17 January 2004

The faith of a child

Last summer I wrote of the sad article in Atlantic Monthly by one Philip Wentworth, who lost his christian faith at Harvard in the 1920s. Shortly thereafter I wrote of my own grandfather, who, though baptized and confirmed a Lutheran, found it difficult, and perhaps ultimately impossible, to believe. These are haunting stories and one can hardly fail to be affected by them in some fashion. However, these stories are far from being my own. I have always found it more difficult not to believe. I have sometimes thought that, if Christianity were one day to be proscribed and if in a moment of weakness, like the apostle Peter, I were to deny the faith, even my persecutors would be able to see through it. They would know I was not speaking from the heart. I would have Christianity written all over me. Indeed I cannot remember a time when I was not aware of belonging to Christ.

Only a few close friends thus far know of the following incident from my early childhood. Even now I post it here with some hesitation.

At age 5 something occurred that I have come to see as a seminal experience in my pilgrimage. One day the index finger on my right hand became severely infected. Within hours the infection had worked its way under my fingernail, pushing it away from the finger itself. My parents took me to the doctor. I cried mightily as he removed the fingernail and treated the infection. I can no longer recall the precise treatment, but I imagine he must have given me an antibiotic of some sort. For the next few weeks I also had to soak the affected area in epsom salts dissolved in water on a regular basis.

The doctor told me and my parents that the fingernail would almost certainly never grow back and I would have to get used to not having it. My parents reiterated this to me, carefully explaining the likely adverse result of the infection. More than four decades later, I can no longer recall what prompted me to say this, but I told them with complete certainty that they were wrong and that God would make it grow back. Over the following weeks they kept trying to explain to me as carefully as they could the doctor's prognosis. And each time I would tell them calmly that, no, it would indeed grow back.

I cannot say how much time passed after this, but at some point my mother noticed hard tissue beginning to grow where the nail had once been. Sure enough, it was a new nail. My mother and father both expressed amazement. I calmly took it in stride. After all, I had told them, hadn't I? The nail would be coming back in, and indeed it did. The doctor was just as amazed as my parents when he saw it. But I was not.

Afterwards I didn't think much about this event from my sixth year. After all, the healing of a fingernail is a rather small matter in the larger scheme of things. It was not as though I had been healed of blindness or cancer. I went to school, graduated from university, pursued graduate studies, and got the job I have now. I was probably in my 30s before I really understood the significance of what had happened. It now seems evident that I had indeed known that God would heal my finger completely, but I can no longer recall how I knew it. To be sure, I had been brought up on the stories of Jesus healing the paralytic, the blind, the lepers, and so on, so I knew it was possible. But I had no reason to think it would happen to me. There was no audible voice that I recall.

I have had only a very few such experiences throughout the course of my life. They certainly do not happen every day or even every year. Like the stereotypical Reformed Christian, I am more likely to hear God speaking through the reading and the preaching of the Word. I am not one to expect the extraordinary. I have little patience with those who believe they can somehow manipulate God's healing power for their own chosen ends. Yet sometimes God does indeed choose to manifest his presence in startling, unexpected ways that cause us to sit up and take notice, even if it takes years actually to sink in. But it comes by his grace and in his time, not ours.

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