I’m not partial to faith healing and miracle stories. I like to keep my feet on the ground when talking about God. And so does my good friend Anne Hodges-Copple, who serves as rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina.
So I was a little surprised when she sent me a recent sermon that centers on what looks ostensibly like a simple story of faith and healing. It happened recently when Anne went on a church mission to Belize, in central America.
Late one night, only about ten days ago, twenty-year-old Rachel woke up in her one room house on the outermost edge of San Mateo, Belize. Her husband and two young sons were still asleep. She looked over the swamp outside the window of the tiny box of a house she and her husband had built from discarded wood planks and scrap metal. Like other rather ramshackle dwellings nearby, her house was built on piles that rose above the soft ground created by filling in the lagoon with a dubious combination of sand and trash. San Mateo was created away from any land that could be valuable to developers and to keep poor workers and their families out of the sight of the thriving tourist industry of San Pedro. Despite the beautiful multi-hued turquoise waters of the Caribbean that surrounds Ambergris Cay, Rachel and her neighbors were surrounded by brackish water, and a ground so lacking in nutrients that the hardiest shrub had a difficult go of it.
Rachel awoke because she sensed something was wrong. As she told the social worker at Holy Cross Anglican School later that day, she felt something invisible move across the swamp and into her home. She felt something dark and sinister blow into the house. She closed the board door across the window. Shortly thereafter her youngest child, three year old Ronan, woke up crying. He called out in a terrified voice that crabs were eating him. Candles were lit and the child examined by worried parents. They could find no evidence of any bites. They could find no physical source of the child’s continued cries. They tried to soothe him, but he remained listless and distressed. Rachel feared that evil spirits had come into her house perhaps, upon her child.
As usually happens in these stories, the doctors were of no use, and the family turned to the church—to Anne—for help. Her reply:
I’m Episcopalian. We might discuss demons in a Bible study, but that’s as close as I’ve gotten.” I paused, thinking to myself: what am I going to say if she asks me to perform an exorcism. “I could go and do a house blessing and a healing service for the child.”
But off she went, canoeing across a swamp to reach the afflicted family.
The family wanted Anne to bless their house with Holy Water—but Anne, for all her religious training, had no idea how to make water holy, or what procedure to follow. But she blessed some water with a baptism blessing,
I then took the sprig, dipped it in the water and began flinging water everywhere: over the door posts, inside and out. Over the windows, inside and out. I just made it up as I went along, inviting the Holy Spirit to visit the place, to drive away all sickness of mind, body and spirit. I invited the Holy Spirit to dwell in this home and abide with this family, keeping them safe from all harm. We crowed into the tiny house and blessed the stove and the kitchen table. Ronan was delighted with this shower of water being cast all over the place. He and his mother laughed as I shook the branch with the holy water over their beds and over their heads.
I then knelt down and placed my hands on Ronan and prayed for God’s healing. I then prayed over Rachel. By his time she is crying and I thought I was about to cry. But Ronan….., but Ronan was all smiles. Earlier when we first arrived his mother had asked him to sing but he shyly refused. Now, he tugged on her shirt. “I want to sing.” And as the three adult women stood there dumbstruck he proudly, carefully sang for us. “Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. All the people of God, praise the Lord.”
Anne presumes that the boy’s condition, and his cure, can be explained medically. But she also thinks she saw a miracle:
I do think I witnessed a miracle: a two part miracle. First, I saw a young poor woman with out any kind of social standing, without any kind of economical or political pull put all her trust in the Lord. She did what the Bible told her to do.… I saw a woman whose love for her child went hand in hand with her love of God.
Part two of the miracle? I saw a bond of fellowship and love that stretches across oceans and across time, across cultures and across class. I saw a miracle that has built a sanctuary of safety for the children of San Mateo. And I saw a bond of fellowship and love where a scared little boy and a priest out of her depth can sit down together and both feel the healing, cleansing power of the Holy Spirit. Those are miracles enough for me.
For me, too.
Let me add my own two cents: I have no doubt that Ronan’s condition was dire Anne would have seen that he got to the nearest hospital rather than just trust in God. But the cure that occurred here, as Anne points out, was much more than medicine could achieve. Not just bodies were healed.
As I’ve previously written, in the age of science the only way God can act in the world is if human beings make a deliberate choice to invite him in. That choice can’t be one that ignores the physical facts of the world. A true miracle does not change the world—it changes people. As George Bernard Shaw has his archbishop say in St. Joan,
A miracle, my friend, is an event which creates faith. That is the purpose and nature of miracles. They may seem very wonderful to the people who witness them, and very simple to those who perform them. That does not matter: if they confirm or create faith they are true miracles.… Frauds deceive. An event which creates faith does not deceive: therefore it is not a fraud, but a miracle.
We can live without God. My friend Anne’s story shows that there are some good reasons to choose to live with him.
You can download a pdf version of Anne’s entire sermon on the St. Luke’s sermon page–click on the sermon for Feb. 15.