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~ "I Do Believe But Not Really" ~

The telephone was invented in 1876 and President Hayes was informed of Alexander Bell’s work. The president responded, “That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?” Western Union wrote this internal memo in the same year: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” In 1899 Charles Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office, closed the department because he concluded, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Henry Ford’s lawyer was advised, in 1903, by the Michigan Savings Bank against investing in the mass production of Ford’s invention. The bank president claimed, “The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.”

Lord Kevin was the president of England’s Royal Society in 1895. He proclaimed, “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” No less a genius inventor as Thomas Edison observed, “It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the aeroplane...have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere.” Marshal Ferdinand Foch was the supreme allied commander of the American, French and British forces during World War I. In considering military strategy, he remarked, “Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value.”

Inventor Lee de Forest is the “Father of Radio”. In 1926 he said, “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.” The director of Twentieth Century Fox Studios in 1946 asserted, “Television won’t be able to hold onto a market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” (This writer wishes they would.)

ENIAC was the first digital computer, built in 1949. It took up an entire city block. That computer combined with all the rest in the entire world up until 1960 had less computing power than today’s digital clock. Engineers back then were optimistic though. The “Popular Mechanics” magazine predicted computers would become smaller and more efficient: “Computers in the future may weigh no more than one and a half tons.” Most readers reacted, “Not in my lifetime!”

Thomas Watson was chairman of IBM in 1943. His educated opinion was, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Five years later, the Science Digest asserted, “Landing and moving around the moon offers so many serious problems for human beings that it may take science another 200 years to lick them.” We know computers are essential in space exploration and computers were regarded as a purely scientific tool. Ken Olsen was the founder and president of Digital Equipment Corporation. Only twenty seven years ago, in 1977, he declared, “There is no reason for any individuals to have a computer in their home.”

When encountering the vision of possibilities, there were always the multitudes that exclaimed, “That’s never going to happen...Impossible...Mere fantasy.” This prevalent perspective of the masses is expected and of little import on human achievement. But the denials of what could and will be by those I cited above were not “common people” of impoverished vision and imagination. These people were visionaries, scientific, technological and economic entrepreneurs whose accomplishments in their fields were notably remarkable. Self-assured and confident, backed by respectable reputations, they blundered terribly in their predictions and declarations. In their day, however, most people believed them.

Most people believed the Berlin Wall was as permanent as the Great Wall of China. Most people asserted the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would grow into an empire that would dominate Europe and the US. Their fall wasn’t even gradual or foreseeable except by a few people of great faith and prayer-fueled vision. As with technological advances, their future arrived ahead of its time.

Some of us readers were told by authorities we would never recover from a fatal illness, or that we would never get out of prison, or that a divinely inspired calling or vision could never happen and we should “face reality.” Authorities like to define and declare “reality” for the rest of us. When people argue for their perceived limitations, they then own them. We need not buy them, however.

The only declarer of reality is God, the Maker of heaven and earth. Several times a Voice booming upon the Christ exclaimed, “This is my Beloved, listen to Him.” Jesus’ mother, Mary, anticipating a reality unexpected by any one else at a marriage celebration, told the food and wine preparers, “Just do whatever He tells you.”

Does not the father of John the Baptizer come to mind? Zechariah was a temple priest whose wife was Elizabeth, “But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years” (Luke 1:7). The priest had obviously prayed about this for years since an angel appeared to him with the news, “Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you are to give him the name John” (Luke 1:13). Evidently, he lost hope over the years because he challenged the word of the Lord given through the angel: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (Luke 1:18). This temple priest (and no doubt his wife also) prayed for a son and maybe he was still praying in his old age in decreasing faith, then no less than an angel informed him his prayer was heard and fulfilled, and he raises a challenge. The angel was certainly irked by this, and having yet not identified himself as one of the highest rank, the same one sent to announce Christ’s birth to Mary, becomes more formal and admonishing: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time” (Luke 1:19-20).

Another illustrative event begins with an inquiry Jesus made to a father of a demon-possessed youth: “How long has he been like this?” (Mark 9:21). The father replied “from childhood” and added, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (Mark 9:22b). Oops. Not quite the thing to say to the Son of God. Jesus’ response reminds us of the annoyance of the archangel Gabriel: “’If you can?’” He quoted the father’s words in an obvious sense of dismay, as though to say, “What are you thinking, ‘If you can?’?”

Jesus followed that with, “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Without entering contemplatively into the story, the beauty and power of the divine encountering the human are lost on us. Jesus put that father into such a tizzy that he contradicted himself in the same sentence: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

That brings to my mind a memorable scene in the film “The Wizard of Oz” when the lion is despairingly sobbing to his clenched tail, unconvincingly, “I do believe, I do believe, I do believe!” when he really doesn’t. The afflicted youth’s father’s first desperate cry to solicit Jesus’ help was “Of course, I believe!” That assertion fell apart as soon as he heard himself exclaim it. Of course he couldn’t lie to the Incarnate God or to himself. So, in honesty, he begged, “Help me overcome my unbelief!” Jesus did, not by discussion, lecture, admonishment or further questioning. Jesus did the impossible, what His own disciples couldn’t do, and restored the afflicted youth to full health and freedom, handing him over to his unbelieving father, who then believed.

Particularly in the last few years of my life, when secular, medical, and even ecclesiastic authorities proclaim a dictate, a “this-is-the-way-it-is” or a “this-is-what’s-going-to-happen” declaration, I take great solace in practicing prayerful discernment: From where is this declaration coming? From God, for whom all things are possible and knowable, or humans, whose assertions and declarations throughout history have often crumbled in the loving and just gaze of the Maker of all?

In the Hindu religious tradition there is a concept termed “maya.” From the ancient Sanskrit this is typically but badly translated as “illusion.” A partial understanding is that “all is illusion that which is not grounded in the divine.” Westerners who think they understand this poke fun, such as asking, “If all is illusion, why don’t Hindus meditate on railroad tracks?” Let’s not laugh too quickly in ignorance. The apostle Paul wrote about “seeing things darkly, as if in a mirror.” The image in a mirror is an illusion, a reversal of what is a surface, exterior image whose quality depends on the lighting and the mirror. We are taught to not believe what we see in the mirror as reality. Whatever humans declare is illusionary, finite, transient and aptly described by the Native American image of “like the misty breath of a buffalo in the winter cold.” We best believe in, trust in, depend upon, stake our peace and livelihoods on the declarations of God, for He is the only declarer of reality for us or anyone.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
~ Education, Research and Advocacy
   in the Christian Faith ~

Spiritual Resource Services  © February 13, 2004

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