Small Letters and Sparrows

What qualifies as a miracle worth recounting? And how far beyond the probable does an event need to be before we consider it miraculous?

Mischa Willett / 9.2.21

This essay appears in the newest issue of The Mockingbird magazine. 

Each miracle writes for us in small letters something that God has already written, or will write, in letters almost too large to be noticed, across the whole canvas of Nature.

— C. S. Lewis

I used to make fun of the Israelites in the Old Testament. When I read things like, After so and so many days they forgot God’s favor to them and started worshiping idols or what have you, I’d think, O come on. If ever a people had seen proof, it was these. And not their ancestors even, but them. We get a still small voice; they had a pillar of fire leading them through the desert, and they started to believe maybe there is no God. Really? You don’t remember the walls of water you walked between in Egypt? Most of us have to hack it on faith, but these people had manifest evidence. 

The other thing that used to annoy me was how often they repeated the story. The Egyptian deliverance is told over and over again. Do you remember the time your forefathers were brought out…? and I think how the hearers must have sighed: Yes, we recall. We hear about nothing else. 

But those were miracles, so okay. If I won the lottery, I’d probably tell that story a few times too. What I’m wondering is what qualifies as a miracle worth recounting? And how far beyond the probable does an event need to be before we consider it miraculous in the first place? Do miracles need to help someone in order to qualify, or just to be inexplicable otherwise? Do they need to follow a prayer? Those are real questions. I don’t know how to answer any of them, so I could use some help thinking about these things. 

I suppose I also have to tell you, in order for some of these events to make sense, that I’ve often been ridiculously poor: My student loan debt is in six figures, and I was a low-level humanities adjunct for a decade before finding a permanent academic position. Also, I have a family, and we live in a hot real estate market on one income. So when I say “poor,” I don’t mean “lower middle-class.” I mean that until recently, we sometimes went hungry when I didn’t make it to the food bank. As I will return to later, being poor might have something to do with the situations I mean to tell you about. The second caveat is that the occurrences I’m sharing here are in no way exhaustive, nor even selected by any criteria. This stuff happens all the time to me, to the astonishment of everyone around. It’s like I live in miracles. These things have been happening my whole life, so they don’t even feel strange to me until I assemble them, as here, and have a look.

One time I was studying abroad in Tintagel, England, and two of my attractive blonde classmates snuck out of the hostel to go for beers. Lads kept buying them shots at whatever pub they ended up in, and they stayed till the closing bell. I only know any of this because I dreamed it. A typical narrative of a dream. I could see where they were sitting in the bar, who was talking to them, that kind of thing. 

The rest of it I know because I did it. At 2:30 in the morning, I climbed down from my little hostel bunk bed, slipped on my shoes, and walked out into the night. Mind you, this was all before cell phones, so I couldn’t have texted them to see if they were alright, nor could they have called a cab. Somehow I knew they were in trouble. Tintagel is a far cry from London. It’s one of the darkest places in England, perched on the cliffs over the Celtic Sea. Moonless night, of course. The hostel is situated not in the town proper, but out across the heath, through winding trails. It’s hard to find in the daytime. I didn’t look around for them. I didn’t wander or amble or take in the serene summer night. I sprinted, as nearly as I was able in the dark and over unpaved fields, straight to the pub, where I found them both, passed out—or one of them passed out, the other groaning—in a field opposite. One had lost her shoe and had been trying to make her way on all fours in the direction of the sea. What might have happened if I hadn’t gotten there when I did, carrying the one and leading the other back to the hostel? Maybe nothing, of course. But then again. 

That’s not the odd part for me though. It’s this: Why did I leave my room in the first place? Why then? I had never been to that pub before. Neither had they. I’m not even sure I knew there was a pub there. For all I knew, they might have been sleeping sweetly in their cots. Maybe it was a coincidence that I took the only midnight hike through uncharted territory of my life and happened upon some half-naked, distressed classmates after having a dream about them. Maybe actually there’s a scientific explanation, like that at some level my hearing registered the number of sleeping breathers down the hall and, detecting two missing from the usual set, alerted me to danger through a dream narrative. I’m not sure which takes more faith to believe.

But that instance isn’t the oddest by far. Sometimes I’m not helping anyone, or not really helping anyone at least. Once, when I lived with my parents, I went out to the laundry room, a detached shed under the carport where there was a deep, cardboard box that at one point had probably held the dryer. This was one box out of maybe 25 in the shed. Those boxes were disgusting and dusty. I was just standing there with my arms full of laundry when—it’s not a voice and not quite an urge—it became clear that I was about to reach my arm down this box. It isn’t as though I go around thrusting my arm into storage boxes wherever I am. Do you know how gross dust caked onto cardboard feels? We have Black Widows in Arizona. I’d never done such a thing before in my life, and I haven’t since. Neither was I looking for anything in particular. Or anything at all. I simply, but for no reason, stretched my arm up to the pit into a dusty box, where I found my punk brother’s stack of porn and a full sheet of acid he’d acquired for dealing. I took it all straight to the dumpster, which was a good thing since the police popped by the following week and searched the place. He’d still be in jail now if they’d found it. 

Is that a miracle? 

Tim Davis. From “I’m Looking Through You,” from Aperture Foundation, courtesy of Diane Rosenstein Gallery, Los Angeles.

Maybe this stuff isn’t weird for those who pray with more zeal than I and are used to having prayers answered, but it’s still pretty weird for me. I’m an emotional Evangelical Anglican: I cry during scripture readings, liturgical prayer, and worship songs, but at extemporized prayer I’m a hack, and I certainly couldn’t pass for a Pentecostal. But still, the world feels to me enflamed with the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the responses (miracles?) are so small as to be hardly worth noticing, except that they gather into a kind of choir.

We moved back to Seattle last year when I started work at a new university. My office was feeling cold and unfriendly. There’s no window and fluorescent lights make me sick. Plus, it was Seattle, so it had been gray and dark for months. I prayed, at my desk, feeling a little silly as I often do when praying for unserious things: “Lord, this feels stupid to say, but if you care about the bird’s plumage, or flower’s petals, maybe you can do something about the lighting in here.” Then I said to myself something like, “Shut up, you idiot, and get back to work.” Before I could though, there came a knock on my closed door, and there was my new colleague Will, saying, “Hey Mischa, do you need anything to make this place feel cozier … like a lamp?” He had one in his right hand. I (obviously) don’t know how prayer works, but I figured the process would be something like: I ask God, God tells Will, Will goes to store and buys a lamp, then Will brings it by. It would take at least a day or two, right? This was under five minutes. 

Same office, a week later. Because the cause is serious, I get on my knees this time, which I don’t often do. My family and I need a new church. After the move, my wife is lonely. Also, God gave me a lamp, so shouldn’t I at least go sing with His people? So I close my door and kneel and explain the above. But two minutes into it, I’m interrupted by my phone. Note to self: Next time, turn your phone off before engaging in serious prayer. I check it. A text says, “wanna have lunch on thursday?” It’s a number I don’t recognize, but I text back “sure!” I’m not very good with remembering things, and I don’t want to confess to having deleted someone’s contact, so I figure someone will turn up and sit across from me, and then I can just play it off like I knew all along. So Thursday comes, and I go. In walks the pastor of a church I had visited before we moved away two years ago. Before we sit down he looks right at me and says, “I think you should come and be a part of my church.”

And sure, pastors probably say these kinds of things sometimes, but it’s not like I prayed for this daily. I prayed that one time and was interrupted by the answer. 

I read explanations for these things sometimes by pop scientists who say that there are tens of thousands of phenomena everyone experiences in a given day, all random of course, and we just choose some to believe are significant within a certain paradigm. But I also read in Frederick Buechner’s marvelous spiritual autobiography, The Sacred Journey, about his finding, in the airport bar before taking one of his rare (he’s phobic) plane flights, a pair of cufflinks on the bar with his own full initials on them. He felt taken care of, like he was in the right place. I read stories like that and think: To hell with the bean counters! The probability is astronomical. To find it, you’d have to run the number of pairs of cufflinks the average man finds in his life times the likelihood of their having all three of his initials, then multiply that by the three flights that Buechner has taken in his whole life and the span of minutes within which it was possible to collect them times the number of available seats at the bar and, well, you see what I mean. What if the cufflinks had only two of his initials? He’d have handed them to the barkeep and said, “Here, someone left these.” 

Sometimes I don’t pray at all though, and the miracles still happen, which is partly why I’m loath to term them thus. Last year I was walking across campus, feeling spiritually dry as I often do, and financially bankrupt as I often am, and I was thinking to myself that N. T. Wright had a new book that might settle things for me. The library didn’t stock it and it was too new for them to order. I need this book. When will I be able to afford it? I muttered as I strolled. Sure enough—see how the miraculous begins to sound predictable and the term then to fall in on itself?—a (human) voice breaks in: “Excuse me, would you like a book?” Guy had a table set up. Giving away Christian books as some kind of evangelism. Three books left on it. Do I have to say the rest?

Maybe I do. Maybe I should tell these stories over and over again as the Israelites tell their escape. Anyway, it’s still happening, which is why I thought to remember any of these in the first place. This time it was about something people all over the world pray for: money. 

Praying for money is strange because usually people only think they need it, when what they really need is food, or shelter, or something further down the hierarchy of needs. It feels strange because it can be manipulative. I went to a church group once that met in a hipster coffee shop in the arts district. Thirty-some 30-somethings gathered in their coiffured hirsuteness to talk Bible. It was fine till the prayers, when the leaders asked for prayer that God would provide $1,750.00—for rent, I presumed—by next Tuesday. Those sorts of appeals bother me because they seem like thinly-disguised begging. They’re not asking God to help. They’re asking their friends/parishioners/whoever and dressing it up with Jesus. I never went back to that church, so I don’t know whether they got what they had asked for, but they probably did. These are Christians we’re talking about. The people who do car washes to raise money to fly themselves to Mexico to build houses for the poor. The diggers of African wells, inventors of the orphanage, and, well, hospitals for that matter. Mention in a room of 30 of them that you’re hurting for cash, or anything else really, and there’s a good chance it’ll appear. And that still seems a kind of miracle to me—that people who don’t really know one another would overcome the prisons of their own egos to such an extent that they’d make financial sacrifices to alleviate the material needs of a relative stranger, or in many cases a total one. 

But that’s not the kind of miracle this recent thing was for me. Here I am; I haven’t told anyone, not even my wife, that we’re $47 short for rent. I can’t pay late, since I’m not expecting a check for another two weeks. We’d get a “three-days to pay or vacate” notice (our landlord is a lawyer), and there would be nothing I could do. All credit cards are maxed, so I can’t take an advance. I could schedule a freelance tutoring lesson, but that wouldn’t pay for two weeks. Same with dock work, which I sometimes do to fill in. I’m strapped. And stumped. I remember the prayer I mumbled because it was so awkward. I said, “I don’t even really know what I want you to do about it. I don’t think you’re some kind of ATM in the sky, but we’re $47 short on rent and I just thought I’d mention it in case you could … help. Because you said to ask. And I trust you.” After I said “Amen,” I felt stupid. I hesitated when I walked by the mailbox the next day and saw an envelope with my address handwritten on it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get a lot of handwritten mail. I looked at it warily before withdrawing from the mailbox what I felt right then was probably it, whatever “it” was. 

Of course it could have been a bill, and wouldn’t that have been a kick in the teeth? That would have made sense. I owe money all over town. Instead it was a check for $53.47. I’m still not certain who it was from. It was labeled a student account refund, from a university I had taught at but have never attended. The only thing I can figure is that I had put money on a dining card and they zeroed the balances between terms.

It might be that this is why Jesus calls the poor blessed. We’re not, at least in any detectible way. Being poor sucks. And whoever God is, he must love the rich or the normal just as much, and still be willing to do miracles in their lives. But it does seem that we poor have more occasions to receive unexpected blessings, and that the blessings, when they happen, feel bigger. What’s a free book to someone with a credit card, or a random fifty bucks to someone with a savings account? Of course, like everyone, I have unanswered prayers too. But when that rent check clears, there will be $6.25 in our account. And I’ll feel, because I’m a son of a ridiculous, extravagant, and timely father, like the richest man in the world.

You can order The Mockingbird here!

Illustrations by Lehel Kovács.