Amazed By Grace
By: John H. Campbell
mir•a•cle: 1. A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is considered to be divine. 2. A highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment.
miracle - From Latin miraculum, "object of wonder"; its ultimate root meant "to smile upon."
"Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe" - John 4:48
I often ponder which I enjoy the least: getting into a theological debate with another Christian with a dogmatic, legalist fundamentalist understanding of theology, wherein I have to defend the validity of my faith as a Christian whilst remaining a joyful and unrepentant bisexual man at peace with my spirituality and sexuality, or getting into a debate with what I have referred to in the past as an "atheist fundamentalist," where I have to defend the validity of my very faith in God. Both situations require me to reason with absolutist black-and-white thinking, which I cannot comprehend, and both require that I select my words carefully and with love, as I feel that both of these viewpoints are the result of the individual expressing them residing in a place of fearful thought.
After much internal debate and deliberation, I have ultimately come to the conclusion that I find both equally challenging in different fashions. There is no "lesser of two evils," so to speak, although in honesty and practice based on my own path, I cannot judge anyone else's beliefs - or non-beliefs as "evil." Both are frustrating to me as at different points in my life I had experienced those types of thoughts, beliefs and feelings. And even though both are diametrically opposing viewpoints, they do share one similarity, at least in my experience: they are "right," everyone else is "wrong," and there is absolutely no middle ground or room for thoughtful interpretation.
I won't elaborate on the conversations with other Christians with a more legalistic bent than my own, or that of other LGBT Christians at this moment, as what I wish to relate isn't relevant to those types of discourse. What I am thinking of most at this time is a conversation I have had with a number of self-proclaimed atheists. (Interestingly enough, in every single case, these were atheists who once were legalistic minded Christians; even though the fundamentalist beliefs may have been rejected, the mentality of "I'm right and everyone else is wrong" has survived the transition unscathed.)
"How do you KNOW God Exists? How can you pray to some imaginary friend? I mean, it's great that you're open-minded and non-judgmental of others, but what proof do you have that God is 'real' and not something you just make up?"
That's the kinder and gentler version of the question I am always presented with in one of these debates. Sometimes I respond with a statement in response, usually along the lines of "I just open my eyes every day, and I see God in everything." However, if I am feeling up to the challenge (or, I'm ashamed to admit, if I am feeling feisty), I have in the past responded with a question:
"What type of proof would influence you to consider the possibility that God is real?"
And more often than not, I will get the answer, "I want to see a miracle."
To this, I usually respond with: "Where are you looking for one? And what do you define as a 'miracle'?"
Now, in most cases, they are alluding to some grandiose gesture such as the clouds parting and a booming, thunderous voice proclaiming "It Is I!" or the Red Sea parting, or some obscenely magnificent display of the Divine "showing off" to be known. They want to visually see someone literally walk across the surface of the swimming pool, turn the contents of the water cooler into Merlot, or levitate over the traffic during rush hour. It always seems to be an instance of something huge and spectacular.
Whatever scenario they come up with, my answer is always the same: "Well, I can't help you there. I have never seen anything like that. I'm not even absolutely certain that things which were that grand transpired as literal events, rather than metaphor written into the Bible in an attempt to convey the power of God and faith to others. But I see miracles every day. You just have to know where to look, or just don't look at all, just keep your eyes and mind open."
On occasion, I will have the opportunity to continue and discuss things such as the scientific odds against life as we know it coming into existence, the proven instances where a person has received a proclamation and diagnosis of a fatal illness and given a limited life span by medical authorities, only to not only survive but be healed of the illness through prayer, faith and positive thought, the astounding events that love can cause to happen, the person who was told they would never amount to anything and started from nothing only to accomplish amazing goals in their life, or just the incredible process that is nature, that is life itself, that is our human consciousness and the things we have done and how we have evolved over centuries. Those to me are equally if not more impressive than any of the miracles in the Gospels, although I do not by any means discount the possibility or validity of those either. And there are times I can go even further than that, and discuss my own journey, and the miracles I have witnessed in my own life and spiritual journey.
But many times, I am met with a shrug, a post or a message that is not responded to, or the assertion that "there is a logical scientific explanation for that." And that's agreeable with me, although I do wish that they could be open to the possibility that perhaps miracles are far more abundant than they ever thought, should they reconsider and reflect upon the definition of what a "miracle" entails.
I can speak from experience when I say that I believe in miracles. I have come to over time to thank the Loving God for what has been and continues to be an abundance of miracles in my life, once I was able to discern what can truly be construed as a genuine "miracle" in my understanding. For starters, when I consider where I was 18 or so years ago today, and the state I was in at that point in my life, I consider the fact that I am not only sitting here writing this now but he very fact I am alive as a miracle. I was on a path of self-sabotage, self-destruction, self-denial and accelerating down a short road towards my own demise, assisted by alcohol abuse, repression, fear, anger, low self-esteem and depression.
I can relate to the comments made by some of my atheist friends in the past of wanting to experience some sort of spectacular physical display of Divine pyrotechnics in order to affirm the Presence of God, for at one time in the past I too required that -when I was conditioned to believe that was something which was expected. There were so many conditions I had placed upon miracles, parameters I had set in my own mind which had to accompany them, thus rendering my ability to experience them rather difficult. At that time of my life, as I had no real sense of faith or spirituality, the very idea of miracles - especially any in my personal space-was a bit problematic to begin with.
I felt trapped between two losing propositions: to either abandon any thought of God, or fall to my knees to a God of legalism, rules and demands which stifled the person who I now know God Created me to be. As far as the former, that only left hope in "luck" or "chance" or "fate"- none of which were very meaningful to me. All I would do was imagine the worst and hope for the best when I know now I should have been developing my spirituality and imagining the best while not even considering the worst.
As far as the latter, I felt at that stage of my life that I was somehow "unworthy" of any type of "miracle" in my life, and I viewed miracles as being either something I begged for in prayer and might or might not receive or experience based on my ability to adhere to an oppressive set of rules that in reality made little sense to me, or random pockets of joy reliant on the whims of a judgmental God based on my behavior. I never really gave any serious thought to the concept of God being a God of Love, and of Grace Given freely. It would not be until later that I would see just how much truth there is to that old sentiment in the "Footsteps" poem, about God carrying us through the most challenging parts of our lives and how I was the recipient of miracles even when I had no understanding or belief in them at all.
It was December 1994 when I hit the bottom of the pit of despair, substance abuse, depression and aimlessness that I had allowed myself to fall into. It all culminated in a long, complex and turbulent journey that began when I honestly approached God, and cried out from the dark place I was in. It encompassed several years of spiritual angst. When I began in my faith journey, I had an outlook not too different in some ways from the one I have now, the ability to see God in the everyday, in everything and everyone, and one which learns to embrace and love the questions and the mystery of God rather than insisting on absolute, black and white truths. There was a little liberal church down the street that I thought of visiting, but at the time, the very word "church" conjured up childhood and high school memories of fire and brimstone lectures and I was blind to the concept that not all churches were like that.
But when I was not receiving those dramatic "miracles" in life I was counting on God to help me out with - success in life, work, relationships, health - while doing little to nothing to do my part in their coming to pass and taking no responsibility for the work I should have been doing and seeking comfort from external sources rather than a sense of peace with God and with myself, I headed down even darker pathways.
By early 1996, I was an even bigger mess than I had been: I had not only fallen off the wagon but needed to drink every day to function, but I had been drawn into a concept of legalistic Christian thought I did not agree with and that was absolutely toxic to my well-being and not very healthy for those surrounding me. I was about as far away if not further away from feeling peace with God than I ever had been, and all of the old childhood and teenage fears were amplified. I was not being true to myself; I had repressed my own natural bisexuality and was struggling with the idea of being someone who I knew I was not. The very act of prayer involved me being on my knees in tears and terror. And miracles were the absolute last thing on my mind, as I felt utterly unworthy of such a concept being possible in my life. I considered myself blessed at the time that God did not visit me with plagues to rival those Job was beset by.
My heart knew for a fact this was not God. My soul knew it. But leave it up to a miracle for God to help me get my stubborn mind to come along for the ride to a far better place.
It was an odd turn of events which opened my eyes, as they often are. I had been sending donations to a fundamentalist Christian organization because their "Prayer Team" had been "praying for miracles" for me. I had stopped when one of their prayer counselors had elected to seize an opportunity to deem me an "unworthy sinner out of God's Will and Grace" and beat me over the head with literalistic interpretations of Scripture at a time when I was in crisis and fear. I had decided at that moment that I needed to perhaps step back and reevaluate my beliefs, as I was feeling distant, rather than closer to God. I did, and began to read and study not only the Bible for myself, but also books on other religious paths, psychology, sexuality, and more loving and inclusive denominations in the Christian faith.
I even did some research to find a local one which was Open and Affirming of all people, including LGBT people, and vowed that I was going to check it out on an upcoming Sunday. Sitting in my mailbox the day I decided to do that was a card from the organization I had ceased listening or donating to, with a card offering me to send in a prayer request - which even stated that their prayers resulted in miracles - as well as a space for my donation amount. I filled it in, but something just gave me a feeling, some intuition, that I was looking for God's Love in all the wrong places. My heart was telling me that this was no way to grow spiritually. But the deadline for this to go in was in a few days, so I set out to send it "just in case." I felt equally as wrong about doing this as the time I had prayed to repress my own natural bisexual feelings. It just felt wrong to me. That still, small voice seemed to be saying to me, "It's ultimately up to you but in your own interest, please don't do this; try the new church instead." As I recall, my thought was something along the lines of "Convince me."
I thought I would drive by the church I had been thinking of visiting before I mailed this envelope and once again yoked myself to a very uncomfortable form of faith. Just to see where it was, what it looked like and so forth. It was a nice little church-a good size, although by no means a "Mega Church." Then I glanced over at the sign out front, where they post the clever message every week, and I to this day will not forget what it said:
"Don't give up, give in to God."
I thought about that all the way to the mailbox. I saw that as nothing more than God giving me an indication to at least give a different way of thinking a try, to cease the need for "prayers for miracles" and to seek another path to enlightenment and peace. I stopped at the mailbox. I opened the window.
I closed the window, opened the envelope, took out the check and voided it, and took the prayer request out (it was one for a miracle I wanted in my own life, the restoration of an old relationship which in retrospect was not something very beneficial to be praying for in the first place) and tore it in half and threw it away. I felt a little like the fictional Huck Finn tearing up the note he had intended to turn in his friend Jim with and saying, "All right then, I'll go to hell," electing love and compassion over legalism and dogmatic beliefs. A God of grandiose miracles and conditional love at best was not worth pain and emotional suffering. I let go of previous ideas about God, and decided to begin letting God find me, and allowing miracles to happen and flow naturally into my life if and when they were supposed to, rather than attempt to "make" them happen.
And wouldn't you know, that was when they really started happening.
From that point on, my entire life took a turn for the better. I am not by any means saying that the road from that point to where I am now has always been smooth traveling at all times by any means. There were still challenging and trying times God Carried me through. There were still dark nights of the soul as I went through the process of tearing down my old and unhealthy spiritual beliefs and rebuilding them on a more solid and real foundation, the process of coming to peace and terms with myself and letting go of the past and forgiving others who hurt me, the extensive process of reconciling my spirituality and sexuality. There were dry spells where I allowed fear to obscure my knowledge and awareness of God's Love for me and fell into places of fear and doubt. There were ups and downs as I adjusted to a life of sobriety, but I became accustomed to the joyful truth that although the low times may be intense, so are the good times.
I began to see miracles in all of the little things. I would also see them in events which transpired in my life that some might not necessarily deem as "miraculous" in a spectacular fashion but their impact on my own life was truly significant. Sometimes they would be things I had been longing for in prayer, at others they would be the result of a fleeting hope for something, and at others they would just be sudden and unexpected moments of Grace.
I grew spiritually. I began to attend the church I was thinking of visiting and was confirmed as a member, and later when I moved to back to the town I had lived in I joined that little liberal church I once lived right down the street from but never went to. I let go of toxic beliefs, made new and supportive friends, and began to pursue a career where I was appreciated.
Through supportive friends in both expected and unlikely places, I came to fully understand that God not only loves and accepts me as a bisexual man, but that I was Made that way. I came to love and accept myself as such and strive to live the truth of who I am in a way loving and respectful of all others, as my faith in God through Christ instructs me to do. I came to understand that there is nothing wrong or unnatural about my sexuality, but that too is a gift from God to be used with love and responsibility. I came to know that bisexuality for me means that I feel an equal need for intimacy with both a woman and a man, and have been blessed with an open, honest, caring and committed relationship with both a loving female partner and a loving male partner and although many still may not understand it, it is right, natural and good with us and we are at peace with God about it.
I let go of years of fear and anxiety, began to take better care of myself physically, and began to pursue dreams I had always had, and rather than begging God to open every door for me as I once had, I asked God to give me the wisdom to make good decisions and take responsibility for my actions, and remain aware and open of opportunities and possibilities.
Just as it says in John 20:30, that "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book," indicating that there was far more He Taught, Did and Shared than made it to the Gospels due to the sheer volume and magnitude and scope it encompassed, I could not even begin to share every instance of a miracle in my life. Life itself, and every day to me is a miracle whilst simultaneously being a tapestry woven of them. I have shared a few, although there are a few more recent and significant ones I will relate:
There was the very challenging move we recently made cross country last summer when it became obvious that moving to live close by (and we do live close by, practically next door) to my parents due to some severe health challenges was a necessity. There was the constant random appearances of butterflies - which my Mother has always loved and which represent positive growth to me - which seemed to show up whenever I was feeling stressed or worried about the move and the situation. There was how neatly everything fell into place: the house right next door, the car, the fact that my 16 years young cat (who I have raised from a kitten and who is a miracle of unconditional love in and of himself) made the plane ride happy, safe and healthy and is happier than ever, the fact that the truck with the furniture and years full of memories was presumed stolen and was found, the new work opportunities. And then there was the fact that no sooner had we arrived, my Father was in need of full time care as well and we were here to provide it. It was a miracle that all of that went as well as it did.
Then there are the other things which might be small to some but hold significance for me: when the car broke down the other day, someone just happening to stop and help who was able to fix the issue; or how just two days ago when my parents called with no hot water and I went over to check on it, only to discover their hot water heater had sprung a leak and flooded the basement, I managed to save a box of irreplaceable family memories and photos (from those long gone times when you actually had to have photos developed at Kodak) from being destroyed just in time. Or the time recently when a relative assisted unsolicited and unexpectedly to cover a medical emergency I had. These are the types of things I see as major miracles, blessings, and a sheer abundance of God's Unconditional Love and Grace in action.
But there is one event which took place earlier this year that stands out to me atop many of the others, and that is primarily due to what it led to just recently.
It had only been six months since the move out here and things had been stressful, and as smooth as things had gone, I still had concerns: Adjusting to life in a new place; Being able to care for my family and loved ones; Being able to give care to those who had cared for me for so many years. We had some relatives looking after my parents for a few days while we got away for rest for a few days, and were in the mountains sightseeing and visiting a theme park to enjoy the opening of a new major thrill ride/roller coaster. The weather was not the best, and it was off and on pouring rain and the sun shining. We were standing at the bottom of the ride, the attendant tells me, "Look at that, there's something you hardly ever see." I looked up and saw as the sun came out two full and complete double rainbows, arced across the sky and it quite honestly took my breath away.
The rainbow has always been as symbolic to me as the butterfly I related earlier, and the rainbow always represents to me a sense of peace with God. Part of it is the symbolism and metaphor alluded to in the Old Testament story of Noah and the Ark, part of it is how the rainbow represents diversity in God's Creation to me and a symbol of the diversity of the LGBT Community, and finally, there is the time once long ago I had prayed to God for a sign things would be okay when I was dealing with a difficult time, and as I did, I crested a hill and saw a rainbow which ended near the place I had just moved into at that time. As significant as all of those factors were, for me to see this one, and for it to be not only one but two complete ones truly touched me. I took a photo and saved it, which I still view from time to time.
Several weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a very close friend of mine from the bisexual community who was dealing with some very serious depression but who had always talked to me for spiritual encouragement as well as inspiration. He was dealing with being in a very dark place emotionally and I was immediately concerned for him, as he referenced another friend of ours in the community - his former roommate - who committed suicide a few years prior. Part of his e-mail reached out to my heart (this has been edited, but this is part of what he actually said to me):
"His suicide really rocked me. I stopped believing in any higher power a short while after that. If I ever met a spiritual person it would have been him. I seriously feel like I have nothing to live for anymore. I am responsible for my own happiness, I understand. But I don't believe in anything anymore."
I typed a lengthy response and attached a copy of the photo of that double rainbow to it, as I just wanted to add some sort of reminder to him of how God can reach out to us to remind us we are Loved. I would have called him, had it not been so late when I received the mail but I felt the need to do something then and there. I won't type my entire response here, but among the things I said in response were:
"You're a good person, and whether you believe in a Higher Power or not, one Exists and is looking out for you. The key is not trying to find God but to let God find you... I added the picture to the e-mail so you could see what we were seeing: not only a double rainbow, but a full and complete double rainbow... ever since that moment, I began to feel this sense of peace, things just being what they're supposed to... knowing somehow God is there even when I never fully understand God, and love, is what keeps me going."
I sent it to him, saying a prayer that something would give him hope until we could get in touch. Thankfully, he responded to me the next day, with thanks, that it had helped.
That was when I was reminded of a point I already knew: Miracles are out of God's Love and Grace, but a miracle is far more beautiful and infinitely more meaningful when shared with someone else who may need one as well. And the miracle of me relating something I viewed as a miracle offering a glimmer of hope to another was ten times more powerful to me than the original one.
The most interesting thing is that I was not looking for a miracle that day I saw the double rainbow. It found ME. And I believe that therein lay one of the true keys to experiencing miracles: cease trying too hard to find them. Stop looking. Let them flow into your life. God Expects nothing in return for Grace or Miracles-all you need to do is be open to the possibility and expect them.
I want to propose a few thoughts on what has worked for me in the past as far as allowing miracles to come into my life for any who may be interested. Keep in mind that these are only in my experience; they have, however never failed me.
1. Never put limits on the reach of God's Love: There is no place where God is not; anywhere there is Love, there is God. God is not limited to sacred places, a church sanctuary, one denomination and not even one religion, and knows none of our man-made boundaries and divisions, which only serve to distance us from one another and from God. And never allow others to limit you from being a worthy recipient of God's Miracles OR a vessel which God's Love flows through to others in answer to their prayer. Regardless of your sexual orientation, political party, denomination, quirks, or any differences you have from what others might define as "Godly" or "Holy," you could always be called to BE an active part of God's Miracle in someone's life.
2. Be still and know, and be patient; let God find you: God Knows every need you could possibly have, and is Aware of every longing and desire in your heart and soul. If you feel the need to ask, sometimes merely being grateful for all you already have while simply feeling a desire for the things you seek is more than sufficient. Stop looking so hard for God, and let God flow into your life. Don't place any time frames on when things will improve, but merely live as if things are as you would like them to be now and live with that sense of gratitude while remaining aware of possibilities and opportunities to do our part in the process and place no limits on where that might originate or how. Something which might seem insignificant at this moment could have a greater meaning later on.
3. Expand your definition of what a miracle is: By this, I am not referring to the dictionary definition I stated at the outset, but rather, what you personally would construe as a miracle. If they seem scarce, they never are. Life itself is a miracle. The fact that this planet and life on it exists is a miracle. The fact that the human race, despite all of our differences and how we all too often let fear get the better of us at times has not extinguished one another over all this time is a miracle. Love is a miracle. The fact that you popped awake right on time despite forgetting to set the alarm is a miracle. The person who took an extra few minutes to help me jump start my car when the battery was dead after I left the lights on all night by mistake was a miracle. The kind words spoken to me by a friend in the midst of a depressing day was a miracle. There are so many significant and little things that can be construed as a miracle, but to me there is one criteria: if it brought me joy, made me feel happy to be alive, or did the same for anyone at the expense of no one, then it is a miracle. And miracles happen.
4. Always imagine the best: How often in times of doubt, concern or worry - or even in day to day life do we find ourselves imagining the worst case scenario? I know that for a long period of time I did, and many times, either the negative stuff I was thinking or a reasonable facsimile thereof would take place. It is human nature and tempting to visualize outcomes; yet we can elect to visualize the good rather than the bad. I cannot speak for everyone, but I can say that ever since I adopted the practice of praying daily to maintain a positive outlook, focus on love and being loving to others, maintain gratitude for all I have and imagining the best case scenario for everyone involved regardless of how situations may appear, things always seem to flow a whole lot better and have this strange way of always working out for the best.
5. Embrace the magic of believing: Sometimes it is not always the easiest task to maintain faith in times of challenge or adversity, and at times, not even in day to day life. However, one thing which experience has taught me is that all that is required is the tiniest spark of faith to create a brilliant and radiant growth from a place of fear to a place of faith. The one verse I always call on if I am having difficulty obtaining a connection with it is one of my favorites, Matthew 17:20, when Jesus said, "For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there', and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you." It only takes a little. Hold on to that little bit with all that you have, and trust in God to provide the rest.
6. Be willing to take action to be part of the miracle: If we are desiring miracles in our lives, we need to be willing to make sure we are taking every possible step we can to bring those about. If we have a goal, we can understand that God Has Blessed us with so many gifts and abilities and rather than simply wish or hope or pray for these things, ask for guidance to enable us to discern the best steps to take in that direction. If our goal is self-improvement, we can reflect on how we as an individual can work towards such, or if it is a desire to help another, we can reflect on and ask, seek and knock in search of ways we might be able to be of help. There are so many miracles in my own life which I worked to help accomplish, but I could not have even begun without the strength God Gave me to let go of any fears that held me back from doing so.
7. Share the miracles in your life with others and be a part of theirs: This to me is one of the most critical aspects of the process. Never be afraid to share your miracles with others, for when we allow the joy we feel in our lives from God to overflow into the lives of others, it is amplified. Let others know that God's Love and Grace is as equally Present in the lives of LGBT individuals as everyone else, as we are ALL precious to God. In sharing our joy with others, and letting God's Love flow through us to others, it only multiplies the abundance of joy in our own lives. When people are too busy feeling joy, and sharing joy they're too busy for negative feelings.
I thought it telling when I discovered that the origin of the very word "miracle" originated from the Latin miraculum, "object of wonder;" with its ultimate root meant "to smile upon." That is what I feel anything which falls under my vast understanding of the word "miracle" ultimately represents: the truly Amazing Grace of God, smiling with an Infinite and Unconditional Love upon all of us, each and every one of us, in all of our uniqueness and diversity. I for one am consistently amazed by God's Grace on a daily basis, in things as majestic and powerful as the wonder of nature and the power of the human mind, and in things as seemingly small and insignificant as the little unexpected "surprising and welcome events" that bring each of us and those around us joy.
That Amazing Grace, which is given freely to all of us, is filled with all of the "signs and wonders" which I feel anyone could ever require to believe, even if that belief begins as small as a mustard seed.
It isn't dependent on anything at all. It, like God, simply IS. And while I am not certain exactly how it all works, I do know from experience that once I experience it firsthand, embrace it with joyful gratitude and express that thanks by sharing it with others, it seems to grow and grow stronger.
This Holiday season, and through the year and years to come, I wish you full awareness of all of the joy and wonder which comes from realizing the abundance of miracles which are possible if we open our hearts and minds and merely believe, and that you too will always be amazed by God's Unconditional Love and Grace. It is the one gift that cannot be bought or sold, and one given freely to each and every one of us no matter who we are, to keep on joyfully giving to one another.
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