Camp Meeting Miracles?

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek –

Part I

The fields should have been filled with the green of young crops. But the drought dragged on into May. And then June. In all his twelve years, John Sweeny had never seen the water level so low in the Rogerston town reservoir. Most of the feeder streams were dry. John’s parents, like all the area farmers, were doing everything they could to keep their land irrigated, but water was scarce now. Without rain the crops would fail. Some already had.

A large tent—as high as the nearby grain silos and easily twice the size of the school auditorium—had sprung up on the south side of the Rogerston fair grounds. John’s bus drove by it on the way home from school. Some of his friends were going to the revival that weekend. Rev. Pomeroy T. Walker was one of the most famous faith healers in the United States, maybe even the world. John felt a pang as he watched workers on ladders stringing lights around the tent. Every doctor he had seen had confirmed there was nothing more to do about his legs. Spinal cord injuries were like that sometimes. The nerves were severed. Faith or no faith, he would never walk again.

His neighbor, Sally Johnson, was going to the revival that night—opening night. The Johnsons were definitely believers—big time believers. After the accident, they had invited their own minister to come and lay hands on John. That was Rev. Billy Smithers, whose sparkling new church downtown could seat 3,000. John’s parents had agreed to the hand-laying, even though they weren’t big on religion. Rev. Smithers had prayed his heart out that day. So had the Johnsons. Even John’s parents seemed to catch the spirit. John felt funny at first, but then just let the energy of the words–the Jesus this and the Good Lord that—wash over him like the ocean waves he remembered from a long ago trip to beach. After an hour of prayer John still couldn’t move his legs. There was no healing that day, unless you count how the two families just seemed to be closer after that, how their friendship grew despite their different degrees of belief. That was good, thought John. Sally was an awesome friend.  She really supported him. In fact, everyone did, in ways that were unimaginable to him before the accident. Times were tough for everyone, but virtually every family in Rogerston—and some from the surrounding towns—had donated to a fund to purchase a motorized wheelchair for John. And the Board of Ed, without any public prompting, had authorized the purchase of a special bus just so John could have transportation to and from school.  “It’s the right thing to do,” the board president had said. No one had disagreed. His friends cared about him. They changed their own activities to make sure they included John.  He was so thankful—deeply thankful—for his family, his friends, and for the goodness in human hearts. That goodness has saved his life.

Part II

The next day in school, Sally was walking on air. “John, you have to get your parents to take you.  Rev. Walker is amazing. These people who haven’t been able to see in years—he smacks their eyes and they can see.”

“Who?” asked John. He knew everybody in town—even people in the surrounding towns. He didn’t know anyone who was blind. “Who were these people?”

“Oh, one came from Indianapolis, I think. And a man all the way from Chicago, Rev. Walker cured his blood sugar. And, John, a young woman from Gary—she had a spinal cord injury—like you. Rev. Walker smacked her in the shoulders. She shook for a while and then she stood up and walked!  John, you have to go!”

“Anyone from Rogerston get healed?” asked John.

Sally thought for a brief moment. “No. But you have to get your parents to bring you.”


That afternoon John’s bus driver was happy to stop at the fair grounds and wait while John went to see Rev. Pomeroy T. Walker. The staff at the tent seemed cold and evasive. The sight of a kid in a wheelchair made them visibly anxious.  Eventually someone agreed to bring John to Rev. Walker’s tour bus though, as he put it, “I’m not makin? any promises. Rev. Usually takes a nap around this time a day.”

Rev. Walker didn’t seem too excited to see John either.  John noticed the way he glared at the man who had brought him over to the bus. He asked the man to leave them alone so he could speak to John privately.

“Look,” he said quietly but sternly. “It’s obvious why you’re here.” John raised his hand to interrupt but Rev. Walker kept talking. “And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there ain’t no way you’re gonna get healed. Not under this tent at least.”

“But you haven’t heard what I want healed,” said John.

“I don’t have to hear. It’s not gonna happen.”

“How can you say that?”

“Kid, I’m gonna level with ya. None of this is real. None of it. It’s all staged. It’s theater.”

John was silent, thinking. He thought about Sally Johnson and how much she believed in Rev. Walker. He thought about all the farm families. “We all really hurtin’ here, ya know.”

“Of course you are. People are hurtin? everywhere. They were hurtin? before the recession. And they’ll be hurtin? after. Life hurts. You think my life don’t hurt?”

“But that’s no excuse to lie. People pay you money because they believe you have a power. They love you.”

“It’s not lying. It’s entertaining. And most of ‘me know it anyways.  They pay for a wonderful feeling. They pay to put their misery aside for a while. They pay to feel hopeful for once in their lives. They pay because when they come to my show, they feel more alive than they’ve felt in a long time. And that’s good for „me. It’s good for „me to feel faithful, really faithful. That’s what gets people through hurt and hard times.”

“So why are you telling me? Don’t you think I’m gonna tell everyone else what you said?”

“Be my guest, kid. This happens at every show. They ain’t gonna believe you. Or if they do, they ain’t gonna let it get in their way of feeling happy. I don’t know what happened to your legs, kid, but my advice to you, and I really mean this, is learn to be thankful for what you have. Your family and your friends. Your mind. Just be thankful you’re alive.”

“I am thankful,” said John. “And the funny thing is, I’m really not much of a believer—at least not in Jesus and the Good Lord. But I know I saw a miracle once, the way things worked out after my accident. And I guess I do have faith miracles can happen, even if you don’t. Thanks for at least telling me the truth.” And with that he turned his chair around and went back to the bus.


Sally was waiting for him when he got home. “John. We’re all going to the revival tonight. Rev. Smithers got tickets for you and your parents.  And I’m going with you.”

Homily: Faith, Even In the Unimaginable

Two Sundays ago I said some things about faith, and then I said them again when I met with the children last week. I said being a person of faith does not require us to believe in the unbelievable. I said being a person of faith does not require us to believe in something for which we find no reliable evidence.  Being a person of faith, for me, means looking to our own deepest experience and finding there the things we can trust, the things upon which we can rely, the things that inspire confidence and courage in us. I draw this understanding of faith from a number of sources but it comes most directly from the work of American Buddhist practitioner Sharon Salzberg.[1]

I still offer that definition of faith to you as the best one I have. But I want to make sure there is room in that definition for a certain quality or kind of experience that doesn’t typically sit well with the rational mind. What happens when you look to your own deepest experience, and you find something there that is completely and utterly real to you—you know it happened—but you can’t explain it? You can’t prove it. You’re not quite sure what it means. At times you can barely believe it yourself. Your experience is the only evidence you have—and not every authority agrees with your experience.

One example might be the story Colleen Richard told from this pulpit last week about her near-death-experience as a child after being hit head-on by a car.  She experienced being out of her body and speaking with a friend who, if I remember correctly, coaxed her back to her body. Yet the friend was not physically there. I’m talking about experiences which are, to some degree, unimaginable. We might call them mysteries. We might call them miracles. Luck. Coincidence. Serendipity. Magic. My rational, analytical mind says, “you certainly can’t rely on miracles happening when you want them to.” But the part of me that is faithful says “miracles are possible.” In a recent poem called, oddly enough, “Evidence,” the poet Mary Oliver says: “keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”[2]

Or listen to this also-recent poem from Mary Oliver called “Mysteries, Yes.” She writes:  “Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous / to be understood.  How grass can be nourishing in the / mouths of lambs. / How rivers and stones are forever / in allegiance with gravity / while we ourselves dream of rising. / How two hands touch and the bonds will / never be broken. / How people come, from delight or the / scars of damage, / to the comfort of a poem. / Let me keep my distance, always, from those who think they have the answers. / Let me keep company with those who say / „Look!? and laugh in astonishment,/ and bow their heads.”[3]

In our story this morning, I think John Sweeny has this kind of faith. When the Rev. Pomeroy T. Walker, the great faith healer, says it’s all fake, I think he strikes John as someone who, in Mary Oliver’s words, has all the answers.  And his big answer is there’s no such thing as faith healing (“I’m a faith healer, I should know”).  It’s all made up. But something unimaginable had happened to John. In the very least it was something he and his family hadn’t expected, and it changed their lives. It saved their lives. It was the way people had gathered around them after the accident; the way people had supported them. It was the goodness in human hearts. That, in John’s experience, was a miracle. It made him, at age twelve, a person full of gratitude, full of thankfulness. So even when Rev. Walker says of his revival, “it’s not real,” John clings to his own experience. He knows it is possible for miracles to happen. He can’t explain it. He can’t prove it. But he knows it in his bones. It’s not that miracles will happen, but that they can happen. For me that is part of faith: staying open to possibility. And that, truly, is why faith matters.

It is my hope and my prayer, as we conclude this Thanksgiving weekend and formally enter into the holiday season with all its joys and all its stresses, that we each find that space, that openness; that we each, in our own way, in our own words, say with Mary Oliver, “Mysteries, Yes;” that we each keep, in the very least, some small bit of room in our hearts for the unimaginable.

Amen and Blessed be.

Part III

Rev. Walker was not pleased when he saw John coming down the aisle in his wheelchair in the middle of the revival. John saw the flash of anger in his eyes. Standing next to John at the foot of the stage, Sally was practically in another world, screaming at the top of her lungs, “Heal this boy. Heal my friend. Please Rev. Walker. Please God. Please Jesus. Please make him walk.” Rev. Walker ignored them for a while and went on with the show, but the people sitting around them began to join in with Sally. A chant started, “heal the boy. Heal the boy. Heal the boy. Heal the boy.”

Rev. Walker finally paused his routine and very confidently—and theatrically—hopped off the front of the stage and stood beside John and Sally. A silence fell over the crowd. Rev. Walker put a hand on John’s shoulder and spoke into his microphone: “Brothers and sisters I know this boy. His name’s John. He came to see me just this afternoon. He wants healing. But he said he’s not much of a believer. So, I told him the truth.” The crowd started up with some amens and preach- it-brothers. “If he really wants healing, don’t come to me. Come to God.” The crowd erupted in applause. “It can’t be about me and my faith. It’s about John and John’s faith.” The crowd became ecstatic. And then Rev. Walker looked right at John and screamed, “Boy you gotta believe. I can’t help you if you don’t believe.” He paused. “If you have faith, you will walk. Get up. Walk.” The crowd went wild.

“I didn’t come here so I could get up and walk,” said John. No one could hear him, not even Rev. Walker. The crowd was making too much noise. But the Rev. waved his hand to silence the crowd. It was quiet again.

“What did you say?” asked the Rev.  One hand was still on John’s shoulder.

John didn’t answer. He looked up towards the top of the tent. There were tears in his eyes, but his mouth had broken into a big smile.  There was a new sound inside the tent, a low rumble, an unmistakable, beautiful, life-giving, life-saving sound.

Someone laughed in astonishment.  Someone else shouted from the back of the room: “Look!” It’s raining.” And it was. It was pouring down rain. Some bowed their heads, grateful beyond measure.

John looked at Rev. Walker and spoke just to him. “That’s why I came, sir.” For once, Rev. Walker had no answer. “That’s my faith, sir,” said John. “It’s pretty simple. Real miracles do sometimes happen.” He turned his chair around, and went back up the aisle.

[1] Salzberg, Sharon, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience (New York: Riverhead Books, 2002).

[2] Oliver, Mary, “Evidence” Evidence (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009) p. 43.

[3] Oliver, Mary, “Mysteries, Yes” Evidence (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009) p. 62.