Archives For Miracles

Because I didn’t “write” it, I’m unabashed in calling this the best sermon I’ve ever preached.

For All Saints Sunday my text was John 2.1-11, Jesus turning water to wine at Cana of Galilee. If, as I believe, the whole point of All Saints is, as Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, sanctification is salvation then the witness of a saint’s life should be the text and proclamation on All Saints.

Shirley was the closest thing I’ll ever have to a Flannery O’Connor character in my congregation. She sent thousands of emails to me over the years. I miss her and have a little less fun in my ministry without her in it. I got the idea of this sermon from a recent podcast I recorded with Father James Martin.

July 5, 2005

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Communion Etc. 

Dear Jason,

Welcome to Aldersgate! We met on Sunday morning. I was the “good-looking lady” with the Arkansas accent who, leaving church, asked you: “You’re not a Republican are you?!” I whispered it pretty quietly so I don’t why you didn’t answer me.

You probably noticed I didn’t “take communion” Sunday. The reason I didn’t was because I nearly choked on the piece of bread  you gave me. It was large and had a lot of crust on it.  I should have gone ahead and dipped it in the wine and just kept it in my hand until I got to the pew, but then my hand would’ve been all sticky and who wants sticky hands? I might’ve had to shake a visitor’s hand after worship and then they would’ve thought I’m one of those terrible, disgusting people who have sweaty hands all the time. Gross.

I can’t helping wondering: do they not teach you in seminary how to break off smaller pieces for communion? Probably not, I guess. They obviously don’t teach you how to slow down and not talk so fast either. You’ll learn. Dennis is very good at breaking off just the right sized pieces of bread, and sometimes he talks so slow I’d swear he’s making up his sermon as he goes. Anyway, I’m sorry I didn’t take communion.

On another subject, I heard a minister yesterday on TV who I think was just great.  The reason I was so impressed with him was because his message was about Religiosity vs. Spirituality.  He quoted Joel 2:28 and emphasized the noun everyone and how God wants everyone to have an alive spirit. His name was Joel Ostein, I think. You should look him up. I haven’t heard you preach yet but I bet you preach just like him.

Your new friend,

Shirley Pitts

PS: Did your last church not have a problem with your earring?

October 13, 2005

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Coffee with the Pastor 

Jason,

To follow up from last night’s Meet the Pastors Coffee- I most certainly did not purposely spill coffee on your “crotch” just because you told everyone how John Wesley (supposedly) was a terrible husband. I told you. It was an accident but, I will say, if I had done it on purpose you would’ve deserved it.

You’re supposed to be proud to be a United Methodist and there you were last night bad-mouthing the founder of United Methodism. I couldn’t believe it. I got so angry I could’ve…well, never mind.

And another thing, I did not roll my eyes at that new member when he said he worked for the House Republicans. Maybe I was a little rude to him but not rude enough that anyone would notice. You’ve got a lot of nerve accusing me of such things! Keep it up and I’ll bet you don’t last at Aldersgate more than a couple years.

Shirley Pitts

Longtime Member

May 22, 2006

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Fall Commitment Campaign 

Jason,

I have decided to withdraw from the commitment campaign committee. I was so disappointed that the last meeting wasn’t more civil. It’s a shame that even in a church setting among Christians that people can’t value another’s opinions. I just hate how some Christians gripe and gossip about other Christians.

I could tell you a thing or two about some of those complainers at the meeting. They’re the reason we’re in the mess we’re in with our debt and I heard one of them hardly even speaks to his wife.

Don’t worry I’ll still be in charge of the Meet the Pastor Coffee. Lord knows if I’m not you’ll never tell our new members about John Wesley or what it means to be a Methodist and then where would we be.

Shirley

September 6, 2007

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Communion Bread

Dear Jason,

Like I told you Sunday, I heard a lot of comments about the bread we had on Sunday for communion.  It was sour dough and it just didn’t taste well with the wine. Think about it for gosh sakes: it’s called sour dough. Who wants to eat that?

I bet Jesus refuses to even make himself present in bread so disgusting. I hope you were joking when you said we could switch to wafers. Aldersgate will never go for wafers- we’re not Catholics! Next, you’ll be telling us to worship Mary and not read our bibles like Catholics.

Blessings,

Shirley

September 9, 2008

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Babies

Jason,

When I was a social worker for Child Welfare in Little Rock, one day I came into to the office to bring a baby for adoption.  My boss looked at the way I was holding the baby and “got all over me” because she said that I should “cradle” a new born baby in my arms. She said a young baby can not hold up their head when they are so young and they could hurt their hearing if it tumbles over.

I thought of what my boss said yesterday watching you juggle that poor baby all over the place during the baptism.

Maybe you should practice a little using a doll baby.

Maybe I could find one at the Goodwill for you to use for practice. Not that I shop at the Goodwill myself but I’d go there for you if you’d like me to look. Hope this is helpful.

In Service,

Shirley

November 11, 2009 

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Paul

Jason,

I wish you had known my husband Paul. I still have people coming up to me and saying how they miss him. He held about every position you could have in the church.  He was fun and caring and a wonderful husband and father. He was a commander in the navy and was on 3 submarines.

Mostly though, I wish you’d known him because he was such a good Christian man. He was a better man than I deserved. You would’ve enjoyed him, I think, and maybe you would think better of me if you could see how he thought I was better than I am.

Shirley

August 10, 2011 

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Muslims

Jason,

I told my niece this weekend how proud I was of our church for welcoming those Muslims from our neighborhood to worship in our fellowship hall. It’s a shame so many people left the church over the issue, and I’m sad that hardly any of them even bothered to talk with you or Dennis before they decided to leave.

Here’s something you didn’t know about me. A couple years ago, when we studied the Jesus Creed for the Church Wide Study, I started praying the Jesus Creed every morning and every night. Every day, twice a day, sometimes more, I prayed to love God with all my mind, heart, soul, and strength and to love my neighbor as much as I love God.

I don’t think I would’ve been open to hosting the Muslims here if I hadn’t been praying the Jesus Creed. I think before I’d always prayed mostly for myself and my family. I wish more people had tried praying the Jesus Creed. If they had, then maybe they’d be more hospitable and open-minded.

While we’re on the subject of broadmindedness, I am a Democrat. You’ve never told me what you are. I don’t know why but a lot of young people these days are Republicans.  If you are a Republican I will still write to you.  See, I told you the Jesus Creed had changed me!

Shirley

December 11, 2011 

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Directory 

Jason,

You probably know- I’m working with Amy on the Pictorial Directory for the church. How are you doing? Are you okay? The reason I ask is because I was looking at your picture in the old directory and your picture for the new directory and you look like you’ve gained a lot of weight. Especially in your face. Like a little baby angel. Ha!

You know who else looks different? Dennis. He looks tired in his new picture. No wonder he takes so many sabbaticals. I’m still mad at Dennis because of the time he told us in his sermon that Bill Perry was his father. I should’ve told him that Bill Perry looks younger than him!

There was a time when I probably would’ve told him that without even thinking about how mean it would sound. I like to think I’m different than I was.

Shirley

December 14, 2011

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Jews

Jason,

Where is it in Romans that Paul tells about how the Gentiles were “let in” to be loved by God even though they didn’t deserve it?  I have down here that you told me Romans 9-11 but that doesn’t jive. My daughter-in-law doesn’t think the Jews will be saved and I told her you said they were saved. Of course, the bigger point seems to be that we’re just grateful that God has adopted us Gentiles.

I don’t know why but lately, more and more, I think about how I don’t deserve God’s grace. I’ve not always been a good or kind person. I’ve often been mean. I guess that’s why they call it Amazing Grace huh?

By the way, I hate it when you all make us sing all the verses of hymns like that. Good Lord, who can stand up for that long or huff and puff through 7 verses!?

Love,

Shirley

January 14, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Christmas 

Jason,

I teared up when I read your Christmas sermon thinking about how unconditional God’s love is for us. My love for my boys has always been unconditional, for sure, but for other people? For other people I think my love has always been very much conditional.

I know my love for you certainly wasn’t unconditional. Remember that time years ago when I got furious with you because you wouldn’t teach the Meet the Pastor folks about John Wesley and I stormed out of your office and slammed the door so hard that picture of Karl Barth fell off your wall?

Of course, you have a picture of Karl Barth on your wall and not John Wesley but never mind that now.

See you Sunday,

Shirley

January 23, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: No Subject

Jason,

After church, I went out to eat at Ruby Tuesdays with a bunch of women that usually goes over there after church  They started talking about the election.  After a while, I told them that I was a Democrat. Marguerite Blackwelder said, “Are you a liberal?” I said I wasn’t but I think I am.

Then, someone- I won’t say who but she used to work at the church, I think you know who I mean- said, “All Democrats are liberals!”

I forgave her.

I really did forgive her too. It used to be that I wouldn’t have. You know what I thought about it afterwards? That life is too short to waste it on petty grudges. I don’t know if I thought that because I’m getting older or because I’m getting more Christian. What do you think, I wonder?

I just wish we had more Democrats in our church!  If you ask me, the Republicans need to be in the Baptist Church.

Shirley

February 6, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: New Members

Jason,

A couple named Kelly and Joe Garr put down that they would like to join the church.  I called her and come to find out she went to middle school, high school, and college with you! I asked her if you’re the same now as you were back then and she said no. She said you were nice back then but that you’re different too.

It got me thinking about what people who knew me way back when would say about me today? Would they say I’m no different than I was?

It makes me really sad to think that maybe they would.

I can’t think of anything worse than to have gone to church your whole life and not end up a different person, can you? If you liked John Wesley I’d ask you if that’s what Wesley meant by sanctification.

I hope my faith has changed me. I suppose I’m about the last person who could judge such a thing.

Shirley

April 6, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Jesus 

Jason,

I know you are busy with Easter things but this has been on my mind. When I’ve prayed before, I’ve always prayed to God not Jesus. I love Jesus and know he did so much for so many but I’ve always thought I needed to pray to God.

I’ve started to pray to Jesus lately like you do in church sometimes and you know what? Praying to Jesus, like I’m talking directly to him, makes me a lot more conscious about being more like him. Thought you’d be interested.

Shirley

August 13, 2012

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Naked

Jason,

About an hour ago as I was driving down Ft. Hunt Rd. I saw a man I thought was “naked” like that man in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus is arrested- what an odd detail.

Anyways, I thought this man was naked but when I got closer I saw he just had a shirt off and some terrifically short shorts. When I saw that it was you, I whistled out my window. Did you know it was me? You should be careful going around like that half-naked. There’s a lot of older women in our congregation who’ve been missing their men for a long time. Ha!

Lord, I hope you never mention that in a sermon!

My real point was to say that years ago seeing you like that, running around like a Chip n’ Dale would’ve irritated me something awful but instead I just laughed because I’ve grown to appreciate you. I guess that’s God’s grace.

Lovingly,

Shirley

March 15, 2013

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Collars

Jason,

I read your blog post about wearing your clergy collar out and about and how it helps you stay accountable to Jesus being a visible Christian.

It made me wonder what people see when they see me and how often, or how infrequently I should say, they’ve seen Jesus when they’ve seen me.

 

Shirley

April 3, 2013

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Wedding 

Jason,

About two weeks ago, Alan and Steve got a marriage license in D. C.  They have to wait until this coming weekend to have the ceremony.  They’ve lived together as a married couple for 10 years but they want to celebrate it publicly like any other couple gets to do, and they want to do it for legal protection.

I wish you were allowed to perform their wedding. If God’s love is unconditional for someone like me, then I believe it’s unconditional for a couple like them- they’re both better Christians than I’ve been in my life.

I’ve been a church person my whole life, but I feel like I’ve only been a Christian for the late part of my life.

I wish you were allowed to perform their wedding, but I also care about you too much to want you to get into trouble with the bishop. Lord knows you manage to do that plenty on your own. Maybe you can just come to the ceremony as a guest?

Shirley

April 7, 2013

From: shirleympitts@cox.net

Subject: Minister

Jason,

I was just thinking. I bet it’s good to be a minister because you get to see for yourself how God really does change people and work in their lives. You get a front row seat. It must give you a pretty strong argument for the existence of God.

Shirley

May 22, 2013

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Les’s Funeral 

Jason,

You did a wonderful job with Les Norton’s funeral yesterday. In fact, I left praying that you’ll be the one to do my service. Funerals should be honest about how every Christian is a mixture of sinner and saint. You know better than most my ratio of those two qualities.

I think funerals can afford to be honest too because of how you put the Gospel one time in your sermon on the prodigal son. You said God says to us: “Nothing you do can make me love you more, and nothing you do can make me love you less.” 

I’ve done plenty, I confess. Your precious boys make me regret every ignorant thing I ever said about Hispanics. I’ve never been racist, I don’t think, but ignorant? Probably. In ways you can’t even notice when you’ve grown when I did in a place like Arkansas. I wonder if that’s what is meant by original sin. You’re just born into sins like racism and you need God’s help to exorcise it from you.

Shirley

February 10, 2015

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Love You

Jason,

I don’t know if you’re checking your email or not. Dennis told me about your surgery and how it’s likely cancer.

I just left a message on your voicemail. I called the nurses station at the hospital too but they said they couldn’t connect me since I’m not family. I thought about telling them a thing or two about church family, the communion of saints, but I worried if I was too pushy they’d take it out on you. I’m sure you’re hard enough to handle as a patient as it is.

Anyways, I wanted you to know I love you. I prayed for you tonight, and for Ali, and your beautiful boys.

Love,

Shirley

February 5, 2016

From: shirleympitts@cox.net 

Subject: Cancer Buddies

Jason,

Who would’ve guessed that we’d end up getting cancer together at the same time? I’m down in Richmond now in a facility. It’s nice and near Alan and Steve, but I miss my church. I hope that before I die (and I know I’m dying) you can come visit me. In the past I would’ve been too vain to have anyone see me like this but I don’t care now. I guess that sounds like bragging doesn’t it? And that’s a sort of vanity too. Being Christian never really gets easier does it?

I’d like to see you one last time when you’re able. To see you, but also I’d like to confess my sins to you too before I go and even more I’d like to hear you tell me how God forgives me for all of them. Not because I don’t believe it but because believing it is what Christians share in common.

You think that’s why John Wesley said the “communion of saints” was his favorite part of the creed?

Have you seen those bumper stickers that say “God’s Not a Republican?”

Lord, I hope they’re not wrong.

In Christ,

Shirley

“Jesus did this in Cana of Galilee, the first of his signs, and revealed his glory.”

     We moderns- we find miracles like water into wine problematic. Superstitious even believers secretly say.

But-

Why is it that we find it difficult to believe that Jesus suddenly and immediately turned ordinary water into exceptional wine when Jesus works slow, lifetime-long miracles all around us?

Why is it hard for us to believe that back then Jesus transformed water into wine when, even now, Jesus transforms entire lives?

People like Shirley-

They’re the only proof we have for God. The argument is as simple as this:

There exists a sanctified person- a person changed by Christ, a saint.

Therefore, the Risen Christ exists.

Five Plus Two

Jason Micheli —  July 22, 2015 — 5 Comments

This weekend’s lectionary gospel text is John 6, the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. In light of the text, I thought I’d dust off this (very) old sermon:

At the beginning of the summer, I spent time in Cambodia with a friend, Mark Gunggoll, our mission chair, visiting our church’s mission projects and partners.

Our translator for the week was a young man named Puthi though, whether by mistake or by Freudian slip, Mark kept calling him ‘Booty’ instead.

Puthi translated for me; wherever we went: to churches and mission sites and meetings. He translated for me when I prayed, read scripture, celebrated communion or preached. He did a good job, and whenever I would introduce Mark to people as a professional clown or a pole dancer, Puthi would translate perfectly and with a straight face. As I said, he was a good translator.

Puthi’s a teacher at a Methodist-run mechanics school. He teaches the trade to boys who might otherwise never find work. Puthi’s only a recent graduate of the program and not much older than his students.

One afternoon towards the end of our time there, Puthi was driving Mark and me through the crowded streets of Phnom Penh. And his phone rang. He took the call and then spoke in hushed Khmer while he maneuvered around the thousands of pedestrians and motorcycles in the city streets. I couldn’t understand the language being spoken but I could tell all the same that it sounded urgent.

The call lasted a few minutes after which Puthi closed his phone and, without comment, focused on the road. Mark asked him: ‘Is everything okay?’

‘Yeah…’ he said and then crinkled his eyebrows. He was trying to find the right words, the proper translation. And when he found the right words he told us that his wife, who cooked rice and fish in the market, had called to tell him that she’d lost her job.

He didn’t need to tell us- we already knew- that they couldn’t make it on his pay alone.

Puthi didn’t say anything through three or four intersections.

‘What will you do now?’ I finally asked him.

‘I don’t know’ he said, and he looked up into the rearview mirror at me. And he smiled. It struck me that Puthi didn’t look worried or concerned at all, that ‘what am I going to do?’ hadn’t even occurred to him, that if anyone there in the car was afraid it was Mark and me.

To be honest, seeing his face there in the rearview mirror, I thought he looked naive.

‘He’s just a boy’ I thought.

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It’s the only miracle in all four Gospels- the feeding of the multitude. The numbers vary a bit: the feeding of the multitude, the feeding of the five thousand. Matthew and Mark include a second account of four thousand fed. Add in the women and children who would not have been counted according to first century prejudice and, well, it was a lot of people.

All four Gospels describe this scene up on the mountain with Jesus, the disciples and a crowd Jesus just can’t shake.

In all four Gospels the menu is the same: bread and fish. Five and two.

And they all have this action that sounds like communion: Jesus took the loaves, blessed them and gave it to them.

Each Gospel portrays the crowds as all full and satisfied and every gospel includes the leftovers: 12 baskets. 5 loaves + 2 fish + 5,000 plus hungry people. 12 baskets leftover.

But only John- tells of Jesus asking that leading question. “Where shall we ever buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus knew there was no where to run to the store. Jesus must have seen the boy clutching at his parents’ legs with his sack full of bread and fish.

Only John tells of that boy with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.

In a crowd of 5,000 plus, he’s easy to miss, the boy with the sack lunch. In fact, most scholars writing about John 6 don’t even mention him. And, trust me, scholars have something to say about every other detail in the story.

The five loaves? That’s shorthand for Israel because of the Pentateuch, the five books of the Law that begin the bible.

And the two fish- any guesses? The two fish- say scholars- stand for the two natures of Christ, the human and the divine.

How about the twelve baskets? That’s easy. They symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. So, in other words, this miracle is really a demonstration of how only Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully Man, embodies the scriptures and only he can satisfy Israel’s calling.

The scholarly attention to detail doesn’t stop at what the numbers mean.

For example, scholars can’t help but notice how the story begins with a reference to the sea and a mountaintop and Passover. This is John’s way of saying- they say- that Jesus is greater than Moses and all the prophets and just as Moses led his people to freedom through the sea so too will Jesus deliver his people.

Commentators even take note of the type of bread with which Jesus feeds the multitude: barley. Barley, according to commentators, ripened earlier than wheat, making it cheap and readily available. In other words, it was bread for the poor. It was bread of the poor. That this is the bread Jesus feeds the crowds says everything about what sort of Messiah he’s determined to be- who he identities with and who he’s come to fill with Good News.

When biblical commentators turn to John 6, they leave no interpretive stone unturned. No detail is extraneous. Everything means something.

Except the boy. No one bothers to mention the boy. Not one of the biblical scholars bother to notice the boy standing there near Andrew, the boy with his five and his two.

loaves

 

Puthi’s small-framed and he looked every bit like a boy behind the wheel of the pickup.

After navigating the chaotic city streets, Puthi pulled into a bank parking lot. The bank, which looked new and clean and upscale, appeared misplaced amidst the crumbling buildings, make-shift alley shelters and barefoot children that surrounded it.

Mark went inside to use the ATM. I told Puthi that Mark needed the cash to pay off his Cambodian informants, and Puthi nodded his head, straight-faced, and said ‘Ah.’

I got out of the truck to cool off and stretch my legs. I leaned against the front, passenger window and talked with Puthi.

He pointed to the decrepit building to the right of the bank and he told me that what went on inside there was exactly what I would’ve guessed.

‘Life is hard here’ he said. And I couldn’t tell whether he was talking about himself or just the city in general.

‘Will you and your wife be able to get by without her job?’ I asked him.

And he laughed and said ‘No.’ And then he looked down at his lap and he smiled a childlike smile- like something had just occurred to him.

I cocked my head and looked at him, clearly puzzled.

‘I don’t have much,’ he said, ‘I’m just grateful God can use what I do have.’

He’d translated for me all week: prayers, scripture, sermons. But that was as close to a Word from the Lord as I had heard that whole time.

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John in his Gospel tends to include details.

At the wedding at Cana, the water jugs that were about to become casks of wine? John says there were 6 of them, and they each held 20-30 gallons.

John likes details.

When Jesus was about to summon Lazarus from the tomb. His sister Martha told Jesus: ‘He’s been dead for days. He’s going to stink.’

And when the Risen Christ was cooking breakfast for the disciples who were fishing early one morning. John records that they were about 100 yards off shore. And the catch of fish that morning that strained the nets? 153, John writes.

John likes details.

So when the little boy provides the food that Jesus uses to feed the multitudes, we ought to at least notice him. We ought to see him standing there with his five and his two.

The fact is-

You can puzzle all you want about the symbolism behind the 12 and the 5 and the 2. But that boy- that’s us in the story. He’s you and me.

Because:

It doesn’t matter if your bank account is almost empty or if you feel spiritually bankrupt.

It doesn’t matter if you’re out of work or just out of energy.

It doesn’t matter if you have too many other worries in front of you or if all your good years are behind you.

It doesn’t matter how many questions you have or how much faith you don’t have.

It doesn’t matter if all you can see in your life is what’s missing from it.

It doesn’t matter if all you have is 5 and 2.

It doesn’t matter.

Because Jesus can take what we have to offer and multiply it.

That boy is us. He’s you and me.

Because- as half-baked as it sounds- Jesus takes what we have to offer, our smallest acts of mercy and compassion, and he multiplies it to further the Kingdom of God.

Because even our most awkward attempts at devotion can be magnified by the grace of God.

Because all of us- we’re ordained at our baptism to the priesthood of all believers. Every last one of us has both the joy and the responsibility, the privilege and the burden of sharing in the ministry of Jesus.

And whatever you have to offer is enough.

Even if it’s little more than 5 and 2.

 

I had to retell this story for the children at Vacation Bible School back in June. I used brownies instead of barley loaves.

And after I finished the story one of the kids said to me: ‘It’s hard to believe Jesus could feed all those people with just five brownies and 2 fish.’

I just smiled and nodded, and I said:

‘Kid, it’s harder to believe Jesus can take what I have and make a miracle out of it.’

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That’s Puthi in the middle. And that’s me on the left, sweating like a child molester as ‘Cambodia’ is actually Khmer for ‘Hot as Hell.’

 

This past weekend my muse visited my congregation as our guest preacher.

Thomas Lynch, readers of the blog will already know, is a poet and writer who also happens to be an undertaker in Milford, Michigan. His prose has inspired my own, his writing on the funeral trade has informed how I conduct them as a clergyman and his hopeful gallows humor has given me cheer these initial weeks in my struggle with cancer.

Here’s his sermon from the Saturday evening service. It’s worth your time. If you subscribe to the blog by email, you may need to click over for the sermon.

The Seamus Heaney poem Lynch references is ‘Miracle’ based on Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in Mark 2.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks

But the ones who have known him all alongAnd carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplockedIn their backs, the stretcher handles

Slippery with sweat. And no let up

Until he’s strapped on tight, made tiltableand raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.

Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid out ropes to cool,

Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity

To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

(HUMAN CHAIN, Poems, Seamus Heaney, 2010, FSG)

Untitled10111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

Knowing most folks won’t read long boring books,  I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

Question 30~

I. The Father

30. What Do We Mean by Miracles?

If God is the cause of all things, in every moment holding all things in existence, then a miracle is NOT a discrete moment in which God intervenes in a world where God is otherwise not involved.

A miracle, rather, is a discrete moment in the world when only God is involved.

A miracle is NOT a moment where God enters the world to act.

A miracle is a moment where God, who is already acting in the world at all moments, removes all other causes upon an object.

A miracle is NOT when God shows up.

God’s already there.

Always and by definition.

A miracle is when God acts to keep all other causes from ‘showing up.’

So then, just as Jesus displays what it is to be fully human, he also- in his miracles- shows us what it means for the world to be fully the world.

“Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed them, and broke them, and kept giving them to the disciples to set before the people. And they all ate and were satisfied; and the broken pieces which they had left over were picked up, twelve baskets full.”

– Luke 9.17

 

image001A few weeks ago I posted a reflection on the ancient Christian doctrine of God’s immutability, God’s unchangingness. Admittedly the jumping off quote from the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe, was a rhetorical stick of dynamite:

‘Never think that if you’re contrite and pray to God for forgiveness that God will forgive you…In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

Your prayer for forgiveness doesn’t incline God to forgive you.

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

In the posts that followed the initial reflection, I’ve become increasingly convinced that retrieving the first Christians’ speech about God could pull away some of the cobwebs believers and nonbelievers get tangled up in today.

Just as immutability was a surprise to many, I think many Christians would be surprised by what we mean by ‘Creation’ and how that impacts our speech about ‘miracles.’

The Apostles’ Creed begins seemingly innocuously: ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.’

But already in that first breath most believers have already gotten off on the wrong track. The creed’s beginning is neither innocuous nor, it seems, self-evident, for most Christians mistakenly assume that by calling God ‘Creator’ we refer to God’s prior activity that we can locate at some debatable point in the past (millions or thousands of years, depending on whether or not you’re ignorant).

Those same believers erroneously assume that by calling God ‘Creator’ we mean that long ago God rolled up his sleeves and worked on some-thing called no-thing which resulted in creation. Once set in motion, God stepped back and, as though on a cross, declared it is finished. Like a watchmaker, God could hang up his ‘creator’ hat confident that the atomic and evolutionary gears would hum in perpetuity. Or, if not a watchmaker, God could step back and like Santa watch us from afar, keeping track of who is naughty and who is nice and occasionally intervening in creation to answer a prayer, smite a sinner or take responsibility for insurance claims.

To profess the first line of the creed with this in your head is to get the ‘Creator’ exactly wrong from how the ancient Christians so thought of God. For them, to call God Creator is to believe that God is the One who makes things to be without there being anything prior to his creative act save himself. For God to create is to make it be that something simply exists. When we name God as Creator, we confess that without God there would not be anything at all.

Whereas the watchmaker makes it be that there is a watch out of all the disparate parts that were prior to the watch, God makes it be that things just are- from the quartz in the clock to the simplest raindrop.

By calling God Creator we profess that God is the reason there is something instead of nothing, and this is a confession that quite obviously renders any debates about the earth’s age or the mode of creation forehead-slappingly irrelevant. To say God the Creator is the reason there is something instead of nothing is to say that God makes it that things are at all moments of their existence, past, present and future. Without God, all things would cease to exist in an instant.

The ancient Christians so emphasized this ongoing, continual, present creative act of God that they even believed it was irrelevant whether or not the earth had a beginning.

This is the ancient doctrine of creation that God is the reason there is something instead of nothing- a question beyond the bounds of the material world and thus a question science could never answer in the affirmative or the negative. According to this ancient doctrine of creation, everything other than God is completely dependent on God for its existing and for being as it is; therefore, God’s presence is nearer to every thing and every creature than believers today often suppose. God is everywhere, closer to us than we are to ourselves, for God is the one making it that we exist at all. God is not everywhere in the sense of taking up physical space but everywhere in the sense of causing the existence of all things.

According to the doctrine of creation, God is always everywhere, always present to creatures.

This means, in a certain manner of speaking, that there is no such that we commonly call ‘miracles.’

imagesWhat we mean by ‘miracles’ are those occasions when (the distant watchmaker) God intervenes in the created order. Implicit in our use of the word ‘miracle’ is the Enlightenment presumption that God otherwise is set apart from creation; that is, you can only intervene where you were not previously present and active.

To intervene, as Herbert McCabe says, you have to be an alternative to, or alongside what you are interfering with.

But if God is present everywhere, in everything, at all times the reason there is something instead no thing at all then there is no thing that God is alongside of or apart from.

There is no such thing we call ‘miracles’ because

you cannot intervene in what you yourself are doing.

To call God Creator is to name the most mysterious miracle of all- that there is something instead of nothing. This is a miracle that then determines what we properly mean by the word ‘miracle.‘

A miracle is not when God intervenes in our lives from outside our lives to act upon us. A miracle is when only God- and no other secondary causes- is acting in our lives, not from beyond but from the nearness where God has been all along.

 

imagesLike the Almighty Narnian lion that bears his name, the arrival Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has been felt across the cultural landscape.

Thanks to (possibly in reaction against?) a prejudice-confirming, cringe-inducing interview on Fox News Aslan’s book has ascended to the top of bestseller lists, which are usually less interested in Jesus than they are in life lessons gleaned from dogs.

If not for the viral Fox News interview and the author’s own Muslim biography, Aslan’s book might have disappeared with nary a notice like the many that have come and gone before it.

I think this most certainly would’ve been its fate. I say this because, unlike the Fox ‘journalist’ who interviewed Reza Aslan, I’ve actually read his book.

And while his arguments may be challenging for Christians and the questions raised by them good ones,

Aslan essentially regurgitates 19th century German historical-biblical criticism that first posited and then went down the rabbit-hole searching for the ‘real’ Jesus of history behind the propagandized Jesus of faith put forward by the authors of the New Testament.

It’s a happy coincidence that Karl Barth can enter this conversation through 2 different doorways- 3 if you want to talk about how Barth, author or the Barmen Declaration, would feel about the jingoism frequently on display on Fox News.

Door #1: 453703048

Karl Barth’s theological program, first in his commentary on Romans and later in the CD, was an explicit attempt to disavow the 19th century German theological and biblical scholarship mentioned above, which Barth had inherited as a student near the turn of the century.

Barth had seen firsthand, in the capitulation of the Church to the Kaiser in WWI and in the horrors committed by German ‘Christians’ in WWII, the devastating effects of searching for a Jesus of history rather than submitting to the Jesus of faith. If the root sin beneath all sins is idolatry- our wishing to fashion a god in our image- then Barth believed constructing a portrait of the ‘historical Jesus’ had proved a fatal temptation.

Before anyone gets too excited about Zealot, I think Barth would caution that historical Jesus conjectures made possible the Nazis’ de-judaizing Jesus which made possible their dehumanizing of Jews.

Door #2: 

One of arguments- asides really- in Aslan’s book is that the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as possessing the power to perform miracles is hardly a novel conceit. Jesus of Nazareth was certainly not the only miracle worker in 1st century Palestine, Aslan argues. Jesus’ ability to perform miracles, he says, does not prove or even imply his divinity, a status later believers attributed to Jesus.

Aslan is correct in his assessment that Jesus was only one among many miracle-workers in Palestine.

In his suggestion that the New Testament does not present Jesus as uniquely singular miracle worker, Aslan is not only wrong he proves to be a shabby read of scripture.

Illustrating the adage that there’s nothing new under the sun, Karl Barth in §11.1 serves up a solid rejoinder to arguments like Aslan’s.

Just think, Barth writes, that the oldest Christian confession- older even than any part of the NT- is ‘Jesus is Kyrios.’

Lord.

Consider that Jews, for whom the first commandment was sacrosanct and the reason behind centuries of suffering, would, within the first generation of disciples, call anyone but God ‘Lord.’

Jews had routinely irked Caesar’s ire for refusing to call him ‘lord.’

But quickly after Good Friday many took to calling Jesus ‘Lord.’

As Barth writes:

‘…it cannot possibly have happened unawares and unintentionally that this word (kyrios) used to translate the name of God Yahweh-Adonai was then applied to Jesus.’

Aslan notes that later believers attributed to Jesus claims Jesus himself did not make for himself; however, Aslan fails to mention that those believers would’ve been breaking the first and overarching commandment by doing so…unless something (like a Resurrection) had convinced them that this Jesus and Yahweh were one and the same.

Barth then turns to a miracle stories to illustrate this point.

The Gospels’ miracles stories do not suggest Jesus’ divinity by pointing to his ability to perform miracles. They do so by what is said in the miracles stories.

Take the healing of the paralytic in Mark. The story turns not on Jesus’ wonder-working but on a dispute about who has the power (ie, authority) to forgive sins.

To the Pharisees’ consternation, Jesus claims authority that belongs to God alone. The Pharisees, it should be pointed out to Aslan, accuse Jesus of what?

Blasphemy.

Ignoring their outrage, Jesus forgives the paralytic and heals him. The actual miracle here, Barth notes, is a secondary feature to the story.

The act of the miracle, Barth writes, is meant by the author as a visible confirmation that ‘the word spoken is God’s Word’ and, I would continue the logic, that the one who spoke that word is God.

Barth:

“This is the meaning of the miracles ascribed to Jesus (and expressly to his apostles too…) and it marks off these miracles, however we assess them materially, as at any rate something very distinct amid the plethora miracle stories in that whole period.”