I have a heart for skeptics. I understand what that feels like. When I used to read the story of doubting Thomas, I could relate. Jesus tells him in John 20:29: “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who have yet to see and still believe.” My response to that was usually—”Well, how convenient Jesus!”
It wasn’t always this way for me. There was a time that I didn’t have any doubts at all. To be quite honest, that made me a downright scary person. I know it isn’t this way for everyone because I’ve met a great many people with a deep, deep faith who aren’t scary people. They love and serve, and their lives are completely admirable. Still, I have spent just enough of my life with a doubting Thomas inside to know skepticism and even to appreciate it.
I had an experience this summer, however, that touched me to the core. I saw God in such a way that I won’t ever need to see anything more. It sealed the deal. You may never understand how difficult it is for a naturally skeptical person to make a statement like that.
Now as a pastor, you might think I am not supposed to be, or even allowed to be, skeptical. For me, the reverse has always been true. I find that God gives me a measure of faith that seems to match the measure of my doubt. Thus, my faith has grown in direct proportion to my doubt. The deeper my doubt descends, the higher the gift of faith has ascended to overcome it. There are those day-to-day experiences that keep me chasing after God and help me realize how desperately He is always chasing after me. I’ve been wired up in a way that has me seeking Him continually, for which I am thankful.
Technically, I suppose you can say I see God in my everyday experiences….I get that and won’t quibble over vocabulary. This summer was different though. I saw God in a kind of way that I haven’t seen before. And if this is the only time I ever see Him in this light, then I know it will forever be enough.
What happened was relatively simple on the human scale of things. We took 70 teenagers to Big Ridge State Park for summer camp. I’ve always experienced God best in Nature, so by the fourth night there, I was already in a spiritual rhythm that I find hard to duplicate in the hustle and bustle of normal life.
We sat around the bonfire and listened to a woman from our church share about losing her father. It was touching, emotional, meaningful. Silence washed over the group as we contemplated the reality of death together and the promise of heaven. It was then that one young man took to his feet and sang the song, “I Can Only Imagine”—not particularly a favorite of mine, since imagination and skepticism typically don’t make nice with each other.
This particular rendition was completely off-key, and the lyrics were barely discernible. In fact, it probably wasn’t until the second chorus that I understood enough to know what he was even singing. The words and notes were shrill, nearly painful.
But this wasn’t a performance. And it wasn’t coming from just any singer. This young man was born premature, weighing only two pounds. His twin brother died at birth. As he grew up, he pushed through many challenges. Physically, the coordination of his limbs is off, making it harder for him to run, swim, or throw a baseball than for other children. He speaks with a slight speech impediment, but has such a sweet spirit about him that you can’t help but hang on every word.
When he came to his feet in that silent moment, he jutted his chest toward the moon and stars. His head tilted back and up; his toes pointed slightly inward to maintain his balance. He drew in his arms, elbows toward his ribs. His fingers were drawn up too around the middle, with his thumbs and pinky spread out wide. His tongue struggled against the roof of his mouth and you could feel him having to push every syllable out with great effort.
“Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel? Will I dance for you Jesus, or in awe of you be still.” More than simple words, this young man poured his soul to heaven at the top of his lungs. He imagined greater and in those moments, he became a giant. God’s power was perfected in weakness. There wasn’t a symphony or choir in the world capable of duplicating that kind of beauty. This could never be orchestrated, fabricated, or manipulated in a Sunday morning worship service. It was the glory of God alone.
And that was it, for me. The fullness of God saturated the night air and I saw Him with my own eyes. Were I to die today, I would never need to see anything more of God than I saw in those moments to make me completely believe. It was crystalline, clear, transcendent, perfect…it was holy.
There were others there at the bonfire, in that exact same moment in time, who didn’t have the same experience. That’s okay. There’s room for all us skeptics. There are imaginations left to hold if we choose to imagine greater. God is personal enough to craft a million experiences…you never know which of those is going to capture your heart. But when it does happen, there is not much room for anything else.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” ~ Albert Einstein
“Blessed are the pure in heart…for they will see God.” ~ Jesus
David Allred is the lead pastor of High Places Community Church, 123 Randolph Road in Oak Ridge, working alongside founding pastor Martin Fischer. High Places owns and operates the historic Grove Theater, which is also home to numerous arts organizations that share a vision for improving quality of life in Oak Ridge. For more information see http://highplaceschurch.com.