In the mid 1990s, I was working for Houston Northwest Medical Center when I got a call from our ICU nurse manager, Grace Heffron.
“Chaplain, what are you doing at 2 p.m.?’’ she asked in a tone that fell short of the quality for which she was named.
“We have an end-of-life conference with a family. Can you make it?”
Frustrated over the lengthy use of ICU beds, Grace called the conference to discuss continuing life support for a 75-year-old man who had shown no real brain activity for 60 days after a stroke.
“Life support” is a misnomer. We should have called it “mechanical maintenance,” because this man wasn't being “supported,” he was being preserved. He was literally decaying.
If you get your medical information from TV dramas, you might think the process of discontinuing life support is a nurse yanking 20 tubes from every orifice. Actually, the process is far less dramatic, involving only a few dials. It’s a peaceful process when done properly.
When the family appeared in our conference room, it was apparent that their hearts weren't anywhere in the vicinity of our agenda. They refused to discontinue life support because they were “claiming a miracle.” They fully believed that their brother would rise from his deathbed in three days.
Their definition of a miracle was fully defined and customized. That's the problem with miracles, but it can also be their beauty.
Shifting the conversation, I asked them what it might be like if they redefined what the word miracle means for this situation. I asked them to consider what a miracle might look like if they allowed God to customize the miracle instead of them.
“Let God loose outside the borders you’ve set for him,” I suggested.
Redefining miracles can be uncomfortable because it can feel like you are going against what the Bible teaches, but even Jesus could be uncomfortable with miracles.
He told one group of scoffers that even if he were to raise someone from the dead, they would not believe. He was telling his hearers that miracles don’t prove God.
In fact, Jesus often avoided our definition of miracles. For instance, as he hung on the cross, he was taunted by people who were demanding more miracles: “He saved others, but he cannot save himself.’’
The cross began a miracle that even his closest followers couldn't see — this despite the fact Jesus had told them he would return.
Like those disciples, we often overlook the real miracles. The true miracle isn't always going to be that Dad walks away from cancer. Maybe the miracle becomes the prodigal children returning to make things right.
Maybe the true miracle won’t be a baby surviving, but that the baby will introduce a presence of God. Perhaps the true miracle won’t always be about getting something back, but rather finding a fuller appreciation for what you have left.
Maybe the true miracle won’t always be about saving the world, but about gaining new appreciation for a piece of it.
During the following week, when the family finally decided to discontinue life support, I saw at least two miracles.
I saw three sisters find agreement in prayer as they united at their brother's bedside and gave him permission to walk into the arms of a waiting God.
Their brother didn't walk out of our hospital, but we did see a real miracle when the sisters discovered an infinite God they could not control with prayer formularies.
And knowing a God you cannot control is the first step toward knowing God is in control.