One of the attractions of the Christian faith, at least for me, is the tall tales in the bible. You know what I mean: floating axe heads, parted waters, men unsinged in a fire pit, lightning from a cloudless sky that obliterates not only the sacrificial offering but the very stones on which it was laid. The stories are frankly unbelievable, and yet countless people down through the ages have nevertheless believed them. In fact, such stories exist in every culture, not just in the bible. Humans have always told tales that can’t be true and still insisted that they are.
As a child, I wanted desperately to witness a genuine miracle, something that could not be explained as unaccountably improbable but only as really impossible and yet there it was right in front of me.
I want to see miracles, to see the world change,“Twenty Four”, Switchfoot.
I wrestled the angel for more than a name,
For more than a feeling, for more than a cause.
I’m singing ‘Spirit, take me up in arms with You’
And you’re raising the dead in me.
What I wanted was power. I wanted the universe to submit to me.
To that end, I made extravagant promises to God. I prayed for faith. I prayed to be filled with God’s Spirit. I sought out ways to compel God to do my bidding. I tried to cajole him, tried to manipulate him, tried to get him on my side. It was only later that I realized that what I was looking for, hoping for, longing for was magic.
Magic confers effortless power through properly applied rituals. The underlying premise of magic is that the forces that move the world are subject to esoteric rules that can be used to manipulate them. Just say the right words in the right order with the right inflection, and you can heal the sick, raise the dead, take up deadly serpents, and drink poison without being harmed. Some more advanced forms might require physical acts such as sprinkling specially prepared water or wine, consuming certain foods, or imbibing certain drinks. Did not even Jesus make an eye salve from dust and saliva to heal a blind man? If I could have learned exactly what to say and how to say it, the power of God would be at my disposal to do my will.
Imagine the audacity of thinking you could use God’s power for any purpose except God’s will. I had that audacity.
Nevertheless, the world still reverberates with stories of miracles. Humans still believe in impossible things, and it is one of our great strengths. Faith drives us to try things that have never been tried, to challenge accepted wisdom and even undisputed facts. That drive and those challenges continue to yield extraordinary benefits for all mankind, but they do not come by magic. They come through perseverance, hard work, paradigm shifts in our understanding, and repeated failures from which we learn what doesn’t work. Only one new idea in a million may succeed, but thanks to our amazing capacity to disseminate knowledge, one idea can make the world better for everyone.
One such idea is the good news at the heart of Christianity, that despite the horrors and terrors present in the world, despite the suffering and loss we all endure in life, God loves us all as a good father loves his children with an unshakable love. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at your elbow.” All you have to do to enter it is turn toward it; it’s right there.