"God Gave Us a Miracle" reads the sign outside a diner in Somerset, Penna. But did He? Did God personally deliver the nine miners trapped 250 feet below ground? Would he have done it even if we hadn't prayed?

"I don't think we got his attention," a friend tells me. "I don't think he said, 'I'm busy over here creating a solar system, but I'll take a minute and help you out.'"

This view of God--that he's a big powerful guy who sometimes pays attention to us--sprouts naturally from what earthly, powerful guys are like. President Bush has no idea who I am, but I could probably find the office at the White House that would generate a card, stamped with the president's signature, for my relative's 100th birthday. Likewise, I can pray that God will "bless" her, a similar vague transmission of good will. If I needed something more urgent-say getting a friend rescued from a foreign jail--I'd have to work harder to get Mr. Bush's attention, but I would surely try, and keep trying. Just as those miners in the dark, and their families above, who were going to pray for rescue, no matter what their theology was the day before the cave-in. You couldn't stop them.

Whether the person in need is Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist (or a Buddhist with a Christian upbringing), this impulse to pray in times of need-whether for strength or actual deliverance is nearly universal. This variety is evident among Beliefnet's prayer circles, in which some users ask for strength and others ask for direct intervention for a job, or a child.

For some, the idea of a God who can be persuaded to turn our way seems to trivialize God, even to insult him. It's too anthropomorphic; instead, they'd say, God must be serene above our crushing pains and desires. He wouldn't care whether the miners' lives end together now or separately a few decades later. He must be similarly immune to requests for a good parking place, a bumper crop of tomatoes, or for Jimmy to ask Shirley to the prom. Given the choice of a floating, impersonal God who doesn't care or a busy executive who might care sometimes, the former clearly has more dignity.

But there's a whole third possibility, more startling and somewhat unsettling. What if God is much, much closer to us than a nameless fog, or even a distant powerful guy? What if he is intimately familiar with every detail of our lives, and knows us inside out? Little brown sparrows swoop on the crumbs outside McDonald's; we ignore them, but "not one of them is forgotten before God," Jesus said. "Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered." God is actually with us, within us--"the Kingdom of God within you"--every minute, like a hand in a glove.

There is nothing you do that he doesn't see. What happens in a bedroom or a bathroom is no surprise to him; he designed those bodies in the first place. Our thoughts are laid bare as well. "Where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there."

Unnerving, yes. It's worse than being a kid with a hovering mommy; she has to sleep sometime, but God, never. What makes it bearable is that God loves us better than fallible parents ever could. That's the whole reason behind the astonishing plan to become one of us, walk on this earth, and give his life so ours could be saved.

So the miners in the dark didn't have to hope that, if enough people prayed loud enough, God might wake up and pay attention. He was already there, "in the midst of you," as everywhere, inside every terrified heart. He knows our prayers before we speak them ("You discern my thoughts from afar.before a word is on my tongue you know it altogether").

But he still wants us to speak them. "Prayer changes things" the bumper sticker says; it doesn't change God, it changes us, connecting us to each other in compassion, connecting us to God in humility and gratitude. He doesn't need our prayers, but we do; they put us in tune with him, in tune with the melody just under the surface of all creation.

Of course, we wouldn't be so full of gratitude today if there hadn't been a real possibility-even a likelihood-that these lives would be lost. God is both all-powerful and all love, and we still aren't guaranteed that we'll get what we urgently want. This puzzle confounds us humans, who struggle to balance factors like free will, the limits of nature, and unseen hungry evil seeking our hurt. Somehow in the end God's will will be done, just as a master chess player winds up defeating a lesser opponent, no matter how many setbacks there are along the way.

We were prepared to see, not just setback, but tragedy; we were not prepared for nine coal-smeared faces to ascend from murky depths and stand blinking in the Sunday morning light. It was a heck of a production; no wonder we believe God did it. But this act was only a prologue. He will do more than that.

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