Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Jungle Gym Epiphany

Someone told me not too long ago, “There are people who believe, and people who don’t.”


I’ve certainly heard from people who consider religion unnecessary, object strongly to the Christian faith, or are offended at the very thought of God.

Or who believe firmly that anything outside the limits of everyday experience is superstition, myth, or fraud.

Balaam and His Ass, Rembrandt van Rjin,
Amsterdam, 1626  
Epiphany, as in moment of insight, is fine.

Epiphany, as in “manifestation of God among us” (celebrated last Sunday), is nonsense.

Yet, from what I’ve seen, we all believe in something.

In love, or goodness.

In reason, or science.

In family, or nature.

In beauty, or power.

In matter.

Or money.

We pretend we have logical reasons for our own grid of assumptions, but from what I can tell, what we believe is more often shaped by experiences – some we acknowledge, some we don’t.

A church that treated us badly.

A parent that loved rigid doctrine more than us.

A community that made us feel welcome.

A failure escaped by turning away from the whole social construct surrounding it.

Looking at the epiphany story I wrote of last week, I find myself wondering: why do some dismiss, without pause, the story of Balaam’s donkey, or the work of angels, or the Magis’ star?

Or, maybe a better question: why do I embrace them?

Yes, I’ve heard that anyone who believes in miracles is ignorant, uneducated, naive, misguided, foolish . . . The list goes on.

I have a PhD from an ivy league grad school (Penn) where those who embraced the Christian faith were sometimes treated as mentally deficient, mentally unwell, or, most likely, both.

But I realized then, as I’ve seen often enough before and since: assumption of superiority does not in itself constitute a convincing rationale.

And many of the most gifted scholars, authors, artists, philosophers I’ve followed have been deeply persuaded of the truth of the Christian faith.

Convincing apologetics aren’t hard to find if you have any interest in finding them.

Yet even as a kid, I knew that a pro or con list would most likely be shaped more by the inner predisposition of the person making the list than by demands of logic or reason.

The moment of turning, for those who come to faith later in life, is far more often a sudden awareness of God’s intervention than result of careful study or logical argument.

So back to my question: why do I believe in miracles?

I’m fairly sure there are many answers, none sufficient in themselves.

But I go back to an episode when I was nine or ten.

I was at our school playground – several blocks from my home – playing with friends with no adults nearby.

I was climbing on the metal jungle gym – a square grid of pipes, set in a concrete floor.

At the highest point, I hung upside down, feet in the air, head down, hands holding the highest pipe. Dangling upside down, I lost my grip, plummeting head first toward solid concrete.

And landed on my feet.

I remember standing there, heart pounding, looking up through the grid of metal.

Eight feet?


Somehow I had turned completely, in a two foot square of pipes, without hitting metal.

Without landing on my head.

With no harm at all.

It’s not really possible.

By rights, I should have had a cracked skull. Or broken neck. At least a severe concussion.

So choose:

It didn’t happen.

I’m a gymnastic wonder and righted myself without knowing it.

Or – God intervened.

That jungle gym is long gone, but while it stood, while I still lived nearby, I sometimes went and stood inside it – in the place where I landed – and tried to reason it out.

I can still picture myself hanging, feel my sweaty, not-so-strong hands slipping. 

I can still feel myself landing, sneakers slamming hard on hard concrete.

And there’s still no explanation except one:

I’m not alone in this world.

There’s a God who knows and loves me.

There’s more going on around me than I’ll ever fully know.

I could offer lots more stories like that.

Accidents that didn’t happen.

Or that happened and loved ones emerged unscathed.

Strange encounters that completely changed my direction.

Words of direction spoken when I least expected to hear them.

Unexpected, unexplainable gifts of insight, or patience, or strength, or skill.

Reassurance in times of staggering need.

If you believe it’s all coincidence, hallucination, wishful thinking, then hold fast to that belief, and see where it leads you.

You can sweep any story away with a shrug, a strategically raised eyebrow.

And yet -

We all believe something.

We all see what we choose to or are able to see.

We all marshal our explanations, dismiss things that don’t quite fit.

CS Lewis, professor and scholar who narrated his journey from agnosticism to strong belief in the Christian faith, found himself musing on this in The Abolition of Man
The kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost. But you cannot go on `explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on `seeing through” things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to `see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To `see through’ all things is the same as not to see. (p.91)
To "see through" all things is the same as not to see.

I choose to see, even when what I see is hard to understand, doesn't quite add up, is way beyond my own control.

I’m not saying my Christian faith is based on some unexplained stunt on a long-gone climber half a century ago.

I’m saying that incident shook me, and taught me to watch for signs I otherwise might have missed.

Signs of love surrounding me.

Moments of grace embracing me.

Light shining in all around me.

Magi and Star, anonymous etching, 1885