In the small town of Cordova in northern California, a Roman Catholic Church one day became the center of some excitement. A glowing outline appeared on the front wall of the sanctuary. Some were certain it depicted Mary holding the Baby Jesus. Soon folks were coming from miles away to view the apparition.
Skeptics quickly pointed out that the miracle took place only on sunny days, not when there was cloud cover. Others scoffed, on the principle that talk of such phenomena is sheer nonsense.
I think the image was caused by the sun reflecting on something in the sanctuary. It seems wonderful to me, though, that there are plenty of people who are open to the possibility that the image could have been a spiritual phenomenon—a godly UFO.
Such folks are living in an open-ended creation. For them, life is not confined to the logical, the explainable, the predictable. Reality is richer when we make ample room for the miraculous, the surprising. Unfortunately this childlike readiness to see the divine breaking into everyday events goes hand in hand with gullibility, superstition, and vulnerability to those who promise, threaten, and manipulate in the name of God.
A few days after the Cordova phenomena ended, twelve people in Tijuana, Mexico, died in a house to which they had been enticed to experience the presence of God in a wondrous way. Once inside a small room, they were encircled by a large rope. There they ate unusual foods and engaged in strange rituals. Some wanted to leave but were prevented by harsh warnings of ominous things that would occur if they did. Meanwhile, carbon monoxide from a faulty heat source quietly gassed the group. Only a few survived.
These, like the believers in Cordova, were open to the possibility that God appears now and then in personal and surprising ways. This open quality was harmless in Cordova, but it was fatal in Tijuana.
Surprises do happen. Most people to whom unusual things occur tell nobody. They fear being laughed at. They keep these things to themselves, pondering them secretly. They regard these events as too precious to expose even to friends, lest someone dispose of them with rational explanations, snickers, or indifference.
Over the years I have heard stirring stories from people of impeccable sanity. Often these stories recount edge-of-the-cliff rescues. Some have felt strong hands lifting them from a fire or auto wreck. Others have sensed a presence, whom they felt to be Christ himself, appearing in a hospital room, bringing a fresh infusion of life and an unexpected recovery. I have heard of recently deceased family members showing up at the foot of someone's bed, often giving a warm and wonderful message of reassurance before disappearing. None of these things has happened to me. But I accept much of what I have heard.
It seems important for Christians to be cautiously open to unusual possibilities breaking through here and there and now and then. The alternative is a closed worldview which asserts that all events depend on the canniness of humanity, ordinary processes, or the logic and luck of fate or nature. Such an outlook holds that life is totally knowable and predictable. It believes that we will eventually be able to explain the unusual as natural phenomena.
Yet I am politely incredulous of those who claim God spoke to them: 'God told me to move to California" or 'God's voice told me to start a ministry to the Tujungas." A few such reports are beautiful and acceptable. But individuals responding to an inner voice to which they've given a divine label have done many strange things and committed heinous crimes in God's name.
If God does have a private conversation with you, the appropriate thing is to ponder it secretly and personally. Going to others and claiming special orders from the Deity is not likely to be well received. If it involves others, you must allow its veracity and meaning to be discerned by allowing trusted Christians to sort it out and assess it.
Life is mostly meat and potatoes. The laws of cause and effect control things. Water freezes and boils at predictable temperatures. The sun rises and sets on schedule. But as citizens of a special kingdom, we know there is more. Occasional surprises breaking through remind us of that. And maybe that's why they happen. Let us not rush to negative judgments. If we do, we may end up living in a cul-de-sac rather than in an open creation. The unexpected can remind us of the reliable presence of the Lord every minute of every hour.
I don't think we should sit in circles trying to make strange things happen. I am reluctant to believe God speaks to individuals. But we are told that our Lord is present. And we are told to ask for what we need. A special kind of naive openness to surprises may help us follow that instruction earnestly.