Monday, August 5, 2013

What If There Are No Miracles?

One of the things I most appreciate about my Pentecostal heritage is the way it teaches people to expect supernatural intervention. Pentecostals are open to the possibility of miracles; to dramatic divine intervention that brings deliverance, provision and guidance to God’s people.

One of the things I like least about my Pentecostal heritage is the way it teaches people to rely upon such supernatural intervention. For while it is healthy to expect a miracle, reliance upon miracles, especially in matters that call for the exercise of human responsibility, is a type of spiritual sloth.

The Old Testament celebrates a God who intervenes. It tells us that Jehovah pierces through the everyday orderly processes of nature to perform acts of deliverance, guidance and sustenance. However, that is not all the Old Testament has to say about spiritual life. Proverbs teach God’s people to cultivate character, and includes instructions about planning, budgeting, negotiating and so forth. Ecclesiastes and Job teach God’s people how to deepen their understanding of God by wrestling with apparent inconsistencies of spiritual life. We learn from those books that challenges to faith are not to be avoided, as though such struggles were hostile to faith, but should be embraced because struggle with faith is the way healthy faith develops. 

Then, there is the Book of Esther.

Esther doesn’t mention God. God doesn’t even seem to be present. The Jews are in real trouble. Nonetheless, no manna rains down from heaven. No Captain of the Lord’s Armies appears to defend them. They are, apparently, left on their own.

This lack of piety upsets some Christians and for that reason they dislike Esther. 

Too bad.

Esther is a canonical book. When a Christian doesn’t like part of the canon, it says more about him than about the book in question. Besides, it’s a bad habit to read the books of the Bible as though they were not parts of a greater context. The canon is the Word of God. The books within the canon are the Word of God because they are a part of that overall witness. It's like members of a corporate board; although a board has great authority within an organization, it's individual members do not. What they have is influence on the whole. It is the authority of the whole that gives weight to the parts. 

That is my two cents worth about canon, inspiration and all of that!

Anyway, Esther introduces a new idea to Gods people about miracles. It informs us that miracles are not always, or usually, earthshaking. They are not usually paradigm-altering events like walking on water. Esther introduces us to the miracle of providence; the idea that God works through His creation subtly, oozing through nature's pores, to subtly guide, provide and deliver His people. 

Reaping the bounty of providence requires believers to discern where God may be at work. Then they must join God in that work. The idea of providence assumes that God wants us to mature; that although we will always remain God’s children, there a time we should grow up.

The apostle James teaches that maturity requires an engagement with grace through a process James calls synergei in Greek and which Jerome rendered cooperateur in Latin. Neither word requires translation because both are so close to English. We all know what synergy is, or cooperation.

However, even if we are willing to bring our thoughts, talents, attitudes and actions into synergistic alignment with God’s purpose and work in the world, as James seems to teach, how do we know where God is? That is what we learn in the Book of Esther. 

We often stumble into it, by reflecting with others on the matters at hand and how we should respond as believers. There may be no bolt of lightening, or a disembodied voice telling us what to do. If that occurs, what believer won’t obey? In the meantime, we must grow in wisdom and in in community with others to figure it all out.

We must become aware of providence.

Providence was once an extremely important word in the Christian vocabulary. The founders of our Republic peppered their documents with it. They used it to name their daughters and towns. They assumed the presence of God in the mundane and everyday, and tried to train their minds and hearts to discern what God was up to so they could join in.

All farmers believe in providence. They seek only miracles when there is no rain.  Otherwise, they plow, seed the ground, hoe the weeds, and harvest the crops. They cooperate with creation, which God has made but which human hands must prepare.

The Book of Esther assumes the presence of God at work in fallible human beings. There is no Moses or Elijah in Esther. There is only a beautiful woman who has won a dancing contest. The hero, if there is one, is Mordecai, the prom queen’s uncle, who offers an intuition. “What if you won this contest because providence prepared you to be an undercover agent, an influence, a person with just enough significance to tip the scales one way instead of the other?”

Ether subtly teaches us that God is often subtle and prods us to pick up hints about what He is up to.  

Without this portion of the Biblical witness, we might be left believing that believers never need to study, mature, develop, process, plan, cooperate with others, reflect, discern or grow up. It would be virtuous to remain children, “tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.” We would insist on remaining in that season of life where “I thought as a child and spoke as a child,” and refuse to “become a man and put away childish things.”

Just so you know, I believe in miracles. I anticipate signs and wonders and often see them. In that sense, I am not a modern Western man. I am a throwback, a primitive, and perhaps even superstitious. I have dreams I believe contain messages from God. Al sorts of mystical hair-raising things occur in my life.

However, two things cause me to hold to all of that very lightly.

First, my personal judgment about such things is terribly unreliable.  To come to the right conclusion about supernatural things requires discernment with others, and most of all with scripture, which is in the apostle Peter’s words, “a more sure word of prophesy.”

Secondly, huge parts of scripture inform me that God created the world as He wished. He doesn’t lightly interfere with the order He purposefully imposed upon it. Instead, He calls us to learn from his creation and to cooperate with it so we will grow up. He won’t create a unicorn on Main Street, even if I ask Him to do to impress the heathen that I am His child.

Once you get into it, you see that Book of Esther actually contains a very great miracle. A beauty queen becomes a courageous and wise leader who delivers her people from the work of evil. Not bad. Not bad at all. It’s something that could conceivably happen to you, and to me; even if we are not a Moses or an Elijah.

So chalk one up for providence, that subtle and sneaky way by which our Almighty Father teaches us to become his eternal friends and coworkers.

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