Making Sense of Miracle… Paisley, Part 11

I come now to the brass tacks of fact and fiction regarding Paisley’s miracle, which will be the final post in this series. The ranging anecdotes I have recounted thus far may have left the reader with somewhat mixed signals. Had God answered prayer, or was He absent at the darkest hour? Was Paisley saved by a miracle, or by Pasteurian-Darwinian science? Was the experience a glory to God, or a reason to question His existence?

The force of such opposing arrows teaches a parable all its own, underscoring the deficiency of personal experience for navigating the waters surrounding miracles. Within the compass of a single individual (myself), one could distill nearly any moral to the story.

Nevertheless, real answers do exist. We need not wander in the mist between anecdotes. Malleable personal experience must be displaced by the stone of hard fact. To find it requires that we lift our gaze to a broader view. The cure for flat earth viewpoints hovers at high altitude.

So friends, this final post will present facts to make sense of it all. My question to you is whether you are interested in fact and truth, or whether you wish to preserve a favorite but somewhat fictional anecdote. We sadly cannot have both.

Facts about Our Miracle

Recall that when things were at their darkest, I had asked the doctor what Paisley’s odds were. It was a question that went unanswered, and it was eventually forgotten. I never really sought out my own answers to that question after it was over. The parents of miracle babies do not care.

It turns out that Paisley had a 3 out of 4 chance of surviving her illness. She had slightly better than a coin toss chance of coming out entirely unscathed (which she did). Here is what the odds look like for babies that contract bacterial meningitis:

Rustle up a coin. Flip it. Heads, your child is normal. Tails, and your child will either suffer permanent disability or horrific death. No parent ever wishes for a coin toss to decide whether their child turns out normal. Paisley came very close indeed. We were terrified, and we should have been. Her odds may have been 50-50, but the stakes on those odds were horrific.

Still, does a 50-50 chance constitute a miracle?

Before we answer, we must view the other side of the balance scale – the side quite unpopular among miracle recipients. Here it is:

Bacterial meningitis is contracted by infants at a rate of 3 children per 10,000 live births. For comparison, this is about half as often as SIDS deaths in the US. That means that Paisley was exceptionally rare – only three one-hundredths of one percent of children share her misfortune. Find your coin again. The odds of contraction are not a single bad-luck coin toss coming up tails.

Toss – tails.

Toss – tails

Toss – tails.

Streak of bad luck, we might say. We are not really even close yet.

Toss – tails.

Toss – tails.

Toss – tails.

We are still not close. This is but the halfway point. You must do this six more times, accumulating twelve consecutive tails-up tosses, without a single head among them. That is the extraordinary bad luck Paisley had.

Dispense with the flat, and see the earth from altitude:

Like it or not, we have facts to face. Paisley’s recovery was not a defiance of the odds; she had 3-in-4 chance of living and a 1-in-2 chance of being entirely normal. A coin toss. The razor-thin odds were not surrounding her cure, but her affliction. If we wish to say that something about her situation was next to impossible – and therefore must have involved the intervention of a divine hand – there is only one candidate on the table. Her illness was the “miracle.” Paisley had some very extraordinary bad luck, followed by just a touch of good. Hers is a black swan tale, not a miracle.

What if a natural explanation is not sufficient? What if we insist that God must have been involved?

If we credit God with guiding the final coin toss, we must confess that he guided them all. The full portrait thereby discloses a rather sinister character, going to extraordinary lengths to hand pick children and dangle them over a flame, all to appear heroic on the last toss. Recoiling at this indictment, we believers reliably leap to explain why our goal posts for virtue require sudden relocation. Equivocation follows. Good means something different with God.

Nevertheless, head-on car wrecks and other such accidents present similar lessons. The accidents nearly always pose far slimmer odds of happening than surviving once at the hospital. Where tragedy is concerned, we need to face down our own deficiencies. Our mental gauges for measuring the miraculous have a pervading glitch that hampers us – we count very selectively when surveying what took place. Miracle stories always shine light on only certain facts while neglecting others. The larger, balanced picture generally yields an inverted moral to the story. Line up your quarters – not starting when you became aware of the problem, but when God did.

Tragedy & Prayer

We must take a high-altitude view of prayer as well. Lifting my own eyes from their myopic and self-absorbed fixity, I looked around to find out what else had been going on in the world during Paisley’s crisis.

As I consoled my tearful wife, during that hour or so that we debated whether to make the phone call and then head to the hospital, around 900 souls on our little planet expired from starvation. Most of these were children. During Paisley’s spinal tap alone, about 45 more people succumbed. Horrific and lingering, most of these deaths occurred in the face of prayer. They showed no discrimination based on the individual’s faith. Unnumbered mothering arms were emptied of little ones, no less precious than my daughter.

But closer to home perhaps – during Paisley’s hospital stay, two dozen Americans died of meningitis. If you feel your eyes begin to glaze with indifference, I reverently submit the story of Caden Beggan, who suffered meningitis unto the bitterest of ends. Try starting at the bottom of that account and then read upward; see how far you make it. This may scalpel past any numbness regarding suffering. After reading, ask yourself – what was wrong with the Beggan family’s prayers?

Of course, by the time we left the hospital, one and a half thousand Americans had died in car accidents, rending a thousand families forever and for nothing.

Perhaps worst of all, after we returned home with Paisley from the hospital, in the interval preceding her baptism, a 45-foot tsunami swept the coast of Japan, blotting out the lives of 16,000 people and producing the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Among them were children, parents, the elderly, etc. How many do you think perished, lungs filling with the churning brine, while trying to reach the loved ones torn from their arms?

We need to get past ourselves. The true shape of things must be seen from high altitude. Counting all the prayers and all the disasters, prayer power seems strictly confined to statistical averages. Unless we venture the arrogance that our relationship with God is different. Which we often do.

Meningitis & Prayer

We can say a bit more about prayer and its relationship to meningitis, which bears on the question quite heavily.

No meningitis victim, from the smallest babies to the most enfeebled elderly, has ever – not once – had an amputated limb restored by prayer. The transcendent power of prayer seems curiously confined to the material limitations of medical science. Paisley was no exception.

Further, meningitis survival rates across the world have no dependence upon the faith of the victims, resting entirely upon the level of medical science and resources of the culture. The infection and mortality rates are all markedly higher in the underdeveloped world.

We haven’t the slightest evidence that prayer affects meningitis outcomes. Science does.

Community Crime

Getting beyond a selfish and narcissistic viewpoint isn’t easy. I have had to confront my past public claims regarding answered prayer, which I now see as a sort of crime against those whose coin came up tails. I did wrong in ignoring those brothers and sisters.

But friends, we also did wrong together.

Calling Paisley a miracle actually began with others, rather than with us. We were in no mood to disagree, and soon everyone was calling her a miracle. It spread so effortlessly through our community, like parched earth drinking in the rain. We had, after all, seen two cases of infant death within recent memory.

Paisley’s prayer-bathed recovery allowed the ancestral art of selective counting to again resurrect itself. We elevated her deliverance, never minding the two prior losses, and affirmed to ourselves that prayer had somehow mattered. We count the wins, you see, but the losses are chalked to quite another ledger. As Sam Harris so bluntly put it, this is how one plays tennis without the net.

Our faith communities teach and enforce the practice of seeing the cross in everything. We get there by forgetting 12 out of 13 coin tosses. We get there by circuitous explanations of failed prayer. We get there by ignoring the broader world and focusing on what matters to us. In short, we spin doctor the ledger of events, connecting very selective dots in order to see what we want:

We lie for Jesus. We carpenter our miracle tales from hand chosen lumber, in order to affirm that our prayers really do something. Honesty demands an end to such spin doctoring. After all, the star and crescent are quite unmistakably in that picture too. If you have eyes to see…


It has been said that workaholism is the only socially acceptable addiction. Perhaps so. Likewise, miracle stories may be the only socially acceptable type of fibbing.

It saddens me that I mythologized Paisley’s song as I did. The great strokes of a classic hero tale can all be found within it: the revealed crisis, the helpless victim, the hatching villain, the heroic savior – a mingling of things that actually happened alongside characters and forces that were sadly never really in evidence. In truth, necromantic powers were never seen. The windows never rattled. No voice was ever heard. We saw no phantoms nor angels. In truth, her recovery did not change direction in response to prayer, and most critical decisions were made before our many friends began the upward cry. Faith so easily looks past all of the facts, hurrying to construct a spiritual interpretation of what happened.

The book of Job, as we love to forget, expends a good deal of ink to dissuade such nonsense, assuring us that our guesses about that spirit realm are probably dead wrong. Job also reminds us that Paisley’s crisis may simply have been a divine ego-wager with Satan. Nobody likes crafting songs out of that explanation.

Thus, while my wife and I will always treasure her song and regard it as capturing the hour, it will never escape the shadow of myth and embellishment, fossilizing the intermingled real and imagined. A cherished regret.

The Neglected True Story

Scores of you, my friends, helped us at the darkest hour. Hundreds of people on four continents prayed for Paisley. For this, I am still and ever grateful. The light in Paisley’s eyes remains even now a reminder to me.

Yet another army also stood behind Paisley in that February darkness. Indeed, there actually had been unseen forces in play – miraculous forces, of a kind, though not of the sort we usually allow to ascend the stage of recognition alone. When credit is given to them, it rarely comes apart from the embellishment of myth.

You see, a great silent body of determined and un-thanked scholars had labored for centuries, dedicating their lives as physicians and scientists, to the difficult puzzles of illness. They slowly unraveled the causes of human affliction, unlocking the world of bacteria and viruses that no holy text ever disclosed during the passing millennia. These white coats remain largely anonymous, yet they battled and kept scrupulous records of what they learned. Their bricks of knowledge, one by one, raised the great tower of collective understanding. This army of unknowns faithfully passed the baton from one generation to the next, doing their unsung duty for humanity, even against the oppositions of faith when necessary. Sporadic flashes of brilliance emerged from time to time, as discoveries and insights came from the Great Names that we know. They finally pried open once-unsolvable puzzle boxes – yet only by wielding the long lever constructed by those that came before.

Then came Paisley.

Her doctors were able to invoke this long collected power. They harnessed the sunlight of four hundred years, the investment of uncounted lifetimes. They channeled and lensed that mighty beam, bending it to save a single fledgling life.

Paisley’s song could have told this tale. There was no need to imagine the dynamics of angels and demons, which were never, as it happens, actually felt or seen. There actually had been unseen forces at work, a great invisible army of the dead, which beat back the darkness. As was their custom, they again did their duty, un-thanked.

So I find that there are actually more to whom we owe thanks, not fewer. We rob them, when we crowd the the stage with our myths, taking the credit of our beliefs and of our prayers, against all evidence.

In Conclusion

Who makes miracles happen? We do. This bit of reality becomes clearer as we become honest with ourselves, and as we stop stretch-covering the fault lines of our conceptions with mystery. The fact is that we make miracles happen in our telling – in the fractional, selective, neglectful and myopic telling that we choose for our stories. We take the great events of our lives as an opportunity for affirming what we wish were true, i.e., what we believe. So we confect our evidences as we will, singly and together. Yet I think we can do better, and I for one intend to try.

I maintain that we have fact available to us, but will we refuse it for a prettier fiction? Truth before comfort, and may comfort follow. To do less is to dishonor the critical hour; to besmirch the deepest points of human resonance that we will ever feel; to paint our dearest moments with the brush of mythology; to craft for tomorrow those certain cherished regrets.

For me at least, such transgressions flutter away in a tramp of giggling footsteps that daily orbits round my knees, and a parable hope carries me forward to the day when she can surpass me, and inscribe the straighter line.

Thanks for reading along on this lengthy series. I hope that I have squarely answered the questions raised, and I hope that this gives food for further thought.

No, I am too firm in my consciousness of the marvelous to be ever fascinated by the mere supernatural which (take it any way you like) is but a manufactured article, the fabrication of minds insensitive to the intimate delicacies of our relation to the dead and to the living, in their countless multitudes; a desecration of our tenderest memories; an outrage on our dignity.

~ Joseph Conrad, Author’s Note to The Shadow-Line


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  1. Matt,

    Thanks so much for sharing. I hope some of those accusers(?) you wished to address will take heed. (Not necessarily to follow your footsteps to disbelief, but at least to stop accusing and proselytizing, and perhaps repair fractured relationships.)

    I commend your willingness to look past assumption and confirmation bias in your retrospective analysis of your entry into and rescue from such a dark hour in your life.


  2. Matt, this was a great series, and a truly fascinating read. In more ways than one i’d encourage you to knit these chapters together into a small ebook.


  3. Matt,
    I wanted to wait and see how this entire series unfolded before commenting. That was a hell of a ride. It was nearly a year ago that I discovered your site and spent a couple hours laying in the shade of a tree as I read through your journey. I had no idea that such a remarkable course of events lay at its root. This closing post is an exemplar of what an honest search for truth looks like. My life has been incredibly void of trauma. What few scars I bear are insignificant compared to most. Even so, the few “miracles” which dot the landscape are hard to look past. That you have managed to see Paisley’s ordeal with such clarity is a testament to your integrity. Thank you for taking to time to share your perspective with the world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Travis,

      Thanks so much for the high marks. Have you ever heard the Sunscreen Song? That commencement speech they set to music, I think from the soundtrack to the DiCaprio Romeo movie… It says that we shouldn’t waste our lives on worry, because the real troubles in life are likely to be things that never cross our worried minds – the type that blind side you on some idle Tuesday. LOL. Anyway, your comment about a life devoid of trauma made me think of that. It will probably find us all one day. To me, how we meet it is everything. Bushido.

      However, on the positive side, I think in some ways that life is simply the process of collecting stories. Our own and others. For some reason I can’t entirely articulate, that puts me in remembrance of Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises – that guy could find a story in anything.


  4. archaeopteryx1 says:

    Sadly, there’s a girl – Kathy – on Nate’s site, who is asserting that since her god made us, he has the right to do with us as he wishes.


  5. This was a fantastic series, Matt. I can appreciate how hard it must have been to go back through all those difficult memories, but you’ve done them justice.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Matthew says:

    This was an excellent series. I came out as an atheist about 3 months ago, and I’ve been reading a lot of atheist blogs. You have such a wonderful way with words, thanks for sharing your story with us.


  7. Matt—the coin flip thing. A higher perspective to solve flat earth syndrome. A song about the devil and Job. We are all smarter every time we read your stuff. Nice work…as usual.


    • Cody, thanks man. Just painful lessons, really, which tends to be mind stretching all by itself. I lived next door to a cop when I was a teenager. He had some hair raising stories, but damn were they instructive. I got smarter every time I heard him, but it was far more to do with content than wordsmithing. I like to think that Paisley taught me a lot. And she’s illiterate.


  8. Thank you for sharing this story, this series. Wonderful writing Matt.


  9. Love your comment: “Faith so easily looks past all of the facts, hurrying to construct a spiritual interpretation of what happened.”

    Beautiful story.


  10. Thanks for the beautiful story. I am so glad it had a beautiful ending. Look forward to more of your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Blane says:

    great series, Matt. Thank you for taking the time and energy to put it together…I know it wasn’t easy.


  12. Charity says:

    Wow, wow, wow! Well written, Matt.

    It never ceases to amaze me of all the catalysts that I had in my life the last few years of my religious faith. During those times (One included getting flooded out of my home during the horrific floods in Memphis in 2010 and having to walk through waist high water with my two small boys.) I thought that they would be catalysts in my faith/walk with Jesus Christ. I considered them events that helped me to “press through” in my struggle. Now as I look back, I realize that those were the very things that shoved me into my deconversion. Because they caused me to “go deeper” in my faith, I ended up having far more questions than I had answers. Those serious questions began four years ago, but instead of constantly blowing them off as I had over the years, I began to seriously demand resolve. I held this supposed God and his son Jesus, as well as mystical, precious Holy Spirit accountable for their actions or lack thereof. Suddenly, the dreams stopped and all those “spooky” feelings went away. The air was bare and I realized that I had no connection with a god or religion two years later.

    Matt, I think you and Janelle are phenomenal people. I think it’s brave of you both to be so candid about your lives and struggles. I know this was not the outcome you thought you would have after all your trials, especially in facing the possibility of death of your precious baby girl. I wish fundamentalists could understand the crushing blow of humility we go through as deconverts. I know these realizations you mention in this series were not easy for you. I know that disheartening pain of leaving the faith. NOTHING prepared me for that experience. I think part of the reason why I stuck around for so long was because the process had to be a slow one for me to depart. It is a life shattering/life changing decision, but one can not ignore what he or she knows and learns as his or her mind and life evolve. Stark reality is exhausting when living in a make believe wonder land for so long.

    Thank you for writing this series. I know that I will probably review it a little more thoroughly as I have time. I thank you for being such a great human being and I’m glad that you have that amazing woman by your side. I’m sure that Janelle has helped to make the departure a little sweeter.

    Have a great Fourth, my friend. Peace to you and yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Matt, I think you and Janelle are phenomenal people. I think it’s brave of you both to be so candid about your lives and struggles. I know this was not the outcome you thought you would have after all your trials, especially in facing the possibility of death of your precious baby girl. I wish fundamentalists could understand the crushing blow of humility we go through as deconverts. I know these realizations you mention in this series were not easy for you. I know that disheartening pain of leaving the faith. NOTHING prepared me for that experience…

      Thank you for writing this series.

      Hear, hear!


      • Thanks man. It is true that the experience is humbling. On the flip side, friends who are unwilling to undergo the same humbling process react negatively, thereby compounding the already trying burden of acceptance. Ironic.


    • Charity,

      Thanks so much – means a good deal to both of us.

      I know what you mean about unseen catalysts – like boomerangs of the mind, or dominoes that tip the most unlikely consequences one could imagine. Head shaking follows, doesn’t it?


  13. shane says:

    Thanks for sharing this series – certainly makes one wonder about it all.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I had to read this and think and read it again before I could write. Thank you for sharing Paisley with us, and sharing her story and yours (truly the both of you). I remember the day the doctor told me my daughter needed surgery as soon as possible because she had a serious hernia that could kill her if it trapped a loop of intestine. It had opened all the way into the abdomen. Disbelief. Fear. All of that and more, having to face other things going on in my life that intersected with the problem my daughter had. Hard, hard, hard. You told Paisley’s story and your own beautifully. Thank you. And thank you for also sharing the road it eventually lead you on, the road out of that subtle cult, the one so subtle we seldom even think of it as one. I am so deeply glad that Paisley came out of everything so well. I’m also deeply glad that you and Janelle did as well. Thank you again.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. archaeopteryx1 says:

    Spam – the link is in the name, “hickory bo staff” – probably shouldn’t click on it.


  16. archaeopteryx1 says:

    Spam – don’t click on any links!


  17. archaeopteryx1 says:

    More spam, Matt – try blocking his IP address – no one should click!


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