Confessions of a Doubter

by Bill Holmes

“Miracle—An event that is considered unusual or extraordinary in that it appears to be contrary to what is currently known of nature. Theologically, the emphasis is on what God has revealed through this event, as in the miracles of Jesus.”   —Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms

“What is to one man a coincidence is to another a miracle.”  —Richard Selzer, MD

Several years ago a four-year-old girl from rural Kentucky was riding an ATV with her father. When the vehicle hit a log, she was thrown off and plunged into a culvert. At the hospital her brain scan revealed diffuse bleeding and swelling. Shortly after admission to the ICU she began to have seizures that proved difficult to control. Four days later she was still unresponsive.

In the family conference room the mother asked, “Doctor, how long do you think my child will have to be on a respirator? Will she awaken from this coma? What will she be like?”

Unless a doctor is very sure of a good outcome, the physician usually gives a guarded response or a poor prognosis. It is neither helpful nor wise for a physician to make optimistic statements in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

When the child turned out to do better than predicted, the family saw “miracle.”

So much have I seen claims of the miraculous arising from better than expected outcomes, that I once said, “Most miracles are not so much miracles as doctors overly prognosticating.”

At one point in my life I resisted labeling any event as a miracle. It had been my experience that almost always the claims of the miraculous fell apart under close scrutiny. Meanwhile I arrived in the doctors’ parking lot early each morning with prayers for guidance in the work of the day and for anything extraordinary that God had to offer.

But now I find myself reconsidering those former feelings that bordered on being cynical. As a chaplain, I sit in the waiting room with those anxious to know what will happen to their loved ones. Entrenched with families in the foxholes of life, I begin to see things as they see them, and I relent in my claims of “not a miracle.”

When families receive encouraging news, see any improvement beyond the expected, feel any grasp of the hand in response to a loving touch, capture any grimace or eyelid flutter as words are spoke softly to a brain-injured loved one, or experience just about anything that is beyond the predicted, they may well say, “It’s a miracle!”

It is then I must still the voice of the neurologist who wants to say, “It was just a reflex. He does not really understand you or know you are present.” The physician-prognosticator part of me wants to give the physiological reason that things seem better.  What the neurologist perceives as reflex or predictable neurophysiologic change, the loving and caring parent, spouse, and friend see as miracle.” And the chaplain in me now says with them, “Yes!”

Even when the medical outcome is as bad as it could possibly be, I still see miracle. When families endure the unimaginable but somehow find new life in the midst of incredible loss, I see miracle.

Yes, there are periods of doubt in the midst of the crises of life, but even as doubt is born, faith is delivering its finest hour. And we name it “Miracle.”

Thanks be to God!

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