My latest article for the Orange County Record
One of my professors in seminary once said that he did not believe in atheists. He didn’t mean that he did not believe that there were people in the world who did not believe in God or a higher power. During his lecture he said, “There is no such thing as an ‘atheist’ every person is ‘a theist.’ Every person has faith in something.”
If you think about it, it is a true statement. We have faith that our doctor will know proper procedures and treatment options. We have faith that people driving vehicles will follow the rules of the road ensuring our safety. We have faith that when go to a restaurant that our food will be prepared well and that we will not get sick a food borne illness.
Every person whether they are a practicing Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic or atheist has had to wrestle with the notion of faith and to what extent their faith will impact their life. Faith for some practitioners is deeply integrated it into their lives (eating Kosher, strict dress code, daily prayer). Some have chosen to place that faith in a theology, a teaching, a book or themselves. Faith is something that permeates all of humanity, in every place, in every culture and in every time period.
Being a Christian minister I am particular interested the ways that Christians from all walks of life are sharing and understanding their faith. There was story in the Washington Post that peeked my interest. (You can read it by going to http://wapo.st/LA4Vyl)
In West Virginia, a minister was killed due to a rattlesnake bite. Pastor Mark Wolford died after handling a snake in a small church service. In some states this particular worship expression is illegal but not in West Virginia. For members of Wolford’s church, they believe they are being deeply committed to the Bible. They take Mark 16:17-18 quite literally. It reads: “These signs will be associated with those who believe: they will throw out demons in my name. They will speak in new languages. They will pick up snakes with their hands. If they drink anything poisonous, it will not hurt them. They will place their hands on the sick, and they will get well.”
Snake handling is nothing new to modern Christian faith expression. In 1995, Dennis Convington wrote a book about his experience of snake handling in churches in Alabama. In his text, “Salvation on Sand Mountain” he dives into the world of snake handling. In one particular church the congregants would drink arsenic to show their faith in God. Is this what God asks from God’s followers? If we do not believe that having faith of a mustard seed can actually move Mount Fuji, then why apply this text so literally? Do I not have as much faith has those followers of Christ in West Virginia because I do not worship with animals?
Did Pastor Wolford lack faith? Was his faith not enough? Some would say ‘yes’ because he tried to follow the teachings of the Bible and still ended up dying. Others would say ‘no’ because he was bit by a venomous snake and the appropriate medicines were not administered in time. For me, I believe that Pastor Wolford truly believed that the God of all creation would protect him and that his faith was the cure all to poisons that he might encounter. This makes Christianity the “magic bullet” for everything bad in one’s life. When does faith turn into wishful thinking? I have faith that God is a God that cares for me and my family. But I am not expecting God to send angels to save me if I try to jump the roof of my house. No amount of faith would be adequate in trying to save my life. Becoming a Christian does not mean that everything thing bad in one’s life is magically going to go away. This makes Christianity a religion of give and take; I give to God and take what God gives to me. I give God my faith, God will give me a clean bill of health. This makes Christianity superficial and self-centered.
Pastor Wolford and his followers have taken into their hands (literally) their faith. For them their faith is a tool of salvific proportions. Yes I believe in miracles and the power of the Holy Spirit, but I am not totally convinced that waving a snake around the sanctuary and hoping that God would intervene if the snake got mad is what God is advocating. In our lives we will have varying expressions of faith: words of songs will mean more, scriptures will reveal to us the understanding of how God has acted in the past and how humanity has reacted, worship will revive our soul and on and on.
Faith is not static and at its core it is quite difficult. This is why many people do not begin the journey.