He walks with me, and he talks with me,
And he tells me I am his own_._._.
--"In the Garden," traditional hymn
Shortly after our family bought a house in Chicago's west suburbs in September of 1971, I met Lynne Gould. She appeared at the door one morning, accompanied by several small sons, to welcome us to the neighborhood. I invited her in, but she took one look at the boxes marked Fragile--China still stacked on my floors, and declined, which endeared her to me right away.
The Goulds lived directly behind us, our deep yards separated by a tall hedge with an opening in it, which we used as a gate. I loved all the neighbors, but Lynne was special. Immediately we sensed a bond and found ourselves getting past surface chatter and delving more deeply into each other's feelings and beliefs.
Few topics were out of bounds for us, but spirituality was a particular favorite. We discovered that, although we were both Catholic, our faith attitudes differed. Lynne seemed relaxed, confident in God's tender care and willingness to get personally involved in her daily life. Me? As one philosopher has said, the longest distance anyone travels is the twelve inches from the head to the heart. I tended to be dutiful, a bit scrupulous, and hard on myself. Although I had never thought of God as harsh or frightening, it was difficult to believe that his love for me was truly unconditional. As for miracles, they happened to saints, not ordinary people like me.
We had lived in our house for just a few weeks when autumn leaves began falling. Actually, they rained down, thickly covering our quarter acre. One afternoon when the children were in school, I went into the yard to rake.
The warm, sunlit day was delightful, but I made little headway. At the end of an hour, I had stuffed six bags, but there were several huge piles of leaves waiting, and half the yard remained untouched. Home ownership was losing its charm. I leaned on the rake for a moment, pushed the hair back from my eyes--and the world seemed to stop. There were no rings on my left hand. My diamond engagement ring and wedding band--not removed since our marriage--were gone.
Just then Lynne stepped through the hole in the hedge. Although she was at least fifty feet from me, she must have seen the shock on my face. "What's the matter?" she called.
"My rings--they're missing!" I could barely speak. I had lost a little weight during our move, and they must have slipped off somehow. But when? Where?
Lynne waded across the lawn to me. "When was the last time you saw them?" she asked
Frantically I searched my memory, recalling all the small, ordinary things I'd done that day. Making breakfast for the children, loading the washing machine--how often we glance at our hands without really seeing them. But I was sure I would have noticed missing rings during earlier tasks.
"They must have fallen off out here," I said, surveying the landscape with a sinking heart. How could we find anything in all that debris? I would never see the rings again. And not only were they uninsured, they were loved, irreplaceable. Tears filled my eyes.
Lynne was more practical. "Let's pray about it," she said. And she knelt right down in the middle of the leaves. And because she had hold of my hand, so did I.
"God," Lynne began without preamble, "we've got a problem here." Briefly, she outlined the situation.
Despite my agitation, I felt a little embarrassed. What if a neighbor looked out and saw us praying--in public! Yet I was fascinated too. Lynne was talking to God with easy familiarity, as if he was her real Father, someone who cared so much about her that he would be interested in anything she told him. Well, why not? I thought suddenly. I'm a parent, and there's nothing my children could need that I wouldn't provide. If I was truly his child, wouldn't it work the same way?
Lynne was finishing her discussion. "We need a miracle, God. Please let us find the rings." She sat back on her heels, wordlessly surveying the yard. Not for a moment did I assume God would actually do anything about her request. But Lynne had been dear to stand by.
As I watched, however, her eyes traveled across the orange and yellow piles. Slowly she stood up and walked past several deep mounds. When she reached one on the other side of the yard, she stopped, bent over, plunged her hand into it, and then straightened. "Here they are," she said, looking into her palm. "Here are your rings."
I probably screamed before I went running across to her. But there both rings were, unmistakably mine. We looked at each other, our faces wreathed in grins. "How did you--?" I hardly knew what to ask.
She laughed. "I didn't. God did it. I just kind of knew where to look."
"But that's impossible."
"Not really," she pointed out. "We asked for a miracle, didn't we?"
Something great seemed to tremble in the air, something awesome and wondrous. Was this what it meant to trust? Like two little girls, we had approached our Father, placed a broken toy in his lap, and asked with complete assurance (at least on Lynne's part), "Daddy, fix it."
Why should I have been surprised when he did?
As much of heaven is visible as we have eyes to see.
What Are Miracles?
A miracle is a wonder, a beam of supernatural power injected into history._._._. [It] makes an opening in the wall that separates this world and another.
--Time, December 30, 1991
Polls show that more than eight in ten Americans believe in divinely worked wonders, primarily because such events suggest that God exists and loves us and that our lives have a purpose. But the finding of the rings in my backyard deepened my interest in the subject. What is a miracle? I wondered. How do we know when one happens?
According to Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Encyclopedic Edition, a miracle is "an event or effect that apparently contradicts known scientific law, and is hence thought to be due to supernatural causes." Whether elaborate or unadorned, most miracles are positive happenings, occurring unexpectedly and usually outside the realm of ordinary life. "If you can explain it," says author Betty Malz, "it is not a miracle." Nor are miracles haphazard. The recipient usually has a sense of God's deliberate intervention, a change, an answer.
Among the world's many religions, we find different responses to miracles. For example, the Catholic Church accepts their existence, but only when the event defies the known laws of science. And claims are not easily verified. A case in point is the shrine at Lourdes in France. Although there have been thousands of purported divine healings there, only sixty-seven have made it through the stringent procedures of the International Medical Commission to be officially declared miracles. (In 2008, the commission decided it would no longer declare something a "miracle," but simply a "remarkable event.") Since 1981, millions of people have witnessed extraordinary events at Medjugorje, Herzegovina (part of the former Yugoslavia). But the church is still investigating the situation without official comment and will probably do so for years to come.
Protestant denominations differ on miracles. Some believe that Jesus healed the sick, multiplied food, commanded the sea to be silent only for the purpose of establishing his church on earth, and then such heaven-directed wonders stopped. Martin Luther originally denied the possibility of divine healings as well as other miracles, though he later changed his mind. John Calvin, in Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote that such gifts "vanished in order to make the preaching of the Gospel marvelous forever."
This view is disputed by more charismatic Christians. "In this age of skepticism, I often hear people say, 'But God isn't working miracles anymore,'" wrote Harald Bredesen, pastor and author of Need a Miracle? "I've got news for them--good news. God isn't working miracles any less!" Perhaps people block the availability of miracles--or the answers to any prayers, for that matter--"by consciously or unconsciously thinking of God in too small terms, of considering him in terms of our own human limitations."
Professor Ralph Watkins of Fuller Theological Seminary agrees. "We need to be bold enough to believe in a God who can perform miracles," he says, "even in the overwhelming and seemingly impossible challenges: ending poverty, war, divisiveness. We need to walk up on the tomb of things that look dead and resurrect our dreams."
Jews believe in miracles too. "God is not subject to the laws he established for his universe," according to Rabbi Simon Greenberg, writing in A Jewish Philosophy and Pattern of Life. "He remains their unchallenged master, who can manipulate them at will."
The Islamic view is similar. "Miracles are given by the grace of Allah, the only God, not through our own power," says Dr._Musa Qutub, president of the Islamic Information Center of America. "We can ask for anything, because anything is possible." And it is in the asking that our faith grows. "No one who raises his hand to Allah ever comes back empty," Dr._Qutub explains.
Can we "prove" miracles? Usually not. Even if the circumstances seem astonishing, in the end many must be left to the observer to decide. But sometimes we recognize one by our reaction--perhaps a tiny quiver in the pit of our stomach, a chill running through us, a prick of tears, or our heart lifting in wordless response. Miracles can also be identified in hindsight by the positive, often profound changes they make in our lives.
My own "miracle of the rings" changed me. Gradually, I grew more willing to ask for spiritual help and seek God's plan for me, less fearful of being considered "unworthy." Still, it wasn't until I wrote Where Angels Walk in 1992 that a new door to understanding miracles opened to me. People were so moved by the true stories of others who were rescued, consoled, or touched in a special way by an angel that they willingly shared their own heavenly experiences with me. (A few needed to remain anonymous and are denoted here with an asterisk [*].) Most wrote in response to my book or spoke to me after I had given a talk. Others called radio shows where I was a guest.
It was a touching experience, sitting quietly in my home office as I joined the various shows by phone, sometimes late at night, connecting with people all over the country who were willing to publicly discuss their angel encounters. Or seeing the dawning awareness of God's love on the face of a stranger who approached my book-signing table or tentatively opened his heart in an airport waiting room. Every day brought stories of sorrow turned into joy, of lives filled with reawakenings, of searches that had ended, as all good searches do, in the arms of the Father.
Some of these encounters came through angels, others through loved ones already in paradise. Answers to prayers, unexplained healings, the wonders of nature--occasionally a story contained more than one spiritual ingredient, making it harder to categorize, but even more enjoyable to hear. Most illuminating, God seemed to be at work not just at shrines but everywhere. The greatest and most profound adventures with him were taking place, not at the feet of distant gurus, but in our own kitchens, our cars, our prayer communities, wherever hearts were open enough to whisper, "Come, Lord, come._._._."
Gradually I realized that such happenings were far too precious to hide in my files. As I read them and heard them, it became clear that I would have to share many of them in another book, one not only about angels, but also about faith and love_._._. and, yes, about miracles. The groundwork God had so lovingly laid in my backyard was finally bearing fruit.
Miracles through Prayer
It may never be mine,
The loaf or the kiss or the kingdom
Because of beseeching;
But I know that my hand
Is an arm's length nearer the sky
--Edwin Quarles, "Petition"
Janice Stiehler of Baldwin, New York, worried when the Yankees game her teenage son was attending went into extra innings. Now Kurt and his friends would have to take the subway to Penn Station very late at night.
Janice went to sleep, but at precisely 1:10 a.m. she awoke to the crash of a shattered windowpane, as if someone was breaking into the house. Frightened, she roused her husband, and they both searched everywhere. But they found no evidence of burglars and no broken glass. Nor had Kurt come home. "For some reason, I felt compelled to pray for him," Janice recalls. She sat in the kitchen, prayed, and waited.
An hour later, a Penn Station security officer phoned. The boys had been horsing around at the terminal, and Kurt's arm had crashed through a huge storefront window. The pieces of broken glass were so jagged and heavy that the arm should have been completely severed, the amazed officer explained. But Kurt had sustained no injury, not even a scratch.
"When did this happen?" Janice asked.
Then Janice understood. She had been awakened just in time to pray for Kurt. And somehow, across the miles, her prayers had protected him.
When situations work out, we often assume it's a coincidence or the result of our own efforts. And sometimes it is. But answers also come because we pray.
Prayer is most commonly defined as the raising of our minds and hearts to God. We can praise and adore God, express sorrow for an action we regret, give thanks, or ask for help. Prayer covers the complete spectrum of human emotion--from grief to anger to wonder. It can arise from specific occasions or flow casually, like a chat with a good friend. Ideally, prayer "takes no time but it occupies all our time," says Quaker author Thomas Kelly. "[It is] a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings."
Americans are a prayerful people. Two-thirds of us say we pray at least once each day; almost a third pray several times a day. Years ago, I told a friend that I wished I had time to pray. She looked at me. "I don't have time not to pray," she said. I discovered that she was right. Once I made prayer my first priority, God provided all the time I required for everything else--at least everything that he wanted me to accomplish!
But is it necessary to pray? If God already knows what we need, why doesn't he just give it to us? Prayer seems to be necessary for our welfare, to place us in an intimate rapport with our Creator, to fill the God-shaped vacuum within us that will never be satisfied with anything but God. "The value of persistent prayer is not that God will hear us," observed historian William McGill, "but that we will finally hear God." And as Scripture puts it, "You do not have, because you do not ask" (James 4:2). Clearly, "requesting" is an important part of a relationship.
But requests are not always answered in ways we might expect. Sometimes we decide our own agenda, and then ask God to bless it. When he doesn't, we conclude that he didn't answer our prayer. But he did--he said no or not yet, because what we asked was not in our best interest. It's similar to a mother who took her toddler on a shopping trip. Little Joey saw a toy he wanted. The toy was poorly made, and Mom knew it would soon break and disappoint him. The following week was Joey's birthday, and she had already bought a shiny red tricycle, which would delight him far more than the cheap plaything he thought he wanted.
When Mom refused to buy the toy, however, Joey threw a tantrum. Like us, he didn't understand that his parent had a larger view of his life--and something better in store.
A more effective way to pray is to trust God's love for us and surrender the direction of our life to him. The late author Catherine Marshall once noted that "God absolutely refuses to violate our free will; therefore, unless self-will is voluntarily given up, God cannot move to answer prayer." She found that whenever she stopped arguing and instead said, "Okay, God, whatever you want," exciting answers came.
We can pray alone or united with others, in group worship or a shared purpose. Sevier Heights Baptist Church of Knoxville, Tennessee, is one of a number of congregations using the Watchman program, in which volunteers intercede in their homes. While praying, each faces a different direction, like guardians. (This is taken from Isaiah_62:6: "I have posted watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night.") Moms In Touch International is another organization sponsoring thousands of small groups of mothers who meet and pray for their children. In my own parish, grandparents pray together one hour each week for their grandchildren. Many people attest to feeling supported, even carried, when others petition God for them during a difficult time. "I don't know how I would have gotten through without prayer," they say. And it's true.
Have you ever cried out: "Why me, God? Why must I suffer? Why did someone I love die? Why have my efforts failed?" It's difficult to understand why there is pain in our world, why prayers seem to go unheard. Perhaps God is waiting for us to heal one another's wounds. Or perhaps our vision is limited. "On earth we see only the back of the tapestry," all the seemingly random threads and knots, said Dutch missionary Corrie ten Boom. "But the time will come when we will behold the front in all its amazing beauty." In the end, it will all make sense.
Until that time, we can hold tightly to God's hand through prayer, as people in the following stories did. They learned that no job is too difficult, no heartache too devastating, no life ever barren--with God.
A Promise on Mother's Day
Something happens when we pray,
Take our place and therein stay,
Wrestle on 'til break of day;
Ever let us pray.
Sue and Kenny Burton had tried for more than two years to have a baby, and things weren't going well. Month after month, despite many medical tests, they continued to be disappointed. People in their tiny, close-knit town of Frankfort, Kansas, knew about the Burtons' dream and were praying for them.
At that time, Sue was singing contemporary Christian songs in a sextet formed by women from Frankfurt's United Methodist Church. The group, ironically named Special Delivery, performed regularly at mother-daughter banquets, Elk and Moose club meetings, and other functions. "Usually during a program we would each share a little personal history with the audience," Sue explains. "Since we ranged from teenage to grandmother status, people could relate to all of us."
The other singers, knowing Sue's longing for a baby, encouraged her to share that with audiences, and she did. The response was tremendously supportive. After the Christmas concerts, many people came up to assure Sue that they would add their prayers to those of her neighbors. In March, a woman from South Dakota even predicted that at this time next year, Sue would have a baby daughter. Although Sue and Kenny seemed no closer to decorating a nursery, it helped to know that so many people cared.
On Mother's Day weekend, Sue drove her mother to Kansas City to spend some time with Sue's sister, Shelley, who attended college there. The three visited shopping malls all day Saturday, and Sue conscientiously pressed the automatic door lock every time they parked and got out of her car. "We joked about being overly cautious in the big city, but there was no point in being careless," Sue says.
Sunday morning, the trio awakened to a steady rain. They lounged around in Shelley's apartment and had an early lunch. The downpour continued, so eventually the three decided to go out anyway. Dodging raindrops, they splashed across the parking lot to Sue's car. "Hurry up! I'm getting soaked!" Shelley laughed as Sue unlocked the driver's door, then pressed the switch to open the other doors.
Shelley scrambled into the front seat, while their mother got in back. "Look at this!" she exclaimed as her daughters turned around. On the backseat was a pink baby bootie.
"Where did that come from?" Sue asked. "It wasn't there yesterday, was it, Mom?"
"No," her mother said. "I was in and out of here all day, and I never saw it."
"Could it have been stuck down in the seat, maybe left by one of your friends in Frankfort?" Shelley asked.
Sue shook her head. "I doubt it. My friends' children are all older. I don't think a baby has ever been in this car." The women pondered over that awhile.
"Someone must have found it lying near the car just now and tossed it in," said Shelley, "thinking it was ours."
"But the car was never open," Sue pointed out. "You know I've locked the doors whenever we got out. And why would anyone think a bootie belonged to us? No one here knows us."
"Look how muddy and wet it is outside," Sue's mother added, "but this bootie is clean and dry."
The women fell silent again, turning over possible explanations in their minds. But no solution emerged. The bootie's position looked deliberate, as if someone had wanted to be sure it was seen.
"What if_._._._?" Sue couldn't finish her sentence, but the others knew what she was thinking. Was the bootie a message from heaven, a sign that all those prayers ascending from the Kansas plains were about to be answered?
Sue hardly dared to hope. She took the bootie home, put it in her Bible, and waited. Waited until she realized she was indeed pregnant, had been pregnant on that Mother's Day morning, and would, just as the lady from South Dakota predicted, be a mother--of a daughter--very soon. "When people asked how I could be so sure of a girl, I would simply show them the bootie," Sue says. "Would God send pink for any other reason?"
Today, some years later, Sue and Kenny still keep the bootie in a special place, as a reminder that God answers prayer. In fact, he answers in abundance, for their older daughter Paige, has a sister, Chelsey. "I have no doubt that an angel left that bootie there as a sign for me," Sue says. For her, every day is Mother's Day.
Answer in the Wind
I like to compare prayer to the wind. You cannot actually see the wind, but you can see the results of it.
--Rosalind Rinker, How to Have Family Prayers
It was a raw January day as the bus left Benton, Wisconsin, but Dick Wilson* barely noticed. He had just attended his mother's funeral. Although she'd had severe diabetes for many years and it was a relief to see her suffering end, his heart was still heavy.
When the summons had come, Dick planned to drive to Wisconsin from his home in Sedona, Arizona. But the weather in that mountainous area was treacherous, and even worse conditions had been predicted. Instead, his wife, Nancy, had driven him to the Phoenix airport, where he boarded a plane.
Now he was on his way back to Nancy and the six of their ten children who still lived with them. It would have been more convenient to fly back, but the bus fare would be easier on the family budget.
Miles rolled by. Dick was cold and sorrowful, and the trip seemed endless. Finally, in the middle of the night, the bus pulled into the terminal in Tucumcari, New Mexico, for his last transfer. There was time for a quick snack, so Dick went into a nearby restaurant. Lost in thought, he was startled when a driver yelled from the door: "Phoenix bus is leaving, folks. Last call to board."
Last call! Dick got up, grabbed his jacket, then reached inside his shirt pocket for his ticket. But his pocket was empty. Quickly Dick checked the rest of his possessions. Yes, here was his wallet, his comb, and coins. But as he inspected the floor and the chair he'd been sitting on, his pulse began to race. His ticket was gone.
What was he going to do? He had no cash for another ticket. Perhaps he had dropped it on the bus. Panic building, Dick ran to the terminal lot. People were boarding the Phoenix bus, but he dashed to the one he had just ridden. A man was sweeping it out.
"Have you found a ticket?" Dick asked the workman.
"Nope." The workman paused and looked around at the little pile of cigarette butts and candy wrappers. "There's nothing here but this junk."
"Oh, God, please help me._._._." Dick stepped down from the bus, his head swimming. Now what? He sat out down the street, away from the restaurant. If only he hadn't been so careless, so absorbed in his own grief! How could he have done something so stupid?
The wind was blowing strongly, and as Dick trudged, head down, debris whirled past. Rubbish blew against him, and blindly Dick hit out at it, grabbing one troublesome piece of paper to crumple it in frustration. He'd have to phone Nancy, have her wire some money out of their tight budget. And in the meantime the bus would leave. How long would he be stuck here?
Turning, Dick retraced his steps past the terminal and back to the restaurant. As he pushed the door open, he realized that his fist was still closed around that crushed piece of wastepaper. Absently, he glanced at it before tossing it aside.
It was his missing ticket.
Dick reached home safely and has never forgotten the wonder of that answered prayer.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.
--Emily Dickinson, Poems
When Emily Weichman was seven months old, she had a stroke. Although the episode had never been repeated, Emily was still delicate, and her mother, Marlene, watched her carefully for signs of illness or distress. So did the members of the Weichmans' church community, St._Paul Lutheran in West Point, Nebraska. "Emily had many adoptive grandparents," Marlene says. "Everyone was concerned about her."
One September, Marlene, her husband, and Emily, then five, decided to accompany Marlene's parents to Seattle to visit relatives. On the way home, they stayed overnight at a campsite in Yellowstone National Park.
The following morning, Emily seemed lethargic, and after they got on the road, she quickly fell asleep again. The family was driving through an empty stretch of Wyoming when Emily awoke abruptly.
"Mommy," she said, "I'm sick." Marlene looked at her daughter. Emily's eyes seemed out of focus, shifting to the right. A moment later she started vomiting.
They had just driven over some road oil. Were fumes nauseating Emily? Marlene's father stopped the RV, and everyone walked her up and down. She was conscious and apparently aware, but Marlene, a teacher, had had epileptic students, and she felt a chill of apprehension. Emily's symptoms seemed ominously similar. "Dad," she said, "we've got to get Emily to a hospital right away!"
The nearest town, Rock Springs, was more than sixty miles away. Marlene's father sped off, and everyone began to pray.
Twenty miles, thirty._._._. The scenery flew by, but not quickly enough. Emily seemed to be fading. Everyone kept praying, but as they approached Rock Springs, they could see that the town below was far larger than they had anticipated. There would certainly be a hospital here, but how would they find it? (This was before the age of cell phones.) Precious moments would be lost as they searched. Emily was unconscious now. "Lord," Marlene whispered as she held her daughter tightly, "we need to find a doctor fast."
Just as they approached an interstate highway, everyone saw a blue marker with a white H on it--a hospital sign! Thank God! Soon they saw another. At least four signs formed a reassuring blue-and-white trail, which Marlene's father followed on and off the interstate, right to the hospital.
An emergency-room physician diagnosed Emily's condition as a mild epileptic seizure, did a CAT scan, and quickly stabilized her with anticonvulsant drugs.
Only afterward, as Emily rested safely in her room, did Marlene feel the full impact of the crisis. "If it weren't for those hospital signs," she told the physician, "we might still be driving around."
The doctor looked at her curiously. "What signs?"
"The ones lining our route," Marlene explained. "They were literally a lifesaver--we couldn't have found the hospital without them."
The doctor was perplexed. "I live about eight miles out on that road. I travel it every day here," he told her. "I've never seen any hospital signs."
Marlene didn't know what to think. All four adults in the van had seen the markers. But her father and her husband were now at a gas station they had passed on the way in, having the RV checked out. When they returned, she'd ask them.
The men returned late--because they had gotten lost. "We were counting on those blue-and-white signs to guide us," her father said. "But they were gone."
Still perplexed, Marlene phoned the Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce the next day. But an official could provide no explanation. "There have never been any hospital signs there," he said.
When the Weichmans returned home, Emily's doctor put her on anticonvulsant drugs. By the time she was in fifth grade, the seizures had completely stopped. Later, Marlene agreed to a test that would measure the seizure activity still going on in Emily's brain. "The result was no seizure activity," says Marlene. "The EEG showed that her brain had created alternate routes and had bypassed the area where the seizures were occurring."
As Emily's perplexed doctor explained all this, he emphasized that such a thing normally doesn't happen. Emily just smiled at him and gently put her hand on his. "It's just another miracle," she told him. "One of these days, you'll start believing in the power of God and his miracles. I do already."
"I'll never forget the look on that doctor's face as this girl witnessed to him," says Marlene today.
As for Rock Springs? A few years after the Weichmans had been there, the town leaders erected hospital signs. No doubt it's holy ground.