On Sunday morning, it was a miracle. A parishioner’s sister was moved to the top of a transplant list. They had a donor. After years of waiting, their prayers were answered. Soon she would be traveling to help her sister through the surgery and recovery process. This morning, she shared some tragic news with our church family. While preparing blood work for the operation, doctors diagnosed her sister with cancer. There will be no transplant. It is now on to the oncologists. The miracle is no more.
The longer I work as a representative for organized religion (Protestant Christianity), the more I am troubled by the language of “miracles”. I’m supposed to believe in miracles. At least that’s how I feel. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that a Protestant pastor believe in miracles. While no one made me sign a statement requiring me to declare a belief in miracles, I agree a belief in miraculous prayer is something people (both Christian and otherwise) associate with clergy. This being said, it is difficult for me to use the traditional language of miracles.
The more I witness the uneven distribution of miracles; the more I’ve come to doubt them. I mean “miracles” in both the loosest and strictest sense of the word. Christians throw the word around with reckless abandon. Miracles can be anything unexplainable which benefits our lives and we attribute those blessings to God’s intervention. Now, I’m referring to medical miracles; such as those I mentioned at the beginning: going in to remission or receiving an organ donor. If the medically (or physically) unlikely happens, such an event might be described by people of faith as a miracle, a miraculous response to the church or community’s prayers.
What’s changed my mind? Some people have better medical care, health insurance, doctors, genetics, and luck working on their side. If they win their battle against disease, it’s not a miracle; it’s more the result of a successful gamble against overwhelming odds. If people don’t receive “their” miracle, then what happened? Was God not listening? Did God not care about their prayers? Was it not their time to be healed? There is never a satisfactory explanation. I can’t believe God is selective with miracles. Either some people get lucky or there are no miracles at all. A God who plays favorites is no God at all.
These are all questions I’m asked by people whose prayers aren’t answered, whose miracle doesn’t happen, and are facing their own mortality. They’ve done everything right. They’re praying, getting others to pray for them, following the advice of their doctors, and taking their medical care seriously. As Christians go, they’re at the top of the class. Yet, there’s no miracle. Same doctor, same treatments, same church, same group of people praying, and the miracles are nonexistent.
What are miracles? Most of the time, miracles are coagulated luck. Medical miracles are the result of the right amount of science mixed with things going in our favor. Doctors and medical professionals work to save our lives. Sometimes God gets credit for the work doctors are trained to do. God works through doctors. Miracles (or what we call miracles) are part of the randomness of the universe. Sometimes people live and sometimes they die. There is no good explanation. We don’t know why random sickness strikes certain people and why some are arbitrarily healed. As much as we may want to know or feel we deserve to know, we don’t get that information. I think it helps us sleep better at night if we attribute what we call miracles (i.e. randomness) to God. I don’t believe medical miracles (as I’ve described them) have much to do with God. But, because we’ve evolved into religious people, it helps us keep going if we think God has magic bullet solutions to those things that might kill us, even if it is arbitrary. Because who knows, like our fixation on all games of chance, many of us treat belief in God like a lottery ticket we hope will eventually pay off.
God loves us. One way this love is evident is through modern medicine. What keeps us alive most often is science doing all it can when it can. Sometimes this will work, sometimes it won’t. This may have everything and nothing to do with God. I don’t know. I do know we’re too willing to attribute every good thing that happens in our life to God and every bad thing to the rampant rise of evil. This isn’t a healthy theology either. God isn’t playing chess with our lives.
I don’t believe in a God who manipulates the lives of sick people. I don’t know what you call a supernatural being, in whom we vested the power of arbitrary life and death, but I don’t call that being God. I think this idea is a divine relic of our prehistoric past. It’s not the God of Jesus Christ or the God of creeds.
What do I say to the parishioner who thanked God for the miracle this past Sunday morning? I will say God is going to walk with her through the pain. God suffers with her and her sister. I will say there are no easy answers. I will remind her that as we wait for test results and news, God waits with us. We will pray for the doctors, nurses, and professionals who are caring for her sister. We will pray for each other. Listening and sharing will help. When illness pushes our lives to the limits; I will say that God moves with us to the margins, pitches a tent, and shares our days. If silence is best, I won’t say a word.
I do know this. I’m through talking about miracles. From where I stand, it does more harm than good.
Rev. Richard Lowell Bryant