Ebola and the Christian: A Light on Radical Christianity

“You can download an app here and see how close the Ebola virus is to you.  The creators of the ‘Ebola near me’ app intended it to calm your Ebola fears.”

 The confusing Ebola crisis has shone a light on the reality that many of Africa’s poorest and neediest are receiving medical treatment from (gasp!) missionaries. See, for example, Brian Palmer’s article in Slate, “Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?” Not all of those serving the medical needs of Africa are Christian missionaries, but the number who are is impressive. They are everywhere.

Handout photo of Dr. Kent Brantly speaking with colleagues at the case management center on the campus of ELWA Hospital in Monrovia Missionary doctors have been treating Ebola victims in Africa for decades in sub-Sahara Africa. Why? Because they are the primary ones treating the people for every disease. They have always been there. The reason the West is even talking about Ebola is that the virus has the potential to spread quickly and infect people outside of Africa – us.  Otherwise, would we care?

These doctors and nurses in Africa are not just your run of the mill missionaries (if there is such a thing) but well-qualified, highly-trained medical practitioners who leave behind high paying practices to serve long hours in difficult conditions for those who cannot afford to pay them. Most of them are providing the only medical care available for hundreds of miles in any direction.

Sounds crazy.

“Idiotic!” Ann Coulter calls them.

But they are motivated by Christ, who did the same thing. Jesus “healed every disease” (Matthew 9:35). He told us that loving him meant loving those who have needs, even if they are strangers (Luke 10:30-37). The one called “the disciple Jesus loved” wrote, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17).

Jesus said, “Follow me,” and these health professionals really believe he meant it.

For most of their lives, they serve in obscurity. Now, they are on the front lines and the front page.

Christians: Under the Radar

Christians seem to show up sacrificially serving without much PR support.

For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Red Cross issued an appeal for 40,000 more volunteers to come to Louisiana and Mississippi to aid those suffering from the devastation. The appeal was ignored . . .  except that thousands of Christian groups were already there or on their way.

katrinaBritish journalist (and atheist), Roy Hattersley surveyed the destruction post-Katrina and was surprised to see so many Christians groups working to help. In his article for The Guardian, he wrote, “Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers’ clubs and atheists’ associations – the sort of people who not only scoff at religion’s intellectual absurdity but also regard it as a positive force for evil.”

Christians, he acknowledged, “. . . are the most likely to take the risks and make the sacrifices involved in helping others.”

But this is nothing new. Followers of Christ aren’t out to win points with the media – or with God.  They just show up when tragedy strikes.

And the most terrorizing tragedies come from pandemics that kill indiscriminately and mercilessly. Albert Camus’ classic novel, The Plague, describes a closed city ravaged by plague and the hopelessness of the people fighting against it. Most see his work as an allegory on the irrationality of life in the face of suffering and certain death. He draws on the long history of humanity’s impotent battle against disease.

Terror goes Viral

“The doctors are quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods.”

This is not current criticism of medical treatment in the Ebola crisis but an observation made by Thucydides in 431 BC. The plague that ravaged Athens at that time was catastrophic. Thucydides writes that those afflicted “. . . died with no one to look after them; indeed there are many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any attention…. the bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water.”

What sounds like an episode of The Living Dead was a reality for the Athenians who saw tens of thousands die, religious faith diminished, and public morality ignored. During the time of the plague, Pericles, the father of modern democracy, died (ca. 429 BC). The war with Sparta was compromised and the Golden Age of Athens faded.

Plagues continued to devastate Europe for centuries and medical practice struggled to even care for those afflicted. Science eventually caught up with the causes but only after millions had died from typhus, smallpox, measles, syphilis, bubonic plague, or a number of infectious diseases.

Health practitioners of the time could offer no solutions to the plagues. The most well-known figures in the history of medicine, Hippocrates (ca. 460-370 BC) and Galen (AD 129-216), gave the same advice when it came to plagues:  “Leave quickly, go far away and come back slowly.”

Dionysius (AD 260) writes that people were so terrified of diseases that they abandoned even their own loved ones:

“At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead  . . .”

But in these early centuries after Christ, followers of Christ across the Roman Empire took a different approach. Dionysius goes on to describe how the followers of Christ “behaved in the very opposite way:”

“Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected with the disease . . .”                                                                                               

A century later, the Roman Emperor Julian (AD 362) complained that those Christians (he called them Galileans) were still at it:

“The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well; everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

Go and Do Likewise

Today, Christians have such little impact on society that journalists are surprised when they find them doing something worthwhile. We have been busy putting “sinners” in their place and arranging the furniture of our lives. All the while thinking we are serving Christ. But political agendas, social outrage and finger-wagging lectures only create a fog that obscures the Gospel.

We have a great legacy from those who heard Jesus say, “Go and do likewise:”

From the Good Samaritan who gave up time and money for one who was helpless and in need to Dr. Kent Brantley who almost gave up his life for the same. And many are asking “What do you believe that makes you live like this?”

And we get to tell them.

A friend was traveling through India with his son and arrived in Calcutta. They started in the city center and began walking through the streets with a local acquaintance. Almost immediately, the human tragedy that is synonymous with Calcutta assaulted their senses. The further they walked the more the squalor and stench pressed upon them. They were overwhelmed.

calcuttaMy friend turned to their companion and said, “This is heartbreaking. Don’t the Hindus take care of these people?”
He replied, “No. The Hindu people consider them unclean. They say they are receiving what they deserve for their past.”

Knowing there was a significant Muslim population in India my friend asked, “How about the Muslims?”

Their companion shook his head. “No. The Muslims also considered them unclean and cursed by Allah.”

Frustrated, my friend said, “Does anybody care for these people.”

The man stopped and looked at him for a moment then said quietly, “The Christians. Only the Christians.”

The NFL and Celebrity Culture: A Losing Battle?

Ray+Rice+New+York+Giants+v+Baltimore+Ravens+5cbrkMDrJOVl   Until recently, the behaviors most punished in professional sports were the use of performance enhancing drugs followed by altering game equipment and gambling. Cheating in the game was held to a higher standard than cheating on your wife and family.

But now, the recent crackdown on bad behavior by professional athletes begins to slowly open the door to the darkness of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other acts of inappropriate aggression. The reasons for these actions go much deeper into their family background, early choices, and the adulation they received as performers. Drawing the line on off the field behavior is a step in the right direction, but sadly what it really shows is how morally inept our culture has become.

“Celebrity:” Public and Private?

“I don’t care what he does in his private life. I just need him to score touchdowns.”

When I heard this I was reminded of how “celebrity” can be the most dehumanizing status in America. Athletes perform on the field or the floor; actors perform on the stage or the screen. As long as they produce, they have value. When they stop producing, they are shunted aside to make way for another.

The celebrity label does have benefits for the ego and the bank account. And it usually provides cover for private moral choices. As long as a celebrity’s personal life is not spotted by socially unacceptable vices, most can live as they want.

Even politicians find themselves with quasi-celebrity status. They are adored or defamed because of their party affiliation and their views on social issues. Their private life? It depends. If he or she is “one of us” they usually get a pass on most moral failures.

Think Bill Clinton. He was vilified by the right for his sexual indiscretions but tolerated by his political friends:

“What he does in his private life is a matter between him and his wife.”
“Everyone lies about sex.”

I flew to South America just as the Monica Lewinsky affair exploded. I thought I was leaving the scandal behind but then I saw a prominent billboard just outside the Bogota airport that pictured President Clinton and five of the woman who claimed they had been targets of his unfettered libido.

I didn’t recognize the Spanish on the sign and asked the cab driver what it said. “It’s an advertisement for a bank,” he said laughing.

I’m still trying to figure that one out.

Later on that same trip, I flew to a speaking engagement in Medellin, the home town of the most notorious cocaine kingpin, Pablo Escobar. One evening, a few friends and I grabbed a taxi and asked the driver to give us a “Pablo Escobar tour” of Medellin. He proudly showed us where Pablo was born, the apartments, schools and hospitals he constructed, the buildings that housed his extensive collection of classic autos, and where he was gunned down (many Colombians still are bitter toward the US for our involvement in his assassination, our driver told us). He is a legend in the city. Escobar did much good with his billions by caring for many of the impoverished in western Colombia, but with money from his international cocaine cartel?

I said to the driver, “I know you admire Pablo Escobar, but he ruined the lives of millions of people around the world with his drug empire.”

He shrugged. “That was his private life. In public he was always good to us.”

The divide between public and private is even true among some Christian celebrities, while not quite at the Pablo Escobar level. I’ve worked with quite a number of well-known speakers and entertainers in the Christian world. Some shine on the stage or behind the pulpit but in their personal life, well . . .

I will leave it at that. God uses them publicly but I think they are priests after the order of Balaam’s donkey.

A Culture of Excellence?

We miss the mark when we allow a culture to exist that rewards public celebrity and excuses lack of character. Punishing bad behavior is a move in the right direction, but it is only a start. The whole person must be addressed in positive ways that equip them with the moral courage and spiritual resources to make good decisions and live well.

The substantive people of old were people noted for their excellence – arête, in Greek. Their excellence manifested itself in battle, in the arena and in everyday life. Arete played a strategic role in the education of youth that included physical, mental, spiritual, and moral training. Such people, then, were not merely following ethical rules of conduct but embodied the classic virtues of courage, temperance, prudence and justice. Christians affirmed these and added three more – faith, hope and love – to comprise the seven cardinal virtues.

In the fifth century BC, the Sophist Prodicus told a story of Arete personified as a maiden. The young hero Heracles encountered her and Kakia (“evil’) at a crossroads. Kakia offered him wealth and pleasure. Arete offered him glory and a life of struggle against evil. Heracles chose the way of Arete.

Maybe we can create a culture of excellence where our young men and women choose the path of glory – God’s glory, in our case – and choose to struggle against evil, not give in to it.

 

russell-wilson-seahawks  Can it be done? Of course, from the inside out. A few days ago, Seattle Seahawk’s quarterback Russell Wilson admitted to being a bully when he was younger. “I used to beat people up,” he wrote for a new website called ThePlayersTribune.com. “I used to beat people up a lot. Many of you readers probably think I have been Mr. Goody Two-Shoes my whole life, but honestly, I was a bully growing up. In elementary and middle school, I threw kids against the wall. I rubbed their heads in the dirt at recess. I bit them. I even knocked teeth out.”

“I had a lot of anger that I didn’t know what to do with,” Wilson wrote. “Thankfully, I was saved by my faith when I was 14 years old and was able to start living for others instead of just myself.”

Paul tells us, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent (arête) or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:9-9).

A life of excellence is a battle; but with the proper preparation, tools and colleagues, it doesn’t have to be a losing one.

Bud Light and the Meaning of Life

If you’ve watched any football games the last few days you’ve seen the new Bud Light ad campaign for this season. The commercials show a town overflowing with celebration: a parade, a concert with Lil Jon and Vanilla Ice, circus animals, dancing, romancing, and lots of Bud Light.

whateverThe town in the commercial is Crested Butte, Colorado, and for half a million dollars from Budweiser it became “Whatever, USA” for a weekend (September 5-7). The advertisers took over the town, painted it blue, brought in the entertainers and circus, and then turned loose over a thousand Bud Light fans flown in especially for the revelry. And if the free flow of beer wasn’t enough, the legal marijuana stores provided the merrymakers another high light to the 50 hour party.

The event furnished Budweiser with advertising content for their “The Perfect Beer for Whatever Happens” campaign; a campaign that over-promises and under-delivers. All of us can imagine a lot of “whatever happens” events where Bud Light would not be the “Perfect Beer.”

Just look at the headlines.

But then the uncertainties of our time may make the ad campaign spot on. Americans sense a fear of the future, frustration with political feebleness, and futility in the current options. The young, who usually ignore national and international problems, are stuck in their own angst. For the first time in decades they see their prospects dimming. Numbed by the reality that working and studying hard no longer guarantee future success, they ask, why bother?

 

Another Generation Lost in Space

In many ways they parallel the “lost generation;” the youth who came of age during the first decades of the twentieth century. A generation that had been overwhelmed by the new technologies of the day and the dominance of scientism, they were staggered by the horrors of the First World War. Disoriented and directionless, they felt the ground beneath give way.

The Roaring Twenties accelerated this unsettledness and Prohibition did nothing to stem the flood of alienated revelry. It actually brought about an increase in alcohol consumption and a celebration of frivolousness. The age ended with explosive crashes; first on Wall Street and then at Pearl Harbor.

The parallels with today’s culture are not seamless but the disaffection is pervasive. We see it among Christian youth who are leaving the church in huge numbers. Some are drifting away, some are running as fast as they can. They have become like sheep without a shepherd; harassed and helpless.

Some have run to other religions and others have sought out any place that may give some hope. The tragedy is that too many just stop caring. They have not turned to atheism but to apatheism – acting with apathy and lack of interest toward anything meaningful about life. The answer to every important question is, Whatever.

 

Intellectual “Whatever”

It is not just beer companies and celebrities that promote the “whatever” mindset. The most recent issue of The Economist’s Intelligent Life magazine includes an article on the meaning of life titled: “What’s the point? The Big Question.” They asked well-known authors to respond to that question and unsurprisingly their answers fall into the “whatever” category.

IL_Cover_Sept_Oct_14_RGBRichard Dawkins says the cosmos is pointless. Poet John Burnside says simply that the answer to, “What does it all mean?” is “Nothing.” He goes on to explain, “There is no universal formula or divine plan – no ‘all’ – that can make individual lives meaningful.”

For Philip Pullman (author of The Golden Compass, etc.), our purpose is to “leave the universe a little more conscious than when we found it.” I have to sleep on that one.

Philosopher Mary Midgley says our purpose is “the welfare, success and prosperity of whatever cause, or whatever people, we most love, honour and wish to be a part of.” At least she honestly includes the word “whatever” (twice).

Novelist Michael Crichton adds, “The purpose of life is to stay alive. Watch any animal in nature – all it tries to do is stay alive. It doesn’t care about beliefs or philosophy.”

The best they can do at agreeing on an overall purpose for humanity, they tell us, is to quote Charles Darwin: we exist “to pass on our genes.”

 

So What?

Agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell acknowledged, “Unless you assume the existence of God, the question of life’s meaning and purpose is irrelevant.”

He’s right. And assuming either God’s existence or non-existence follows the same path of exercising faith/examining evidence. It is not only believers who choose their faith, atheist and NYU professor Thomas Nagel admitted the personal inclination in his own beliefs about God:  “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God . . . I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

God has given us freedom, but freedom untethered from truth can be destructive. Unbounded freedom for one can be bondage for everyone else.

On the big stage, now dominated by ISIS, Gaza, Ebola, and Ukraine, God’s oversight is questioned. But history and Scripture show us that nations, conflicts and tragedies move in ways that affirm humanity’s sinfulness and the earth’s brokenness. Neither of which are a surprise to God nor an impediment to his plan. There is no panic in heaven.

At the personal level, we too easily blame God into oblivion when our lives go badly.  But we are reminded, “A person’s own folly leads to their ruin, yet their heart rages against the Lord” (Proverbs 19:3).

In a culture sanitized from the awareness of God, it is not surprising that among our youth despair is the dominant mood. Educator Neil Postman noted, “Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention”

But there is reason to hope. Every day, 77,000 people across the world are turning to Christ. Most of them are young. Christ’s good news is being seen for what it is: hope in a world of despair. And slowly young people are beginning to take on the mantle of those who came before.

As in the first centuries when Christians conquered an Empire by their compassionate service and commitment to Christ, there is a tsunami of stories where people are giving, sacrificing and dying in service to Christ and others. They don’t have the full picture, but they know what they are supposed to do. They are serving sacrificially everywhere, even in Iraq and Syria, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Ukraine and Russia, China and India. They bravely face whatever comes their way.

That’s a “whatever” we can celebrate.

LeSean McCoy and Radical Tipping

So LeSean McCoy of the Philadelphia Eagles tipped the wait staff 20 cents on a $61.56 tab at PYT because they disrespected him and his guests.  The blowback of this was fast and furious but McCoy was undeterred. He needed to teach them a lesson. The service is bad but the food is good, he said. They need to do better and he is not going to reward what doesn’t deserve it. [just a side thought here: maybe the Eagles should recompense their players by how they perform each game. Think of the money they would save!]

Even if the story of disrespect and bad service is true, the story is a sad commentary on how we treat each other. If McCoy really wanted to teach the wait staff something he could have talked to them like  adults. He has the most influential bully pulpit in the country – a rich, famous celebrity athlete. He can influence people profoundly by his words and admonition.

As for followers of Christ, we should be the biggest tippers of all. We should be known for our generosity and kindness. Why? Because that’s how God treats us.

Someone criticized me once for  saying that and asked me how I tip when I get bad service.

“I give them even more,” I said.

“That’s stupid,” he responded. “The server doesn’t deserve it.”

“It’s grace,” I said. “Neither do we.”

 

9/11: Hatred and Grace; a short thought from C. S. Lewis

911-wtc-cross

The mixture of sorrow, anger, and hatred that identifies 9/11 can be suffocating. C. S. Lewis’s words give a prophetic perspective and a wise admonition.

The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he ‘likes’ them; the Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on – including people he could not even have imagined liking at the beginning. The same spiritual law works terribly in the opposite direction. The Germans, perhaps, at first ill-treated the Jews because they hated them; afterwards they hated them much more because they had ill-treated them. The more cruel you are, the more you will hate; and the more you hate, the more cruel you will become – and so on in a vicious circle forever.

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance.

~C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Denying Christ to Find Him

“People are leaving the church and going back to God.”

-Lenny Bruce

pic1     I have a friend whose faith is stronger than mine. For most of his adult life, he has struggled with addictions and the litany of evils that go along with them.

He turned to Christ a number of years ago – addictions and all – but, in his words, “The people in the church crushed me.” It wasn’t that he couldn’t keep up with the rules, but the breadth of his need for acceptance, forgiveness, and mentoring exceeded the bandwidth of the people. He followed the prescribed lifestyle and threw himself into the work of the church. He said he learned to judge other people who struggled with sins he kept hidden, but the hypocrisy took its toll. He was slowly dying inside

Finally, he gave up on God. He denied Christ and returned to a life of addiction. He wiped his soul clean of all the rules and expectations. He had nothing that any church wanted, and nothing that any church had time for. He was hopeless, filthy. Suicide became his only hope but he knew that it would devastate his parents. His sister had been killed by her husband just a few years before. He was alone.

Then God showed up.

God showed up not in professional preachers or polished programs.

But through broken addicts like himself. People who had nothing to give except their filthiness and found that’s all God asks.

With them, he wept and raged. He failed again and again. But so did they. Together they looked up to the God who promised to never leave them. Whose love was wrapped in the blood and filth of the cross. Who knew what it was like to be rejected by the religious. Who never matched up to their requirements for holiness. And together they fought through everyday holding the Savior’s hand.

Some people never sin so blatantly and they have no stories of debauchery or depravity. I am one of them. We are good and nice people and many times this makes us the most dangerous kind of Christian. We are proud of our morality and clean lives. Like the Pharisees we stand far off and thank God we are not like the publicans who beat their chests and weep for God’s forgiveness.

We think everyone should be like us and that sin is easy to avoid and overcome. We have no problem following the rules. We act like we have it all together and we make it difficult for those who struggle to connect with us.

We teach that anyone who still struggles with old sins needs to straighten up and study the Bible more. We pile burdens on them that we ourselves cannot carry because we think the only sins that matter are the “hot sins” of sex, drugs, alcohol, and rock and roll.

In the back of our minds we think we will impress God with all we have done in his name. The tragic reality is that many of us may hear Him say, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Fortunately, God has brought enough heartache and loss into my life that I have long ago ceased thinking I was anything special. They have all been gifts.

I have learned so much from my dear friend about God, faith and living. He thinks I mentor him but he is truly my spiritual tutor.

Every morning he takes inventory of people that he resents for some reason and he prays for them. He prays for all the good in their lives that he desires for his own. It takes weeks, months, even years of praying to genuinely feel love towards some of these people. But it happens. “I must do this,’ he says. “It is the only way to be free.”

Every day is a battle for his soul. It’s been seven years since he acted on his addictions but he knows he will never be free of them. He has tried every program, plan, medication and meditation. Hidden behind his executive exterior is a broken man on the verge of falling. The only thing that works for him is to take his life one day at a time and make the next decision a good one.

He has slips of paper taped to the places he spends most of his time: his office, his kitchen, his bedroom. They all have the same message: “I am no longer running the show. Your will be done.”

He sees Christ differently than most people do. He sees Him as a loving friend who walks with him. A constant presence who is there in his darkest moments. When he prays, he calls God, “Dad.” From the lips of anyone else it would sound trite but from him it is weighty. The other day he thanked “Dad” for all of his sufferings and addictions. Without them, he said, he would be unable to serve those in his life with the deepest needs.

The Body of Christ is wide and deep. My friend’s story is a cautionary tale about the long, hard road of making disciples. It is a not a presentation, a study, or a program but a life commitment. A commitment that is rebooted every day when we take up the cross and follow Him.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that our lives are not much different from my friend’s. It’s just that his spiritual need for the constant presence and power of Christ is more obvious.  Or is it?

I still have a long way to go to live up to his example.

Faith when your legs fail

DahlkeGrad    This is David Christian Dahlke at his graduation from Bryan College. When he left his wheelchair in the wings and struggled across the stage, the crowd at the commencement program rose to its feet with a deafening ovation. Tears flowed generously down the faces of those who knew him. It was a memorable moment.

At Bryan, David inspired many with his outlook, humor and faith. He had every reason in the world to be bitter and faithless – the victim of a broken world. But he chose to be more than a conqueror. David was born with Cerebral Palsy and it was clear that he would never walk. His parents embraced his physical challenges and saw to his emotional and spiritual growth. His life was grounded in reality:

Yes, I cannot walk, he seemed to say.  But I am not going to waste time asking, “Why?” I am focusing on “What now?” 

As he grew, healthcare professionals and therapists set the bar low for David and his future. They said he would never finish high school; college absolutely was out of the question. But David thumbed his nose at their prognosis. He not only finished high school, but achieved far beyond anyone’s expectations but his own.

When David came to Bryan College, he discovered that our campus was not very “handicapped friendly.” He helped us retrofit sidewalks, hallways, and doors to accommodate those who moved through life in a wheelchair. He never once complained about how difficult it was to get around. He saw every day as a gift.

David found out that I really did spend time with students, so soon he and I were going out for dinner on a regular basis. Why? Because he asked. David was fearless. Nothing was going to get in his way. I miss our regular meals and spirited conversations. We keep up on Facebook but it’s not the same.

davidDahlkeBill  I spoke in Dayton, TN at Bryan College last month and David drove up from Chattanooga. It was great to see him.

David’s faith in God is relentless. I’ve learned a lot from him about perseverance, trust and friendship.

I have never once pitied him. His presence and personality just won’t allow it. He’s had his down moments when he wanted to give up; but they never lasted very long. God always brought someone along to comfort and restore his spirit.

He talks about the first time he will stand and walk on his own will be when he stands before his Savior. He can’t wait. But about 20 years ago, he decided he wanted to get a glimpse of that day at his college graduation ceremony.

David wanted to “walk,” literally, to receive his diploma. His idea was that he would use arm braces – the metal crutches you see in the photo – to walk to the podium and receive his diploma.

He started preparing twoyears before. I would see him agonizingly pulling himself along one of the sidewalks by his dorm for a few steps and then collapse. Then he would pull himself back up and take another step or two. He had his heart and mind focused on the commencement.

At Bryan we held the commencement program outside in the Triangle, a park-like area in the middle of campus. Every year we kept our eye on the weather forecast and every year the weather allowed us to celebrate outside.

The alternative was moving the program into the chapel, which was much too small for the large crowd. We would have to set up overflow rooms with televisions for the many without seats in the chapel.

One year, the forecast was for rain. Outside, we set up the stage, the chairs, and the sound system, fully expecting to move inside if the rains came an hour or two before the program.

As our staff prepared the Triangle, we looked up at the dark clouds moving in. When decision time came, I said, “We are doing it out here.” The staff stopped and looked at me for a moment and then looked skyward.

It began to drizzle.

But only for a few minutes.

The commencement went off without another drop falling.

But the morning of David’s commencement we were expecting good weather. As the temporary stage was set up and the chairs arranged, David came out to make final preparations for his walk across the stage. In a few moments, it was clear that it wasn’t going to work. The runway part of the stage was not wide enough to accommodate David and his braces. There was no way to make it work.

He would not be able to walk at his commencement.

I felt sick.

All I could think about were the years of agonizing practice for his final collegiate act of defiance against the naysayers, his physical challenges, his own fears.

Then it began to drizzle.

I didn’t even look up.

“We’re moving it inside,’ I said.

The chapel stage was wide and would easily accommodate David. The preparations were easily struck and Plan B was put into motion.
But this was God’s Plan A.

 

Soon, it was pouring rain.

In all my years as President of Bryan College, this was the only year we had to move the commencement program inside.

On May 4, 2002, God made it rain for David Dahlke and he walked across the stage.

David looks forward to not only walking, but running and jumping. He loves basketball and I think the Lord is going to let David dribble, shoot and slam dunk to his heart’s content.

He tries hard not to let the weariness of his life get him down. It’s hard but David says he waits on the Lord. I know why.

. . . those who wait in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint (Isaiah 40:31).

 

DavidSpeaking   David continues his courageous life of purpose. He works in Chattanooga and just started a work called MINDS Ministry (Meeting Immediate Needs of Disabled Souls), where he coordinates collecting, refurbishing and distributing of wheelchairs and other medical devices for those who need it most. He got this vision while on a mission trip to Ecuador where he saw the desperate difficulties the physically challenged endured. Check out his Facebook page and give him a shout.

 

 

Robin Williams and the Christian Response

RobinWilliams       Soon after Robin Williams died, I was saddened by the many Christian leaders, bloggers and others posting that he “got what he deserved,” that he “chose” his death, or that he is “not in a better place.”

For Christians to use this as a “preaching moment” to criticize and condemn Williams is not unexpected. We confirm again the perception that we are mean-spirited and uncaring. We are pedantic and naïve and lack a sense of appropriateness.

There is a time to mourn and a time to weep. This is not the land of the living, this is the land of the dying. All creation groans for redemption.

Those of us who help family and friends with clinical depression know the darkness, the despair and the irrationality that overwhelm the individual’s ability to make good choices – or even remember what choices they make.

Why are we not investing our efforts and emotions in developing communities where it is OK to talk about our struggles, our doubts, our fears, our failures? The brokenness of the human soul is embarrassing to our culture of self-perfection. But God calls us to create a culture where you forgive 490 times a day and grace is a bloody cross. We always give each other the benefit of the doubt because love covers a multitude of sins.

“By this shall all people know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

But sadly, it is not so. I have friends who say their church is the local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. There, everyone is trying to make it through the day by the grace of God. There, if they are late, everything stops and they are embraced for showing up. They all know how it is.

“Can’t handle church,” one of them told me. “They don’t like it when I show up. They don’t understand.”

Last week, the suicide of Braxton Caner caused some soul-searching. His father, Dr. Ergun Caner has been the object of attacks from Christian leaders and bloggers, many of them pastors. The attacks grew ugly, however, when some of them turned their public assaults against his fifteen-year-old son for some of his adolescent tweets. The attacks were humiliating.

BraxtonCaner

Then Braxton took his life.

Some of the attackers have issued apologies for their words. Some were very sincere; others were more, “Whoops. Sorry!”

Many Christians around the world are fleeing for their lives from the terror of genocide by those who are committed to destroy them. Harassment and oppression are part of the everyday life for many followers of Christ.

Yes, Christians in America are being antagonized, attacked and abused.

By other Christians.

I was reading an article discussing a particular Christian leader. Below the article was the long string of vitriolic comments and accusations by Christians.  Somewhere in the middle of the hundreds of messages was a comment from a reader whose ID was “atheist456” or something similar.

He posted: “See how they love one another.”

God: Where are you?

A Broken and Dying World

Crucified

Last Sunday, I stared at the headline from the UK Telegraph: “Christians Crucified Again for Refusing Islam.” The word “again” almost made it sound like a joke until I followed the link and saw photos of Christians in Syria nailed to crosses – dead or dying. Former Muslims all, they converted to following Christ. They were given an opportunity to recant their faith in Christ and return to Islam but they refused. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) accused the young men of ridda, “defection from Islam,” a crime that carries the death penalty.

As I was reading, a breaking news report popped up on the screen:  “A strong earthquake in southern China’s Yunnan province toppled thousands of homes on Sunday, killing at least 367 people and injuring more than 1,800.” The death toll has grown to over 600 with 2,400 injured.

Now we have reports and gut-wrenching videos of ISIS beheading the children of Christians, their mothers raped and their fathers hanged. CNN reported 300,000 Christians are fleeing Iraq to escape the genocide.

syria-baby-hostage

What kind of God allows such evil and suffering in the world? When people struggle to believe in God, that’s the question that tops the list.

But the tragic headlines don’t tell the full story. Personal loss, pain and suffering can crush our hopes.cnn_ted-turner

At a young age, Ted Turner, founder of TBS and CNN, considered being a missionary. When his younger sister, Mary Jane, died of leukemia at 12 (Ted was 15), he rejected his religion. He explained later, “I was taught that God was love and God was powerful and I couldn’t understand how someone so innocent should be made or allowed to suffer so.”

Tim-Allen-02Actor Tim Allen’s father died when Tim was 11 years old. A drunk driver crashed into their car as his dad was driving home from a college football game. Nearly 50 years later, Allen still claims that his father’s death “changed everything forever.” In a recent interview he said, “Part of me still doesn’t trust that everything will work out all right. I knew my father was dead, but I was never satisfied with why he was dead. I wanted answers that minute from God. ‘Do you think this is funny? Do you think this is necessary?’ And I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with my creator ever since.”

Where is God?

If God is all powerful and all good, then why is the world he created so seriously broken and why doesn’t he do something about it?

Anyone who thinks that this is not a legitimate question is not living in the real world. It is at the very heart of understanding the very nature of the universe and our place in it.

And it’s not just Christians who are challenged by the problem of evil. Every worldview struggles with the real presence of evil and suffering in the world. For the atheist, the existence of the very concept of moral good/evil is difficult to explain arising from a materialistic universe. Why are such categories pervasive throughout cultures and history? Some try to claim, “Moral codes are so different among different cultures.” That is true in the margins but the core moral code is historically and cross-culturally consistent.

C. S. Lewis describes his struggle with this when he was an atheist, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”

And for the transcendentalist who claims that good and evil are just words for neutral actions, the idea that cruelty and kindness are two sides of the same coin is not only silly but disturbing.

So how do we respond?

Giving an Answer for Hope

If you are looking for a survey of comprehensive answers to the problem of evil, I won’t give them here. If would like some practical or academic approaches you can check here and here, respectively.

But comprehensive arguments are not usually needed. What most people are looking for is hope there is some resolution to why the world God created is so broken and why he apparently does not intervene to make it right. Finally tuned arguments have their place, but God’s story in Scriptures takes evil head on with no apologies.

Let me give the elements of a resolution in the form of bullet points that address key parts of the struggles we have.

1. Evil is not a thing. It is not the opposite of good. Evil is a parasite. It cannot exist on its own. It needs good to feed off of, to twist and pervert. In fact, everything that we call evil is something good that has been twisted or perverted. Good can exist without evil but evil cannot exist without good.

2. God did not create evil. He created a world in which evil was possible. This is a variation of the “free will defense.” Because God imbued humanity with the freedom to choose to love him, necessarily they had the choice not to love him. This choice and its catastrophic consequences are described in detail throughout the Scriptures.

3. The flash points are God’s goodness and God’s power. If God is all-good, wouldn’t he want to eradicate evil and suffering? If God is all-powerful, isn’t he able to do it? So what is he waiting for? How bad does it have to get? Maybe he isn’t all-good or all-powerful; which is the same as not being God at all. But, God is all-good and all-powerful, and he will. . .  (see the next point).

4. God will remove the presence of evil and its consequences. This is the beautiful truth of the biblical worldview. God wants us to have confidence about what the ultimate future holds for us. Right now, we are distressed because of the timing. Like the Psalmist we cry, “How long?” (Psalm 6:3). So, if someone says, “God has not destroyed evil;” he must really say, “God has not yet destroyed evil.” He knew we would be troubled by this so he said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

5. God endured the consequences of evil himself. God did not sit in the situation room and watch his creation struggle through the ravages of evil and its destruction. He became a man and endured the worst that suffering can inflict on a man.

God with us

A favorite writer of mine is Shusaku Endo, one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists. As a Japanese and a Christian, Endo realized that he could not rely on a religious heritage as a backdrop for his books. So he fashioned his stories reflecting the Buddhist first truth, “Life is suffering.” His characters are flawed, awkward and sinful. Yet they labor to remain faithful to Christ and serve others.

endo

He captures the apparent lack of God’s intervention in suffering in his most celebrated book, “Silence” (which is being made into a movie starring Liam Neeson and directed by Martin Scorsese, 2015 release).

His novels explore the Christian faith in ways that are uncomfortable to the Western Christian mind. Whereas American Christians may say, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life;” Endo explains, “Life is suffering. God came and suffered with us and for us.”

The hope that we have in the risen Christ, whose sufferings secured the beachhead for the eventual reclamation of creation, helps us to endure whatever miseries come our way. To paraphrase Pascal, life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. We know what the ultimate future holds, so that gives meaning and hope to today.

And when live it, people will ask what we believe that gives us hope in a world that groans with hatred, death and despair (1 Peter 3:15).

 

Here are some helpful books if you are interested in reading more about the problem of evil.

D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990.

Philip Yancey, Where is God When it Hurts? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002

C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. New York: HaperOne, 1940

John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.

Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1986.

Alister E. McGrath, Suffering & God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995.

Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974.

Music, Beer and Christian Apologetics

chicken

 

“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:
THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED
FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
WAS MUSIC.”
– Kurt Vonnegut

“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us happy.” – Benjamin Franklin

 

Kurt Vonnegut and Benjamin Franklin (above) had different criteria for acknowledging the existence and character of God. Both of their well-known statements are tongue-in-cheek, and neither falls into the category of intellectual apologetics. Good thing because it seems people are giving up on Christian apologetics. I can’t blame them.

Donald Miller rightly complains about current apologetics and concludes “. . . the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.”   Blogger T E Hanna follows up with 3 Reasons Why I Gave Up Christian Apologetics. The reasons are: 1. It is Rarely about Evangelism; 2. It justifies our Pride; and 3. It Fuels Negativity.

Before we drown the baby in the bathwater, I want to look at it from a different perspective. The idea of apologetics, of course, comes from the ancient Greek meaning “to speak in defense; give an answer.” Many interpret this as a confident recitation of the various arguments supporting Theism and Christianity and a refutation of arguments from opponents. Simple.

My Crash Course in Apologetics

I spent a number of years speaking in the former Soviet Union to educators, most of them life-long atheists. I would speak for an hour and then answer questions for another hour. Those trips remain a highlight of my life. However, they did not start off so well. On my first trip (Moscow) I thought I was smart enough and clever enough to convince the 750 educators attending the conference that God exists and Christianity is true. I knew the evidence well and all they had to do was listen and they would be convinced.

I was mistaken.  I was not smart enough and too clever by half. The educators were on the edge of their seat the entire time; not mesmerized by my speaking but challenging every point I made. I felt physically beaten up after every exchange.

It took me a while to recognize that it wasn’t the content but the approach. I realized that I made the educators see me as an adversary. I made them defend themselves and their non-belief. I made them think of ways to counter and ridicule theistic arguments.

I looked at how the Apostle Paul confronted his multicultural world and came across his charge to the Christians in Colossae: Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (Colossians 4:5-6).

A New Approach

After that first trip, I took a different approach and found myself in the thick of it but in a different way. I opened the conference inviting the educators (in Yaroslavl) to join me in a quest for understanding. I said to them, “I know that most of you wonder why so many thinking and well-educated people in the West believe in God and embrace Christianity.” I saw heads nodding. “This has not been your experience here in Russia so I was hoping you would allow me to explain to you why they believe. I think it is important for all of us to understand these important issues because they are not only at the heart of a person’s life but form the very soul of a society.”  More heads nodded all over the auditorium. “After I explain we will have lots of time for you to ask any questions that you wish.”

I could see the people relax and sit back in their seats. Ready to listen, evaluate, and seek to understand.

The exchanges were lively, honest, and engaging. The conversations continued in the hallways, the dining halls and hotel rooms. One of my favorite stories is from Kiev. On the last day of the conference, a group of 13 teachers gave me a coin commemorating the independence of Ukraine from Russia. “We want to give this you to remember us,” they said. “Last night we changed our worldview.” They told me they had come to the conference as confirmed atheists and found themselves discussing and arguing about the topics of God and Christianity every evening. On their last night, they all found that they had come to embrace Christ. They all agreed to present the coin to me as a gift of appreciation.

If apologetics is merely dueling arguments about Christian beliefs then I agree it is usually fruitless in an evangelistic sense. The evidence for God’s existence, the reliability of the Bible, the confirmation of Christ’s deity and so on have greater value for Christians to shore up their commitment and understand their faith.

Building Bridges

However, as I learned from my experience, there is value in the give and take of philosophical apologetics. Some people need to cross an intellectual bridge before they can consider the possibility that God exists and that Christ has uniquely revealed him to the world. I let the Russian educators help me build that bridge.

Another good example is C. S. Lewis. While Lewis had left his atheism and acknowledged that God possibly existed, he questioned how Christianity alone could be true. It was a long conversation with J. R. R. Tolkien on September 19, 1931 until 3 am that helped him see how the question was resolved. (You can read about it in Alistair McGrath’s wonderful biography of Lewis; C. S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, chapter six).

Many people have an emotional bridge to cross as well. The number one cry of the heart is, “Why does an all-good and all-powerful God allow such widespread and indiscriminate suffering throughout the world?” Responding to this is apologetics at its most important and sensitive focus. Of course, every worldview struggles to explain this problem of evil but it festers in the wounded souls of those trying to make sense of a good God in a world wracked with suffering. [I will address this in my next post.]

Apologetics follows Peter’s direction to: “Always be prepared to give an answer (apologia) to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). The implication is clear: we are to be living in such a way that our lives scream “there is hope!” We give, serve, love, sacrifice, and even die for others because we know the One who died for us and what He has next for us. Then people will ask why we live this way. And we must be prepared to explain.

And they will probably need something other than music and beer.