Expect a Miracle

Social Sciences

Charlie sat looking at the walls of his office, which were now almost completely bare since his personal photos and paintings had been removed. This would be the last time he would sit behind his desk as chief executive officer of The Courage Place. The night before, there had been a wonderful retirement party; in several hours, Brian Hunter would move into the job for which he had been preparing himself for the past several years. Charlie had long thought about what final words of wisdom he would pass on to his successor. On the desk were four things that had been very special to him, which he would now give to Brian. The first was a simple needlepoint that Pam had made shortly after they decided to leave the corporate world and start The Courage Place. It said only:

Mark 9:23

It was Charlie’s favorite passage from The Bible. “All things are possible for one who believes.” He had told the story a thousand times. How upon coming down from the mountain with Peter, James, and John, Jesus was walking through a crowd when a man broke through and implored Him to heal his son by driving out the demon that had possessed the boy. The disciples had tried, the man said, but failed. “Can you help?” the man pleaded. But Jesus turned the question right back around: “Can you help? All things are possible for one who believes.” And how even two millennia after the fact, one could still feel the anguish – and the hope – in the man’s voice as he replied, “I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.” And how the boy was then healed.

In all of his miracles, Charlie would say, Jesus never took personal credit. More often than not, he attributed the miracle to the one being healed: “Your faith has made you well, your faith has made you whole.” And just as often, he said that any of us could do what he did if we only had sufficient faith – faith even as small as a mustard seed. Partial faith, Charlie pointed out, had been faith enough for the man’s son to be healed. “I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.” Partial faith was faith enough to begin, and once you begin, faith will grow. It’s not about a litmus test of what you believe, it’s about having the strength to believe.

As Charlie waited for Brian to join him, he thought about how many times in the past thirty years he had been just like that desperate father, wanting so much to believe in his dreams, his memories of the future, yet struggling so terribly to silence the nagging negativity of his inner Gollum. How many times the only thing standing between him and failure had been his faith, and how often that faith was so tenuous it would have made even a mustard seed seem huge. And yet, even that tiny seed of faith had, in the long run, been faith enough.

Those first dreams that he and Pam had shared together seemed so big, so impossible, at the time. “Not in ten lifetimes,” Gollum had laughed, “could you fulfill even one tenth of that vision. Memories of the future? Hah! More like delusions of grandeur.” Fortunately Charlie had eventually learned how to tame Gollum. In retrospect, those dreams that once seemed so immense were actually pretty puny when compared to how The Courage Place had grown over the past ten years.

The second thing Charlie planned to give Brian was a small laminated card he had carried in his wallet from the very beginning. It was now quite worn and tattered from having been read more than ten thousand times – every morning and every evening for three decades. It was a quote by Napoleon Hill:

Every successful person finds that great success lies just beyond the point where they’re convinced their idea is not going to work.

Over the years, Charlie had made many mistakes and experienced many apparent failures. In the years to come, Brian Hunter would do likewise. Charlie hoped this small inspiration would be as helpful to Brian as it had been to him. The third item Charlie was going to leave was the paperweight which had sat on top of his desk from the very beginning. It was a piece of granite into which were carved the most powerful three words in the world:

Expect A Miracle

Over the years, Charlie had come not just to hope for miracles and to pray for them, but to expect them. Whenever The Courage Place business plan was updated, in his own copy Charlie would print right on the cover the three letters EAM to remind him to expect a miracle. That attitude was as much a part of his business strategy as doing market research.

Charlie walked over to the window and looked out across the campus. Everything he saw had once been an impossible dream. “It’ll take a miracle,” one of his board members had commented when he shared the vision of a headquarters campus that would have a conference center, retreat center, complete gymnasium facilities, and the world’s most comprehensive motivational resource center. Charlie smiled as he watched a crowd making its way from the parking lot to the convention center. Louisa Sheldon Henderson was speaking today.

When Louisa had come to Charlie’s very first Courage Place event thirty years ago, she was a young single mother struggling with depression, bulemia, and even serious thoughts of suicide. Fewer than ten people had showed up for that program, and Charlie had felt more like crying than speaking. How could he have known that he was planting the seeds for miracles in other people’s lives that far-off winter morning at the Downtown Gym? Today, one of those miracles was coming full circle as Louisa, who had since become one of the country’s most popular speakers, brought her message of hope and courage to The Courage Place Convention Center. She was now planting the seeds for future miracles for others.

People so often misunderstood what a miracle is – and what it is not, Charlie thought. A miracle is not a magic trick. It’s less a matter of turning water into wine, and more a matter of turning a wino into a water drinker. A miracle is usually not an event, but rather a process. A miracle is not instant relief from the problems of life. More often than not, the chief ingredient in making miracles is the simple passage of time. Jesus had said that when you pray, if you pray as though your prayer had already been answered, it will be. So often people are tempted to lose faith when their prayers aren’t answered right now. What Jesus really meant, Charlie believed, is that if your prayers are reinforced with genuine belief, when you pray you will set aside doubt and worry and instead keep working and keep believing with a certainty that the prayer will be answered – probably in a more magnificent way than you could ever have imagined – but it will be answered in God’s time, not necessarily in yours.

Nor is a miracle a guarantee of success or security. Charlie had always remembered reading a sentence in one of Max Lucado’s books which said, “God honors radical risk-taking faith.” It did not say that God will necessarily reward that faith, but in Charlie’s book, it was more important that the effort be honored than the outcome be rewarded.

Charlie often heard people complain about lack of security, and he would remind them that the Lord’s Prayer said nothing at all about tomorrow’s bread; it asks only that we be given our bread today. Sometimes the greatest miracle was to be grateful for today’s bread – the blessings of the present – and to have faith that tomorrow’s bread would arrive on time. Many of us, Charlie reflected, don’t believe in miracles because they frighten us. If miracles are possible, even foreseeable, that could mean we should hold ourselves to a higher standard of expectation, but we fear that commitment.

Charlie smiled as he thought of Saint Peter walking on the water. At first it was wonderful, this being able to walk upon the surface of a lake, just as Jesus had told him he could if he believed he could. But once out there on the water, his nerve deserted him and he began to sink. What a perfect metaphor for the fear of success, the fear of commitment, that prevents so many people from achieving their full potential. We climb out of the boat of familiarity and security and start to walk out there on the water of exploration and adventure. Then, when we find ourselves achieving the miracle that for so long had merely been an impossible dream, we start to sink. The weight of fear and doubt pushes us down and we holler, “Save me!” as we frantically make our way back to the boat.

Charlie laughed softly as he watched the last stragglers running for the convention center. One of the most profound paradoxes he’d discovered during his three decades of building The Courage Place was that there is more security walking out there on the water than there is huddling inside the boat. Getting out of the boat and walking on the water, he was convinced, is what Jesus had in mind when he told us to not cover our candles with a basket. In his speeches over the years, Charlie had often said that the truth was more important than the facts, and that faith was more powerful than fear. Keep your memories of the future firm in your mind, he would say, and keep walking out there on the rough waters, because that’s where the real miracles happen. Keep your courage high and your determination strong, and then Expect a Miracle.

Expect a miracle, but don’t give God a deadline. Most of the miracle-making process is invisible. It’s going on below the surface. When the wino becomes a water drinker, it may look like a miraculous event has just occurred, but more often than not, it’s just the last stage of a long and probably painful process. The ultimate miracle is not something that happens “out there” but rather is a profound transformation that happened inside, in the head and in the heart.

Charlie’s favorite movie had always been Fiddler on the Roof and he especially loved the scene where Motel the tailor, against all odds, won the hand of his beloved Zeitel. In his joy, Motel ran through the woods, singing about miracles, and especially the miracle that had happened inside of him when he stood up like a man to fight for his “impossible dream:”

But of all God’s miracles great and small

The most miraculous one of all

Is that out of a worthless lump of clay

God has made a man today.

That was, Charlie believed, the ultimate miracle available to us all: to turn the lump of clay we each begin with in life into the miracle makers we are each born to be.

The fourth thing Charlie was going to leave Brian with was an eagle’s feather encased in Lucite. One day, Charlie had been sitting up on a bluff looking down over the Green River. It was perhaps at the darkest moment of his life. After several years of struggling, there was the very real possibility that The Courage Place would go under. He had not even come close to meeting his financial projections, was deep in debt, and dodging phone calls from creditors. He contemplated the possibility of bankruptcy, but knew in his heart that not even that drastic step would give him the fresh start he seemed to need at that moment. In a moment of intense self pity, he even found himself wishing God would take his life, because he didn’t have the courage to do it himself.

After an hour or so of watching the river flow by, his cares receded somewhat and he began to enjoy the warm sun and the soft breeze. Then he experienced a feeling he’d never had before; it was at once the tranquility of inner peace and the exhilaration of great anticipation. At that moment, there was an eagle coursing along the river in his direction. When it reached the bend, the great bird continued straight, right in Charlie’s direction. As it flew over, the bird tilted slightly and seemed to look down upon Charlie. It circled back around, lower this time. On the next pass, the bird actually landed right there on the bluff, not ten feet away from Charlie.

Charlie sat still as stone, not wanting to disturb the magic. He loved eagles and all other birds of prey, and had let himself believe that whenever he saw one, it was simply God sending a message of reassurance. The bird just stood there, pacing up and down like a soldier marching in place, and then stretched his wings and squawked loudly, as if warning the world that this was his territory and he would protect it with his life. Charlie had the feeling that he, too, would fall under the great bird’s protection. Then the eagle folded his wings and settled in with his chest puffed out and his head held high, like some ancient warrior rooted to his post. The breeze flowed through his feathers, and it almost seemed as if he was smiling, proud and magnificent.

Charlie looked more closely at the bird, and could see that, like every true warrior, his authority had been hard-won. His body showed the markings of many battles. Seen up close, his feathers were tattered, and he had a deep scar running the length of one leg. As the bird cocked his head in Charlie’s direction, he could see that it had lost an eye.

Charlie now felt a sudden warmth of affection for that bird he had seen only once, so long ago. He could see it as clearly as though it had happened that very morning. The bird had watched Charlie for a long time through its one eye, then bobbed its head up and down as though he were saying, “Yes” to him. At that moment, Charlie felt like a baby resting in God’s arms – totally helpless on his own, yet absolutely protected from every possible danger. The last thing he remembered before falling asleep was hearing his guardian eagle squawking loudly and flapping his wings, as though broadcasting a warning to the world that Charlie was not to be disturbed.

Charlie never did know for sure whether that eagle came to him in the world of physical reality or in the world of dreams. He was never certain that the tattered feather he found in the rocks had come from this guardian eagle, or by some coincidence had been sitting there all along. It really didn’t matter. From that moment forward, Charlie knew with absolute certainty that he would not be allowed to fail in his mission. He would have struggles, would have his feathers battered or might even lose an eye, but as long as he did not quit, he would prevail. In the years since, whenever it seemed that he was losing the battle, Charlie recalled that eagle who, if anything, was made even more majestic by his scars, and resolved to fight on.

My scars may not be as visible as the eagle’s were, Charlie thought, but they are every bit as real. And now, my role in life will be to serve for Brian and the others in the way that eagle has served me – as a distant guardian. Charlie looked again at the four items on the desk. Then he laughed. Of all people, Brian Hunter did not need a motivational speech when he occupied this office. The two men would simply make small talk, and reminisce for a while. Then Charlie would leave. On his way out the door he would repeat the words that had guided him for so long: