Why was I reluctant to become a Charismatic? I was already a Christian. I had been a believer since about 1981, though I had done some regrettable flirtation with the „historical-critical school“ of Bible scholarship in late undergraduate and early graduate school. The details of the story are extensive and had their turning point in of all place Flensburg on the German-Danish border in spring 1995. The short version is that I had been raised Baptist and taught a strict „cessationist“ theology of miracles. While on graduate school exchange program in 1994-95, I fell in with a lively and international group of Charismatics and Pentecostals in Kiel, Germany. They did not buy into „cessationism“, not one iota. I found this confusing and at time even troubling. Our disagreement on this point of faith led to some…tense… discussions. Nevertheless, it was with some members of this group that I attended a „Lobpreis- und Gebetskonferenz“/ „Praise and Worship Conference“ in Flensburg that spring. During worship time on… a Friday evening, if memory serves, people around me, including my friends, started speaking in tongues and I was freaked right out. When my friend Torsten asked me what I thought of the service so far, I said „Dies ist ein heidnischer Ekstasekult mit christlicher Oberfläche. Ich bin hier weg!“/ „This is a heathen ecstasy cult with a Christian veneer. I’m outta here!“
Only I wasn’t. At the base of the stairs, on the way out of the building, the Holy Spirit spoke to me, audibly, as HE had only one other occasion prior to that night.
„Turn around right now. These are my people and I am not letting them be deceived.“
I felt a powerful wave of conviction, turned around, went back to my seat beside Torsten, and sat there in something of a baffled state for the rest of the night. The conversation on the way home I do not recall in word-for-word detail, but I do recall that I told everyone in the car what the Holy Spirit had told me when I set out to leave the building and that I was in the uncomfortable position of needing to revise my entire understanding of the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit- real 1st Corinthians 12 and 14 stuff.
Twenty years later…at an international Christian gathering called the MEHR, organized and hosted by the Gebetshaus Augsburg (Augsburg House of Prayer), I was ministering as a translator, having come all the way from Texas just to translate for them.
The blonde-haired blue-eyed woman sitting next to me in the simultaneous interpreter’s booth looked genuinely startled at what I had just told her in the break. The LCD computer monitors showing the stage allowed us to watch the worship band from the Gebetshaus Augsburg and the accompanying lightshow (it was dazzling). There was no need to interpret during worship, and so we had time to converse. Her name was Susie, she was from the north of Germany. She told me something of her life story while we were waiting on the next speaker to start and listening to the worship band play: She had moved to England after her time as a missionary in Asian, specifically Tibet, and had gotten married to a Bolivian man she had met through her church. We had both taken our headsets off and set them down on the table next to the control box for our audio feed.
“Do you really mean that? I’ve never heard an American say that before!”
So, I repeated what I had said (auf perfektes Deutsch selbstverständlich): “God loves your people and His history with you did not end with the rise of Hitler and the monstrous evils of the Nazi regime. The Lord wants to restore you, to heal you, to use you to bless other nations. Like with all peoples of the Earth.”
I’d said variations of this to other Germans I had met and worked with over the years, and there had been many. I was by education one of a dying breed called “Germanic Philologists”- survivors of teenage Tolkien poisoning who had gotten fascinated with Old Dead Germanic Languages and not gotten the memo that the job market for that academic profession had died about 1985. But Susie, the fellow interpreter at the MEHR 2015 Conference in Augsburg, Germany, she had never heard my prepared remarks before. Don’t mistake “prepared” for insincerity, friend. I prepared these remarks about my love and God’s love for the German-speaking peoples of Europe precisely out of a sincere love.
“You mean, you, an American, you see something to love in us, Germans? What?”
I held up my hand and began to count off on my fingers. “Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Goethe, Schiller, Klopstock, Heine, Storm, Fontane, Mann, Doppler, Herz, Mach- can I name a few more Germans whose names have become units of measure in the physical sciences? Like Fahrenheit, perhaps? There’s a lot you can and should be proud of in your history.”
The clear expression of incredulity on her face only grew clearer. “And you think these all matter in spite of the Holocaust?”
“The Holocaust is not the totality of your history. For a long time, being a Jew in Europe meant being German- well, you know, the 200 plus different states that became what is now Germany. There were periods of persecution long before the Nazis but there were also long periods where ethnic Germans and ethnic Jews lived in a peaceful sort of symbiosis. Where did the first pogrom in Western Europe take place and when?”
“In the First Crusade, here. In the Rhineland.”
“Nope. Spain. In 1066 in Granada. It was instigated by Muslims. 1,500 Jewish families were wiped out over night practically. And who stopped the Crusade pogroms in 1096? The U.N.?”
She smiled. “Germans stopped Germans from killing Jews, I know. But it should not have happened in the first place.”
“No, it shouldn’t have. But time and again when waves of anti-Jewish violence broke out in German-speaking lands the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, it was Germans that started them and it was other Germans that stopped them.”
Susie shook her head. “To me, this is incredible. I’ve never heard anyone talk about us like that, about Germans like you do.”
“Well, no. Sure, I’ve heard Americans thank us for our part in the Cold War, but there’s always the Nazi ghost in the background. We’re always just one question away from ‘What did your grandparents do during the War?’ ‘Oh, they gassed Jews at Auschwitz, of course.’”
“Or they tried to start a student revolt against their own government,” I added.
“It wasn’t enough. Not the military resistance, either.”
“They weren’t nothing. They didn’t come out of nowhere. They were more German than that shrieking Austrian maniac, for sure.”
She shook her head. “No, you don’t get the depth of this. We are taught that the Nazis are really who we are and who we want to be. We are taught to hate ourselves for being German, my generation.”
“But you had nothing to do with it, and God knows that. I don’t believe in collective guilt in perpetuity.”
“No, not guilt forever, but for how long?”, she asked. “Some people said after the war that Germans would bear the guilt of the Holocaust for a hundred years. And that sounds right to me. What else do we do with the guilt of our parents and grandparents?”
“Glaubst Du an die Kraft der stellvertretenden Buße?”, I asked. “Und glaubst Du, dass Gott einem ganzen Volk vergeben kann und will, wenn seine Heiligen um Vergebung beten und Buße tun?”
Which means, I asked essentially if she believed in the power of vicarious repentance and if she believed that God could and would forgive a people if the believers among them ask for forgiveness and repent.
“What do you mean, vicarious repentance?”
“The idea that a person who is right before God can intercede for the sins of his nation. Like the prophet Daniel. He wasn’t even born when the nation of Israel was conquered by the Babylonians in judgement for their sins, yet he comes before God and says ‘forgive us’ as if he had been part of it all. That’s our main ministry here, really, vicarious repentance.”
To be continued….
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My daughter’s birthday was this month. She just turned fourteen, and all those songs, poems, stories and visual dramas treating the pathos of the passage of time in the lives of our children, they are all true. The day before yesterday, she would fit on my forearm. Yesterday she started school in Germany. Three seconds ago, she turned 14. And as soon as I blink my eyes twice, she will be driving…maybe going to university, maybe going into ministry, maybe getting married….
Those who know us in real life know that we adopted her in 2008. She was born in 2007, and we had received her as a foster child when she was three days old. Her arrival into our house was an answer to years of prayer, some of it prayed in front of that cross in the image above. Those prayers in turn came at the end of three years of seeking adoption, paying out thousands of dollars, sending letters, getting stacks of documents approved by state and federal authorities, and being disappointed over and over again until we were graced with Felicia.
It is often said, especially in Christian circles, that adoption is the act of finding a child who does not otherwise have a stable, safe and even sane, family situation a „forever family“. That is certainly the desire of all adopting parents. Adoption must be forever, the affections and love of adopting parents as real and enduring as those of the best biological parents. It is the profound and beautiful responsibility of all adopting parents to make that proposition real in the lives of the children they adopt. For believers, this is to be thought of as another expression of the parental love of God on Earth.
There have been scores of books written exploring the nature of adoption, its reality as a picture of our relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who is incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. One of the best, I think is this one by Gilbert Meilaender:
I won’t go into a detailed summary of the book’s core thoughts here except for one: The love of adoptive parents for adopted children absolutely must be as real, as deep, as strong as the love of parents for their children conceived and born naturally because your salvation, if you have placed your trust in the crucified and resurrected Messiah Jesus, is predicated completely on that equation. God the father loves you as He loves Jesus the son.
Well, it had better. Our eternal salvation depends on it. Paul gets on this point twice Romans Chapter Eight, first here:
23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.
And these are just two of several verses in the Pauline epistles which use adoption as a metaphor for our new life in Christ. Galatians 4:5, Ephesians 1:5 also use this image of God’s love and acceptance of those who put their faith in Jesus as being the kind of love seen in adoption. This places before adoptive parents both a challenge and the responsibility to live as best they can in accord with this supernatural reality. We adoptive parents are all of us imperfect in living out this beautiful responsiblity with the adoptive children the Lord and the birth parents have entrusted to us. Over the years, I’ve heard the question from persons either curious or unwise, „Can you love a child who is not your blood?“ Yes, you can, and if you doubt it, you must perforce doubt the veracity of the Biblical promises that God loves and accepts you as His child. With precisely one exception, God has only adopted children.
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It was only about six weeks after we had arrived in Bavaria back in 2015 that the Syrian Refugee Crisis began. Right here and right now, I have no intention of going into the politics of the decision to admit a shade over a million unvetted persons who claimed to be fleeing the Assad regime (hint- not a decision of unalloyed wisdom) in any depth. What I will write about here is what I observed in the attitudes of Germans- including my neighbors and friends- to the situation. They wanted to help.
The Germans, you see, having played the part of villain in the two great conflicts we call the World Wars, subsequently spent decades caught between an unhealthy self-flagellation and a healthy repentance and, where possible, penance for the monstrous deeds of the Nazi regime. They dearly want to be the good guys today. In some capacity. Their country’s role in the Cold War does not seem to have made much of an impression. Yes, there are now 75+ years of history between the end of the Second World War and the current day, but it is most definitely impossible to overestimate the weight of the guilt, shame, trauma, pain and other associated psychological and spiritual evils upon the souls of Germans still. The world is only now seeing a generation of Germans who feel something akin to healthy national pride about some of their history- with four generations having passed since the last major war on west European soil. The Sebis and the Claudias on the street? They really want to be the good guys. So, when the chance came for them to rush to the aid of refugee families fleeing and internecine civil war in the Middle East, they flocked en masse to train stations to receive the new arrivals with bags of groceries, clothes, toys for children…and found that they were not greeting families, for the most part, but mostly greeting men between the ages of 18 and 35.
I won’t delve into the politics and morality of the decision to set the Schengen Agreement on fire by admitting all those unvetted refugees of often unknown origin and uncertain intent into the country. The negative effects have been discussed at length elsewhere. Here and now, I want instead to point out something of the character of the people who responded: They truly believed they were going to be ministers of mercy, coming to the aid of those in need, and they acted on that belief. Christians of all denominational backgrounds were keen to help those they perceived as being in need: Pentecostals, Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists and various other denominations practically queued up around the block to help the refugees from Syria and North Africa. Secular Europe where churches are invisible? Hardly.
Then came the Great COVID Panic of 2020-21. Again, I’m not going to go into the ham-handed overreaction of the German (and other) governments to this admittedly potentially dangerous disease (to certain fractions of the population), but point out the reaction of the faith community in Germany. In spite of government-imposed restrictions on church services and other public meetings, the Christian community of Germany (and Austria, and Switzerland) held public prayer events online to pray for relief from the COVID outbreak. You can view (and listen to) the recording of the livestream from April of 2020 here: Deutschland betet gemeinsam.
As the weeks and months passed, and it became clear that the national and state governments were continuing the COVID restrictions, another online prayer event was held on the Wednesday before Pentecost in 2020, an event called Deutschland betet. It was followed a year later by the event Gemeinsam vor Pfingsten. The response of the secular, increasingly non-Christian Germany to the ongoing series of lock-downs, masking, social restrictions, illnesses and deaths from the Wuhan Flu, and the socio-economic dislocations caused by it, was prayer. And compassion. Here, in the last two years, I have seen how my neighbors, friends, total strangers, have gone out of their various ways to help each other, to support family and friends as much as they were able. And that all seems to have been a warm-up to the massive flooding we have seen this summer.
Summer? Well, 2021 is really looking and feeling like another “year without summer”, in the mold of 1815. Since May, the daytime high temperature has not exceeded 30 Celsius more than five times, and then only briefly. And the rains have hardly paused for more than a day or two. You have probably seen some of the photos and footage of the destruction in the Eifel region of Germany, in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate. The response of the German community has been overwhelmingly good. The prayer movement assembled another nation-wide event, this time something of a telethon and prayer event called Hoffnungsschimmer 2021 (Shimmer of Hope 2021), which also included several testimonies both from people who had suffered material and personal losses in the flood, and from those who had gone to help them in the wake of the disaster. The Real Life Guys, whom I have mentioned on my blog before, have also been a visible presence among the scores of faith-based aid and relief efforts that have poured into the afflicted region. Those who read German can find a brief article on their work here.
Another high-visibility testimony amid this destruction and loss is that of Hubert Schilles. He is an excavator operator working in civil engineering, and has been celebrated as “The Hero of Steinbachtal” for his actions during the worst of the flooding :
The translation of the above reads:
“The Lord God put me in that place. I blessed myself, then drove right in. I was not afraid for even one second. And with God’s help, it worked.”
Risking his life, Hubert Schillers dug out the drainage channel for the Steinbach Valley Dam with an excavator.
And note, if you will, the sources: ARD, one of Germany’s largest television networks, and FAZ– Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung– which is one of the largest and best-respected newspapers in the country. Speaking of which, the FAZ published this story today, detailing the import role that clergy are playing in the restoring the spiritual and emotional well-being of those in the flood-ravaged region. Even if you can’t read German, click through to the FAZ article so that the photos can give you a better picture of the destruction the inhabitants of the Ahrtal and surrounding regions are dealing with. But not alone. There has been a largely faith-driven outpouring- and that is both right word and my point- of material aid and compassion for the afflicted. Samaritan’s Purse has a good video of that organization’s response teams here (in English).. Between testimonies like those above and the actions that have accompanied them, you might get the correct impression that the Body of Christ in Germany has been very active in responding to the crises of recent years. From that you should draw the correct inference that an ethical system very much guided by the principle of „love your neighbor as yourself“, „when I was hungry, you fed me, when I sick, you visited me“.
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The streaming series The Chosen has taken the internet–at least the Christian corners of the internet– by storm, though it has remained largely unnoticed by the non-Christian media audience. It raised the funding for its first and now second seasons entirely through crowdfunding and overwhelmingly online. The results produced from that funding have been extraordinarily good. The director and co-writer, Dallas Jenkins, has created the world’s first work of serial filmed entertainment that draws its material directly from the Gospels (with excurses from the Tanakh). The series has enjoyed, if that is the word, some controversy since the very beginning. Some people object to the idea of presenting such “unbiblical” elements as -surprise- the presentation of real, believable biographies and “backstories” for characters from the New Testament. In the first season, there were multiple online dust-ups about the series’ presentation of Peter’s reasons for saying “I am a sinful man” when he first meets Jesus, the depiction of Jesus’ mortality, and the treatment of Mary, mother of Jesus. When the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints offered to and did provide land and materials for building some of the sets for the second season? News that this was happening set off a vociferous and sometimes invidious exchange of opinions about Mormon involvement in the series. None of these controversies, though, were quite as loud or elicited as much a response online as a single plot thread which began in the fifth episode of the second season.
Those who watch the series likely know about and may have even participated in the social media furor. For those who don’t and didn’t, here is a brief summary of the casus belli: After a frightening encounter with a Roman soldier and an even more frightening encounter with a demon-possessed man who addresses her as ‘Lilith’, using the false name she had used when living her previous life of debauchery, Mary Magdalene leaves Jesus and the disciples in shame and doubt. She returns to her former life briefly, getting stone drunk and gambling with money she stole from the group treasury (at least that is the apparent origin of the bag of coins she takes with her to the bar in Caesarea Philippi). For some tender if inexperienced souls, this development proved to be far too awful to watch. The comments and responses on the social media pages for The Chosen quickly escalated into proper flame wars, to a degree that Jenkins decided to respond to the controversy in a video which he posted on YouTube. The focus of his own anger was the inability of some vocal members of his audience to cope with the dramatic representation of a believer who had recently come to faith falling back into sin. In his reaction, he put his finger directly on one of the most wretched and lamentable failings among Christians in this generation: We eagerly and gleefully shoot our wounded, spiritually or morally speaking. We are very quick to decide which of the wounded most rightly ought to get the final shot that spells expulsion from the Christian community. Or at least from our own personal Christian bubble.
What I am speaking about here- and what was dramatized in Episode 5 of Season 2 of The Chosen– is not cases of clear, unequivocal deviance from orthodox Christian doctrine and ethical teaching, but instead how Christians themselves deal with each other when they fail morally. The issue raised by the dramatic situation in Episodes 5 and into Episode 6 this season was precisely that: How Christians deal with their siblings in Christ when those siblings are on the verge of despairing of God’s mercy, and have definitely despaired of the mercy of fellow Christians.
Now, of the latter the struggling believer is well-justified in despairing, unfortunately. There is a strain of spiritual perfectionism at work among Christians in the States in particular that is ready not to help the brother who stumbles get back on his feet, but to condemn at him for falling in the first place. The Mary Magdalene sub-plot this season exposed that strain for all so see in real time on social media. The explosion of criticism and vituperation directed at Dallas Jenkins and his writing team was breathtaking in its harshness. Some Christian viewers of the series were appalled by the moral stumbling of Mary Magdalene, and ready to pillory both the writers and directors who originated this depiction and those fellow viewers who thought it psychologically and spiritually realistic.
The fact is, though, that the only unrealistic note in The Chosen’s depiction of Mary Magdalene’s backsliding and return to the fold of Jesus followers was the speed with which it was resolved. Of course, this quick resolution is driven mainly by the limitations of the filmed entertainment format- that Shakespearian compression of time so eloquently explained in the prologue to Henry V. The landscape of para-church ministries is full of organizations devoted to helping those struggling with temptations of pornography, heavy drinking, gambling, and drug abuse. These ministries– such as Free!ndeed (a ministry aimed at porn users), XXXChurch, Alcoholics Anonymous, CADAM(Christ Against Drug Addiction Ministries), and numerous others–all offer programs lead believers or seekers for last weeks, months, or years into lives no longer dominated by a particular moral and behavioral failing. And yet, to judge by social media discussion groups (and not just those following The Chosen), the very existence of the struggling believer seems to be a topic that too many Christians are unwilling the deal with honestly. Hang out with sinners who aren’t yet believers? Sure, we’ll do that. Admit that said sinner might be one of us? That is less palatable, apparently. Better to avoid it. Better to shoot the wounded brother, so to speak, before he draws too much attention to the fact that believing in Jesus does automatically make you perfect.
The controversy followed the series through most of this summer, finding an echo in the conversation between Jesus and Matthew in the final episode of the season. That episode focuses on the Sermon on the Mount, and as Jesus (played by Jonathan Roumie) reads through the Beatitudes with Matthew (played by Paresh Patel), the camera takes to flashbacks matching specific characters with specific Beatitudes. “Blessed are the meek” is matched with a quick flashback to Thaddeus and James the Lesser in conversation; “Blessed are the merciful” pairs the women in the group, Mother Mary (Vanessa Benavente), Ramah (Yasmin Al-Bustami), welcoming Mary Magdalene (Elizabeth Tabish) back to the camp after her relapse. “Blessed are you when men revile you and say all kinds of false things against you because of the Son of Man”? That Beatitude is spoken directly to Matthew, and the astute viewer cannot help but realize exactly who it has been who has been reviling Matthew all season: It has been his fellow disciples, not outsiders. This is a regrettable case of art mirroring life, though it is quite unlikely that the summer controversy following Episode 5 was anticipated during the writing, filming, and editing of that scene. Nevertheless, it could not have been a better message to the series’ viewing public: Believers should be ready to deal with the past and current failings of their fellows in the spirit of Jesus’ mercy and patience.
If you have not watched The Chosen yet, do. The spoilers here leave much untouched. It’s easily the best Biblical drama in over a decade and maybe the best in the last half-century.
Thanks for reading!
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Portals Erected in Lithuania and Poland Let People See Each Other in Real Time
PORTAL statues have been erected in the city centres of Vilnius, Lithuania and Lublin, Poland, allowing residents of each to see each other in real time.
Installed on May 26th outside of the Vilnius Train Station and Lublin’s Central Square, the project was created by GoVilnius, the development agency of the Lithuanian capital.
According to its organizers, the PORTAL is supposed to serve as a visual bridge and new wave community accelerator that brings people of different cultures together and encourages them to rethink the meaning of unity.
„Then coming to the borders of Mysia, they headed north for the province of Bithynia, but again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go there.„ Acts 16:17
In a previous post, I wrote that, practically from the moment that I had learned that there was a 24/7 house of prayer in Germany, I had wanted to go there . Really wanted to go there. I found myself asking „where has this place been all my life?“ That’s how much I wanted to go there, to live out a life of intercession and worship in a country whose language and culture had fascinated me so much that I had devoted my professional life to studying both. The first meeting of the Wittenberg 2017 meeting, held in Ottmaring, near Augsburg, in 2012, had given me a good first impression of the Gebetshaus and intensified my desire to be part of it.
That was the problem. I needed and wanted to be certain that the motivation to go to Augsburg came from the Lord and not from me. There was an overabundance of enthusiasm for German, the language, and the German-speaking lands of central Europe in my person, and it would be easy to mistake those impulses of my own soul for the will of God, and I wanted to be certain that I was acting on the latter, not the former. Among the factors tempering my impulses and encouraging me in patience was a dream that I had sometime in the first quarter of 2013.
The dream began in our kitchen, where I was sitting at the table with my laptop in front of me, typing away on some text (probably a contract) when suddenly, I say „Time to go to Germany!“, shut the laptop, and stood up. I put my things in my backpack, stepped out the front door and BANG! I was in Augsburg, right in front of the Gebetshaus. I walked in …
…and no one knew who I was. No one had any idea why I was there. After a few fragmentary and embarrassing dream conversations, I left the building again, aiming to walk downtown where I hoped to find a hotel. As I walked along the pedestrian trail following the Wertach river through town, a small, elderly woman, laden with a backpack that was larger than she was, came walking toward me, in the middle of the river, going in the opposite direction. In spite of the almost comically large burden she was carrying on her back, she was moving with speed and determination. When she was close enough, I recognized her as Hannah Miley, an acquaintance of ours through the ministry of Austin House of Prayer. Now in the interpretation of dream semiotics, the burden a person bears-luggage, a yoke, what have you- is symbolic of the person’s past, and Hannah’s past has been one of tragedy and joy and long, faithful discipleship to Jesus. She had this huge Rucksack, and I had a much smaller backpack, containing, as far as my dream was concerned, just my laptop and some office supply oddments. She appeared to know where she was going, and I…did not. Not yet, in that dream. That dream was all the warning I needed to wait for a clear direction from God before departing to Augsburg.
And once that came? There were practical considerations to deal with. Like selling our house, booking flights, and arranging for accommodations in Augsburg once we got there. I looked on the ads for apartments on the website of the Augsburger Allgemeine and came up empty repeatedly, so as a supplemental strategy I emailed contacts in the Gebetshaus Augsburg asking for assistance in finding a place to live in the greater Augsburg area. It was an e-mail from Johannes Hartl that introduced us to Stefan Karrer who did offer us a place to stay. For two weeks while we looked for something more permanent. That would have to do. We were ready to embark on our European adventure.
For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way- 1 Thessalonians 2:18
Ever had that experience where the Adversary was trying his damnedest to stop you from doing something? Something really significant, like…moving your family to another continent?
With a suddenness that should not have seemed sudden, the middle of June 2015 arrived, and we were standing in line at the security counter in Austin-Bergstrom Airport, waiting for the desk agent to check us in so we could proceed through the actual security screening. When the desk agent took our e-tickets, though, she fixed me with a disapproving gaze.
“You have no return trip listed,” she said.
“No, we don’t because we don’t know when we will be coming back. We’re missionaries.”
“Then I can’t let you fly. You have to have a continuing destination.”
“What? Since when?”, I probably said this louder and more vehemently than called for. Susan put her hand on my arm and Felicia looked up at me, keying into the alarm in my voice.
“Since a few months after 9-11,” the agent answered. “Unless you have a continuing flight or a return booked, I can’t let you board.”
“Oh, you can’t…”, I began. Susan squeezed my arm. “Well, then, we’ll just book our flight to Rome. We have a meeting in Rome in October.”
That was true. We were going to attend the next meeting of Wittenberg 2017 to be held at Casa del Maestro in Rome in October, and we had not yet booked a flight there. So, while Susan and Felicia prayed and played Monument Valley, I got on my laptop and booked us a flight from Munich to Rome in October. And had our e-tickets sent to my smartphone so I could show them to the desk agent. All this took fewer than 15 minutes. Ain’t life in the internet age grand?
Then, having propitiated the wrath of the Gate Agent Demigoddess, we got in line for the security check. And…the security agent pulled me aside.
“Sir, we’ve detected traces of explosives on your backpack.”
“What are you talking about? What traces?”
“Ions. This test picks up ions from substances that are only used in making explosives.”
I must have fixed the security agent with a completely baffled expression because he shrugged and said, “False positives are rare but possible. But I have to examine all the contents of your pack now. It’s procedure.”
So, we stood there for a half an hour while the security agent meticulously removed my laptop, power supply, pens, books, earbuds, box of Altoids, and everything else, even battered, crumpled old receipts from the Star Café in Round Rock, from the backpack and did the ion test on them. Finally, with a sheepish mien, he returned all my stuff.
“Sorry for the delay Mr. Martin. There’s nothing here. I just wasted your time.”
“Thanks for saying that,” I said, and closed my backpack, casting a relieved and encouraging glance toward Susan and Felicia.
You might be thinking at this point, “And things got better when you got past the gate, right?”
Wrong. When we got past the gate, we discovered that our flight from Austin to New York was delayed by 25 minutes. That should have been no problem. I always buy tickets that give us longer lay-overs, if possible. Generally, this practice means cheaper flights, which is one point in its favor, but the other is that it gives us a time buffer in the event of delays. Our time buffer on that day was about 90 minutes. Which was now 55 …then 45…then 30…then we were finally boarding. We still barely made it to New York in time and had to run through the halls of La Guardia to ge to the Malaysian Air flight that was taking us to Frankfurt. We only relaxed at last when we were sitting down.
Coming soon: Arrivals I
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In an earlier post, I described how we had received the call to come to Germany to serve the Lord in the ministry of reconciliation with Wittenberg 2017 and join in the 24/7 prayer movement in person at the Augsburg Gebetshaus. That was in the spring of 2015 and followed on nearly three years of prayer and exploration, visits to Augsburg, and, for me, ministry as a simultaneous interpreter from German to English at the meetings of the Wittenberg 2017 group in 2012 and 2013. And there were some important matters that we had to deal with before we could leave. Like selling our house.
That house we had purchased in 2007, just in time for the birth and then arrival of our daughter (more about those events in later posts). We closed on the house and moved from our apartment on Riverside Drive in South Austin in mid-July and Felicia was in her crib in the baby room in the little red and white house on Melbourne Lane in Round Rock on August 17th. It was only home she had ever known, in 2015, the house where she had gone from infant to toddler to school-aged girl, with all the attendant milestones: Crawling, first steps, first words, first writing, first, second and third kittens of her own, first friendships, and first songs. She was happy to help me put the “for sale” sign in front of our house, but she did not understand, not really, what it was going to mean for her. As far as she knew in the days leading up to the sale, we were going to go on a trip to visit our family and friends in Indiana, North Carolina and Texas. Then, we would go away to this magical, distant place called “Germany”, where daddy had lived before but a place which we had only visited before (in December 2014 into January 2015). And then we would come back. That we were leaving the house forever? That did not really sink in for her, at the time. With her only seven years of experience to go on, the concept of leaving anywhere forever was still hard for her to get her mind into. A wise friend of mine who had been a missionary in his youth had once told me that the real cost of going anywhere on a long-term mission, even if “long-term” only meant a couple of years, was the cost to our children. They rack up emotional losses at a higher rate than we adults. To a (non-pathological) 30-year-old, 2 years is hardly anything anymore. To an eight-year-old, “a couple of years” is a quarter of her life. Four years, half; six years, three-quarters. We would have to deal with her expanding understanding of this reality and the emotional pain it brought repeatedly over the next six years. We’re still dealing with it and with our own losses.
When your seven-year-old watches her bed, bike, and boxes of toys being packed away she thinks that she will see them again. As the months pass and she realizes she won’t, you have to address her losses and your own. If you are planning to go into missions, you need to devote time in prayer to this point before you get there, and ask the Holy Spirit to prepare you. It will still be hard, but the Lord will give you the wisdom and strength you need.
Now to return to the chronological narrative: At the time we put the house on the market, we had no idea how long we would be waiting to sell the house. The market was good in the greater Austin area in 2015, but even there and there it was not unusual for houses to stay on the market for months. So, we went to a meeting of the Austin House of Prayer Community on a Tuesday afternoon, and were happy to ask our friends to pray for the sale of the house, which was due to go on the market that very day. While we were there, the listing went on line and my cell phone started blasting me with calls and emails from people eager to buy that little house in Round Rock. The ad went on line at around 3PM that Tuesday and we accepted the offer from the people who eventually bought it – for a higher price than we asked– by 9AM on Wednesday. They were a young Christian couple who said “the living room looks perfect for our small group” in their email, which, I admit, was a strong influence on our decision.
The sale did prove more complicated than we had hoped. The buyers wanted some work done on the back fence and the siding along the back, so we had it done. Then we closed on the sale, and were effectively homeless pending our move to Germany in June. In the meantime, we were guests staying in the guest rooms of Christ the Reconciler in Elgin, a house purchased by the Austin House of Prayer Community, and I was tasked with cleaning out the few things that remained out of the house, and specifically the garage. With the kind loan of Thomas Cogdell’s late and lamented big red Chevy truck, I drove back to Round Rock to enter that little red-and-white house for what was the last time. The emptiness of our –former– living room hit me like a maul to the sternum. It took me a few minutes, honestly, to collect myself enough to do the work that needed done, which mostly consisted of removing the traces of our lives left in the place. Pieces of broken toys, strands of bright pink and purple nylon that had once been part of various of those “princess dresses” marketed to little girls and their parents at places like Wal-Mart and Target, boxes of papers we had meant to throw out, broken pieces of children’s IKEA furniture and a hundred other forms of commercial detritus from seven years of suburban American parent-and-childhood. It was in cleaning up the garage, sweeping out the area where our cats’ litterboxes had been, that I finally, really lost it.
“This had better be worth it!”, I shouted at God, wiping tears from my face. “This was my little girl’s home! We’re taking her away from all of it. We’re leaving out cats. For you! We’re leaving this all. For you. For your kingdom.”
And then I heard the Lord say:
“Everyone who leaves houses, John, everyone, receives a hundredfold. And family, and friends. It is still true. This is the first time you’ve really done it. Really left. Of course, it’s going to hurt. But I truly am with you, always. Is this the end of the age? Even if I was? I would be there.”
It was paraphrase of Matthew 19:29 and Matthew 28:20, and after I heard it, I was ready to finish what I had come there to do. I loaded the remain pieces of our past life into the truck– to take them to Goodwill– or dumped them without any further emotional outbursts into the waste cans for the Round Rock Disposal people to pick up later that day. Then, I got into our borrowed red Chevy and drove away from my daughter’s childhood home for the last time.
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“Aim at something. Discipline yourself. Or suffer the consequence. What is that consequence? All the suffering of life without any of the meaning. Is there a better description of Hell?”
-Jordan B. Peterson
No, I don’t think there is. Which is yet another reason why I find the appeal to the “Problem of Evil” as an attack on Christian and Jewish theism not just deeply irrational (which it is), but morally abhorrent. Those attempting to wield this rhetorical cudgel are attempting to drive a wedge between people and the ultimate and only source of real, eternal and transcendent meaning. That would be God. That is to say, the philosophical materialist or other skeptic who strives through dissuading people from faith in God is strives to dissuade them from embracing the only real source of ultimate meaning, while simultaneously assigning to the suffering and pain in life the sole, deciding significance in weighing the question of meaning and of the essential moral valence of the universe (is life good, is God good). As if pain and good were necessarily incompatible.
We all know this is untrue and the honest among us admit it. The Peterson quote used above comes from Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, specifically the point in the book where the question of meaning is discussed. The key point he makes in the chapter is that facing the difficult, frightening, painful thing, with the possibility of real failure, real loss, real pain, is necessary for life in the world (as it currently is) to be meaningful. That is a profound theological truth, in addition to a psychological one. It is closely related to the point Satan makes in the first verses of Job. Good that we know will always be rewarded, always be protected, is no good at all. It is pure self-interest with no motivation going beyond personal well-being. Good that is done, held in the heart and lived in the face of pain, loss and suffering, that is the real Good, the Good that defies evil and perdures in its face. These possibilities, if not actualities of evil, are absolutely necessary for the Good to be realized in the world as it is.
However, to take the matter Peterson brings up one step further: Purposelessness even without immediate, obvious physical suffering becomes itself a form of suffering. This point is made in a number of stories in one of my favorite genres, science fiction. And since I’m writing in the television and film age, a number of the examples I am about to adduce are from film and TV, starting with “A Nice Place to Visit”, which was episode 28 of The Twilight Zone and was broadcast first in 1960. Never seen it? Seen it a long time ago and don’t remember it clearly? Well you can watch a cut-down five-minute video encapsulating the key plot points here or you can allow me to summarize: A man named Henry Francis “Rocky” Valentine, a mobster, gets shot and killed in an attempted robbery wakes up in a luxury apartment after he dies. He soon discovers, through his guide, a cherubic slightly older man who refers to himself as “Pip”, that his every wish is granted, every need fulfilled, and …there is absolutely no risk to any of it. He can’t lose at the casino, can’t get shot by the cops if he robs the local bank, can’t get VD from one of the “stacked broads” (the words used in the episode which caused the show some tension with the network censors in 1960, no kidding) who… attends him…in short, nothing he can do can matter. At all. As soon as he has this realization, he begs “Pip”, whom he had assumed was an angel, to take him from the place he had assumed was Heaven to “the other place”.
“Oh, Mr. Valentine. I never told you this was Heaven. This is the other place,” Pip replies, and the episode ends with Rocky Valentine frantically trying to open the now-locked door of his apartment.
And other than that door being locked? Not a thing has changed about his material conditions. He can’t get hurt. His liquor cabinet is full. His every need is met. He will not suffer, physically. And it means nothing. That is Hell. That is suffering.
The point is made in an equally horrific manner in the Matrix movie, the quote from Agent Smith reads like this:
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.
The idea is certainly expressed in materialist terms and by the arch-villain of the series, no less, but the core concept agrees with the underlying Biblical idea of the fall of man: We were offered a world that was essentially perfect, which meant a world in complete harmony with God but chose instead a world in which we could learn exactly what this thing called “evil” is. This is an element in the “freewill defense” of Judeo-Christian theism and it derives from the logically sound premise that any created entity made by the supreme and perfect source and ground of all being is necessary going to be less than perfect: Morally, physically, spiritually, intellectually, in every sense. The human race could have chosen to accept the very minor limitation of not knowing that there was such as thing as life apart from God, but we chose not to accept that limitation. And we keep making that same choice.
Another example from popular science fiction: Kirk and Picard in the Nexus in the film Star Trek: Generations. The context here is that the two captains of the U.S.S. Enterprise meet each other in a thoroughly silly plot contrivance kind of pocket dimension in which one’s mind shapes reality, but only for the better, meaning that their fondest desires come true. For Picard, this means marriage, kids and a traditional French Christmas that owes more to the late-nineteenth-century than the mid-twenty-fourth. For Kirk, this means being at his uncle’s horse farm in Idaho, where he repeatedly and easily makes a jump over a small ravine that had always scared him before. You can watch the scene here, and get the dramatic presentation of Kirk and Picard and the essence of meaning.
Kirk realizes the existential lesson inherent in the situation very quickly (because the plot requires that he realize it quickly so that he and Picard can go fight the bad guy): A life free of risk is a life without meaning. Our choices have to matter, which means the possibility of failure, loss, pain, must real. It does not have to realized, but in a world fundamentally separated from the source of all Good–that would be Adonai himself– it will be. Only his grace and mercy keeps the pain, suffering and loss from being the only elements defining human existence.
“Then free will isn’t worth it,” is one common objection raised to this argument. Of course, those raising that objection are in my experience the very ones who would scream “divine tyranny!” or “that’s not what I meant” if God were to revoke their free will tomorrow and leave them unable to choose evil. Were God to make impossible for us to choose adultery, homosexuality, greed, theft, covetousness, those yummy fits of rage we all enjoy (and the brutal violence that sometimes accompanies them), drunkenness, gluttony, and all the other evils we prize so much and justify so readily, we would all resent having our liberty to choose these things taken from us, and we would all be right to resent it. But God has not taken that liberty from us, however much we might want to take it from each other. He has given us the enormous gift of deciding to live with or without him. We chose the world were our choices matter, our lives, matter, and as a necessary consequence, our decision entails that pain and suffering will in some measure be a real factor in human life. Looking for someone to blame for a world in which a thing called a pediatric cardiology ward can exist? Look in the mirror. The fault is not in He who made the stars, but in ourselves.
As a postscript, consider the following quote from Viktor Frankl, taken from his book with Pinchas Lapide, Gottsuche und Sinnfrage: Ein Gespräch. Sorry for those who don’t read German or Portuguese. There is no English edition (yet, I am trying to convince the rights holders to let me translate and publish the whole thing):
„Many people say that ‚Oh, certainly most people lost their faith in Auschwitz!‘ But that’s absolutely wrong. I don’t have any statistics, but my impressions, my feeling is that what was true is that more people regained their faith in Auschwitz than lost it, that faith was strengthened in more people in Auschwitz- and that means in spite of Auschwitz- than that people lost their faith there. So we shouldn’t just keep on using the pat formula ‚faith after Auschwitz‘ in connection with the ability to have faith, but instead we should talk about faith in spite of Auschwitz“.- Viktor Frankl
Viktor E. Frankl and Pinchas Lapide, Gottsuche und Sinnfrage. Translation is the author’s.
Faith in and in spite of suffering- Therein lies a the direct connection to real, transcendent meaning and not coincidentally, the one power who provides true strength and consolation when facing suffering in this shattered world.
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I’ve heard it most of my life- from the teen years on, certainly, and maybe before that, the “Theodicy Problem” or in particular the so-called “Argument from Evil”. Just to make sure every reader knows what I am writing about here, the customary formulation of the problem, from Epicurus to Hume to the New Atheists, is this:
1. An all-powerful God would be able to end all evil in the world.
2. A good God would be willing to end all evil in the world.
3. There is evil in the world.
4. Therefore an all-powerful, good God cannot exist.
The “evil” being talked about here, to further clarify, is physical suffering, i.e. pain. To me, this line of argument against faith in God has always seemed to be a con, a deception meant to appeal to the base emotion of human self-pity by smuggling in demonstrably false assumptions about human nature. Four such assumptions leap immediately to mind:
1. The assumption that there are no conditions in which physical suffering can be unavoidable and God still good.
2. The assumption that there can be no conditions under which suffering can be deserved.
3. The assumption that there can be no conditions under which suffering can bring about God-justifying good.
4. The assumption that God is doing nothing to prevent, end or alleviate suffering.
That is the order in which I will deal with my problems with the problem of evil below.
1. There are no conditions in which physical suffering is unavoidable and God still good.
Posit a concrete situation involving some minor suffering: Steve decides to go biking through some challenging hill terrain, inviting his son, Brad, to ride along with him. The trail is even more challenging than they expected. Both father and son suffer minor injuries going beyond the muscle strain and exertion involved in overcoming the hills, roots, stumps, and so forth. No enough suffering? Let’s add a bit of mental suffering to go with it.
On top of this, they get lost, have to back-track, get lost again, and, since they left their handhelds at home, they cannot let Laura (Mrs. Steve, Brad’s mom)know what happened, and only return three hours after the time they told her they would be back. She suffers the uncertainty of not knowing when they will be back and, whether or not their delay signaled that one or both of them suffered some serious injury.
Or, posit another concrete situation involving more significant suffering, but still nothing (immediately) life threatening: Frank works construction. Six days a week, sun up to sundown, Frank is subjected to punishing work conditions, physical strain on his entire musculo-skeletal system, noise, heat and occasional rounds of dehydration, all inevitable, unavoidable consequences of the fact that Frank is a physical being who is exerting his body to produce observable, permanent effects on solid physical objects in time and space- and all of these factors, the body, the objects, space and time, are subject to limitations and constraints. The conditions aren’t pleasant, exactly, but they are (for the sake of argument) not unreasonably difficult or dangerous. They are simply the physical conditions of a human moving objects (like bags of Sakrete, bricks, sledgehammers, etc.) in space and time.
It would be easy to multiply such examples and it would quickly become tedious. The core point can be distilled to this: Life in space and time in physical body is always going to be subject to limitations of wear and tear, time constraints, and other minor evils. This is what Aquinas called “natural evil” inherent in bodies. If a superhuman, good, omnipotent being (God) creates physical beings who live in time and space (humans, animals, sapient alien species if any exist), those beings are simply going to be subject to the “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” regardless. None of these limitations and their attendant pain or suffering can be regarded, in fairness or honesty, as being in any way relevant to questions of existential meaning. Physical pain- even mortality- are inherent characteristics of biological life at an elemental level. It might be tenable to think of a „mortality problem“ when considering the „everyday evils“ of this sort, but not a „problem of evil“ in any sense that even could have metaphysical or moral significance.
2. The are no conditions under which suffering can be deserved.
This is the abstract one, but one with significant real-world implications. The assumption here is that no human living, no human who ever lived, deserved or could deserve even one second of suffering. We are all such completely guiltless innocents, that any suffering at all in our lives is always gratuitous, always cruelly senseless, never justifiable, never capable of having any higher meaning or purpose. This is a sentiment alien to Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and even Greco-Roman and Norse religions (the Norse weren’t at all concerned with the question, it seems), and as such, it seems strange that it should have gained any purchase at all, and instead ought to be dismissed when raised as contrary to human experience. This the second assumption smuggled into the “problem of evil” is also the most demonstrably false, and every time the argument is raised, the right response is to ask the person raising it, “Have you ever met a human?”
You see, I have met humans. Many humans. And they are spiteful, cruel, vicious, hateful, bloodthirsty, vengeful, petty, greedy, self-centered, heartless, callous, mean, and I’m just talking about the ones who think they are “Nice People” like myself. They become Stasi agents, Revolutionary Guard enforcers, soldiers in the service of monstrous tyrannies like the Third Reich, Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China. They become Chekas, Hamas terrorists, Klansmen, or thugs with the Crips, Bloods, MS-13, the Latin Kings, and so forth. The cute little boy down the block grows up to be David Berkowitz, the BTK killer, Kermit Gosnell or Timothy McVeigh. For that matter, the cute little boy next door might not wait until he grows up to start inflicting the cruelest violence of which he is capable on his siblings or other children at daycare. The ingenious medical student admired by his colleagues becomes Henry Holmes or Josef Mengele. Or someone whose evils are less obvious, less dramatic, but nonetheless evils. “A good God would end suffering” assumes that those whose suffering is being ended- all of them- deserve for it to end. The idea is that, somehow, the species that is morally capable of producing these monsters, should for some reason (and an atheist can give no reason-I’ll get back to that one) be spared living in separation from the source of all Good. That is at least part of the definition of God taken as an a prior here, right? “But I didn’t want a world in which those people could do those things.”
Sure, you did. Because, under the wrong circumstances, you’d be the one doing them. Your will itself is corrupted, and so is mine. The human race, in its current moral state, does not deserve lives free of suffering and pain and anyone who thinks we do is deluded. If I were a good and all-powerful God, I’d rid the universe of us yesterday and start over. I think I’ve heard tell of something like that….
Thankfully, I’m not making the decisions on that score. And neither are you. You are, and I am, a fit object for God’s mercy, in spite of our innate, self-chosen corruption.
And here is the real conceptual problem with the question as it is posed: If a good God would not permit evil, he would not permit us to exist. Not in our present moral state. Our moral state, though, more than justifies humanity being exposed to at least the possibility of real, not just potential, suffering. That’s the Biblical truth, at least. Humanity is fundamentally separated from the source of all good, including all moral good, and that separation cannot help but result in suffering. This is the element of lived reality that the „problem of evil“ demands you ignore. If the world and humanity were completely in harmony with God’s will and character at all times, then Premise #2 of the standard formulation of the argument from evil would be valid. They aren’t and it isn’t. And the key point? The world is in its current state where evil and suffering are not just possible but constantly realized because we want it this way. The biblical teaching is that the human race was given a world which was wholly in harmony with God, wholly good, without flaw or defect. And we rejected that world. We humans asked for a world fundamentally separated from God, and we ask for it again and again with every decision we make against God. It is only by the mercy of God that we see any good in the world yet, having handed the lease over to Satan, effectively.
Humans- as a species – do not deserve lives free of even the possibility of suffering. What did Jesus call the audience listening to the Sermon on the Mount? „You who arre evil.“ (Matthew 7:11) That is the truth of the The hard question, really, concerns not a particular instance of suffering, of physical evil, is justified or not, whether it serves some redeeming purpose or not. The real problem afflicting the world is that life in this world separated from God is therefore constantly subject not to the will of God alone, but to the will of Satan (whom Jesus called “the Prince of this age”, i.e. the one having authority in this age), and the 6-going-on-7-billion wills of individual persons who act either in harmony with or in conflict with the will of God, those actions bringing with them their inevitable and sometimes awful consequences. These questions, “why is there evil in the world” and “why do the apparently innocent suffer” do have answers. They may not be answers we like. “Bad things happen to good people” is a core biblical truth- with the qualification that, strictly speaking, there are no good people. Certainly none perfect.
If that fact offends you, that’s just too bad. For you. Grow up, and stop trying to blame God for the state of the world you chose and are choosing. And instead, be thankful to God that the human race is still here and, even in this twisted and poisoned world, there is real good to be experienced every day. The molecules that constituted those flowers, that forest, that wave on the Pacific you just stood in awe of, that terrific beer you just finished, the sound waves that conducted your best friend’s voice to your ear? You invented none of it. Not only do you not deserve not to suffer, if you’re human, but you benefit from unearned, undeserved, goodness in creation that existed before you. Why, it’s as if premise 4 of the „argument from evil“ were vitiated by the fabric of creation itself. Because it is. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
3. There are no conditions under which suffering can bring-about a God-justifying good.
When atheists and skeptics bring up the problem of suffering as an argument against the existence of a good and omnipotent God, though, the kinds of evils dealt with under #1 are not what they generally have in mind. What they have in mind are the child who contracts cancer or the young mother who contracts ALS. The cases are often real and heart-wrenching, which is the point. The skeptic or atheist aims to wrench hearts, simply because that is a perfect way to prevent thinking. As long as you, the faithful interlocutor, are busy emoting about the suffering person adduced as example, maybe re-living emotional losses in your own past, you can’t reflect on a pair of truths: Suffering can both affirm the moral core, the faith and the God-born good of the sufferer and bring greater goodness, godliness and wisdom into the souls of those around him.
The first point comes straight out of the first scenes of Job: Good is not good, i.e. worshiping and obeying God is not good, if it is done solely out of a sense of self-preservation. If we know, always, that doing and being good guarantees that suffering and misfortune will never befall us, we aren’t truly good. Now, the man who remains faithful, kind, patient, gentle, generous- who expresses the good in its various facets- when he is afflicted, while he is afflicted, that man is good. To face evil, to suffer, and draw on the good from without, to turn to the source of all good for comfort and strength, that act of metaphysical judo, renders the evil that seeks to kill the soul thwarted, powerless, voided.
The second is related, but not just the obvious point of a sufferer drawing on God’s grace and receiving God’s comfort in suffering being a faith-building act to those around him, but that those who willingly enter into the suffering and share in it with the person undergoing the physical evil are exercising a good that is only born in the confrontation with evil: Compassion. “To suffer with” is what this means, “mitleiden” in German is immediately lexically transparent to the hearer (or reader) in a way the Latin word may not be to some English speakers these days. In a way, the ability to express compassion itself depends on the existence of physical evils, and its expression more than overwhelms the significance of the evil itself. The expression of say, the friend who stays at the bedside of the woman undergoing chemotherapy when there are a thousand other demands on her time, the husband who tends his wheel-chair bound wife instead of abandoning her, the hospice nurses who go the extra mile for patients- I could go on- the point is this: Compassion is greater than evil, overcomes evil, is more meaningful than evil. God’s metaphysical judo finds its finest expression in compassion.
4. God is doing nothing to alleviate suffering.
This last of the four implicit assumptions built into the standard “argument from evil” and …the most inane. It is pure question-begging really. Compassion, mentioned above, is one of God’s gifts to mankind and is a powerful weapon against the reality of pain and suffering. So are other virtues, such as kindness, patience, longsuffering, mercy, and gentleness. Those moral goods, imparted to humanity by God, are the first and most common proof of the clear and manifest falsehood of the fourth concealed assumption laid out above. They are common to all human civilizations, all moral systems of all great, civilization-building religions contain some version of them. And these divinely-given morally good impulses of the soul, they prompt actions: Feeding the poor, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, and so forth. God is “doing something” to end evil in the world- where we allow him to. That fact alone falsifies the so-called problem.
The argument also smuggles in another bit of question-begging by assuming that God does not directly intervene in any human life. Ever. This is an argument no faithful Jew, Christian or Muslim credits. And I, personally, know beyond any possibility of doubt that God directly, supernaturally intervenes in human lives, having experienced healing of a congenital heart defect a direct, response to prayer and laying on hands back in 2016.
What happened? In 1968, I was born with an atrio-ventricular septal defect which, at the time was life-threatening. I was in the hospital for weeks as in infant, spent several days of that time in an oxygen tent, and had a standing prescription for digitalis (to re-start my heart should it stop beating) well into my pre-school years. Then, one fine day in 2016, a revivalist preacher named Jean-Luc Trachsel (from Oron, Switzerland), a man who had no idea who I was at the time, correctly identified my congenital defect as I walked into the Prayer Room at the Gebetshaus Augsburg in Bavaria, Germany. It was a Tuesday, and to be quite precise, he said, “The Lord has told me there is someone in the room with a congenital heart defect he would like to heal. If you are that person, raise your hand.” I was the only person who raised his hand. He prayed for me, and later, I had multiple doctors check me and asked if they heard the heart murmur I’d walked with for 46 years. They did not. In fact, the last doctor I asked, a practitioner with Lutheran Health in Bluffton, Indiana, said “I hear no trace of a murmur.”
That is what is called “empirical evidence”, directly experienced by the subject with his senses and through no intervening mediators. It is also only one of several such events in my life, and there are dozens more like of which I have had first-or second-hand experience. And I am far from alone. There is, as C.S. Lewis put it in Miracles: A Preliminary Study, a veritable torrent of evidence in favor of divine intervention, particularly in the area of healing, and it is available to anyone willing to look. Catholics and Protestants alike can adduce not thousands, not hundreds of thousands, but tens of millions of modern-day, medically attested healings that they attribute rightly and directly to the interventions of God in answer to prayer.
The only real problem of evil, the only proper formulation of the question then, is not “Why is there evil in the world?”, but “Why did that evil occur in that life?” That’s a question worth asking, even if no answer is immediately forthcoming. But the “problem of evil” as commonly formulated? It’s a con. Don’t fall for it.
Post Script: Lewis’s book can be viewed online here. Thanks to Isaac Acker for helping me find the reference.
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„If Jesus only heals me in Heaven, he still heals me. And what happens? I’m with the one who is love, right now, here. And if I die, I go to him face to face forever.“
If you don’t live in the German-Speaking world, you most likely have not heard of Philip Mickenbecker- seen above in a video interview with Bibel TV on the program „Das Gespräch“ („The Conversation“). Together with his twin brother, Johannes, and friends who helped them build things like a flying bathtub and a DIY-submarine, the German YouTube star was one of The Real Life Guys. Their YouTube channel and startling array of insane mechanical projects for which The Real Life Guys became famous can be found at this link. Enjoy. You’re welcome.
He entered eternity at the young age of 23 last week, succumbing to the lymphatic cancer he had first been diagnosed with at the age 16. Mickenbecker had survived two nearly fatal rounds of cancer and had been cancer-free for some months until his symptoms returned this past April. His passing came as a shock to his millions of fans and followers, not merely because of his past survival of the disease, but because he also had shown recent improvement and was upbeat about his chances of recovery, either in this life or the next.
He had been quite open about his illness. On another that channel Philipp started with his brother and friends, Life Lion, the Mickenbeckers and friends spoke more directly about their Christian faith and hard topics, such as the theodicy problem, making sense of life. They interviewed guests about their escapes from drug addiction and sexual exploitation and talked quite openly about the loss of their sister in an aircraft crash and Philipp’s struggles with lypmphatic cancer. The channel gave the German-speaking public a consistent and seriously joyful witness to life with Jesus during circumstances that like unto those typically used by skeptics to attack faith in God’s goodness, love, even God’s existence. Through his videos, public speaking events and bestselling book, his testimony to God’s love and faithfulness in suffering has had and is continuing to have an influence on millions here in central Europe. It is also the first book I have seen hit #1 in the categories „Spirituality and Religion“, „Adventure Travel“ and „DIY Home Projects“ simultaneously on Amazon Germany.
Mickenbecker faced death, a particularly painful death even, with his faith not only intact, but vibrant. His final weeks in a way embodied a line from the Epistle to the Hebrews that is often overlooked, namely Chapter 2, Verse 14:
„Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.“
Jesus took on humanity to …well, to fulfil many purposes… but the one addressed above is to break the power of death. If you have been born again, if you have become part of that hope of glory, Christ in you, the power of death truly has been broken in your life forever, whatever pain, trials and suffering you may (and will) endure in this life. You get to begin life knowing the love, joy, peace, and beauty of God and life eternal already on this broken, poisoned, afflicted Earth, and will know all these things in a greater measure and without the affliction, poison and brokenness of this world on passing from this life. The truth is, as Paul put it in 2nd Corinthians 4:17, our afflictions, even lymphatic cancer, are light and momentary compared to the weight of glory the Lord works in us through them. Which point brings me to that „problem with the problem of evil“. The problem is, granting that evil has the weight to tip the scale against the good is categorically wrong. All suffering eventually ends, and before it ends, even, it is forgotten. And even before it is forgotten, love and joy can overwhelm it. The brief life of Philipp Mickenbecker has provided a generation of youth in Europe with a testimony to this reality. May it bear much fruit.
The same problem applies of the evils we do. As William Langland put in Piers Plowman, „All the wickedness in the world that man might do or say was no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea.“ But that is a point to explore at a later date.
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When I had left the States to take up the post of „Graduate Assistant to the Director of the Austria-Illinois Exchange Program at the Vienna School of Business and Economics“ (yes, that was the full title) in September of 1997, Susan and I had already been engaged for months and were planning to wed in on the 8th of August, 1998. We were not planning for either of us to visit the other in the interim. We were doctoral students in the humanities, for cryin‘ out loud! Flying was expensive and…then as now…grad student life and money don’t really go together. Not even at Big Midwestern Research Universities ™.
All this being true, it was with great surprise and delight that I learned in one of our November phone calls that Susan was able to find an affordable flight to come and visit me in Vienna for the Christmas-New Year’s Holiday. I picked her up at Vienna’s Schwechat Airport- which at the time was the first airport Susan had seen in which policmen armed with submachineguns were on patrol and there were no waste bins to be seen.
„That’s odd. Why are there no trash cans? And why do those cops have…are those Uzis?“
„No. Steyr, I think. Why? Abu Nidal is why. There was an attack on the El Al counter back in 85? I think it was 85. About this time of year, too.“
That was our pre-9/11 introduction to the kind of airport security that would later become standard for airports in the U.S. and Europe. But in ’97? It was a mark of the heightened security at Schwechat that I had to wait for her beyond the gate area. In Indianapolis, my mother and brother had been able to walk with me right to the departure gate.
We spent those glorious days at the end of December together in the snow-flecked Vienna air. We went to the Bellvedere and Schönbrunn Palaces (the „Gloriette“ at the latter shown above), which is also home to the oldest zoo in the world. Their lion got really close to edge of the enclosure and roared at the setting sun the day we were there. We revelled in the art availablee to us in the city- we went to the Dali Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum (where we had an enounter with a German tourist I may recount later) and to various Christmas related events with my International Baptist Church family. When we went down to look at the Vienna Synagogue, we were again greeted by policemen armed with submachine guns. They took the threat of terrorism against Jewish targets seriously then, and still do. Still should. And we went to mass at Stephansdom. Which was a deeply powerful event, even for two then-Baptists. In 1997, Susan had not yet converted to Catholicism and I was still formally a member of the Southern Baptist Church, though already more open to Charismatic, Holy-Spirit-focused Chrisitanity than is usual for the SBC.
And then came the day I had to take her back to Schwechat for her return flight.
It was New Year’s Eve, 1997. We were at a party at the home of Pastor Donnie Bond of International Baptist, and had to leave at around 4:30 to get her to the airport on time. We took public transit lugging Susan’s suitcase through the underground, up escalators, and to the boarding desk. And every second hurt. I could not show it at the time, of course, wanting her to leave well, have a good flight, and enjoy pleasant memories of our Christmas in Vienna together, but raking the edge of my conscious mind the whole time were the ragged claws of impending sense of loss. The minute she walked through those gates to the departure area, we would not see each other until July, two weeks before our wedding.
So, after a mercifully short and loving parting of our company, she walked at haste through the gates and I stood there and watched her until she was completely out of sight. Then, feeling stunned, I made my way back to the underground, eventually taking the U4 back to the Pastor’s house, back to the New Year’s Eve Party Susan and I had left together. Coming back alone was difficult.
My friends, Greg Crutchfield and Elena Todorova must have noticed that I was suffering from Susan’s departure because they asked how I was feeling.
„Can we just stay together for a while? I can’t go back to my apartment right now. Not alone.“
So, they and a couple of other of the younger set from IBC- mostly fellow exchange students attending either the University of Vienna or the Business and Economics School- stayed with me for several hours after Susan’s departure and we rang in the New Year in downtown Vienna. I did not take the Straßenbahn 38 back to my apartment in Grinzing district until after 1AM- one of the last available streetcars. Only then did I weep.
The empty cathedral in that photo? It’s kind of how my life felt for a few days after Susan left. I still had an apartment, a job, a church community, and so on, but the most significant person in my life, my wife-to-be, was gone and for the next several months she was only present as an electronically attenuated voice brought to me via wires and radio signals.
Over the years, God has used this event as a key for understanding grief in a Christian understanding. Every departure, whether seeing friends depart for the mission field knowing that you won’t see them or the final departure from this life in death, does leave us feeling empty and in pain, in one degree or another. And that is real. Denying the reality of loss is not holy or godly, it’s simply embracing unreality- lying to yourself about your loss and your emotional pain coming with it. What do we hear from St. Paul on the point of mourning our losses? „…Do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope“ (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Jesus himself, in the opening statement of the Sermon on the Mount pronounces „Blessed are those who mourn“ not „Blessed are those who pretend that they have nothing to mourn“. We have the promised comfort of the Holy Spirit („…for they shall be comforted“) and the hope that Paul talks about in those next verses in 1 Thessalonians 4 and in 1 Corinthians 15. We can mourn losses. And departures. We have to to live honest to our hearts and honest to God.
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