Playing at the gospel or living it?

Psalms 146, 147 (Morning)

Psalms 111, 112, 113 (Evening)

Numbers 27:12-23

Acts 19:11-20

Mark 1:14-20

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.

Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit said to them in reply, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded. When this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised. Also many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices. A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.–Acts 19:11-20 (NRSV)

One of my favorite circus acts when I was a kid (next to the wild animal acts) were the acrobats and jugglers–particularly the ones who spun plate after plate on sticks, while doing things like riding unicycles or tumbling, passing the whirling sets of dinner plates back and forth to each other. The ringmaster always cautioned, “Children, don’t try this at home!”–and of course, I always DID try it at home when I thought no one was looking, but at least I was smart enough to use the Melmac polymer resin plates. Deep down inside, I knew there probably wasn’t a very strong career track in northeast Missouri for professional plate spinning acrobats, but I still knew I could have some fun “playing at it,” and could get a little bit of dexterity acquiring at least the basic skills. Probably about the most I got out of that activity was in my medical clinical training years, when we were standing around looking bored, waiting for rounds to start, I would entertain the team with my skill at spinning my reflex hammer on my finger and tossing it into the air, or balancing my tuning fork on my nose.

Our itinerant exorcists in Acts today, however, didn’t really understand the difference between playing at Christianity vs. actually doing it, and the result was being beaten to a naked, bloody pulp by someone possessed by an evil spirit. Those seven sons of Sceva the High Priest had probably seen some of the real miracles that were occurring through Paul and the apostles and they thought, “Hey, we could have some fun with that, and who knows? Maybe we’ll make a little money at it, besides. It’s a lot more fun than sweeping up in the temple.” They were probably thinking otherwise while they were licking their wounds and enduring the local gossip about their failed endeavor.

But something interesting happened as a result of this story making the rounds. Many other people who were just playing at miracles became true believers, and part of their evangelism as Christians was to confess that they were fakes and charlatans. They began to put away the tools of their old self and start their new life in Christ.

It reminds me of the old saw of how “Mission changes the missioner.” I imagine that many of us somewhere along the spiritual growth curve, have had experiences in the process of doing mission work where we realized up to a particular moment we had only been playing at it. For some odd reason, when we imagine ourselves doing things like volunteering in disaster areas or feeding the hungry, or finding and distributing items to the needy, our “do-gooder” gene seems to block that part out about actually being affected by what we see in the process. We don’t really process all the realities of the people we are helping. Then all of a sudden we begin to get a glimpse what the people we are helping are going through, or we begin to see just how oppressively overwhelming a natural disaster or poverty-ridden situation really is, and we feel pretty small and hopeless about our ability to change a single thing. We begin to feel a little naked and bruised about no longer being a tourist, but being emotionally involved in a deeper way than we intended. We begin to experience a certain degree of futility about things. In fact, a recent study showed that 80% of volunteers in natural disasters will be emotionally affected by their care-GIVING experience, and experience some (usually) temporary symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their volunteer work.

Well, the reality is that much of it, we can’t change. Hurricanes will still blow, and slums will still exist, and people will be tragically affected by our broken world. But what we can do is what the repentant magicians did–tell our stories. Rather than try to fit that mythical mold of shiny, happy, cookie-cutter Christians, we can tell the truth about how the brokenness we see in our mission efforts affect us. We can emotionally and prayerfully support those who do mission as well as giving our financial support. We can simply be with the rawness of those suffering from the pain in the world when our heart of hearts knows we can’t fix a thing.

What can others learn from your stories of learning to live the Gospel rather than just playing at it?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Past Posts