1 Corinthians 12: 1, 4-11
I like living inspired, and so I thought spending some time with you this morning focusing on the subject of miracles might be inspiring—not just because of what I might say, but possibly also because of what you might share.
The AARP article I referred to in my opening remarks, begins with a Harry Rubenstein cradling a small, red, leather-bound book in his hands as if it were a baby bird. He lets it fall open, and the back room at the Smithsonian’s Nat’l Museum of American History is suddenly filled with the wafting aroma of old yellowed pages.
What he holds is Thomas Jefferson’s 1820 Bible, though a closer look reveals this to be no ordinary Bible. The author of the Declaration of Independence had used a razor to meticulously excise favored passages from a pair of King James Bibles and pasted them onto blank bound pages. Left behind: every miracle, every hint of the divinity of Jesus. What he wanted was something which he thought was more straightforward, as reflected in the title he gave the work: THE LIFE AND MORALS OF JESUS OF NAZARETH.
To this day, there are those who stand aghast at Jeffersons’s chutzpah, and that raises some questions: Are there miracles and if not, what kind of faith exists without them? And what constitutes a miracle anyway? Just how do we explain those events that inevitably become defined as such?
Nearly 200 years AFTER Jefferson, AARP The Magazine, decided to find out who’s winning that intellectual tug of war. They surveyed 1,300 people ages 45 and over about what they thought about them. The results were striking: fully 80 % said they believe in them, 41% said they happen every day-and 37% said they’ve actually witnessed one.
Intriguingly, the survey reveals that the older you are, the less likely you are to believe in them. It is necessary to come up with a definition for the word, because frankly it gets tossed around a lot. A most succinct definition is “an incredible event that cannot be scientifically explained”.
In search of information concerning miracles from modern Americans who believe in them, those like Dennis Finch, 63, of Kuna, Idaho say simply: he himself experienced one. “A few years ago, I was in the hospital in a coma,” he recalls. “I stopped breathing several times, and the doctors told all my relatives they’d better get to the hospital to say their goodbyes. But people were praying for me. I remember, in my coma, seeing my brother David and my brother-in-law Roy-who had both passed on-and I was really upset because they wouldn’t talk to me. “It turned out they wouldn’t talk to me because it wasn’t my time. I lived! The doctors still don’t know why I survived. One doctor calls me his miracle child.”
Among respondents spoken with in depth, Finch’s miracle story is the most typical: a hopeless illness, a desperate prayer, an inexplicable recovery. Strictly speaking, perhaps, these stories may not fit into our narrow definition of a miracle because, most medical ailments have been found to be at least occasionally treatable. But those who report such cases as miracles feel there is an extra ingredient present–a “spiritual something”–and their conviction is as certain as the fact that they are alive today.
Survey results show that 84% of miracle believers say they happen because of God. 75% identify Jesus or the Holy Spirit as sources of miracles, lesser numbers attribute them to angels, saints, deceased relatives or others who have passed on.
So what’s going on? Wouldn’t the Creator of the universe have better things to tend to than pulling off the occasional miracle? It depends, of course, on whom you ask. To a scientist, events that many would consider miracles are not only explainable, they’re inevitable-because in a universe of nearly infinite possibilities, outrageously unexpected things have to happen at least occasionally.
“The Law of Large Numbers shows that an event with a low probability of occurrence in a small number of trials has a high probability of occurrence in a large number of trials,” says author, Michalel Shermer. “Events with a-million-to-one odds happen 295 times a day in America alone.”
Although that may explain why such extraordinary things as “miracles” happen, it is the province of believers to try to put these events into the context of their belief systems. The Christian speaker and author of ALL CRACKED UP: EXPERIENCING God in the broken places, says, “We see something miraculous and ask ourselves, ‘What is this? I can’t explain it. Is there truly something more than me?”
Father Jonathan Morris, author of THE PROMISE: GOD’S PURPOSE AND PLAN FOR WHEN LIFE HURTS, agrees that for believers, miracles reveal as much about the nature of God as they do about the beneficiary. “When people say, ‘This is a miracle,’ they’re not saying ‘God broke the laws of nature to give me this blessing, They’re saying, ‘God cares about me so much that this was allowed to happen.”
“A miracle is something unusual that happens when it need not have happened, and by happening, can sustain people’s faith in God AND the world.” And important to many respondents when asked about the reality of miracles, they expressed that it’s okay to pray for a miracle as long as you’re also working to deal with your problem, rather than leaving it all up to God.
Clearly, though, a personal God reaching into space and time to work remarkable acts overwhelmingly dominates the American spiritual landscape. Virtually absent to survey respondents is a view held by 800 million people worldwide: the Hindu belief that miracles come from a far less definable source. (I guess no Hindus living in America participated in this one survey). One of India’s leading spiritual figures, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, relates that, “Nature has many unpredictable instances happen, and we see the whole of nature as one living, very lively organism. In that sense, a miracle is a part of nature. It is the small mind connecting with the larger mind. You call it God; I call it universal energy. Many healings, he says, happen every day. I hear of them.”
Nearly 75% of those who believe say that the people most worthy of miracles are those who have faith, and 67% say prayer is important. But 55% also say that “desire and conviction” that a miracle WILL happen plays a role. Miracle beneficiaries are “good, decent people, according to 44% of respondents, and 33% agree that those who receive miracles have “the greatest need.” Only 9% say those who receive miracles have done nothing to deserve them. Not surprisingly, Rev. Forrest Church of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, reports that, “People who need miracles believe in them more, and people who are doing fine without them are more skeptical.”
Rabbi Harold Kushner observes that women, tend to be “especially spiritually sensitive, and are more likely to believe in miracles. (Is that your experience, guys?!) Most intriguingly, many older folks are less inclined to believe, possibly because as they age, they end up tempered by the wisdom of their own mortality. They become more honest with themselves that nothing is going to save them from death.” (I would think there would be more than death at issue. What about one’s response to living?!)
So, when the world sees a miracle, what’s really happening? “Evolution has conditioned us to keep alert for the rustling of the leaves, says Scientific American’s Shermer. “We’re always on the lookout for the outliers–for what’s different.” The answer that I love,” say Jillette, “the answer that I embrace, and that shows what a big and beautiful place the universe is—is, ‘I don’t know.”
Forrest Church could count himself among those who’ve been touched by a miracle. In his latest book, Love & Death:My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow , he tells how 2 years ago he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and given 6 months to live. He’s still here-and preaching, despite the removal of his esophagus! But he insists that life’s perceived miraculous events come only within the context of a larger miracle. “I believe in the super AND the natural, and not the supernatural. Life is a miraculous gift. We tend to take life for granted, seeing it as normative rather than as miraculous. And then something magnificent happens, and we credit it to a miracle. The truth is, we don’t need to expect a miracle to experience the miraculous.”
If believers like to say, “Miracles happen every day,” they must also account for the corollary statement. Christian speaker, Clairmont, says, “Miracles DON’T happen every day. My brother was on life support,” she recalls. “He was 38 and had 6 children. I knew those children needed their daddy. So we wanted a miracle.
But we did not get one. When they took him off life support, he was gone.” Yet, she says, only in a universe where miracles are possible, can the absence of a miracle become a life-affirming event. “When you don’t get one–it’s a startling moment of deciding AGAIN where you stand in the universe.” “You have to say, ‘Lord, what does this mean about the two of us?”
We are prone to be impressed by the ostentatious, the obvious. A strident caterwaul of animals filling the air, for instance, while the still small voice of the spirit is heard only in the more rare hours of earnest prayer and devotion. Truth be known, God is not always silent, and man is not always blind. It takes three things to attain a sense of extraordinary significance: God—A Soul—And a Moment. The three are always here. In every man’s life there are moments when there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a sight of the miraculous and the eternal. Each of us has at least once in our life experienced the momentous reality of God. Each of us has once caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to God. But such experiences are counted as rare events. To some people they are like shooting stars, passing and unremembered. In others they kindle a light that is never quenched. The remembrance of that experience and the LOYALTY to the response of that moment are the forces that help sustain our faith. In this sense, faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, loyalty to our response.
I imagine that some of you, like myself, drive onto a crowded freeway and occasionally get this mind boggling perception of sooooo many people going somewhere, each with their own agenda, each deriving their own particular personal meanings from their life experiences, from the choices and activities they engage in. They knowingly, but often Unknowingly, affect the lives of others in small and greater ways. Teeming— creative— purposing— life constantly going somewhere to happen!!! This is a bit of amazing, I’d say.
The fact that we are even created to derive as much meaning as we can muster from our life experience is a miracle in and of itself! We know this is true, because when we close ourselves off or feel utterly defeated for any number of reasons, life hardly seems worth living. MIRACLES!!! WE SCREAM, IN such times.
“WHAT FAR OUT PLANET ARE YOU LIVING ON???!!!
But what is it about miracles that makes them matter? The term DOES get bandied about in flippant ways. What miracles do is: they make us stop, really look, and really listen. They brighten the landscape of what can be a defined, all-to familiar menu of life experience. They snap us out of our little dull, self-centered selves into persons capable of perceiving a great, creative, holy force capable of transforming us, NOT with coercion, but with dignifying freedom to follow the lead or NOT!
Thomas Jefferson probably didn’t understand. The reason most of us keep looking for miracles, even in the face of skepticism, is most likely floating somewhere in the neat rectangular gaps of his cut-and paste Bible. Biblical enquiry IS one path, another is to focus meditatively on the word, miracle, as we look back over our life’s journey. This effort can bring inspiration, new insight, and appreciation for the orderly pilgrimage of soul.
We DON’T want to take the passive path of waiting for a miracle to bail us out of an unwanted situation, or as Swedenborg relates, to COMPEL us to believe in a great supergiver. We DO want to exercise our free choice—to find a way to wake up and FEEL a living sense of adventure, to work at strengthening our ability to act. And we DO want to squarely look at our life in the context of the whole and very intentionally carve out worthy goals for ourselves. When we DO sincerely pray for an open mind and heart to be receptive to the miraculous nature of life, spirit has greater opportunity to usher us into a great, creative expanse of possibilities. Is this faith at work? The kind that we can feel self-respecting and vital about? I will end with a quote from Swedenborg’s Potts Concordance. I feel it supports life’s vast array of miraculous events capable of occurring at any moment.
QUOTE: Manifest miracles on the order of the Old and New Testament have ceased; and miracles have succeeded which are unknown to most, and do not appear except to those who are open to the Lord revealing them. For all contingencies, which are all, in all things, in the most general– in single things–and in the most singular things, are miracles, but invisible, and continual.
I am familiar with, what I would deem miracles, of lesser and greater degree which have occurred in my own life. They leave me thankful, hopeful, and excited to use the God-given abilities I have to UN-cover many more of them. I hope for you the same.