The God Of Just One More Thing

A number of those who practised 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 19:19-20

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New Believers In Ephesus Burn Their Books Of Magic After Hearing St. Paul Preach, painting by Lucio Massari

New Believers In Ephesus Burn Their Books Of Magic After Hearing St. Paul Preach, painting by Lucio Massari

I’m part of a study group at Christ United Methodist Church. We are using a not-yet-published study by Rev. Adam Hamilton, looking at the ministry of St. Paul. This little passage in Acts has always intrigued me. Other translations read “sorcerers” rather than “those who practiced magic”. That, of course, leads to all sorts of silly pictures.

I learned something last night. Divination was common across the Roman Empire. People paid money for incantations for everything from fertility through healthy crops to just having a good day. Hamilton even showed a picture for one, written in Greek, with the instructions that the person should recite it seven times holding both thumbs, and their wish would be granted. No “books”, as presented in the painting (which looks less like ancient Ephesus and more like a Renaissance Italian city), but rather small scrolls these folks would have treasured for their protective and restorative power as well as their monetary value. Even poor families might have one or two they had scrimped and saved to purchase. Now, here they were, perhaps along with a few folks who sold these valuable little pieces of paper, tossing them on a bonfire. A drachma was a days wages, so this is a pretty hefty sum of money that’s going up in smoke.

These folks were willing to do it, however, because they realized not only that these no longer worked in their New Life. They also believed that the Father of Jesus Christ didn’t deal in quick fixes or magic tricks. All the same, I do wonder about us, today. I remember very well when my wife made the distinction for me between healing and curing. How many of us attend churches and during the time of joys and concerns, most of the prayers are for folks with illnesses? How many folks offering up those prayers are looking less for healing – the presence of the Holy Spirit that brings wholeness of body and life, restores relationships, and reminds us of the power of the presence of God in our lives – and curing, such as, say, the magical disappearance of a tumor or even chronic illness? We hear just enough stories about “miracle cures” that we figure it is possible something similar might come our way.

And I am a firm believer these things happen. When we lived in Virginia, I remember clearly a story of a young man with brain cancer, his medical care reduced to tracking the growth of the tumor in his skull and offering palliative care. One week during his regular visit, the doctor did a CT scan and discovered not only had the tumor not grown; it was gone. Not only was the tumor gone, rather than a large empty space vacated by the lethal mass was a perfectly normal, healthy brain . This last is biologically improbable, because our brain tissue does not restore and replace itself. The doctor confessed to the reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch he had never seen anything like it and that, barring any other explanation, he was willing to call it a miracle.

Then, of course, there is the pile of crutches, the line of empty wheelchairs, and other such things at Lourdes in France. Young Bernadette saw the Virgin Mary there. Soon, people started to come and some – not all but some – found radical healing there. And that healing continues. It doesn’t happen to everyone, and sometimes it isn’t as complete at others. That it happens and is an ongoing event I cannot deny.

I have no explanation for such things. I dislike the word “miracle” (another one of those words I need to do a post about sometime, but not today). It doesn’t seem right, of course, that this young man experienced this amazing reversal while other people, including other young people, suffer and die. It doesn’t seem quite right that some folks have visited the Grotto at Lourdes and found themselves walking out, while others experience . . . nothing at all. This has never seemed fair to me at all, but I have to acknowledge its reality despite my personal feelings on the matter.

Far more important and interesting, however, are all the ways we continue to practice divination in our own day. Lisa has called it “the god of Just One More Thing”. It’s the idea that, if I just had that little extra in my paycheck; if I just won the lottery; if I just had a better job; if I was just better looking/more popular; if I had Just One More Thing my life would be all I imagine it to be. For me, I know what these shiny little gods are: If I could publish something I’ve written; if I were just recognized in some other way for all the hours of work I put in; if I . . . if I . . . if I.

Recognize a pattern there?

What does the Lord require? To seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly alongside God. What does God offer in return? Why, nothing more than life, and that in abundance. When the “if only”‘s start to pile up, it might be an indication that, for all our profession of faith in God, we are actually wishing for magic to happen; should one of those things occur that is on our “if only” list, then like magic our life will be complete!

Or, perhaps, we should take that “if only” list and burn it. Before we do that, perhaps we should name it for what it is: our very own little book of divination. A little incantation we recite to ourselves – perhaps even holding both our thumbs – so that our lives will be “better”.

Divination and sorcery aren’t just things like Wicca or even Black Magic some claim to practice. They are also all the ways we look along, either wistfully or with envy, at how others have things we want, and imagine how much better our lives would be if we had them. Except, of course, those folks in Ephesus 2,000 years ago realized that our God doesn’t truck with that kind of thing. Not really. Oh, sure, there are events, eschatological moments when the power of God breaks through and people who had no hope suddenly have hope handed to them in the form of an unexplainable cure. For the most part, though, part of that whole “salvation” thing is recognizing it is this world God loves, and to this world we are tied in life, ministry, and prayer. Rather than expect magic to happen, we should toss out all those idols of “Just One More Thing” and remember whose we are, to what work we are called, and stop worrying about ourselves so much.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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