On Miracles

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 4 December 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)

Our worship theme at Throop Church for the month of December is miracles. This is a difficult topic for a humanist like me to speak on, because, frankly, a lot of prominent public humanists and atheists can be very literal-minded and sometimes self-righteous when talking about such things.

So in this sermon, I would like to do two things.

First, as you might have expected, I’d like to talk about the type of miracle that I do not believe in — not with any intent of changing whatever beliefs you might hold, but rather with a goal of empathy. And second, I would like to describe to you the type of miracle that I do believe in.

To begin with, what is a miracle? A miracle is an occurrence that cannot be explained by reason or by science; but more than that — it has to be a mysterious occurrence that is good. And, it has to be something that is not repeatable; it has to be unusual in some way. Because when a miracle starts to be a regular occurrence, it stops being a miracle, and starts being a law of nature.

Now, I know that some of you already have a bent towards naturalistic explanations of things. When faced with claims that seem counter to our understanding of the physical world, some of you already start from a skeptical perspective. Others of you are more open to the idea of a spiritual realm that does not always follow the laws of natural science; and some of you believe in a God that lives outside of our normal experience of existence.

These are all ways of looking at the world. And my goal today is not to argue about theology and metaphysics; instead, I would like to try to give you an experience, an experience that might give you an idea — if you don’t already have one — of what it feels like to have a more skeptical bent, to be more in tune with naturalistic explanations of things. And to give you this experience, I’d like to describe an experiment carried out a few years ago and written up in the British Medical Journal.

The experiment was designed to test whether prayer can influence medical outcomes. There have been a number of studies of this question, but the one I will describe has some particularly beautiful ideas in its design.

The study involved 3393 patients in a university hospital in Israel who had bloodstream infections between the years 1990 and 1996. Each patient was assigned at random into either a study group or a control group. All patients received appropriate medical care. But the patients in the study group also received a brief prayer; the patients in the control group did not. The experimenters then compared three variables: the mortality rates of the patients, the lengths of their stays in the hospital, and the duration of their fevers.

There was no statistically significant difference in mortality rate between the study group and the control group. However, there was a statistically significant difference in the length of hospital stay between the two groups; the patients that received prayers had shorter stays, and shorter duration of fevers. Let me repeat: There was a statistically significant effect.

Now, at this point, battle lines have already been drawn. The more skeptical among you might be thinking, “let’s see these statistics, because statistics can be misleading.” And the skeptical might be wondering, “why would length of stay be affected, but not mortality rate?” But others of you might be thinking, “yes, well, it’s not unlikely that prayer would help; sure, let’s double-check the statistics, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that prayer makes a difference.” Faced with my description of this study, I expect that most of you have moved to comfortable and familiar intellectual positions.

But the beauty of this particular experiment lies in a detail that I have not yet mentioned. As I said, the patients were all in the hospital between 1990 and 1996. But the experiment was carried out in the year 2000. The random assignment of each patient to the study group or the control group? That was done in the year 2000. The prayers said for the patients in the study group? Those prayers were made in the year 2000.

This was a study of retroactive prayer.

So no matter what you originally thought of this study, I hope that now you are thinking, “Wait. What?!”

The study shows a statistically significant difference in length of hospital stay, and attributes it to prayers said four to ten years after the patients were in the hospital.

Stop for a moment. What are you feeling? Do you feel more skeptical about the study than you did at first? Are your ideas about the flow of time so fundamental that you think there must be something wrong with the analysis? If so, then you are feeling what many humanists feel about other spiritual claims.1

So now you know the type of miracle that I have a hard time believing in. But what about the miracles I can believe in?

Well, miracles live in a larger context — a context of hope in the face of fear and despair. Instead of viewing miracles as contradictions of the laws of science and nature, you can think of miracles as stories that can help keep us going when we are ready to give up. So let me tell you about the miracles I am hoping for. And to help explain a metaphor, let me tell you a story from when I was in college.

As some of you already know, I was an undergraduate at Caltech, the other Pasadena institution founded by Amos G. Throop. When I was an undergraduate, I did not own a car — but my friend Tim2 had a Dodge Charger 2.2. We referred to it, with perhaps a trace of irony, as the “graceful yet powerful Dodge Charger.” There was one time the two of us were out in the high desert one night, perhaps in Victorville or Adelanto, I don’t remember exactly where or why. Tim had driven us out there, and I was going to drive us back. “You can head back to Pasadena by taking the 138, the 14, and the 210,” said Tim, describing a route that goes counterclockwise around the San Gabriel Mountains. “Or you could take the eastern route, on the 15 and the 210” — clockwise around the San Gabriels. “Or,” he said, “you could take the Angeles Crest Highway. That would be a test of man and machine.” He handed me the keys.

I drove home that night on the Angeles Crest Highway.

Now, even as an 18-year-old boy, I was reasonably responsible. I’m sure I drove faster than I was really comfortable doing, but I probably was not being too unsafe. And yet I remember, as I drove home that dark night on those twisty mountain roads at the wheel of the graceful and powerful Dodge Charger — I remember looking at the guardrails on the turns and thinking, “I don’t want to test those.”

I didn’t want to test the guardrails.

I have friends who voted for Donald Trump, and who recognize the aspects of his personality that are not suited for the presidency. But they expect that calmer minds in the administration will prevail; they expect that Trump’s worst excesses will not lead us off the road and into the chasm; they expect that the guardrails of our democracy will hold.

But some of these guardrails have been tested before. And they haven’t always held. Within living memory, a presidential executive order led to the incarceration of over 80,000 U.S. citizens and 40,000 non-citizen residents.

In recent memory, the September 11th attacks prompted the U.S. government to torture prisoners, in violation of international law and basic humanity.

I said earlier that miracles live in a context of fear and hope. My fear is that in the next few years there will be some kind of crisis — maybe an attack by terrorists, maybe something else — that will bring out the worst of America. And I am worried that the guardrails will not hold. What can I do with this fear? If you share it, what can you do with this fear? Is there a way that we can maintain some hope amidst this fear?

While I’ve been pondering these questions, I’ve thought of two poems that have stuck with me this year, poems that have been floating near the surface of my thoughts for months.

The first of these is the poem “Between the World and Me,” written in 1935 by the African-American poet Richard Wright. I will not read this poem to you now; I would not surprise you here on this calm Sunday morning with it. Because the poem itself is about the poet being surprised, while walking through the woods, to come across a clearing where there had recently been a lynching. As he sees the evidence of what has happened there — the blood-stained clothes, the burned sapling, the lingering smell of gasoline, the bones — as he realizes what he has come across, the scene comes terrifyingly to life: “The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves into my bones. The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into my flesh”— and the poet finds himself reliving the scene, finds himself chased, caught, burned alive by a jeering crowd. It is not a poem to surprise people with.3

It starkly captures the fear, and the rage, and the injustice, that is part of the American experience, much as we would like to forget or deny it.

The second poem is “Let America Be America Again,” written three years later, in 1938, by the African-American poet Langston Hughes. Rev. Tera used this in worship two weeks ago, and I used it in worship last April.

The poem begins with one speaker recalling themes from America’s mythological history, telling of a land

[…] where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

But a second speaker inserts himself into the monologue, first making quiet comments that complicate this naïve narrative of America, and then stealing the mic, so to speak, to give a more complicated history.

This history recognizes the fear and injustice that Wright’s poem expresses. It does not hide it, it does not deny it, it does not diminish it. And yet, the poem ends with hope:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!

But I think the key to the poem is that the hope for America that it expresses, the hope that we can rise above our past and truly become the land we claim to be, the hope that we can transform ourselves, miraculously — that hope depends on us.

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain —
All, all the stretch of these great green states —
And make America again!

How can this happen?

How can America rise above its past — indeed, how can we rise above our present — and live up to our values? It would take a miracle.

But that’s a miracle I can believe in.

The catch is that it is a miracle that we have to work for. And in the coming years, when we may need to rely upon the guardrails of our democracy, our work will be to strengthen our institutions, and to stand up for the ideals we hold dear.

In a few minutes we will be singing “The Fire of Commitment,” which is #1028 in the softcover hymnal. Please take a moment now to open up the hymnal to #1028. The third verse starts:

From the dreams of youthful vision comes a new, prophetic voice,
Which demands a deeper justice built by our courageous choice.

If we want to prepare for a miracle, if we want to help America climb closer to its ideals, we will have to make the courageous choices that lead to deeper justice. And it is hard to make courageous choices when you feel that you are alone.

So I would like to help us all take home the message that we are not alone; that we are working together for deeper justice; that the weight falls not on any one individual’s shoulders; that when one of us is tired and needs a moment of rest, the others can take up the task.

I would like us to feel in our bones that we are working together, that we are stronger together.

So I am going to ask you to respond to me now. If you don’t agree with something I say, feel free to stay silent — but if you do agree with me, please respond by saying “Yes, we will.”

Will we work together for justice?

Will we fight for free speech?

Will we protect the earth?

Will we work to help those that are viewed as the least among us?

Will we protect the oppressed?

Will we fight for a society where all people can live with dignity?

Will we join together to fight hatred?

Will we proclaim that black lives matter as much as white lives?

Will we support freedom for all religions?

Will we redeem all the stretch of these great green states?

Will we work together until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream?

Then please rise in body or spirit, and we will sing “The Fire of Commitment.”

Image credit: Artur Pokusin, posted on unsplash.com under the Creative Commons Zero license. Original here.

  1. So what should we make of this study? It looks like part of the problem is that there may have been one single person who had an unusually long stay in the hospital — close to a year — and this one person happened to get assigned to the control group. In other words, the “statistical significance” of the length-of-stay result was due to chance assignment of this single person to the control group instead of to the study group. The study generated a lot of feedback in the British Medical Journal, but unless you are following that link from a location with a license for the journal, you won’t be able to see all of it. (In particular, you will miss the letter to the editor entitled “You cannae break the laws of physics, Captain.”) 
  2. When one refers to a person in a sermon in a way that identifies them, it is good practice to ask that person whether you can use their story. I am so sad that I cannot ask Tim this; he died unexpectedly in December 2010. RIP TPA29970. 
  3. You’ve been warned now that this is an intense poem. It first appeared in the Partisan Review, and you can see the original here, page 1 and page 2

3 thoughts on “On Miracles”

  1. Reaction to first study: probably a retroactive evaluation of the patients’ connectedness to a support system; not so irrational or miraculous at all! [wrote that before reading the earlier comment]
    Continuing to read. . . .
    I read the second half of this from the UUWorld link.
    “The Fire of Commitment” is one of my favorite UU songs (I do not call them hymns).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The clever thing about the study is that if their random placement of people in the study or control groups was truly random, and if you don’t believe that we can influence the past, then the only explanation is that there’s something screwy with the statistics… or, more accurately, something screwy with how we interpret the statistics. For example, the phrase “statistically significant” has a technical meaning that does not always correspond to the normal meaning of the word “significant”…


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