Miracles: The Lazarus Key

“The Lazarus Key”
August Ministry Theme: Miracles
by Marlene J. Geary
Chair, Sunday Services Committee
Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT

Years ago I was talking to my friend Mary from Louisville. She happened to slip the phrase “Lazarus key” into a sentence and I stopped her with “wait, what?” I knew she wasn’t talking about islands off the coast of Florida.

“Lazarus,” she said. She was referring to the Christian story where Jesus called forth Lazarus from the cave where his (presumably) dead body had been prepared for eternal rest. Lazarus heard Jesus and came out of the cave looking none the worse for wear but probably quite hungry. Christians have longed called this raising of Lazarus from death one of the miracles of Jesus.

Mary explained that a Lazarus key in your life was something that brought you back, got you unstuck, made you alive again. A Lazarus key was a catalyst miracle – small or otherwise – that moved you along, usually in some kind of personal quantum leap.

Have you ever experienced that moment in time when you felt your world pivot and transform itself? That’s a Lazarus key. Some piece of information, some action, some connection that triggered a movement within akin to transformation.

Or maybe you reached finally reached the top of a mountain you’d been climbing or the road you’d been running and felt the physical realization that you were changed forever. You found a Lazarus key: you could see with new eyes; your body felt new; you felt wholly and completely alive.

Perhaps it was simple: the touch of a kitten’s paw, the gurgle of a baby’s laugh. Maybe it was the first time you read Thoreau or the experienced the wonder of your favorite music. It could have been the moment you realized you didn’t have to ever go back from where you came. Possibly it was the moment when you awoke from a coma or you crossed that marathon finish line.

Some call these moments of catalytic life-change, these Lazarus keys, miracles.

How would you define a miracle? Is it possible for a Unitarian Universalist to celebrate miracles? Can something be a miracle if it is not related to religion? Have you ever experienced something that you would call a miracle?

Miracles: In the Storm, a poem by Mary Oliver

In the Storm
by Mary Oliver

Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
It was snowing

hard, from the east,
and the sea
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,

five inches long
with beaks like wire,
flew in,
snowflakes on their backs,

and settled
in a row
behind the ducks —
whose backs were also

covered with snow —
so close
they were all but touching,
they were all but under

the roof of the duck’s tails,
so the wind, pretty much,
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,

for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers,
shifted, and were blown away

out over the water
which was still raging.
But, somehow,
they came back

and again the ducks,
like a feathered hedge,
let them
crouch there, and live.

If someone you didn’t know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?

Belief isn’t always easy.
But this much I have learned —
if not enough else —
to live with my eyes open.

I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn’t a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness —

as now and again
some rare person has suggested —
is a miracle.
As surely it is.

~ Mary Oliver ~

Miracles: A UU View of Miracles

A sermon by Rev. Scotty McLennan, Community Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA. Given on April 27, 2008.

I have several dozen books about Unitarian Universalism in my home office. I looked through them all in preparing this sermon, and only three of them have any kind of entry in their index or table of contents for “miracles.” In one the index reference is to “miracles, impossibility of,” and the associated text takes a scientific perspective. 1   A second book, on the history of Unitarian Universalism, relates the question of miracles to three nineteenth century ministers: Andrews Norton, William Henry Furness, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. 2   By the twentieth century no Unitarians or Universalists seem to care enough about miracles even to discuss them. The third reference is found in a chapter entitled “How Miraculous Are Miracles?” in a 1987 Beacon Press book by a Unitarian Universalist minister named Peter Fleck. 3   He ends up saying that miracles don’t exist in the sense of a violation of a law of nature by God. Not a terribly auspicious start for a sermon on Unitarian Universalist view of miracles. I could simply stop now and assert: “There are no miracles for Unitarian Universalists. Period.”

But actually I don’t think that’s true. Our tradition has had a dramatic impact on all of Protestant Christianity’s understanding of miracles in the modern era. That impact continues right up to the present day, and I think it’s worth our exploring. So I’ll forge on.

The Bible is full of miracle stories, of course. The Red Sea parts for the escaping children of Israel and then drowns the pursuing Egyptians. 4   The prophet Elijah stretches out his hand and a lamenting widow’s son comes back to life. 5   Jesus does the same for Lazarus and others 6   — along with walking on water 7   and stretching a few loaves and fish to feed 5,000. 8   What can we modern, rational, logical, scientific people make of miracle stories like these? I suppose we could say that there might have been a dry season followed by heavy rains when the Israelites escaped from Egypt to the Sinai desert across a swampy sea of reeds. Perhaps the widows’ sons and Lazarus were simply unconscious or in a coma, and then they came back to full consciousness. Maybe Jesus was seen in a mirage at a distance on a hot day, and it looked as if he were walking on water. Perhaps his disciples organized some impressive potluck dinners of loaves and fish, where the food just kept coming. Or, we could claim that these were simply legends created by followers of prophets like Elijah and Jesus to demonstrate their divine powers. We might remind ourselves that stories of people coming back from the dead were common in those days, not only in Israel but also throughout the Graeco-Roman world. 9

There are two classic Christian positions on miracles that have continued to be debated up to the present time. Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century understood a miracle to be something that occurred completely outside of the order of nature. 10   Miracles are literally supernatural in the sense that they are events which happen, as he put it, “outside the ordinary processes of the whole of created nature.” 11   Nine centuries before him, Augustine had taken a different stance. For him there was only one miracle — creation itself. All of nature and all natural processes are miraculous because they reflect the creative nature of God. Miracles aren’t contrary to the laws of nature; they’re simply outside of what human beings know of nature. They are activities which produce an effect on the human beholder of wonder or awe. 12   We moderns then might say, “Wonder and awe until they are explained scientifically, so that we can then see exactly how they align with the laws of nature.” Or we might say, “Wonder and awe are actually enhanced for me through scientific explanation: How wonderful — how awesome — is this creation, this natural order, in which I find myself! Hallelujah!”

Protestant reformers took a different tack, starting in the sixteenth century. They agreed that miracles — in the sense of particular divine interventions in the natural world — had occurred in biblical times, but then they claimed that miracles had ceased to occur anywhere in the world or anytime thereafter. As Martin Luther wrote, all claims of miracles happening in his time were a “tom foolery” of the devil devised for “chasing people hither and yon.” 13   Protestants stressed the importance of the biblical text — sola scriptura (only scripture) — in the Christian life. Most reformers agreed with John Calvin that believers’ confidence should rest on God’s promises in the sacred text of the Bible alone and not on any kinds of signs and wonders that they might claim to have experienced personally or that were testified to by their contemporaries. This became known as the cessationist view of miracles. Miracles had ceased at the end of the biblical era. 14

For over three hundred years, from the sixteenth century well into the nineteenth, Protestants were in near consensus on this view that miracles had ceased to occur. 15   This outlook was bolstered by the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. The philosopher David Hume has been credited with giving a fatal blow in a 1748 book to any claim that miracles can be founded on evidence. 16   Scientists denied that miracles could co-exist with the natural laws of the universe. They began to offer scientific explanations for many miracles described in the Bible. Meanwhile, theologians developed understandings of religion that made the idea of miracles religiously irrelevant. 17

And then along came the English Romantic poets and the American Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century whom Unitarian Universalists hold in high esteem. William Wordsworth (As you’ll see in reading #499 in the back of your hymnal) wrote that he had personally “felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.” 18   Coleridge described a “beauty-making power” that had personally freed him from “dejection,” from “Reality’s dark dream.” 19

Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, over in America, was particularly hard on the Protestant understanding of miracles as having ceased with biblical times. He explained that was twice wrong: first that human beings had been “senseless clods until instructed by miracles” in the biblical age, and second that God had now been removed from active engagement in the world, leaving us only to read our Bibles. That would mean that the present generation is “to have no sense of the presence of God in the world” relying only on “past relics of the divine presence.” 20   As Parker scoffed, this view meant that people of the nineteenth century had been Ôborn in the latter days and dotage of mankind, and can only get light, by raking amid the ashes of the past, and blowing its [embers] … now almost extinct.” 21   Since this Protestant understanding of miracles had made God absent from the world, it was not surprising to Parker that there was a crisis of faith among modern believers. 22   Instead, Parker called for “a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere; its temple, all space” (As you’ll see in reading #683 in the back of the hymnal).

Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson was even harder on both the cessationist view of miracles and also on philosophical and scientific critiques of miracles as not being founded in evidence. For he found the power of religion to come not from sterile analysis of a biblical text but from personal intuition. In his famous “Divinity School Address” at Harvard in 1838 he explained that “[Jesus Christ] spoke of miracles; for he felt man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth … But the word Miracle, as pronounced by the Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is a Monster.” That was for two reasons: First, because the church assumed an absence of God from the world after the biblical era. Second, because those who saw God as still intervening from time to time in the natural order radically misunderstood how God is present. God is not a watchmaker who then periodically tinkers with the creation he long ago established. Instead, God is one with all that exists: Miracles are “one with the blowing clover and the flowing rain.” The great miracle is the energizing force of the universe itself. In Emerson’s words, “One mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool.” 23

The Protestant world never recovered from the Romantic-Transcendentalist challenge. The cessationist view of miracles collapsed, and by the twentieth century sharp conflicts had arisen over questions of miracles. On the one hand, there were those in the church who rejected miracles entirely, including the claim that there had been miracles during the time of the Bible; they spoke of Christian identity as being tied to the character and moral teachings of Jesus, not to his allegedly miraculous acts. On the other hand, faith healing took off, as many Christians now claimed not only to have experienced miraculous cures and divine interventions in their own lives, but also to be able to produce medical miracles themselves by divine forces working through them. A recent Time magazine poll has found that just under 70% of all Americans now believe in miracles currently occurring in the world. The modern age has the dramatic crosscurrents of the Jesus Seminar whittling away at the gospel miracles, while at the same time respected medical journals publish studies on the effect of prayer on healing. 24

My personal preference regarding miracles is to see them in the realm of poetry, not in the realm of history and science and logic. I prefer the Augustinian view of seeing the miraculous in the regular processes of nature itself, rather than the Thomistic view of miracles happening outside of or contrary to the order of nature. I resonate to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion (in reading # 531 in the back of the hymnal) that “the Highest dwells within us,” although we’re not usually in touch with that reality. “There is a deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is accessible to us … It comes to the lowly and simple; it comes to whosoever will put off what is … proud; it comes as insight; it comes as security and grandeur.” Emerson does not assume that all of us will know this life force all of the time, or even some of the time. Yet, it can come through spiritual disciplines like meditation and prayer and through moral disciplines of character building. Then, when it comes, it seems miraculous: “When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affections, it is love.” But it is always there for us to draw upon, as Emerson affirms poetically, “Within us is the soul of the whole; the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal one.” 25

“Holy the Firm” we might call it. That’s the title of a book by Pulitzer prize-winning author Annie Dillard. In it she writes about Julie Norwich, a seven year old whose face is burned off in a small plane crash. This is a little girl in need of a miracle: “Little Julie is mute in some room at St. Joe’s now, drugs dissolving into the sheets. Little Julie with her eyes naked and spherical, baffled. Can you scream without lips? Yes. But do children in long pain scream?” 26   Dillard’s perspective is that all of us human beings “are sown into time like so much corn, that we are souls sprinkled at random like salt into time and dissolved here, spread into matter, connected by cells right down to our feet.” 27   She also has a particular view of the divine: “God is spirit and worlds his flimsiest dreams: but the illusions are almost perfect, are apparently perfect for generations on end, and the pain is also, and undeniably, real.” 28   Dillard knows “it as given that God is all good. And I take it also as given that whatever he touches has meaning, if only in his mysterious terms.” 29

But then as Dillard’s reader, I’d ask, “What can we say about Julie and God?” She writes: “The question is, then, whether God touches anything. Is anything firm, or is time on the loose?” 30   Her answer is that beneath all of creation, “occurring beneath salts and earths in the waxy deepness of planets” is a substance called Holy the Firm. 31   Dillard distinguishes two strains of thought that have long existed in Christianity: a world far from God, a world infinitely other than God, on the one hand, or a world that emanates from God — where “God is in the thing, and eternally present here … God has a stake guaranteed in all the world … God … is holy and he is firm, spanning all the long gap with the length of his love.” 32

But, again, what of Julie Norwich: “Who will love her now, without a face, when women with faces abound, and people are so? … You might as well be a nun,” Dillard writes. “You can serve or you can sing, and wreck your heart in prayer, working the world’s hard work. Forget whistling: you have no lips for that, or for kissing the face of a man or child.” 33   So, where are miracles for Julie Norwich?

At the very end of the book Dillard gives her answer: “Julie Norwich; I know. Surgeons will fix your face. This will all be a dream, an anecdote, something to tell your husband one night: I was burned. Or if you’re scarred, you’re scarred. People love the good not much less than the beautiful, and the happy as well … You’ll dress your own children, sticking their arms through the sleeves. Mornings you’ll whistle, full of the pleasure of days, and afternoons this or that, and nights cry love. So live.” 34

So live, Dillard says. Is that it? Is life itself the miracle? Is there really a holy and a firm, spanning all the long gap with the length of its (or her or his) love? Is God really eternally present here and now? Can we experience a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused? Is the soul of the whole within every one of us — the universal beauty to which every part and particle is equally related? Can it break through our intellect as genius, breathe through our will as virtue, and flow through our affections as love? Is this a better understanding of the word “miracle” than hoping for periodic interventions in the natural order by an all-powerful person?

Yes, for me. Definitely. Isn’t the real miracle the fact that there is something in the cosmos rather than nothing? Isn’t the real miracle creation itself? Isn’t the real miracle the fact that there’s an order to the universe, natural laws that are discoverable, and unconditional love to be shared in the human realm?

If so, then “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of glory, God of love:” And Elijah will say to a mother, “See, your son is alive.” 35   If so, then “Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the pain of doubt away:” “When Jesus saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ’Do not weep.’” 36   If so, then “Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the joy of day.” 37   “Mornings you’ll whistle, [Julie Norwich], full of the pleasure of days, and afternoons this or that, and nights cry love. So live.” 38

1 Mason Olds, American Religious Humanism (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1977), p. 64.
2 David Robinson, The Unitarians and Universalists (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985), pp. 40, 77-79, 264.
3 G. Peter Fleck, The Blessings of Imperfection (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), pp. 31-36.
4 Exodus 14.
5 I Kings 17: 17-24.
6 John 11: 1-44 and Luke 7: 11-17; 8: 40-56. See also Mark 5: 21-43.
7 Matthew 14:22-27; Mark 6:45-52; John 6:16-21.
8 Matthew 14: 15-21; Mark 6: 32-44; Luke 9: 10-17; John 6: 1-13.
9 The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), Vol. IX, p. 157.
10 Robert Bruce Mullin, Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 12.
11 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, part I, question 110, article 4, as cited in Mullin, Miracles, p. 12.
12 Mullin, Miracles, p. 11.
13 Martin Luther, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, as cited in Mullin, Miracles, p. 13.
14 Mullin, Miracles, p. 13.
15 Ibid., pp. 1-2.
16 Michael Levine, “Miracles,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2005/entries/miracles
17 Mullin, Miracles, p. 2.
18 William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey,” (1798)
19 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Dejection: An Ode” (1802)
20 Mullin, Miracles, p. 27.
21 Theodore Parker, A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion (Boston, 1907) as cited in Mullin, Miracles, p. 27.
22 Mullin, Miracles, p. 27.
23 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Divinity School Address” (1838) as cited in Mullin, Miracles, p. 26.
24 Mullin, Miracles, pp. 262-263.
25 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Oversoul” (1841) as cited in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), #531.
26 Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 36.
27 Ibid., p. 41.
28 Ibid., p. 44.
29 Ibid., p. 47.
30 Ibid.
31 Ibid., pp. 68-69.
32 Ibid., pp. 69-72.
33 Ibid., p. 74.
34 Ibid., p. 76.
35 I Kings 17: 23.
36 Luke 7: 13.
37 Henry Van Dyck, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), #29.
38 Dillard, Holy the Firm, p. 76.

Closing Words: There are miles behind you, by Andrew Pakula

Andrew Pakula

There are miles behind you
And many more ahead
As you journey on toward wholeness
May all that is good and true guide your way
May the joy of love lighten every step
And the miracle that is life be ever in your sight

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.


“Sometimes I need
only to stand
wherever I am
to be blessed.”
― Mary Oliver, Evidence: Poems