Can you follow Jesus without believing in miracles?

Subtract miracles from Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, or Taoism, and you have essentially the same religion left. Subtract miracles from Christianity, and you have nothing but the clichés and platitudes most American Christians get weekly (and weakly) from their pulpits. Nothing distinctive, no reason to be a Christian rather than something else.” – Peter Kreeft (Christianity for Modern Pagans)

Thomas Jefferson once took a pen knife and cut most of the miracle stories out of the Bible, leaving only the teachings of Jesus. He included the tomb, but cut out the resurrection. What was left (mostly the teachings of Jesus) Jefferson entitled, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.”

What Jefferson did to the Bible with a pen knife, many contemporary Christians unwittingly do with their lives. Especially in the U.S., much of Christian culture has managed to surgically remove the supernatural from the experience of Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve fallen out of the habit of talking publicly and passionately about how to transform lives. We will talk about decline in church attendance, the cultural shift away from Christendom and the declining morals of our society, but we have neither the vocabulary nor the comfort for talking about the spiritual realm. And yet, according to Jesus himself, the work of God is to see the Kingdom break in through the supernatural work of casting out demons, curing disease, healing sickness and seeing people transformed by truth (Luke 9).

Christianity is not a faith with a few miracles sprinkled in for effect. Christianity is a miracle with some good stories thrown in. Miracles are the cornerstone of the Christian faith. To extract them from the gospel of Jesus Christ would be to extract the heart of God for the people he created.

Without miracles, we lose the divinity of Jesus. Without the virgin birth, Jesus is just another kid born to an unwed mother. He begins to look more like Buddha or Mohammed and less like a God in the flesh. We believe Jesus is worthy of worship, but he is only worthy if he has been proven to be God himself.

Without miracles, we lose hope. We have no assurance of an afterlife if Jesus didn’t supernaturally conquer death, nor any reason to assume that the cross has power to cancel sin.

Without miracles, we lose touch with the essential character of God. Psalm 145 tells us that we are to pass the stories of God’s mighty acts from generation to generation, because it is the mighty acts of God — not the morality — that teach us about God’s character and purposes. Through his miracles (the parting of the Red Sea, the miraculous catch of fish, the woman whose oil lasted through a famine, the drowning of a legion of demons), we see God’s goodness — that he is for us.

Without miracles, our profession of faith is hollow. Jesus didn’t celebrate the power of miracles (he often warned people not to talk about their own supernatural healing), but he always encouraged folks to celebrate the restoration caused by them. The point of miracles to to draw us into the realm of God’s Kingdom and influence. All over the world right now, stories are surfacing of Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus being drawn into the Kingdom through miracles and visions. They are being introduced to Jesus by Jesus himself in supernatural encounters. Why? Because Jesus wants to see these cultures restored to the Kingdom of God.

Without miracles, we have no insight into the Kingdom of God. Jesus resurrected a little girl whose daddy was heart-broken, healed a woman who was sick for years, restored the sight of two men who asked for mercy and cast out a demon that had a guy’s tongue. And that’s just one chapter (Matthew 9)! Every one of these miracles was a preview of the Kingdom and a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy — binding up the broken-hearted, setting captives free, giving sight to the blind and release to someone imprisoned by demons. This was a foretaste of coming attractions, Jesus demonstrating Kingdom values.

Without miracles, we are not pursuing the whole gospel. Richard Rohr, Catholic priest and spiritual director, has written, “As priests, we felt our job was to absolve sin rather than actually transform people. ‘Get rid of the contaminating element,’ as it were, rather than ‘Learn what you can about yourself and God because of this conflict.’ Those are two very different paths. In the four Gospels, Jesus did two things over and over again: he preached and he healed. We have done a lot of preaching, but not too much healing” (A Lever and a Place to Stand).

True miracles will always glorify God. And true believers will always lift up Jesus. In Richard Rohr’s confession, he goes on from the above quote to diagnose the “why” behind his assertion. He says that we’ve done more preaching than healing not because our hearts are hard (though undoubtedly that’s true for some) or because we don’t find it important, but because we don’t know how. We have forgotten (if we ever knew) how to call the people in our care into deeper spiritual waters.

With all due respect to President Jefferson, Christianity is not a philosophy. It is a declaration of the one, true God — the most powerful Being in the universe — and his supernatural revelation through Jesus Christ. And it is the ongoing presence and power of the Holy Spirit transforming the natural with the invasion of the supernatural. If we want to see the Kingdom come, it will happen as we openly, boldly acknowledge that Jesus was and is not just a great cultural stabilizer but a supernatural God whose resurrection leads those who follow him directly into the supernatural realm.

Read More

While you were getting your nails done (and other thoughts on world evangelism)

In this world we are like Jesus. – 1 John 4:17

I have posted this before but am thinking of it freshly this week as I travel in Thailand. As in the U.S., Thailand has no shortage of nail salons. In the U.S., I have a tolerate-hate relationship with those places. For many people, it is a treat to have someone else paint your fingernails and toenails, massage your feet and give you an hour in a gyrating chair. For me, that is an exercise in frustration. I just don’t enjoy the experience. Where I live, almost all the salons are staffed by folks who don’t speak much English and since I don’t go often enough to know how to ask for what I want, I find myself feeling at first tentative and then exasperated before we even get started. And at the cost of a tank of gas or a meal out.
nail-buddha2

Nonetheless — illogically — about once a year I give in and go. Maybe it is the eternal optimist in me. This time will be different. The last time I made this annual trek to a nail place, I decided to strike up a conversation with the technician. She was from Thailand. She was friendly and chatty, and talked in English to me while she spoke in Thai to her co-worker. At some point, I asked what they were talking about. The technician shared that they were planning their evening. There was a dinner at the local temple, a potluck, and they’d all be going together. They were laughing about meeting men there.

It was the first time it had ever occurred to me that women like these might be part of a sub-culture in my community designed to maintain a religious identity. These women interacted all day every day with Americans but in their personal life, they maintain Buddhist traditions, look for Buddhist husbands, keep to Buddhist communities.

I am ashamed to admit I’d never considered before the spiritual life of the person doing my nails, though my faith calls that person to trust in Christ for redemption from this fallen world. I left the salon that day knowing that until my heart breaks for the spiritual care of the people in that place, I had no right to use them for my own luxuries.

Those luxuries are delivered to us by a remarkably diverse community. Consider this:

  • According to the 2012-2013 industry statistics published by Nails Magazine, 48% of nail professionals in the $7.47 billion American nail industry are Vietnamese Americans. The predominant religion in Vietnam is Buddhism.
  • More than 50% of Dunkin Donuts are owned by Pakistani or Indian franchisees. Pakistan is a mostly Muslim country; India’s majority religion is Hinduism.
  • 40% of all motels in the United States are owned by Indians (see above).
  • 10% of American physicians are Muslim.
  • 50% of lawn care workers and16% of lawn care business owners are Latino. Their religious backgrounds are likely varied; many will practice a version of Catholicism mixed with animism, voodoo, or ancestor worship.

While we are getting our nails done, lawns manicured and to-go coffees poured, we are coming face to face with the world’s religious diversity. We may not even be aware enough of this reality to let our hearts become sensitized to the spiritual need.

This reality is both a blessing and a temptation. We are easily lulled into a comfortable numbness that lets us get our needs met while ignoring the spiritual care of a worldful of people. And yet, what potential! Industries full of religiously diverse folks provide us with a plethora of opportunities to open our hearts and care more lovingly for those who care for us. To treat them like people, not servants.

While you’re considering who lives among us, consider how the rest of the world is experiencing religious diversity. The global Christian landscape is shifting. The following statistics come from Dr. Tim Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary:

  • When William Carey went to India in 1793, 90% of all Christians were white and lived in the western world. Today, by a vast majority, the face of Christianity is non-white.
    William Carey was a famous missionary in India. But the William Carey Memorial Church in Luster, England is now a Hindu temple.
  • The top two most receptive nations to Christianity are India and China.
  • At the turn of the twentieth century, nine of the ten countries with the highest rate of Christians were in Europe or North America. In 2009, only four of the top ten most Christian countries are in the west.
  • Meanwhile, this year the top ten most resistant nations to Christianity are all in Europe.
    A Christianity Today article says that 85% of Yale’s Campus Crusade for Christ are Asian while the Buddhist temple meetings on the Yale campus are exclusively attended by whites.
  • More Nigerians attend church every week than all the Episcopal and Anglican churches in the west combined.
  • China now boasts the fastest growing church in the world, producing 16,500 new Christians every day.
  • Africa, once called the missionary graveyard, is now the fastest growing church of any continent as a whole, producing 24,000 Christians every day since 1970.
  • The most representative Christian in 1909 was a 44-year old British male.
  • The most representative Christian in 2009 was a 24-year old Nigerian woman.

In this world we are like Jesus. In a world that’s rapidly changing, God has chosen to let us participate in the coming Kingdom. It is a glorious invitation that leaves us with a choice: we can be fearful, turn inward and become concerned only with “me, mine, and our ticket to heaven”; or we can be fearless in understanding and engaging the world around us, becoming active participants in what Christ is doing right here to bring the Kingdom in.

In light of that invitation, I’m inspired to breathe this prayer: God, put to death any unholy ambition in me. Any ambition that makes me more interested in my own comforts than the salvation of others.

Amen. Let it be so.

Read More