Recently, a local priest delivered a compelling homily on the miracles of Jesus. Before his homily was over, he had challenged every person to seek the miracle that their life needs. Unpacking the gospel from that day, he explained that every miracle starts with “something”. He noted that the healing of the Centurion’s daughter started with faith, and the feeding of 5,000 started with two fish and a few loaves of bread. Whether it is faith, desire, desperation, or surrender, every miracle requires some ingredient from us. This became clear to me as I reflected on an experience of my own.
When Everything You Do Is Not Enough
A number of years ago, my sailboat was in first place after a full day of sailing at local regatta. Our three point lead was narrow, but out-sailing twenty-four other boats had been no small feat. Smart, disciplined, consistent sailing had paid off.
On the final day of the regatta, the race committee managed to begin a race in a whiff of breeze that wandered across the race course and quickly faded. Occasionally, a little streak of wind would make itself known by gently wrinkling the surface of the water. Any boat near that streak benefited.
For the uninitiated, racing small sailboats in light winds can be a grueling experience. Sails hang limp, with captain and crew alike readjusting their weight to find every bit of forward momentum. Few things are more disheartening to a sailor than to realize that the boat is drifting backwards.
On that morning, the same smart, disciplined, consistent sailing that had put us at the top of the leader board the previous day could not overcome a fickle wind. Turning the final mark toward the finish line, we were in 18th place. It was clear that we were done.
A Thing Called Fearless Desperation
All seventeen boats ahead of us had been smart after rounding the last mark: they veered to the left side of the course to sail a shorter distance to the finish. The five boats behind us would eventually go left as well. Every advantage belonged to them.
We, however, veered right. Very, very far right. Leaving the fleet for the disadvantaged side of the racecourse is a bad idea. We surrendered conventional wisdom and headed away from the fleet, desperate for a wind we thought would not come. There was no quitting, no “Plan B”, no safety net. The worse it looked, the more determined we became. We were “all in” as they say. And, to the other sailors on the water, we looked like fools.
The Stuff of Miracles
Then, all of a sudden, directly ahead of us the surface of the water wrinkled – we had wind! It came right to us. As we sailed fast in the freshening breeze, it was apparent that the wind was filling across the racecourse from right to left. The entire fleet, deep on the left, was suddenly scrambling to get back to us.
We found ourselves chasing the leading edge of the rapidly filling wind. If we couldn’t keep up, the fleet would get to the wind in time to hold their lead over us. But the wind continued to build for us, and by the time we reconnected with the fleet, we had a solid lead over the second place boat. With just a few hundred yards to sail, it was clear that we would win!
The previous day, it had taken hours of disciplined sailing to work our way to the top of the leader board. That morning, however, it had taken us less an hour to find ourselves completely out of trophy contention. Yet, in mere minutes we found ourselves in a favorable fresh breeze to regain all the distance that had been lost!
As we were languishing on that incredible morning, we fought off the urge to quit, to just pack it in. We also fought off the doubt, the despair and hopelessness that often accompany the bleak outlook of the current circumstances. We abandoned “common” wisdom and struck out boldly and radically, knowing that redemption and salvation would require something completely outside ourselves, something over which we had no control, and something we certainly could not see in the moment.
Gambling Your Heart with God
Life, and especially the spiritual life, is a lot like sailboat racing. You can execute well, do the things you should do, at the time you should do them, yet still find yourself in a woefully bad position. Eventually, though, everybody needs a miracle.
Miracles are at the very heart of the Christian experience. Through the ages, great saints and average Christians have continued to exercise the miraculous powers that flow to us through the power of the Holy Spirit. St. Patrick, the saint commonly associated with green beer, raised thirty-three people from the dead. During World War II, countless allied pilots reported seeing a Franciscan friar flying in the air near San Giovanni, Italy, where St. Padre Pio lived. Repeated bombing runs to the city ended without a single bomb falling on the village.
The gospels recount story after story of Jesus performing incredible miracles: healing the sick, walking on water, feeding multitudes of people. The gospel stories have a consistent thread that passes through them all: Jesus always begins with “something”. For the cripple at the pool of Bethesda, it was desire and hope. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be well?” For the Centurion asking for his daughter’s life, it was his faith. When Jesus fed the multitudes, He started with a bit of fish and bread.
As Christians, we should expect to see miracles in our lives and the lives of others. For the believer, the supernatural is natural! In the Gospel of John, Jesus emphatically states, “… whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father. And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it” (Jn 14:12-14).
Jesus has the ability to take “a little” and make it “a lot.” The little that He needs is in our hearts. Whether it is desperation or hope, it is faith that ignites miracles. Sometimes, it is the spark of faith within us. Sometimes, it is the faith of another on our behalf. Sometimes, our faith comes not as a bold proclamation, but as a desperate plea from the fearful places of our hearts. Sometimes, it is the simple surrender of “You are God and I am not.”