Signs and Wonders

Nothing I said in What God Wants for your Life got me into more trouble than the chapter on signs and wonders:

Don’t you believe in miracles?

Don’t you believe that God is active in the world?

Don’t you believe in the power of prayer

Yes…but I don’t believe that signs and wonders are necessarily indicative of the will of God.  Sometimes the exceptional is just exceptional.

For example: I made a major move in employment some years ago — prayerfully, I might add — on the basis of what I felt God moving me to do with my life.  It was a profoundly difficult choice and rooted finally in questions of vocation.  When I told my employer that I was going to be leaving I was promptly offered a 10K raise to stay.  That, in my experience, was exceptional — one could even say, miraculous.  BUT it didn’t speak for a moment to the question of what God wanted for my life.  In fact, taking that kind offer into consideration would have been a distraction.  The right decision was much more deeply rooted in paying attention to the daily, annual, long, slow, work-filled years that lay behind me.

There are many reasons we pay more attention to the miraculous or exceptional in our lives than we do the daily, lifelong patterns — all of them understandable, some of them good, some of them bad:

We look to the miraculous because in principle we believe that God is active in the world and hears our prayers…That’s not a bad reason, but it can be easily distorted.  God is not a cosmic bellhop and life is not all about us.  We are called to serve as Christ served — we are not hear to live a lifelong, all-you-can-eat buffet.

We are afraid to have faith…all of us use training wheels on spiritual journey — experiences that bolster our faith: things that have happened to us, answers to prayers, familiar approaches to worship, Scripture.  These are good things.  But they should not be the object of our trust and confidence (a.k.a., faith).  God is the one on whom we are meant to live in ever closer dependence.  Days, weeks and years marked by the sameness of life — or, harder yet, by loss and tragedy — make it harder to live in dependence upon God.  So we look for God-sightings, the miraculous to secure our hope.  Those are the moments to cultivate a greater trust in God — whatever happens.  Training wheels are a great thing, but if you show up at the Tour de France with three wheels in back, you are not Lance Armstrong — and if, as children of God, we show up at the finishing line more dependent than ever on God’s gifts, instead of God, we will have missed the point.

We also long to experience the presence of God…In our materialistic world, where what we can see, feel, hear, touch, and smell makes the more powerful claims on our attention, it is not surprising that we look for the exceptional to reassure us that God is here.  That’s understandable.  Cultural forces and intellectual forces have left us with the impression that, if God exists at all, God is “out there” beyond the last process or molecule that we have successfully identified.  In an environment like that, we are bound to what God to “show up” with the same, tangible evidence.  The problem, though, doesn’t lie with God.  The problem is with our perceptions:

The whole of creation, material and non-material, common and exceptional, is the work of God’s creative and sustaining presence.  What could be more miraculous than the ability to see, hear and understand — to love?  What could be more miraculous than new life or the wonders of the world around us?  The Greek Orthodox church has long held — and rightly so — that we owe the miracle of our existence to God as Trinity.  The very fact that we count only the exceptional as miracle, then, constitutes one of our problems.

The other is this: If you aren’t alert to the work of God, you won’t appreciate it.  For most of us, as we mature spiritually, we have more and more of those “Why-didn’t-I-see –this-before?” moments.  And the answer, of course, lies not in the supposed absence of God, but in our awareness of God’s presence.  You can be in the best of acoustical spaces, with accomplished musicians and if you have a tin ear for music or have never cultivated a love of it, you will not appreciate the music performed.

The same is true of God’s work.  God doesn’t need to work more miracles.  We need to learn how to see.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.