Summary: This is actually more of a devotional reflection that could be re-worked into a sermon. It is about how miracles are different from magic, and why that matters.
This is day number 26 in the hospital with my eleven year old daughter who is recovering from two major/radical brain surgeries associated with her epilepsy, and, believe it or not, I’ve had a lot of time lately to think about the “m-words.” I was writing a little earlier in the month and made mention of being somewhat leery about using the “m-word” (miracle), but never bothered to explain why…I guess I just got too busy. Things are going relatively well now, however, and it’s the weekend, and I have a little extra time, so… Why not?
I think the trouble that I have with the one m-word is related to the trouble that I have with the other, and with people’s tendency to confuse the two. I absolutely believe in the possibility of the one m-word, but want nothing to do with the possibility of the other. The one is an example of the mysterious grace of God while the other is an abusive attempt to the assertion of power. The one is an article of faith, and the other is an obnoxious presumption.
I think that those of us who are more inclined towards our spiritual nature lose our more rational friends when we start talking about m-words as though they were all the same. What’s more: when we fail to distinguish between one m-word and another, and when we begin to claim that m-words happen all of time, we seem all the more irrational and our “god” is revealed to be a petty idol who can be manipulated into capricious acts of power instead of “the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Careless use of the acceptable m-word (miracle) very often only serves to harden those who are ambivalent or hostile to faith without really doing anything to edify those who already believe.
I came the closest I have ever come to dressing down a religious volunteer when, one day, I was told that all I had to do was trust God and claim my m-word by faith and Kathryn would be healed. This advice came from a dear, sweet, wonderful woman who goes to great lengths to freely share the love of God with incarcerated criminals, and it is utter and complete BS. Though I have always believed that this kind of talk is flagrant “bullshivism,” I never realized how hurtful and ugly and mean-spirited this advice comes across to someone who is struggling with a major life crisis.
When a person is in crisis all reason flies out the window. When you are hurting, you will grasp at almost any straw and violate almost any principle to end the suffering. This inclination only increases when it is your child instead of yourself who is experiencing the pain. To throw out the possibility of an m-word at such a time is beyond tempting.
Make no mistake; couching the availability of an m-word in terms of a person’s ability to “have faith for” or “believe” or “claim” or “accept” it is evil. It may be said with a smile, in earnest, and with the best intention, but it is Evil nonetheless. It takes a person’s very significant pain and then multiplies it by blaming them for not being relieved. Telling me that I have to “have faith” for an m-word means that, if I weren’t feeling bad enough for not being able to find and/or provide the right medical treatment, I can really beat myself up for not even being able to do something as simple as trusting God (not even with faith as small as a mustard seed). With one well-intentioned bit of “advice,” the impotent becomes an infidel as well.
I think that this is why Jesus waived people off of worrying about or becoming overly concerned about m-words. In Matthew 16:4, he said that only evil people go looking around and putting their hope in miracles (Campbell translation). Following Jesus’ line of thought, the Apostle Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 that it is the message of the cross, and not miracles or philosophy, which fully displays the power and wisdom of God. For Kathryn’s sake I want an m-word, but for Christ’s sake I’m not counting on one…except in a very non-magical sense of the word.
It is an absolute miracle that a species as weak as ours has developed the knowledge to extend life and extinguish pain to the extent that we have. It is a miracle that a species as fundamentally selfish as ours has worked together to build the wonders that are our modern hospitals, and has made the services performed in those facilities as affordable as we have. It is a miracle that women and men have fully dedicated themselves, making the sacrifice of years of formal education and training, to the study and practice of easing and/or eliminating human suffering. It is a miracle that strangers would come together in love to hope and provide support for one of the weakest members of their society.