Joan and I were down in Monteagle, Tennessee recently, participating in a Chautauqua, a movement began almost 150 years ago as a means of educating Sunday school teachers by exposing them to lecturers from a variety of fields. I think it’s safe to say I’m probably not what the Chautauqua founders had in mind, but we had great fun, and met some wonderful folks.
One of the participants was an older man from Alabama whose evangelical wife had insisted he attend the morning lecture, not realizing I was to be the speaker. We lost her the first day when, during the Q and A, I said the doctrine of original sin was one of the most insidious and cruel concepts ever birthed in the minds of men, specifically the mind of Augustine, and that blaming Eve for the fall of humanity consigned women to eternal subservience, which continues to this day, playing out in twisted and tragic ways. So we lost the woman. I don’t understand it, but there are always some people content to cooperate with their captors. But her husband was intrigued and approached me later that evening when no one was around and asked if he could meet with me privately. It felt a bit like that scene in the Bible, in the third chapter of John, where Nicodemus came to Jesus after dark to speak with him, except that the man from Alabama wasn’t wearing a robe and sandals and I’m not Jesus. But other than that, it was exactly the same. Well, except it was in Tennessee, not Jerusalem, but other than that, it was exactly the same.
So the man and I sat down on a bench and he asked me about the miracles of Jesus and whether or not they actually happened. It was one of those rare, inspired moments in life when someone asks you a question, and the perfect answer comes to mind. I usually think of the perfect answer several days after I’m asked a question, but that evening, sitting on the bench, when he asked me if Jesus had really done all the miracles written about in the gospels, I said, “The question isn’t whether or not he performed miracles. The question is what the miracles he was said to perform revealed about him.”
Let’s think about that. Remember when you were a kid and you’d play the game Three Wishes with your friends. You remember the game. You pretend you’re walking along a beach and you find a bottle washed up on the shore and you rub it and out pops a genie who, grateful for being released from the bottle, grants you three wishes, anything you want. I always wished for all the money in the world, a date with Farrah Fawcett, and no more school. It shows you what a deep thinker I was. My more virtuous friends would say things like, “I want world peace, no more starvation, and everyone in the world to have what they needed.” My brother Doug, who couldn’t count very well, always wanted the Green Bay Packers to win the Super Bowl and to be able to fly. Without our realizing it, the wishes we asked for allowed others a glimpse of our character. Our choices revealed something about us, and eventually we realized the person who wanted world peace was nobler than the person who wanted to date Farrah Fawcett and have all the money in the world.
So here are all these miracle stories about Jesus, and we read them as if they are stories about power. We get caught up in whether or not they’re literally true, whether Jesus had the power to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, comfort the afflicted, and raise the dead. Did Jesus have the power to do those things? Did they really happen? But perhaps there’s a better question we can ask. Not whether Jesus did these things, but rather, “What did the miracle stories of Jesus teach us about his priorities and values?” Didn’t they tell us that he stood with the underdog, the weak, the powerless, and the hurting?
The answer to that gets at the heart of why I still call myself a Christian. Not because I believe Jesus had some kind of unique power, and if I follow him, I will one day possess that same power. Not at all. I call myself a Christian, because I want to use the power I have the same way Jesus used the power he had. I want to mend the broken, feed the hungry, and encourage the discouraged. I want to nurture life. I want to love. I want to bring life from death. I want to create and be creative. And when I die, I want people to be able to say I gave more than I took. Let me say it again. We don’t read the miracle stories of Jesus and ask “Did he really do those things? Instead, we read them and ask, “What do these stories tell us about his priorities?” The answer to that question tells us what our priorities and values should be, which is vitally important, because we are always at risk of forgetting that which should never be forgotten—that we are called to use our power for good, and not for evil.
I keep thinking about our neighbor’s children in the border camps. That’s what they are, you know, our neighbor’s kids. Now I don’t want this to turn into a morning of bashing people. That solves nothing. It feels good, but it doesn’t get us where we need to be. Let’s ween ourselves of the habit of tearing down others. Let’s not fight hate with hate, let’s render it powerless with loving resolve. So I’ve been thinking about our neighbor kids, and wondering what I would do and how I would feel if my 4 year-old granddaughter were in those cages and I couldn’t get to her and hold her and comfort her. So I mentioned our neighbor kids at the Chautauqua and afterwards a man made a beeline for me. I could tell he was angry. He began chewing on me, telling me those kids were illegal and needed to be right where they were, in cages. He told me he was a Christian, and I reminded him that Jesus came to set the prisoners free, and he looked at me like that was the oddest thing he’d ever heard. I thought to myself, “This is what happens when folks forget they are called to use their power for good and not evil, when they forget the priorities of Jesus.”
Did the miracles of Jesus happen? I don’t know, and neither do you. I wasn’t there, and neither were you. But I do find it fascinating that when the earliest Christians undertook the task of describing Jesus, they told story after story about his priorities, his passions, his values. Now why would they do that? Why would they tell story after story about his deepest wishes, unless they were hoping that his deepest wishes would one day become ours.