It would be hard to list all the reasons why it's better to be a believer than a nonbeliever. One reason, perhaps not always fully appreciated, is that it is more fun. Some of us find endless amusement, and edification, in trying to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the lives of others.
What is just coincidence, what is wishful thinking, what are true signs of the presence and working of the Spirit?
My students frequently tell me that they just don't know what God wants of them. This is a completely understandable perplexity in those facing transitions such as moving on from university to whatever is next in their lives. I tell them that as much as we would like it, God doesn't put notes in our mailboxes giving us marching orders. Yet, most of us know what we should be doing today and tomorrow and maybe for some time ahead, and that should be enough. File this application, pay these bills, write this paper, mow the lawn, make this phone call. And then in a few days it is clear what we are supposed to do next. And life goes on.
Yet sometimes God sends us such obvious signs that one would think they could make believers of nonbelievers. Often I refer to these events as “Notes Signed by the Holy Spirit.” A friend of mine recently experienced a rather spectacular example.
Ruth goes the extra mile for anyone and the extra 500 miles for her friends. One of her friends is Father Lancelot McGrath who has won the hearts and devotion of many. Father Lancelot McGrath has the strength of an ox, as Homer would say, but bad knees. There is one particular kind of shoe that gives him some relief.
So, living now in Padua, Italy, he asks the ever-ready-to-help Ruth to buy him a new pair of these knee-saving shoes. (Or soul-saving soles!)
Several difficulties attend this task, one being that the particular style needed is no longer manufactured. Well, for most of us that might seem an insuperable problem, but not for the aptly named Ruth. No, Ruth surfs the Internet and makes a bushel of phone calls and eventually finds some cooperative chap who is willing to go into the bowels of a warehouse and find the last pair in stock.
The next challenge is that the Italian post will not transport shoes made in other countries. (Talk about a powerful lobby!) So Ruth must find a courier to get the shoes to Padua. Weeks go by, until one day, when emerging from a very early morning Mass at St. Luke's in Irving, Texas, Ruth sees a dapper gentleman with attaché case standing at the curbside. Since there are no signs of life anywhere around, Ruth asks if she might assist him. He says he is waiting for a cab.
Hearing a slight accent, Ruth asks him where he is from; “Italy,” he says. She asks where in Italy. “Padua.” “Padua! Would you happen to know a Father Lancelot McGrath?” “Why, yes. He is a very good friend of mine.”
That should be enough to convince us that God “numbers all the hairs of our head” (Luke 12:7), but there's more. The Italian visitor was particularly pleased that this encounter took place at St. Luke's because as a physician, an urolo-gist, he has a particular devotion to St. Luke, patron saint of physicians, and because St. Luke's body is interred in the cathedral at Padua.
Ruth has a special devotion to urologists because one saved her husband from a life-threatening tumor not so long ago.
Ruth, of course, invited her new friend to dinner, along with a couple of her old friends, who are never foolish enough to decline any invitation to her table no matter how last-minute. One of the guests at the dinner was Lupita Assad, a nurse who directs medical missions.
Currently she is planning a mission to Africa and hopes to locate some doctors from Italy to participate. Well, yes, the doctor from Padua was ready to help find willing physicians. Enlisting his help was made all the easier by the fact that Lupita was going to be in Padua only one week from this very day — to visit Father Lancelot, the originator of the medical missions project! Would she stay with the doctor and his wife?
So bad knees led to a need for shoes, whose delivery was facilitated by a meeting outside of St. Luke's, a meeting that led to medical care for ailing folks in Africa.
Hmm. What would a nonbeliever make of such an incident? What would a determinist or a materialist make of it? What happened here was not just a “note” but a Neon Sign, the better to be seen, one supposes, by those mostly groping in the dark — meaning all of us. Can anything but divine intervention explain what happened?
While God only rarely knocks people off their horses or parts the clouds and speaks to us, we should not fail to be attentive to his signs — and to allow ourselves to be dazzled and delighted by them.
Janet Smith is professor of philosophy at the University of Dallas.