Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage (Acts 19:11-20) transports me to one of the more bizarre scenes in all of scripture, one that has inspired way too many phony televangelists who scam widows out of their social security for prayer cloths guaranteed to heal all manner of infirmities. The only infirmity these smooth-talking con artists don’t seem to be able to cure is gullible naivete. But you’ve got to hand it to them, there is the precedent set there in Acts 19 when pastor Paul becomes known far and wide for his healing powers, so much so that his handkerchiefs and aprons are becoming hot commodities among the community of the infirm and possessed. The plot thickens when some charlatans begin calling on the same power to try and get in on the game, and the devil who is possessing some poor bloke lets them know that while he can be exorcised by Jesus or Paul, not just anybody who rolls into town trying to horn in on the franchise can do the trick. And out of the blue the demon possesses the man to tear into the group of posers and beat the living daylights out of them, chasing them out of town, naked and bleeding. When news of this episode circulates, the people are seized with fear. When you picture this whole scene, you’d almost think it was a gonzo story written by Hunter S. Thompson for Rolling Stone. Bill Murray and Johnny Depp would have a hey day playing it out on the big screen.
But it is not a Fear and Loathing story, it is a fear and loving story – or at least a fear and believing story. When the people heard about the brouhaha, they not only feared, they held the name of the Lord in high esteem, and believed. Stories like this don’t have the same effect today. When is the last time anybody really took seriously someone claiming to have healing powers in their holy hankie? When is the last time the outrageous claims of a faith-healing exorcist offering an amazing apron created a seizure of fear among the population and brought about more esteem for the Lord? It generally provokes just the opposite, a rolling of the eyes, disdain, derision, or sympathy for the poor fools who are separated from their money in desperate hopes for some miracle similar to Paul’s.
It’s not that we aren’t seized by fear in our society. As the gonzo journalist himself wrote not too long before his death, We are turning into a nation of whimpering slaves to Fear — fear of war, fear of poverty, fear of random terrorism, fear of getting down-sized or fired because of the plunging economy, fear of getting evicted for bad debts, or suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a Terrorist sympathizer. But we aren’t afraid of the Lord. Or we don’t seem to hold the name of the Lord in very high honor when it comes to miracle working, at least in the manner described in Acts 19 and peddled over the airwaves. For me, I think I am seized by a different kind of fear, and hold the Lord’s name in high honor and believe more deeply when I see miracles of a different kind. When I experience the poor of Cuba maintaining such a rich and deep sense of God’s presence in their lives, I am seized by fear – a respectful and honoring fear of the kind of power that prefers poverty over privilege. When I see one of the Lost Boys of Sudan going back to his war-torn country so he can take on the guinea worm crisis, I am seized by fear – a respectful and honoring fear of the kind of power that calls people to trade in comfort for confrontation. When I see an undocumented Mexican mother working fingers to the bone day in and day out to provide an opportunity for her children to live free of the living hell and threat of violence they escaped from, I am seized by fear – a respectful fear of the kind of power that inspires such courage and sacrifice. If there were a handkerchief or apron that transmitted this kind of power simply through a touch, I’d be glad to have it. As it is, I’ll take my chances by touching the lives of the Cubans and the Sudanese and the Mexicans who are living proofs of a miraculous power.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.