*this is my son wearing an oversized thrift store Tennessee football jersey, as he chases geese he found in a field while we were playing at a nearby private playground in a neighborhood we don't live in.
There’s a misattributed Albert Einstein quote that reads something like:
“There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.”
Breathtakingly poignant, pithy, deeply inspirational, you can’t ask for much more from a quote destined for wide dissemination on posters featuring cats dangling from tree-limbs, desperately trying to “hang in there” above your 2nd grade teacher’s cluttered desk. Perhaps a bit disappointingly for all of us actively changing our desktop wallpaper to feature Einstein’s favorite quote, he actually said this instead:
“with a domain in which lawful rationality does not exist. A miracle, however, is an exception from lawfulness; hence, there where lawfulness does not exist, also its exception, i.e., a miracle, cannot exist.”
And when you read them both side-by-side like this, one sounds like something Common would say in a Microsoft tablet commercial, and the other like what a renowned physicist would say in the midst of a long discourse about probabilities.
However, one thing I know to be true about miracles is that they fascinate all of us:
From avowed atheists desperate to disprove the rationality or reasonability of the resurrection of Jesus through a clear-eyed appeal to SCIENCE; to earnest reverends demanding unflinching belief in the surety, width, and ever-expanding breadth of God’s providence through a clear eyed appeal to a church member’s recent clear cancer scan.
Miracles sell, and if you don’t believe me just ask TV’s resident miracle peddling power couple, Roma Downey and Mark Burnett*.
(*NOTE: We can at least be sure that their bank account has been indisputably Touched by an Angel™. And, scientifically speaking, if you were wondering whether a joke could be any more on the nose than this one, it cannot.)
Which is why it’s always been a bit confusing to me that when we encounter Jesus undertaking the miraculous throughout the Gospel accounts of his life (admitting, of course, a wide diversity in each Gospel’s treatment of why exactly Jesus engaged in miraculous activity), he frequently encourages people to bury the lede.
“See that you tell no one anything."
“Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.”
Even in the Gospel o’John (the one most frequently referenced as “the Book of Signs” whereby Jesus performs miracle after miracle as a way of cementing his divine credentials) we find that when he rejoins his disciples in the middle of the Sea of Galilee by simply walking out to them upon the water, the disciples respond by fearfully dragging him into the boat and cruising to the other side of the lake like nothing happened at all.
"When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading."
When Jesus is subsequently confronted the next morning about how he crossed the lake so quickly without a boat, he simply tells the crowd who had been following him since he fed 5000 of them with just a few loaves and fishes that they were only searching for him because he gave them something to eat, and not because he walks on water, exorcises demons, or makes lunch for hundreds with only, like, one Subway footlong.
Several years ago, I met a woman who, after discovering I was a pastor, disclosed to me that she had just experienced a miscarriage stemming from a tragic car accident. As our conversation unfolded, it became clear this woman was confused, devastated, and deeply saddened by the loss of a child she had already named; which wasn’t terribly surprising. However, I soon found myself lost for words when her profound grief suddenly pivoted into headstrong confidence as she conjured a well-practiced delivery of why exactly a loving and benevolent God would allow something so heinous to befall one of his most faithful daughters:
"Before the accident, my parents were only marginally interested in God, but now, after all this has happened, they’ve started attending church once again! I have to believe that God has orchestrated this whole experience as a way of bringing about a renewed faith in the lives of my parents. God’s ways are not our ways, sometimes they’re very mysterious.”
Indeed they are, madam.
As a young pastor, these kinds of conversations always made me terribly uncomfortable. They typically left me furiously biting my tongue in the moment, and endlessly fuming afterwards as I breathlessly recounted all the ways these kinds of narrow-minded beliefs shackle the cathartic and necessary expression of grief and anger in the aftermath of devastation.
And because I was a young pastor I was fond of being overly clever, so I called moments like these the theological equivalent of screaming into a pillow at your grandmother’s house to keep from scaring everyone with the truth of who you actually are under the painted Christmas smiles.
I'm glad I'm no longer worried about being overly clever.
I still think these kinds of beliefs about the mysterious providence or purposes of God being clearly expressed in tragedy can be abusive, disastrous, and self-serving whenever they’re delivered to us by people not currently grieving the loss of a child, partner, parent, or the proper functioning of their bodies. What I mean is that we should always question the explanations of other people whenever they tell us what to believe about our own tragedy.
Pain is best interpreted by those currently enduring the totality of its weight, and not by us rubbernecking bystanders.
On the other hand, in my now old(er) age, I’ve found it no longer seems to offend my thoroughly skeptical sensibilities whenever someone suddenly bears witness to a miracle that has interrupted the normal functioning, thinking, or alignment of his or her life.
Strangely, I almost enjoy it.
Yes, even ones about finding parking spots near the front of the mall after knee surgery, maybe especially those. These days I even find myself tearing up and nodding along just like my normally stern-faced grandmother used to at the end of a particularly saccharine episode of Touched by an Angel.
"Eric, I never cry, it's just that Roma Downey forcibly removes tears from my eyes against my will. I don't think you can call a hostage situation "crying" it's more like major-network-sponsored-emotional-kidnapping."
-What I wished my grandmother had said.
Pain (and joy, if you got any) is best interpreted by those currently enduring the totality of its weight, and not by us rubbernecking bystanders.
The world is brutal, and cynical, and violent, and greedy, and run by corporations who pay fewer taxes than you do, and as it always has for everyone across all time, miracles are an exception to lawfulness, and in an absence of lawfulness (as Rev. Einstein once remarked) miracles cannot exist.
Because everything (even physics) is up for grabs.
In this kind of world miracles aren't advertising, they aren't branding, and they aren't hype. Therefore, they don't need evangelists, or apologists, or theologians to define and catalog and canonize them. Which is why Jesus was never all that concerned with word getting out about his water-walking-wonder-working.
"Are you ready for your blessings? Are you ready for your miracle?"
-Chance the Rapper
Miracles feed the hungry, they heal the sick, they lighten the load of the burdened, and they keep your kid sleeping past 8:00am for no good reason.
Miracles and their definitions are possessed solely by those experiencing them, and not by those of us theologically-tone-policing from the cheap seats. You can borrow a lot of things in this world, but you can't borrow miracles, for those, you gotta find your own.
My son taught me that, because for him, almost everything (except loud hand-dryers in public restrooms) is miraculous and worthy of your wonder and your gratitude and your buoyant, exuberant, cacophonous praise.
"Take em to church, but I need a choir."
-Chance the Rapper
So may you, in a world of lawlessness, randomness, and predictable chaos, find something miraculous about being alive, maybe that you are still alive. And if you can't, I don't blame you, I just ask that you look to a teacher ahead of you, preferably one much closer to the beginning of life or one near its end, because those are the folks who have just been born or are soon to be born again and again and again.
As Jesus (kind-of) said, the proximity to the birthing, whether the first one or the second one, has a way of scraping the bugs off the windshield of existence. It gives eyes to see, ears to hear, and hands to grasp the miraculous filling the world around us.