Back in the 1920’s a daredevil named Blondin walked a tightrope across Niagara Falls. Not only did he walk a tightrope; he also pushed a wheelbarrow across Niagara Falls! The crowd that gathered around him chanted his name: “Blondin! Blondin! Blondin!”, and they shouted for an encore: “Do it again, Blondin!” “Do you believe I can do it?” he shouted back to the cheering crowd. “Yes, we believe! We believe! We believe you can do it, Blondin!” “Who among you believers will get in the wheelbarrow and let me wheel you back across the Falls?” (The crowd grew strangely quiet…)
…Well Blondin, it’s one thing to believe enough to risk your life; it’s quite another thing to believe enough to risk mine!
It’s easy to believe as long as it’s not your body hanging out over the falls! But then, if you’re not willing to put your body out over the falls, you don’t really believe. Not in the Christian sense, at least. Because for the Christian, belief isn’t something you do with your head so much, as something you do with your whole self.
Dr. John Paton was a missionary in the New Hebrides Islands off of Australia. He wanted to translate the Gospel of John into the aborignal language, but as he worked with the language, he found that there was no word which meant ‘believe’. The word ‘believe’ just didn’t exist in that language.
Now, in the Gospel of John, the word ‘believe’ appears more than 90 times. You cannot translate the Gospel of John if you don’t have a word for ‘believe’, so Dr. Paton put his manuscript away- a lost cause.
Sometime later, a fellow worker came into Dr. Paton’s office. He was an aboriginal pastor who had been out in the hills preaching, and he was dog tired. He plopped down into one chair, stuck his feet on another, and sighed. He then used an aboriginal word which meant, “I am resting my whole weight on these 2 chairs”. There was one word which meant all of that: ‘I am resting my whole weight upon’. There was the word which could translate believe- the key to the Gospel of John: “I am resting my whole weight upon.” Complete trust. Complete abandon. No other support: I am resting my whole weight upon… Jesus.
It’s like that old gospel hymn: What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms. However you say it- leaning on the everlasting arms; resting your whole weight on; believing- it’s still just as easy as putting your body in a wheelbarrow and being rolled over Niagra Falls!
Consider the situation in today’s gospel, when a father brings his son to Jesus to be healed. Ever since he was small, the boy has been afflicted with convulsions like epileptic fits that would often endanger his life. The man was desperate to heal his son- but is such healing possible? Lord, I want to believe; O, Lord, I would do anything you ask if only you would heal my son… Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.
Does this sound familiar? The young woman struck by a car, lying in a coma in the hospital. Her mother and father pray by her bedside: Lord, we’ll do anything you ask us- just heal her. We believe… and yet… and yet that sinking black hole at the pit of our stomachs… Lord, help our unbelief.
I have this problem. I am praying by the bedside of a person who, before the stroke, before the cancer, before the accident, was a vital, lively person. I know in my heart that God does not want God’s children to suffer. I know that God wants us whole and healed- the same as any parent wants their children to be whole and healed. I know it… but what if I pray, and they are not healed? What if I get the family’s hopes up… and nothing happens?
And so sometimes I pray a lukewarm, dishwater prayer: “If it is Your Will, Lord, heal them.” We really like to pray that dishwater prayer, “If it is Your will God”, because that lets both God and us off the hook- if our sister is not raised from her clinical depression; if our spouse is not raised from their addiction. “If it is Your will, God…”
It’s not just our personal problems that this applies to, either. 17 high school kids killed in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 15. In a month and a half, there have been 7 intentional school shootings. It’s 9 if you count 2 gun suicides.
Since a gunman killed 20 first graders and 6 adults with an assault rifle at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, there have been at least 239 school shootings, with 438 people shot, and 138 people killed. And we are appalled, but we feel powerless. And when we pray, we feel powerless, because God hasn’t done anything, and the death toll keeps mounting.
There’s a scene from Through the Looking Glass, when little Alice in Wonderland just cannot force herself to believe some things. The Queen replies in patronizing tones, “Can’t you? Try again. Draw a deep breath and close your eyes.” “There’s no use trying,” said Alice. “One can’t believe impossible things.”
If most of us are honest, there is something deep inside of us which cries out for healing- but which also cries out- ‘Lord, I want to believe, but I just can’t!’ ‘I have breathed deeply, and I have closed my eyes, and I have tried and tried…
And so we pray, “If it is Your will, God…”, not really believing that anything will change. The father in the Gospel story prays a dishwater prayer like that: “If you are able, have pity and help us.” And what does Jesus say? “If I am able??!!?? All things can be done for the one who believes!” The man is shocked! You mean, you really think you can do something? Immediately, he cries out, “I believe! Help my unbelief!”
I have a great deal of respect for the father in this Gospel story. He knew he was only going on a pipedream.
I want it, Lord. I want it with all my heart. But it has never worked before. And I’ve been hurt so bad, Lord- lifting up my hopes, only to have them crushed. Look, Lord, IF you are able…
But then Jesus rebukes him: “Look, if you’re going to ask Me, assume that I am able. Take the jump. Take the leap. All things are possible for those who rest their whole weight on Me.”
And so the man does. “I believe, Lord. I’m jumping. And You already know the truth about me, so help my unbelief. Fill in the gaps, Lord, because there are a lot of gaps. But with all I am, I’m jumping.
Those Florida high school kids that have jumped into the role of our nation’s conscience- they believe. When the media hype dies down, and they are left facing powers far greater than their own, they may need to say, like that father, ‘now help my unbelief.’ They will need a power greater than their own when their belief falters, and they must cry out to God, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
The psychologist William James wrote a book called “Faith and Happiness”. In it, he pictures a man who comes to a wide crevasse as he climbs a mountain. He can’t turn back; his only option is to leap over the crevasse.
If he has faith that he can make the jump and leaps confidently across the abyss, he has a greater likelihood of landing safely on the far side to continue his climb.
If, on the other hand, he doubts his ability to leap the chasm… if he is sure he will fail… the chances are strong that when at last he launches himself into the air with a terrible despair, the man will tumble into the abyss, the victim of his doubts.
It is the same man, with the same muscles, the same reflexes. But in one instance he says, “With all I am, I’m jumping”; and in the other instance he says, “I’m jumping, but you can’t make me commit all the way.”
The one brings life, the other brings death. Lord, I want to believe; with all I am, I rest myself in you. And Lord, help my unbelief. With all I am, Lord; with all I have, I’m yours.
And you know, dear friends, God is on our side. God wants us to make it. God helps us to make it. But only we can make the jump.
Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms. Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.
In the name of the One who will never let us go; even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Resource: Gun Violence Archive
Scripture for Feb. 25, 2018
Jesus, Peter and John had just come down from the mountain where they had seen Jesus transfigured in His glory, speaking to Moses and Elijah.
When they reached the valley, they saw a great crowd around the other 10 disciples. Religious scholars were cross-examining them. As soon as the people in the crowd saw Jesus, they ran up to him excitedly. Jesus asked, “What’s going on? What’s all the commotion?” A man in the crowd yelled out,“ Rabbi, a demon has made my son speechless. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and goes stiff as a board. I asked your disciples to help him, but they couldn’t. Jesus was chagrined, and had the man bring his son over. When the demon saw Jesus, it threw the boy into a seizure, causing him to writhe on the ground and foam at the mouth. Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has this been going on?” The father replied, “Ever since he was a little boy. The demon pitches him into fire, or tries to drown him in the river. If you can do anything, have mercy on us and do it!” Jesus replied, “If? There are no ‘ifs’ among believers. Anything can happen.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the father cried, “Then I believe! Help me with my doubts!” Seeing that the crowd was forming fast, Jesus commanded the demon, “You spirit of torment! Come out of this boy, and don’t come back!” Screaming and thrashing about, the demon left the boy. The boy was pale as a corpse, so people started saying, “He’s dead!” But Jesus took the boy’s hand, raising him up, and the boy stood on his own two feet.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.