!  WHY CAN’T YOU PRAY FOR HEALING?!”

And then it dawned on me that that prayer was one of the boldest acts of theological hypocrisy I had ever witnessed.  I mean, if we can ask God for COMFORT and a SENSE OF HIS PRESENCE, which presumably involves an intervention of God on the level of this man and his family’s cerebral cortexes, why in the world would it be too much ALSO to ask for healing?  IN PRINCIPLE, THEY ARE THE SAME THING – interventions of God for the good of these people on the level of their physical selves.  If you have the shnuts to ask for comfort, go ahead and throw healing in there too.  You have no reason not to.  Unless of course your theological prejudice has gotten in the way.

I hope this story underscores why I think it’s a tragedy that more people don’t pray for things like physical healing.  It’s a tragedy because BOTH because it’s theologically unnecessary AND because it diminishes God.  I fully understand where it comes from though.  It comes from a desire to maintain the intuition that God can form us in positive ways through suffering.  Even more, it comes from a sense of respect – that God is not our cosmic genie-in-a-bottle; that we have to submit to him.

Still, I think it’s sad because I think it’s false.  The truth is that God aches to intervene in the human experience for our good, to meet us with his transforming mercy at every turn.  And in reality, in the Scriptural “rendering” of the character of God, we meet a deity who not only SPORADICALLY interjects himself into the cosmic drama for our good, but actually is ALWAYS AT ALL TIMES INTERJECTING HIMSELF FOR OUR GOOD.  Read, for instance, Psalm 104.  The Psalmist seems to think that all the “normal” stuff of life is in fact a gracious gift of the Creator.  It is available because AT EVERY WAKING MOMENT GOD MAKES IT SO.  And not in some deterministic sense either.  But in a dynamically-involved sense.  Which makes it, techincally, “miracle”.  G. K. Chesterton put it like this:

“A child kicks its legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough… It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again,” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again,” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike: it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Or as Wendell Berry put it:

The miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of our existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.” – Wendell Berry

The fact is that OUR LIVES ARE SUSTAINED BY THE NEVER-ENDING MIRACLE OF GOD’S GRACIOUS INVOLVEMENT.  A friend told me recently that physicists are now discovering that at the most minute level of the cosmos, sub-atomic matter demonstrates something like personality or will.  That it’s difficult to predict what subatomic matter will do, for the very simple reason that even observing the subatomic matter seems to influence what it will do.  And yet, the cosmos is orderly.  It is orderly because there is a Love that ever moves the sun and stars and makes them sing together in perfect harmony.  As the writer of Hebrews says, that Love, the Christ, “sustains all things by the word of his might.”  It’s all being held together by him.  That is miracle.

Matthew tells us that Jesus healed … “every disease and sickness among the people.”  That shouldn’t at all surprise us.  It is simply consistent with the kind of world we live in, a world that is shot through with a Love that will not let us go.

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