When a Miracle Doesn’t Happen

[Beliefnet.com, January 4, 2006]

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12), and as I write I hear the angry voices drifting in from the television in the next room. There are sick hearts tonight in Upshur County, West Virginia. When miners were trapped a few days ago, initial hope of a rescue gradually waned. Then last night, unbelievable news arrived of a miracle, that 12 of 13 were still alive, was shortly followed by the shattering revelation that the toll was in fact the reverse, and only one had survived. And so what might have been a time simply of grief has gone rocketing from exultant confidence in miracle to resentment and rage.

During the crisis hundreds had gathered in the Sago Baptist Church to watch and pray. When the initial good news came through last night there was rejoicing and church bells rang. But when the gathering learned hours later that their miracle had not appeared, “They didn’t know what to do. They began to holler and curse,” local resident John Casto told CNN, in a voice cracked by tears. “Just a few minutes before that, we was praising God.” What had been a place of united praise was now riven by furious shouting.

“Our pastor got ‘em settled down and he said, ‘Look to God in this tragedy,’” Casto went on. “I don’t believe in cussin’, but one guy said, ‘What in the hell has God ever done for us?’” 

When not exhausted and tried by roller-coaster emotions, such a guy could probably list dozens of good things God has done for him. And as the smoke clears it will be once again obvious that the God who, from the time the tragedy began, was helping this community find strength to face the worst is still there.

Anger is a brief distraction from grief, but within days it will wash back in. Families will once again look toward the God whom they had sought in the midst of the disaster. They will think about the particular man, or maybe still just a boy, whose voice is no longer heard in the kitchen and whose muddy boots are no longer by the door. Such a death is a risk in mining, and we hear that one of the victims had told his fiancée that he expected to die in the mines. But that doesn’t make it any less agonizing for a relative or loved one to imagine that beloved face at last succumbing to the dark.

The members of Sago Baptist Church, like Bible-steeped people everywhere, can draw on powerful resources to make it through some long nights. The image of thirteen men trapped in poisonous darkness is matched by the image of three young men in a fiery furnace; in the midst of death they were not alone, and the king who condemned them said, “I see four men…and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods” (Daniel 3:25). A century ago, when Sir Ernest Shackleton led two other men through a blizzard across the uncharted mountains of South Georgia Island, he too said that “it often seemed to me that we were four, not three” (a perception that his companions later confirmed). In fire, in ice, and in the depths of the earth, those who face down death may be comforted and companioned in ways we cannot know.

John Casto tried to explain, in an accent broad as the hills, how this works, how faith can make it so you’re not alone. “You know, I’m not kin to none of these people under that hill over there, but each and every one of ‘ems a brother to me. Each and every one of them.” He then looked toward the reporter and said, “Because you’re my brother,” and then turning to the cameraman, “and you’re my brother. The way I look at it.”

There was something electrifying about that moment. In the midst of bitterness and turmoil, Casto broke through the wall. “Because I love Christ,” he went on. This is not the sort of thing you usually hear on the news, and the camera was already pulling back. The reporter’s voice softly murmured “All right, John.” But Casto continued, “We’re gonna to pray for each and every one of these people.” At this point, the reporter patted him on the shoulder, with a “that’s enough, now” gesture. “We’re gonna pray that this community will leave today in peace and always be in peace, in the town of Sago,” Casto said.

At that point, the film ends. But John Casto got to say his piece. Hope based on a particular outcome is a fragile thing; it can be smashed by events. Hope based in a particular Person can endure. Whether a miracle occurs or doesn’t, we are never alone. “Thou who hast made me see many sore troubles wilt revive me again; from the depths of the earth Thou wilt bring me up again” (Psalm 71:20).

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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