Archive for miracles

Signs and wonders and the way God works

“Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.”

John 4: 43-54

At Capernaum, Jesus is asked by an official to come and heal his son. Jesus tells the man “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” The official begs him to come before his son dies and Jesus replies, “Go; your son will live.” Then we read, “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went his way. ” 

I think a lot about signs and wonders. Things have changed so much since Bible times. In Jesus’ days, signs were a witness–proof that someone was speaking for God. Everyone believed that was the way the system worked. No signs, not true.

Now days, I suspect the opposite is true. People are suspicious of miracles. I once attended a church where the pastor was decidedly anti-miracle–even going so far in his Ascension Sunday sermon as to ridicule the idea that Jesus ascended bodily into heaven “like a helicopter.” I’ve read other, far more conservative writers who preach that the age of miracles is over and the Holy Spirit doesn’t work that way anymore. Gospel truth is set; we don’t need miracles now for revelation (certainly not for individual revelations), and if you want to know what God’s truth is, they will tell you–in much the same way as the more liberal anti-miracle pastor. They were all of them so very sure.

But the idea that keeps me flexible in this regard is a firm belief in God’s omnipotence. He does what He pleases. And while we may very well be skeptical of God’s desire for us to find parking, or his speaking to us through fortune cookies, we probably ought to believe that he could. That he might. If he wanted to.

That belief that God might want to do something we hadn’t anticipated or desired seems to be a stumbling block for all kinds of people: liberals and conservatives, scholastics and skeptics. All of them trying to pin God down to a system so his actions are logical, or at least predictable. Many people just want to know how this all works, and then hold God to it. They may call it Justice or they may call it Love, but somehow, it all seems to work the same.

Here’s a thought, for what it’s worth: if God is God and does what he wants, maybe we should spend our energies trying to better understand his desires. Maybe we should seek to know his heart. I can’t tell you how that’s done. I’m trying to figure it out myself. But I don’t think it will look like a system; probably something a bit wilder and fiercer, and more beautiful.


Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

― C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe


Illustration by Pauline Baynes

Illustration by Pauline Baynes

Too many calls on the line

E_C_Blomeyer Switchboard operator 1905

The Telephone Switchboard Operator 1905
Photograph by E.C. Blomeyer
From The Texas Collection, Baylor University


“How can God hear everyone praying at the same time?”

It’s a reasonable question if you’re trying to figure out exactly what it means to say that God is God. Trying to figure out what eternity means. Thinking about faith.

Of course, being human, we can’t really every understand the “how” and have to settle for something more like

“Does God hear everyone praying at the same time?”

I believe that he does. It’s one of the reasons I keep praying. I also think he knows it’s me praying and he knows who I am. “His eye is on the sparrow” and all that means.

But the other day I was reading a familiar story in the gospel of Mark and it struck me how the story was an earthly, God-incarnate version of the same theological question of scale as the familiar wondering about multiple simultaneous prayers.

How does He do it? I don’t know. Maybe a better question is “Do I believe that He wants to?” The psalmist said, “Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.”

Here’s the story. Many people touched him, but one touch was a prayer.

And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.”  And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.  And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, “Who touched my garments?”  And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’”  And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had been done to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”  Mark 5:25-34

Who will help me?

When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.”  Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.

John 5:1-9


“Do you want to be healed?”

“It doesn’t matter what I want. I can’t do what is required. I need help. I am weak and alone.”

“I am your help. Rise up, carry your pallet as a sign of your healing, and walk.”


Will you persevere? Will you proclaim?

I will, with God’s help.


Mother’s Day meditation on loaves and fishes

Mosaic, Church of the Multiplication, Tabgha Photo: Berthold Werner, Wikimedia Commons

Mosaic, Church of the Multiplication, Tabgha
Photo: Berthold Werner, Wikimedia Commons


Once upon a time, I was a storyteller. I would memorize stories and perform them–sometimes for children, sometimes for adults, sometimes by myself and sometimes in concert with other storytellers. It was a great art form to inhabit and explore, and it deepened my understanding of both story and audience in ways that singing, teaching, and writing had not.

So I suppose I will always bring a bit of the storyteller with me when I read the Bible. I find myself looking for patterns–the bits that give the tale its structure so it will stand in memory. I look for the phrases that cannot be changed in the telling without altering the identity of story (“Trip-trap, trip-trap, trip-trap”). And I look for the words that carry emotion and meaning–the ones that do the work of placing what’s in my brain into yours.

This morning I was reading the Feeding of the Five Thousand in Mark and thinking about mothers and ministry and the nature of God; wondering if the sermon today would try to fit in Mother’s Day; thinking about the things I had learned about God by being a mother. So I really felt the weight of fatigue when Jesus has compassion on the apostles and says to them, “ ‘Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”

No time to eat. That phrase is doing some work. What parent hasn’t had a day like that? And going to “a lonely place” doesn’t sound like a vacation, just quiet. Sometimes that’s all you get, but that’s enough.  

Jesus and the apostles got into a boat and tried to get away, but the people figured out where they were going and “ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them.” The crowd was excited. They didn’t plan ahead. They just flocked to Jesus. And when Jesus comes ashore, he again shows compassion “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”  A phrase that must be kept intact.

The hour grows late, they’re far away from everything, and once again people need to eat.

Hmm. The story returns to the idea of hunger and need. The first time that happened, Jesus gave the apostles a break. What will happen this time? 

The apostles want the people to “buy themselves something to eat,” but Jesus says “You give them something to eat.”

Sounds like a Jesus sort of thing to say. Just when you’re tired and hungry, you can’t give any more of yourself to the people in your life who need you (and heaven knows you could use a rest), he commands you to do more. 

“You want us to go buy food for all these people?”

Boy, that sounds cranky and argumentative.


And then there’s a miracle. Supper was created out of what was on hand. The mystery of generative compassion is made manifest once again.

“And they all ate and were satisfied.”  Another phrase to keep.

Probably even the apostles had a chance to sit down at this point. Everybody in that lonely place, sitting and eating together, talking, inwardly digesting the lessons they’d learned. And who knows, maybe when the evening meal was finished and it was time to go home, they all pitched in to clean up the leftovers.

Medical oddity

And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him; and he was beside the sea. Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Ja′irus by name; and seeing him, he fell at his feet, and besought him, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” And he went with him.

And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years,and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.” And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease…. 

While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But ignoring[a] what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James. When they came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, he saw a tumult, and people weeping and wailing loudly. And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a tumult and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Tal′itha cu′mi”; which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and walked (she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Mark 5:21-43


A quick note today. Two things struck me as I read this passage:

The first was the condition of the woman with the hemorrhage, because she “had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse.”

If you’ve ever gone through invasive medical procedures for yourself or with a loved one, especially when trying to track down an elusive diagnosis, you know what this is like. You start to wonder if the doctors see you as a human being or just a medical mystery to be solved. People you don’t know come in to study you. You wonder if the cure is worse than the disease. You get tired of being a medical oddity. An anomaly. A freak.

That thought put me in a frame of mind to read the following story about Jairus’ daughter a bit differently than I usually do. When Jesus tells the crowd that the girl is “not dead but sleeping” and allows no one but Peter, James, and John and the girl’s parents to witness the miracle of her resurrection, he is giving the girl more than just life. Jesus gives her a life–which is to say, he gives her the cushion that a twelve year old would need to grow up and be happy. He strictly charges the adults not to tell what has happened so she can grow up as a person and not always be known as a freak or The Girl Who Was Dead. Ja’irus’ daughter is brought back to her parents and to herself–for all anyone outside knows, she really was just sleeping. It’s such a compassionate miracle. Not a manifestation of God’s glory at the expense of an adolescent. No, Ja’irus’ daughter will be all right. Now if someone will just get that child something to eat.

Prayer for healing

…Jesus is reported to have made the blind see and the lame walk, and over the centuries countless miraculous healings have been claimed in his name. For those who prefer not to believe in them, a number of approaches are possible, among them:

  1. The idea of miracles is an offence both to man’s reason and to his dignity. Thus, a priori, miracles don’t happen.
  2. Unless there is objective medical evidence to substantiate the claim that a miraculous healing has happened, you can assume it hasn’t.
  3. If the medical authorities agree that a healing is inexplicable in terms of present scientific knowledge, you can simply ascribe this to the deficiencies of present scientific knowledge.
  4. If an otherwise intelligent and honest human being is convinced, despite all arguments to the contrary, that it is God who has healed him, you can assume that his sickness, like its cure, was purely psychological. Whatever that means.
  5. The crutches piled high at Lourdes and elsewhere are a monument to human humbug and credulity.

If your approach to this kind of healing is less ideological and more empirical, you can always give it a try. Pray for it. If it’s somebody else’s healing you’re praying for, you can try at the same time laying your hands on him as Jesus sometimes did. If his sickness involves his body as well as his soul, then God may be able to use your inept hands as well as your inept faith to heal him.

If you feel like a fool as you are doing this, don’t let it throw you. You are a fool of course, only not a damned fool for a change.

If your prayer isn’t answered, this may mean more about you and your prayer than it does about God. Don’t try too hard to feel religious, to generate some healing power of your own. Think of yourself rather (if you have to think of yourself at all) as a rather small-gauge, clogged up pipe that a little of God’s power may be able to filter through if you can just stay loose enough. Tell the one you’re praying for to stay loose too.

If God doesn’t seem to be giving you what you ask, maybe he’s giving you something else.


Frederick Buechner, “Healing” in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC.” Harper and Row, 1973.


Mind the gap: words and deeds

Psalm 148

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens,
praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels,
praise him, all his host!

  Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!

  Let them praise the name of the Lord!
For he commanded and they were created.
And he established them for ever and ever;
he fixed their bounds which cannot be passed.

  Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!  …


It’s been a very full summer and I’m afraid I haven’t been able to write as often as I would have liked. This morning I have just one quick thought from reading Psalm 148. It’s a great rush of a psalm, and I really enjoy the spirit of exhortation that brings all creation into a mighty chorus of praise.  Planets and sea monsters, fire and hail, and everyone from Kings to children come together. What an image! And as I read, I was struck by the words, “For he commanded and they were created” and “stormy wind fulfilling his command!”  That word, “command.” The psalmist says that we should praise God because he speaks a command and it happens. God’s words (however it is that words come out of the mouth of God) are enough. He has authority.

As I mused a bit, this reminded me of the stories of the Centurion’s servant in Matthew 8, and of Jesus calming the winds and the sea–also, and perhaps not coincidentally, in Matthew 8. They echo this idea of authority:

 As he entered Caper′na-um, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.”  But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; be it done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment….

…”“Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

We struggle in this earthly life with the gap between words and deeds. We command, and nothing happens. That schoolyard taunt, “You can’t make me!” will come back again and again–at work, at home, even between nations. And the truth is, we cannot even make ourselves do the good that we will (Romans 7:19).  No wonder the psalmist is amazed.

Telling the story from the inside out

I noticed a small thing today. One of those little places in the world that seem to radiate meaning and order when you are in the right frame of mind. I found it in the middle of the account of the woman healed by touching Jesus’ garment–an event which is itself in the middle of the story of Jairus’ daughter.

It’s easier to see in reading than to hear in the telling, so if you look at the center of the story, you’ll find these carefully constructed sentences:

For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.”  And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, “Who touched my garments?”

There’s a lovely bit of symmetry in the telling of this miracle. At the story’s core is the moment of connection and perception: where the woman feels in her body that she is healed and Jesus perceives that the power has gone forth. Two sentences side-by-side, and on either side of those perceptions, wrapping the moment like a cloak, are the two phrases about touching Jesus’ garments.

You can read through the stories of Jairus’ daughter and the woman linearly–and you have to to get the narrative straight. But if you think of them as a whole, as a story-within-a-story, it’s as if Mark has written from the inside out, everything radiating from the place where faith touches the Divine.


Torment and mercy

The Gerasene demoniac
from the Madeburg Ivories
Milan, 10th century


They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Ger′asenes. And when he had come out of the boat, there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who lived among the tombs; and no one could bind him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been bound with fetters and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the fetters he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out, and bruising himself with stones.  And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped him; and crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.”  For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”  And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” And he begged him eagerly not to send them out of the country.  Now a great herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside;  and they begged him, “Send us to the swine, let us enter them.” So he gave them leave. And the unclean spirits came out, and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

The herdsmen fled, and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. And they came to Jesus, and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.  And those who had seen it told what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine.  And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their neighborhood. And as he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him.  But he refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decap′olis how much Jesus had done for him; and all men marveled.

–Mark 5:1-20

This morning I read again the story of the Gerasene Demoniac and thought, as I often do, about the pigs. I pity those pigs. They never knew what hit them, but it was so terrible and so terrifying that they rushed into the sea to make it stop.

Why would Jesus do that to pigs? Why not just cast out the demons? Was it a trick? A way to destroy the unclean spirits at the expense of the swine? It’s an unsettling idea—so much collateral damage—and so this morning I pondered the demons and the swine.

“I adjure you by God, do not torment me” …And he begged him eagerly not to send them out of the country.

It’s difficult to read about a demoniac and unclean spirits without an overlay of modern medical thinking, but if I stay within the context of the story, then I ask myself, what would torment a spirit? Why do they beg to enter the swine? Do they fear disembodiment? Could it be that unclean spirits seek a home of sorts? Is this why the story takes place among graves?

I thought about all the ghost stories in human cultures; about spirits in torment; I thought about the Dead Men of Dunharrow from The Lord of the Rings–another fearsome Legion.  And it seemed to me that permitting the unclean spirits to enter the unclean animals was appropriate. And that death in this case might be a sort of mercy, a laying to rest, a burial in the bodies of creatures that I knew were raised to be killed.

There is much violence and fear in this story. The cost of this healing is high. But in the end, the man who lived among the tombs is returned to life with his friends (does he still have friends?) and the legion who filled him are buried at last. Perhaps in this way the lives of the pigs are not wasted, but are accepted as a sort of sacrifice. I don’t know, but I wonder.


Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”…and all men marveled.



The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey

Though most folks don’t consider me a sentimental person, there is one picture book that makes me cry every time I read it–The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski. It’s a story of death, and loss, and transformation. When a bitter woodcarver agrees to make a replacement nativity for a widow and her young son, he finds that he must deal with the innocent persistence of childhood. As readers, we find ourselves caught between real sorrow and real hope: death and separation, life and relationship. What is the truth of this world?

It’s a terrific book with beautiful, sensitive illustrations by P. J. Lynch. I hear it’s been made into both a play and a movie, but I find I don’t even want to see the adaptations. It’s complete as it is.  If you were here, we could read it together and think about all the wonderful nativities we’ve shared this season.  We could talk about why these figures become so precious to us, and why we bring them out, year after year.  And then, maybe we could talk about the mysteries of Christmas and the incarnation, and how we get a little closer to understanding the reality of hope and joy in this life every time we set up the manger.