This should be every child’s favorite Scripture passage come Christmas time. I can just imagine the letters to Santa: “I want a puppy, a guitar, a new video game, and $100 cash. If you have any concerns, remember, Jesus said, ‘Ask, and it will be given to you.’”
That might not go over so well. I’m sure we all asked for all kinds of things as kids. Some of the things we asked for, we actually got; some things we asked for, not so much.
One of the things I begged my parents for when I was little was a brother. I loved sports as a kid—softball and basketball especially, and though playing with my dad was fun, I thought it would be so cool to have a brother to play with. Now that I think about it, it was a little sexist of me to ask for that—I was a girl after all, so what made me think I needed a brother to play sports with?
In any case, that’s one thing I did eventually get—my brother Noah was born on April 18, 1994. But I didn’t really think through what I was asking. I was 7 years old when Noah was born, and I’m not sure it occurred to me that it would be several more years before he would be big enough to swing a bat or shoot a basketball with me. By the time he was, I had moved on to other hobbies and interests. So I got what I wished for…sort of.
So often, we think we know what we want, but the reality turns out to be quite a bit different. Or, by the time we get it, we find we don’t really want it that badly after all. We wish for somewhere over the rainbow, but then we’re not in Kansas anymore and suddenly we’re surprisingly homesick.
As we grow older, we start to recognize this pattern, and perhaps we don’t ask for so many things anymore. This past Christmas, the only things I asked for were a United Methodist Book of Worship—because I had lost mine—and the opportunity to participate in a retreat this summer. I don’t go asking for things as much as for experiences these days.
And isn’t that some of what Dorothy found in The Wizard of Oz—that she asked to be taken away from this wretched place called Kansas, but in the end, what she needed was not a change of scenery but a change of heart? Didn’t she find, rather than a new life somewhere else, the courage and heart to live the life she had been given?
Some of our journey of asking and receiving is one of knowing what and how to ask. Our passage from Matthew 7 is not a blank check. This is not God telling us that if we ask him for a high-paying job and a beautiful wife and perfectly behaved children that we’ll get that. This passage isn’t just about the asking; it’s about the giving, and about the giver.
Matthew 7 is about God giving us good things, and it tells us that God knows even better than we do with our own children what qualifies as a good gift. Now, I had to chuckle at the line about giving a child who asked for bread a stone, because I recently had a failed attempt at baking rye bread that left me feeling like I had indeed gotten a stone when I asked for bread. But this passage is a promise. It is God telling us that when we ask for good things, for the things that sustain us—for bread and fish, literally and metaphorically—then we will, indeed receive it.
So how many of you have ever asked God for something? How many of you have actually gotten what you ask for?
I’m not talking about asking God to find you a good parking spot at the mall or to help the Panthers win the Superbowl (though that would be great). I’m talking about asking God for the deep desire of your heart, for things you want and need desperately, for things that might seem impossible. Do we dare to ask God for those kinds of things?
C. S. Lewis says that although some faith leaders disparage desire as something opposed to God’s will, that’s actually getting it wrong. Lewis says that our desires are not too strong, but too weak. We wish for and ask for and pray for things that don’t really matter, when it is God’s desire to give us the deep and even impossible desires of our hearts.
So when you get down to it, what is it that you want more than anything in the world? Is it a cure for cancer? Is it the end of a loved one’s addiction? Is it healing for your anxiety, repair of a failing marriage, fertility in a barren womb, or peace in a broken world? Whatever it is, have you yet had the courage to ask God for it, or are you too afraid to ask because you fear being disappointed if you do not receive it?
I confess that I often fall into the latter category. I am a rational, educated personal with thoroughly reasonable expectations of what is and is not possible. And so most of the time I pray, not according to my deepest desires, sometimes not even according to God’s will, but according to what seems reasonable, what seems safe. I have no doubt that God can do amazing things even through such mediocre prayers, but I have begun to wonder how my faith might be transformed if I were to pray for my deepest desires. I might be surprised at what I receive—and even if I don’t get exactly what I pray for, might the risk and trust of praying so boldly open me up to seeing more amazing things than I could even ask?
When we start asking for the deepest desires of our hearts, we often tread into the realm of the miraculous. The things we want most are usually not a puppy or a Panthers Superbowl win—they are things that seem almost silly to ask. They are things that seem impossible. Often, if we received them, they would be called miracles.
What is a miracle, anyway? The Bible is full of them—lepers healed, blind men restored to sight, dead men raised, barren women made mothers, water turned to wine. Often we think all that mumbojumbo was something that happened back then but doesn’t happen today—it seems as far-fetched as waving a magic wand over someone’s sick and broken body, expecting results. You would immediately ask for a second opinion if your doctor did that. Some early depictions of Jesus’ miracles show him holding what looks like a magic wand. Even the early Christians had trouble wrapping their minds around the seemingly magical component of the miraculous.
Some people, on the other hand, question the validity of the Biblical miracles. They say, well, a miracle is just something that can’t be explained at the time—but perhaps we can explain some of these miracles; maybe there is some scientific reason these things happened that can take the magic out of the stories and make them more palatable. For some, this line of thinking is the only way they can get on board with what the Bible says about Jesus; for others, it is to reject Christian faith outright.
So is a miracle just something that can’t be explained at the time that might later be rationalized and understood? Or is it beyond comprehension, almost magical? Lemony Snicket is the pen name of children’s author Daniel Handler, and I love what he has to say about miracles: “Miracles are like meatballs, because nobody can exactly agree on what they are made of, where they come from, or how often they should appear.”
We might not be able to say what exactly a miracle is, but we usually know when we’ve experienced one—or do we?
My dad has a friend who spent some time at the monastery at Our Lady of Lourdes in France. Here, a miraculous appearance of Mary led to the establishment of a holy site around a spring whose water is said to have healing powers. When this woman returned from her visit, my dad asked eagerly—“did you see any miracles?” She replied, “Oh yes, every day!” My dad expected to hear of the lame walking and the blind seeing, but this is what the woman said—“Every day at Lourdes, no matter who you are, or where you are from, or what’s wrong with you, you are welcomed and loved.”
I bet some of you think that’s kind of a cop-out. I don’t blame you. I’ve thought the same. We’re supposed to be talking about miracles here—where are the inexplicable remissions and the sudden lifting of depression’s haze, the reversal of a disability and the gifts of sight and hearing and speech? Where is the magic, the abracadabra, the wave of a wand to make whole all that is broken?
But if you stop and think about it, is it really less of a miracle to be welcomed and loved than it is to find healing of the body? In this world that leaves so many of us feeling rejected and unworthy and unlovable, isn’t it a miracle that anyone, anywhere, gets to offer and receive the unconditional love in whose image we were created?
I’ve told this story more than once here at Roots, but it is so profound it bears repeating every now and then. Reynolds Price was a renowned professor of English literature and a student of the Bible. In 1984, doctors discovered a tumor wound around his spine. In the midst of his cancer treatment, Price had a vision. In it, he was by the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus first taught and healed. In the vision, he saw Jesus walking toward him—in his words:
I felt no shock or fear. All this was normal human event; it was utterly clear to my normal eyes and was happening as surely as any event of my previous life… Jesus bent and silently beckoned me to follow… Jesus silently took up handfuls of water and poured them over my head and back til water ran down my puckered scar. Then he spoke once—“Your sins are forgiven”—and turned to shore again, done with me. I came on behind him, thinking in standard greedy fashion, It’s not my sins I’m worried about. So to Jesus’ receding back, I had the gall to say “Am I also cured?” He turned to face me, no sign of a smile, and finally said two words—“That too.”
Reynolds Price did receive the miracle of a cure in the sense that the tumor was destroyed—yet his healing did not end up looking the way he might have wished. Although treatment removed the cancer from his body, it left him in a wheelchair and in chronic pain. This vision illustrates yet again the depth of our need for healing of body and soul—that we need not only the miracle of physical restoration but also the miracle of forgiveness, of being loved and welcomed as we are.
I recently got to visit with Judy Jones, who was on staff at church and has been very sick for many months. When I saw her, she was preparing for her most recent chemotherapy treatment for stomach cancer. Judy was in good spirits but physically very frail. She told me that she had been reading a lot about miracles. And she told me that she, like Reynolds Price, had had a vision.
She said she saw an angel come and place a white box on the table in front of her. Then another white box beside it. And Judy knew in her soul that these two boxes were two miracles. One was the miracle of healing; the other was the miracle of being able to transition peacefully. “Either way,” she said, “I figure I’m good to go.”
So ask for the miracle you want, but look for the miracles you never imagined. Sometimes we get so narrowly focused on the big miracles that we fail to see the little ones that happen every day. Here’s another great Lemony Snicket quote about miracles: “Miracles are like pimples, because once you start looking for them you find more than you ever dreamed you’d see.”
Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets, has one poem where she observes a small act of kindness. She writes:
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn't a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness--
as now and again
some rare person has suggested--
is a miracle.
As surely it is.
We will find miracles wherever we look for them—that is a promise. When we ask, we will receive; when we seek, we will find; when we knock, the door will be opened to us. So let’s ask the impossible, seek the unfindable, and knock as loudly as we can—let’s offer to God our strongest desires, our biggest wishes, our most far-fetched requests. No request is too extreme. We may not get exactly what we thought we were wishing for, but when we dare to dream with God, we rest assured that we will receive a good gift from the one who knows best how to give good things—and that, indeed, is a miracle. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell