by Jared Grosse
Have you ever experienced a miracle? I did.
Once. But before I tell that story, a quick word on the modern challenge of this topic. Were a “miracle” poll taken in our local churches, I bet a good portion would identify themselves as cessationists (believing that all miracles “ceased” early on in the life of the Church). Some might side with the non-cessationists (believing miracles continue to happen whether we realize it or not, or perhaps only in specific time and places). Many might just chalk it up to mystery, saying, “Who knows?”
The latter option is attractive because it keeps one from having to answer some very difficult questions. What is a miracle, anyway? Is it a natural or super-natural event? If it is supernatural, can we call a material event (like a beautiful sunset or a successful chemotherapy) miraculous? How do we reconcile miracles with science? Why would God turn water into wine for a party but not heal my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s? Questions like these make this a challenging topic.
Personally, I embrace the word “miracle” to describe natural events. If you have ever been captivated by a beautiful landscape, or feeding a newborn child, or a brilliant starlit sky… well, you probably know what I mean. It is that moment when we observe something explainable by natural causes, yet know deep down that it is beyond our ability to fully explain. There is indeed something miraculous about the natural world of our common experience.
However, in light of personal experience and science’s ability to explain more of what happens, I admit that I tend to be skeptical of modern-day claims to “supernatural” miracles. Be it lack of faith or misunderstanding, I have simply not witnessed such events or been persuaded by those who have.
That is, until May of 2011.
I graduated from college just two weeks earlier, and there was much to celebrate as I closed that chapter of my life. Months earlier, three college friends and I decided there was only one proper way to celebrate our accomplishment: by bicycling coast to coast. The adventure of a lifetime! As I worked, saved money and studied hard in the months leading up to the trip, I remember feeling that the day would never come. The daily grind of work, school, internships and marathon training became painful in the shadow of the looming adventure. At last, when we mounted our heavy-laden bicycles in New York City’s Time Square to begin our pilgrimage west, it felt as if nothing could squelch the glory of that beautiful moment.
But something did.
As we rode out of Time Square, through Central Park, over the George Washington Bridge and into the hills of New Jersey, my marathon-trained body handled the steep grades with ease. However, just as I was about to crest the largest climb of the day… POP! Excruciating pain flooded my knee and my life quickly turned to shambles. At first, I couldn’t imagine how I hurt myself. Having just run a marathon less than a month prior, I should have been more than prepared to climb these hills! However, as I sought an explanation, I became convinced that the marathon was what actually caused my injury. Both knees had been dangerously swollen at the end of the 26.2 mile race, and it seemed that one month was simply not enough time to recover.
I remounted my bicycle, hoping that I was mistaken about the gravity of my injury, and that it would pass as my body adjusted. But the pain worsened with each pedal, each brutal hill haunting me with the prospect of quitting this glorious adventure before it had really begun. What if I tore a major ligament? Could I recover enough to meet up with the guys a couple of weeks down the road? How would I get home? Were all the dollars, effort and travel that went into this for nothing? This was no way to begin the next chapter of my life!
As the pain and questions piled up, so did my anxiety. My hard-earned dreams were being dashed before my eyes with every painful pedal. The prospect of riding another mile seemed impossible.
Somehow, though, I did. It wasn’t pretty, but I managed to limp into camp that night with my peers. As I was falling asleep and icing my knee, I prayed that, against the odds, this new chapter of my life would begin, not with pain and disappointment, but with promise and optimism. That this trip would end, not with an injury, but with my friends at the Pacific Ocean. However, my words felt weak, as did my chances of continuing this journey.
My faint hope that a good night's sleep would improve things was quickly crushed. Instead, I was woken constantly by melting ice in my sleeping bag and the pain that it failed to alleviate. In the morning, I emerged from the tent stiff, tired and thinking that going home might not be such a bad idea after all. After tenderly packing up, I got on the bike and reluctantly followed my peers, quickly nearing the end of my ability to endure this punishment. Hours of painful riding gave way to an unusual bright spot as we came to the Delaware River and our second border crossing. After crossing the bridge into Pennsylvania, we all dove into the frigid state line. We swam. We splashed each other. We laughed. But, most importantly, we allowed two days of sweat and stress to wash off into the icy water. Crawling back onto the riverbank, we drank in the sun’s warmth and the realization that we were living our dreams.
But that’s not the best part. Because that swim was also the end of my knee pain. It was as if the waters of the Delaware were infused with the healing power of the mighty Jordan in many of the Bible’s healing miracles. From the moment I remounted my bike at the Delaware to the moment I dipped my bike in the Pacific Ocean nine weeks later, not ONCE did the pain return. It was enough to flabbergast even this miracle-doubting skeptic!
I have often wondered if there might be a natural explanation for my instant recovery. Could the frigid, flowing water have affected my knee in a manner a physical therapist could explain? Could it be I sustained a minor injury (strained tendon, tight ligament, etc.) that was bound to pass soon anyway? Sure.
Yet, I tend to doubt these objections. After all, I spent hours the night before applying “cold water”(ice) to my knee. I woke up feeling worse. I also struggle attributing the extreme pain I experienced to a strained tendon. But, frankly, I think raising these kinds of objections in an effort to demystify this experience is to miss an important point.
Miracles have little to do with natural versus unnatural explanation and have everything to do with expectation. I was convinced that my ailing knee should have ended my trip. There was no reason for me to expect that I should continue the harsh life of daily cycling for the next two months and 3,000 miles. Even if a doctor gave me an explanation of the healing in medical terms, I would still consider this event a miracle. Was it miraculous because it was supernatural? Who knows? But more importantly, it was a miracle because when all seemed lost, hope emerged from the most unlikely of places. Because at the beginning of the next chapter of my life, I received exactly what I needed to continue the journey that would go on to shape my story in profound ways. It was a miracle because it was an unexpected gift at a time of great need.
In the weeks and miles to come, our team of bicycle tourists continued to experience the miraculous. It happened when a family picked us up on the interstate when we were hours from the nearest town – at midnight. It happened when a rural Oregon farming couple invited us into their home when we desperately needed it. It happened when my last tire went flat in Middle-of-Nowhere, Idaho, and my pitiful repair kit kept the shredded tire alive until I got to the next town 20 miles away. However, we also experienced the miraculous in common events. Like when we watched a perfect sunset unfold over the farmland of southern Michigan. Or when this North Carolinian rode past a home in Metamora, Ohio oblivious to the fact that I would be living and writing this article in that very house today.
These experiences taught me that the miraculous and the unexpected do not have to be rare. While they do happen on once-in-a-lifetime bicycle tours, the unexpected gifts of the miraculous are also right at home in the commonplace. For example, I experience the miraculous when I make my morning cup of coffee just right. Or when my community retreats from the busyness of daily survival to fellowship over a meal and a game. I can find miracles most anywhere when I slow down enough to become aware of it.
Scripture points to a God of the miraculous. We see this in supernatural events like the parting of the Red Sea, the plagues on Egypt, the virgin birth of Jesus and the healing miracles of the gospels. However, we also see this in God’s decision to create, and recreate, the miracle of life. We see it in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, an act which reclaims the goodness of ALL creation, even down to the stuff of our everyday lives.
Regardless of whether you identify as a cessationist, non-cessationist, uncertain or skeptic, we can all be grateful and aware of the biblical claim that all of life is a miracle to be appreciated. It is an unexpected gift. And we get to be a part of it. Perhaps there is an event in your life, like my healing in the Delaware River, which needs to be reclaimed as the miracle that it is. Maybe you need to slow down and take time to become aware again of the miraculous nature of everyday life. Like my morning cup of coffee. Or our beautiful Midwestern sunsets. Or fellowship with loved ones. Could it be that God is calling you, as He is me, to be the miracle of hospitality to the next bicyclist that rolls through town? However God is calling you to reclaim the miraculous, may we remember that we serve a God who creates and resurrects all things. May we be ambassadors of the truth that all of life is miraculous.