“Joe, God has eternity, you do not!” Wayne said, looking me in the eyes with an intensity that caught me off guard. “Never be afraid to give God a time-line; pray boldly, ask Him for a sign!” Wayne was the rector of my Cursillio retreat weekend, back in October of 2004.
“Ask God for a sign? No way; I would never put God to the test!” I thought, sitting there, wrenching my fingers together, and desperately trying to not look perturbed by such a bold challenge. By the Sunday morning, of the retreat, I was standing alone by a grey and weathered wooden cross, my eyes fixed on its three prominent rusty nails, its tattered off-white drape gently fluttering in the breeze. How God could love me? I wondered, as tears streamed down my face. I could understand how He could love the others in the group, or the homeless living under the bridge down the road in Manchester, or even the prostitutes who a few years earlier had used that very building as a brothel… but not me. “How could you love me”? I asked aloud. ”How,” I demanded, “Could you love a guy who’s about as bad as they come? You must not know any better, Lord, so take my word for it: I’m not worth the effort.”
In that moment I had an experience of the Fatherhood of God and his deep love for all of his children…including me! No interior voices, no visions, only a profound sense of peace, along with the unwavering certainty that God does love me. “God is my Father…. God is my Father,” I said over and over again, as my tears gave way to laughter. I saw myself as a child in need of something – a little extra love, a measure of comfort, a bit of reassurance – from his loving daddy. Suddenly I could now understand how one could “pray boldly, and ask God for a sign”!
November was fast approaching, and the Presidential election was looming large in the minds of Americans. I was very nervous; the right to life, from conception to natural death was the foremost issue on my mind. I was really concerned the “pro-choice” candidate would win and turn back four years of “pro-life” progress. So I was going to pray every day, boldly, and not tell anyone but God.
I asked Him to send Mary, His Mother. That’s right; I wanted to see the Queen of Heaven and Earth appear right here in the good ol’ USA, put an end to the culture of death and bring about a culture of life. What’s more, I gave God a deadline: “God, I want to see Our Lady before the election!” Sounds crazy, huh? It was only about a month until the election, and here I was asking God to send me a sign, and to hurry up about it! The thought occurred to me that I might be struck down by lighting, so I told my wife to not stand so close to me for a while! Still, I prayed, every single day for a month, asking God to send me a sign, to shore up my faith, and speak to me, His little boy.
In Isaiah 7 God sent the prophet Isaiah to go to the King of Israel, Ahaz, and shore up his faith. You see, the army of King Aram was just outside Jerusalem and all the people were afraid, first among them, they’re own King. So Isaiah went up and tried his best to reassure King Ahaz: “Take care you remain tranquil and do not fear; let not your courage fail… Thus says the LORD: This shall not stand, it shall not be!” Trust the Lord God! Isaiah insisted, and everything will be just fine; God has it all under control.
But the king wasn’t showing any signs of a renewed confidence. Instead of calming the fears of the people, mustering the troops, and leading the charge against the “enemy at the gate”, the king remained fearful. Seeing this, the Lord spoke to Ahaz again, saying, “Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; let it be deep as the nether world, or high as the sky!” Pray boldly, Isaiah exhorted Ahaz; God wants to show you that his presence is real, not just some words from an old prophet but, that your Lord is on the throne, and is holding you in the palm of his hand. But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!” Sounds like the pious thing to say, huh? After all, who was Ahaz to ask God for a sign? Did not Our Lord tell the Pharisees in St. Matthew’s Gospel (16:9) “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah”? We would expect Isaiah to praise Ahaz for his refusal to “tempt the Lord.” A response like, “well done, thy good and faithful servant” would be in order here, right? Wrong!
Instead, Isaiah says, ”Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” God came to build up Ahaz because he knew how weak he was, lacking the fortitude to lead the people of God in the face of such diversity. Ahaz’s false piety was an insult to God’s gesture and Isaiah let him know it. “If you won’t ask,” snapped Isaiah, “then God will send you a sign anyway.” What was that sign? The real King of Kings, Jesus Christ who would one day be faced by a sword wielding mob, also just outside of Jerusalem. He would not cower, hiding in a bush, like the first Adam did but, rather, would face them, inspire the troops with “Shall I not drink the cup my Father has given me to drink?”, then look them in the eye, and tell them “I Am” (St. John 18). I picture Isaiah rubbing it in a little “Unlike you King A-Haz-been, God will send a real King. You should have asked for the sign!”
So which is it? Do we “pray boldly,” or are we the “evil generation” Jesus spoke of? As with any other verse in Scripture, the answer is found in its context. If we are seeking signs so that God can “prove” himself to us, then yes, we are that “evil generation.” If however, we are asking God for a sign so that he can “shore up our faith” – you know, “I believe Lord, help my unbelief” – then we are simply approaching our Father as His little children. Context is key!
We should always feel as though we can approach our heavenly Father, at any time for anything, and speak to him boldly, asking for a sign, giving him a timeline. No, we are not seeking his proof, we want only His love, His reassurance. We can ask, He will decide, and we accept His decision, whatever it may be.
The day of the 2004 Presidential elections finally arrived. By all accounts this was going to be a super tight race and we were all biting our fingernails with anxiety. I prayed every single day, “O Lord, send forth your Mother, here to the USA, to appear as she has in other places, to bring about an end to the culture of death and foster a culture of life… before the election, Lord!” I watched, prayed, and waited that November day. No visions, no arbitrary woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, who just happened by my way.
That night, like every other American, I watched the news coverage of the election, with bated breath, as it showed each candidate anticipating victory. George Bush was in the White House living room, along with his wife, daughters, parents, and friends watching the returns on TV. President Bush was sitting on the chair, next to a coffee table, with a big lamp, and his family all sat on the couch. It was festive… but still no Lady from Heaven.
The next morning I woke up, disappointed because I never received my sign from God, so my drive in was rather depressing. My commute was 45 minutes so I had a good opportunity to reflect on my attitude, and, slowly, I was able to bring myself to still say, “Praise God”. God can choose whether or not to give a sign, and we praise Him either way, right? Well, I finally made it to my desk, and tried to catch the results online. I was watching the Fox News stream coverage of the results as they played clips from the night before showing the Bushes in the White House. “Yeah,” I thought, “that’s nice, but no Virgin Mary”. It wasn’t long afterwards that I received an email from my wife that read, “Did you see the image of Our Lady in the White House”?
“What!” I shouted, drawing the attention of my co-workers, as I practically jumped out of my seat. It couldn’t be! I never told a soul, not even my wife, about my “prayer experiment.” I responded right away “What do you mean? Where? When? Are you sure? Our Lady? The Virgin Mary?” My mind was racing; I had to know, did God send me my sign?
The response came back, “There, in the White House, last night, the image of Our Lady is on the table.” I scrambled to get back to Fox News to find that video. ’I watched it live, and I don’t remember anything of the sort,’ I thought, as I searched for the video clip. There it was! It felt like an eternity sitting there, waiting for the video to download, and all the while wondering if my prayer had been answered. Finally, the video played, and I watched it closely. Where was Our Lady? Wait… there, on the table next to George Bush, was something I could not really make out. It looked like it could be an icon, but the video was small and a bit blurry. I paused the video, enlarged the frame, and hit the “print screen” key.
Sure enough, there next to President George Bush, on the coffee table, was an icon of Our Lady holding the infant Jesus. “WOW” I sighed, slumping back in my chair and looking on in amazement. God gave me my sign. Our Lady had appeared, before the election, right here in the USA. Yes, I was the only one who knew the significance of this event, and no, she was not quite as “majestic” as she had been at Fatima however, she was Beautiful all the same, and holding her little Baby.
This was everything I had asked God for. I wanted Mary to swoop down from above and wipe away all evil and abortion, overwhelming the country with her heavenly radiance, and Americans for God’s glory. But God doesn’t always work that way. I’m a lot like the “Sons of Thunder” calling down fire from above, but God is a good Father Who never forces His children to do the right thing. God will not make slaves out of us. No, He will work on their hearts slowly, patiently, seeking their conversion with His steadfast and undying love. This sign was not for anyone else, it was for me alone. God was speaking to me, reaffirming my faith, as His little boy. That day I experienced God as my Father, like I experienced Him on that old grey and weathered wooden cross. He was not an abstract concept; He was real, and He reached down from heaven and touched me.
Do you need God to shore up your faith? Are you longing for the personal touch of your Father in heaven? Ask Him for a sign, for He has one to give you. God deeply desires to console you with His love and presence. He gave you His son, the seven sacraments, His Church, His Mother, and the Saints but He wishes to give you something else too: an experience of Him as your own Father. A wise old man once told me “God has eternity, you do not! Never be afraid to give God a timeline; pray boldly, ask Him for a sign!”