Miracle or Accident?

February 25, 2001


Miracle or Accident?

There were six of them in the van, teenagers on their way to enroll in a Christian college. The train, when it smashed into their van, killed five of them. The mother of the sole survivor did not really mean to be cruel when she said “It was a miracle from God that saved my child,” but can you imagine how those words must have sounded to the parents of five other children for whom God failed to intervene? Better to admit that accidents happen than to open a Pandora’s box of heart-breaking questions as to whether and why God plays favorites.
Some good people believe there are no such things as accidents, that every event in life, good or bad, decent or evil, is in some way part of the will of God — and they are often tempted to explain why it is the will of God. Obviously, this is not an easy challenge for them. In religious language, a miracle occurs when God intervenes in human life or the laws of physics to change what would otherwise have happened, and this raises troubling questions. Why would God intervene in behalf of your child, but ignore mine What are we to make of such inscrutable favoritism?
On the other hand, if there really are pure accidents in life, we do not have to break our hearts wondering about God’s involvement when the safety on a gun fails, or a gas storage cavern leaks, or a clerical error paroles a prisoner who kills your child. I confess to being one who believes that accidents happen all around us, that people get sick, die in storms, fall off ladders without regard to whether they never miss church on Sundays or never go at all. A wild and reckless young cousin of mine loses control of his motorcycle, hits an oncoming car, is catapulted headfirst over its roof, and survives despite terrible injuries. “God chose to save him,” my aunt told us. “It was a miracle.” The police were not as sure as she was about divine intentions. Their report noted that his youth and his helmet contributed to his survival.
Soon after that, my favorite uncle decided to retire from the coal mines south of Tulsa where he had spent most of his life. He was a gentle, devout Christian who, by converting my father, became one principal cause of my becoming a minister. At quitting time ont he last day he was scheduled to work, rejoicing at the prospect of years of quality times with his wife and sons, he paused for a moment at the head of the mine shaft to perform his last official duty and switch off a motor. The mine floor was damp that day. One of his shoes had a hole in it. The machine had an electrical short. He died instantly. It was a long time ago, but I remember thinking about my cousin’s survival and my uncle’s death and wondering whether they were both simply accidents, or whether God intervened in one case but not the other, and if so, how God makes such decisions.
I have friends who have answers to such questions, but I’m still confused. Take the recent crash of a plane carrying good people involved with basketball at Oklahoma State University. One man died in that crash who would have been on another plane except that at the last minute the coaches decided to bump him so they could sit together and analyze the game they had just lost in Colorado. Another man, scheduled to be on the doomed plane, had a sore back and was transferred at the last minute to a more comfortable seat in a plane that landed safely. A friend of his said it was God’s will to save him. I can’t answer this question for you, but I can ask it: Did God intervene to save that life while doing nothing to save people in the other plane, or were those differing outcomes purely accidental — one man amazingly lucky, ten others unlucky enough to lose their families and their futures?
I do believe that accidents happen, that people are sometimes simply in the wrong place at the wrong time — and I believe this in part because Jesus believed it. According to Luke (13), Jesus was talking one day about the need for national repentance before the Messianic kingdom they had dreamed could appear. He felt it was near and wondered why they could not read the signs. You see a cloud come up in the west, he said, and you say it’s going to rain. You feel a south wind blow up out of the desert, and you say it’s going to be a scorcher, and you are right in both predictions. So why can’t you see signs that the new age is dawning?
And about that time, some people come up to tell him about a military massacre of some of his own Galilean neighbors while they were in the very act of worshipping God. The story is so brief we don’t find out why they delivered this report, but the response of Jesus hints that they were wondering if this tragedy had something to do with divine justice. Don’t get it wrong, Jesus told them. These people did not die because they were somehow worse than others who were spared. He does not invoke the will of God to explain that tragedy. He accepts the reality of bad lluck.
And then he himself recalls how 18 other people died when a tower collapsed on them, and he rejects for the second time any notion that they were being singled out by God. The Bible isn’t great on details, so we are left to wonder about the real cause may have been — poor design, cheap materials — but it’s clear that Jesus did not see it as an example of God’s miraculous intervention in human affairs.
But I understand why it comforts so many to believe that nothing is simply a matter of good or bad luck, that God is micro-managing the world with such attention even to trivial events that it makes sense to pray for something as mundane as a good parking spot — as a friend of mine did, and behold, someone backed out of a space only 15 feet from Dillon’s front door. She has no doubt that God answered her prayer with a miracle, and no appeal to reason could ever convince her otherwise. My reflections this morning would not alter her opinion in the least, but they may be welcome to someone here who, like myself, is hesitant to think it’s important to the Eternal whether we have a short or long walk to buy our milk and bananas.
Still, one hears good people talk as if God were a Cosmic Magician, constantly at our beck and call, a notion that would make the world completely unknowable and unpredictable. A world in which if I slip on ice, God grabs me, but may not grab you. A world in which, if you get pneumonia God may answer your prayer with a cure, but allow your devout neighbor to die. A world in which the stove suddenly turns off when a small child reaches for the burner. A world in which, when I pray for a tornado not to strike where I live, it’s turned aside and strikes where you live. Such a world would have no order or regularity. We could depend on nothing since we’d never know when God might be cutting the cards again. Whatever else we may differ on, my guess is we could all agree that miracles in the true religious sense would have to be rare or life would be total confusion.
Is it unfair to wonder if narcissism may not be a factor in the conviction that God manipulates things for you even though he seems to ignore a lot of other people? I had to deal with that long ago when Lt. Linderud several times took my name off a list for combat duty so dangerous that several young men whose names he left on the list came back to us in body bags. If God intervened to save me for a long happy life, then God’s failure to intervene in their behalf doomed them to lie forever far from home under white crosses in that immense Normany graveyard I cannot see without weeping. Was I the object of a miracle, or was I simply lucky? I have a hard time with the idea that I was so important in the grand scheme of things that God pulled strings for me but not for the others. If I’m theologically retarded, I hope you can forgive me. I’m just sharing my struggle to understand.
When you’ve lived a long time, the puzzles do pile up. Several years ago I read a cover story in Time magazine about some people who gathered in a room in California to talk about miracles. Leslie Smith recalled hurtling down a steep hill on her bike when she was seven. Out of control, she began to slip off the seat. “And then suddenly,” she testified, “I felt hands lift me back up onto the bike, and God took me safely the rest of the way.” I paused in my reading to remember one day in a small Oklahoma town where Billie and I had our first home together.
A heavy snow had brought out every kid with a sled, and some others who were hoping to hitch a ride. One lovely teenager we knew stretched out on her sled, invited a girl friend to pile on top of her, and took off down a street whose gentle slope seemed safe enough. But as the two of them neared the bottom, the sled struck a rut and veered out of control toward one of those corrugated metal culverts over which driveways are built. Both girls could have rolled off in time except that the one on top panicked and hung on to her friend who was unable to life her head before the sharp edge of the culvert smashed her teeth and split her face wide open from ear to ear. The hospital tried but she never looked the same. I haven’t found a good answer yet as to why the God who lifted Leslie Smith back on her bike failed to help my neighbor roll off her sled. It hasn’t kept me from praying, but sometimes I pray out of darkness, as Jesus did when he wondered on that torture machine called a “cross” why God had forsaken him.
I said at the beginning that I cannot explain these mysteries, so it’s a comfort to me to know that there are deeply devoted Christians whose faith is not dependent on them. A committed Roman Catholic priest makes it clear that it’s not the miracle stories that validate his faith, but the life, love and teaching of Christ. “If I saw someone walking on the sea,” he says, “I would not say, ‘This man is Divine.’ I would say, ‘Excuse me, do you mind doing that again? I didn’t see how you did it.” Do you think this priest should be defrocked for doubting that God plays games with the law of gravity?
And there is that brilliant Christian scholar John Dominic Crossan who says, “Miracles, for me, are changes in the social world, not the physical world. I don’t believe God entered daily life in the first century and turned physics upside down and then stopped. In fact, I’d find it incredible…..to say that now and then God….intervenes to do this or that little thing. A God who would step in and cure one person of AIDS but not eradicate the disease as a whole — I’d find that obscene. But if someone today [could diminish] racism [by even as much as] 25%, that — to me — would be a miracle. In my view, God acts through the human conscience and the heart.” That definition of miracle has some appeal for me, but it will never be popular. It requires too much personal responsibility and not enough mystery and excitement.
I was well aware when I chose this topic that talking about it, especially from a pulpit, is a little like taking a stroll through a minefield. There are millions for whom frequent miracles are the ultimate proof of their faith. It doesn’t disturb their certainty if you point out that when Jesus was being tempted in the desert he repeatedly rejected miracles as proof of his relationship with God. That whole temptation story is told to emphasize the idea that Jesus would view his message as the world’s hope for better life, not his performances as a cosmic magician. In fact, when people came insisting he validate his ministry by performing miracles he responded in anger or sadness or both that they were a wicked and faithless generation.
Historians remind us of how often people have eagerly embraced miracle stories to support one religion or another — disciples of Buddha surrounding his life with supernatural wonders, disciples of Muhammed relating how he made the sun stand still, coaxed water from a rock, and flew from Mecca to Jerusalem in seconds before there were rockets. Christians smile tolerantly at such tales, but have no problem with Matthew’s claim that when Jesus died dead people got up out of their graves to stroll around in Jerusalem. We like our own miracle stories, dismiss those from othe religions as mere superstition.
And the passion for signs and wonders that so upset Jesus seems about as strong as ever, and not just among illiterate peasants who report seeing the face of Jesus in a tortilla, or the face of his mother in the clouds or on a wall, but among middle-class suburbanites as well. Members of a church in Prince William County, Virginia claim they saw statues weeping real tears and marks on their priest’s body that mirrored the wounds of Christ on the cross. At Lourdes, in France, five million visitors a year come to a shrine where a 14-year-old girl said Mary appeared to her, while l.5 million show up each year in a town where l5 people said they saw Mary a century ago. Pilgrims to a town in Yugoslavia say Mary speaks to them there, but the Catholic church itself tends to be more cautious. The bishop of that town says “the Madonna has never said anything,” and a Catholic sociologist in Washington posed his own question a few years ago: If God speaks miraculously through Mary to the peasants in Yugoslavia, why hasn’t God intervened to stop that country’s bloody civil war?”
No single answer to such a question will satisfy everyone, and the longing to have faith proved by a miracle will spawn new stories every year. I have heard them all my life, and I have learned how how feeble reason is for testing them. All I can say of my own faith is that it does not depend on magic. The wisdom, beauty and compassion that filled the life of Christ are more than enough to drive me to my knees.

Our experiences are not alike, our needs differ, eternal God, so help us be
tolerant of one another as we make our way together thorugh the mysteries
and uncertainties of life, we ask in the name of one who confessed thast he
did not always understand them himself. Amen.