Saturday, July 16, 2016

Jesus Asks: Have you believed because you have seen Me?


This is the 24th post in my series "Asking Myself," in which I weekly ponder one question posed in Teresa Blythe's rich book, 50 Ways to Pray. You can find the start of the series here and last week's post here. The first nine posts focused on theological musings, while posts 10 to the present prayerfully consider the specific questions Jesus posed in the New Testament.


Q: Have you believed because you have seen me? (John 20:29)

Did Thomas (and the other locked-room disciples) eventually believe in the resurrection because Jesus appeared in the flesh? I'm gonna say the answer is yes.  Jesus asks this of his doubtful disciple rhetorically, probably with the same heart-piercing expression he gave Peter when thrice asking if he loved Him. 

In your average church sermon, the preacher frowns upon"Doubting Thomas," the anti-example of what faith should look like. The disheartened disciple even gets a little nasty about it-- he wants to stick his fingers into the flesh wounds and see dripping blood before he'll believe. Yet I can hardly blame Thomas for wanting to see some proof that his teacher had in fact reappeared after being dead and buried for three days. 

In the version I commonly read, the New Living Translation, this verse, is not a question at all, but a statement. Here's the story in John 20:24-29:

One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), was not with the others when Jesus came. They told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he replied, "I won't believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side."
Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them. The doors were locked; but suddenly, as before, Jesus was standing among them. "Peace be with you," he said. Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don't be faithless any longer. Believe!"
"My Lord and my God!" Thomas exclaimed.
Then Jesus told him, "You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me."

For me, the question (or statement) is essentially about acceptance of the mysterious, otherworldly, death-defying nature of God, and it brings to mind memories of times in my Christian life when I was confronted with the "miraculous."


First, please know I'm naturally skeptical. I remember long ago, my college roommate showed me a televised charismatic conference where people appeared drunken with joy, falling out in the aisles, flooding the floor space in front of the stage with their languid bodies, melted to the floor like birthday candles blown out as Pentecostal preacher passed by each one. 

My roommate and her father had been to a similar church while living abroad in Taiwan. She was curious about my opinion, but also it seemed intrigued, excited or perhaps made nostalgic by the supernatural scene. I wasn't buying it. In fact, it made me so uncomfortable that I strongly declared (in my infinite 18-year-old wisdom) that it was not only not of God, but probably on the edge of being demonic.

My poor friend. She turned the TV off and never brought it up again.

***

Five years later, I took much of that skepticism with me when I moved to Taiwan. The spiritual atmosphere on the buzzing subtropical island seemed more conducive to all forms of metaphysical activity than that of the US. And charismatic Christian churches there seemed to hold their own among the "rulers and principalities." I could sense the darkness lurking about the incense filled temples whose polished patios jut into the street, forcing me to skirt their perimeters as I navigated narrow alleys filled with zooming scooters ...on my way to small group. 

I had my first memorable experience of believing without first-hand seeing in Taiwan. My American friend took me to a local bible study. Yvonne, a young but wise beyond her years Taiwanese woman, gave a testimony of a recent healing experience. She struck me as sober-minded, kind and intelligent with excellent English. (My first impression was later reinforced when I started working at the same company where Yvonne was a translator.) Yvonne said she had been suffering from back pain because one of her legs was inches longer than the other. Recently, people had prayed over her for healing, she said, and during that heated intercession, a hot tingling sensation traveled up and down her shorter leg as she watched it elongate to the length of the other leg. She was healed.

Hearing Yvonne tell the story, I had no reason to doubt her. She wasn't showy or flamboyant (characteristics I usually associated with charismatics). She had nothing to gain from telling a tall tale. And it was her experience, something most of us Christians are trained not to doubt or question. 

My Christian experience in Taiwan was a dichotomy between attending the local branch of my (non-charismatic) childhood church and participating in outreach events and daily chapel at my workplace, a missionary-founded media company that spread the gospel to local Taiwanese through English teaching magazines, TV and radio. Through my job, I connected with Christians from a variety of backgrounds, cultures and countries. Some of them spoke in tongues or had their own miracle testimonies to share. Sometimes I participated in company-wide prayers and celebrated when they were miraculously answered: Late-stage cancer healed. Members of tribal groups saved. Demons expelled. My heart was broadened through the experience, but I was still guarded about my own experience of the overtly miraculous. To me, modern day miracles were not requisites for a deep and meaningful faith.

***

A few years later, I found myself a new attendee at a decidedly charismatic church in the American South. My husband and I liked the spunk of this fledgling church, and its leaders struck us as down-to-earth, passionate and genuinely loving. Up to this point, we'd listened to scripture-packed sermons on Sundays and made connections with other young couples on week nights. It was vastly different from the church of my youth, but the elements essential to thriving as Christians seemed to be in place. That night, an out-of-town guest was preaching for a special conference designed to teach all us newbies (and perhaps some of the old-bies) about the importance of signs and wonders. I'm afraid I can't remember the weekend's official title or purpose, but that seemed to be the general intention. 

The preacher shared miraculous stories and scriptures emphasizing the same. Occasionally, he'd interrupt his general message with a "word of wisdom" for some person in the audience. My inner skeptic quickly noted that these people usually ended up being out-of-towners who had traveled in the preacher's entourage. Still, I wanted to be humble to see or experience God in a new way, if that was His will. So I went up for the altar calls. I prayed to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I tried to let my tongue do whatever the Spirit wanted. I decided to go with the flow. But I sure as heck was not going to fake something. 

I remember one particular altar call involved a lot of tears and tongues spoken loud and fast and fervent. There were dim lights and ethereal chords from the worship team's guitarist and the simmering of cymbals. There was laying on of sweaty hands. There was the minister, meandering through the crowd pausing near each person, perhaps trying to sense the Spirit's moving. And there was a whole lot of swaying.

Hands were swaying me to the left and right. Other hands were pressing me forward and back. Honestly, I was getting dizzy and not a little distracted from my best efforts at an emotional and ardent prayer, be it in English or tongues of angels. 

"God's presence is thick! Wheewooooh!" the pastor declared. But I didn't feel Him. I could only feel the swaying and a growing seasickness.

After a while, I was having trouble staying upright. Not because of some overwhelming weight of glory, but because of the many taller, stronger, good-intentioned people praying and swaying me to and fro. 

When I finally gave in to gravity, it was not because the Spirit slayed me. 

***

I struggled for several years after that with the matter of Spirit baptism. On the one hand, I hadn't personally been convinced that I needed to have a baptism with fire in order to be useful and truly in-tune with the Spirit. Yet, on the other, it was difficult to reconcile my skepticism with the beliefs of many people I admired, trusted and loved, who were persuaded I needed to be baptized in the Holy Spirit, I needed to speak in tongues as evidence of this baptism, and I needed to let go of some sin or inhibition in order to let the Spirit do these things through me. 

While many people who claimed or demonstrated charismatic gifts seemed to lack fruits of the Spirit, others seemed to be full of the Spirit in every sense. I couldn't deny that for some, a fiery baptism had impacted them in ways that made them genuinely more Christ-like and filled with Christ-love for others. Of course I wanted this! But I was torn because the miraculous is not something I could manufacture, even if could squelch my visceral objection to faking things. 

So I continued to keep my heart open, and I responded to many more altar calls, even after my first experience bordered on ridiculous.  To my shame, I even followed someone's advice to try to just jump start glossolalia by uttering whatever nonsense sounds popped into my head one day as I washed the dishes with the water drowning out my mumbles.  At first, I was dizzy with embarrassment that someone might hear me, and mistook that for some spiritual levity. But really, the flame of fire never came. The prayer language never welled up like springs from my inner most being.  I never felt completely out of my mind or body or control. It seemed the undeniably miraculous never happened to me.


***

All this pressure to perform, and yet not perform, to just receive, but also to seek earnestly, to trust God, but also to desire genuinely enough, it messed with my heart for years. But eventually, I came to a place where I could let it all go. Lo and behold: I even had a few still, small "miraculous-to-me" experiences-- a string of vivid dreams, a silly yet tearful prayer quickly and meticulously answered, a serendipitous discovery of new voices that resonated with my core-- that I chose not to share with most of my fellow-miracle seekers, but to hide in my heart. In the absence of experience, there seemed to spring forth some deeper experiences.

Returning to the original question and all its little offshoots: Do I believe Jesus does miraculous things if I don't see them? Do I only believe if the reporters of such things seem trustworthy and the story seems moderately sane? Do I only believe if the miracle lines up with my impression of who God is or what I think he could or should do? Perhaps more pointedly, do I believe He has, would or will work miracles for me? 

I think my answer is yes to all those questions. 

Sure, I believe God because I "see" him in one way or another. Maybe the eyes of my heart are opened for a fleeting breath or perhaps I have a moment of mental elucidation to connect all my quivering dots. Whatever the metaphor, it's a spiritual sight that sways me. I'm less inclined to rely on physical miraculous "sightings" to fire up my faith because I haven't personally experienced them, but at this point in my life, I'm not so boldly in denial as Thomas. 

"Blessed are those who do not see yet believe," Jesus says. Maybe not getting a noisy, overt, public miracle was my blessing after all.

Next week, Jesus asks: Do you love me? (John 21:17)

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