After the Advent

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“So come down from your mountain and stand where we’ve been

You know our breath is weak and our body thin.”

–Mumford and Sons, “Babel”

The Advent

Even if not embraced as historical event—the abdication of the ultimate power; the willing subjection of the self to conquer evil in a way that creates love—the Advent provides a sublime picture of the response to what ails us.

I’m stopped at a Buc-ee’s near Austin on my way to an early Christmas celebration with family in San Antonio. My wife is inside grabbing consumable essentials. I’m on my phone checking the Facebook news feed for social consumables. My chest tightens and my brain begins the long division that deciphers unimaginable atrocities through my wavering theological filter when I read that a town I had never heard of has experienced a pain I hope to always avoid. I latch onto the idea that children have been gunned down. My toddler is asleep in the back seat, blissfully unaware of the horror glowing from my screen. When I hear about things like this, my reaction is, Really, God? Selfishly, I don’t immediately pray for survivors, for friends, for neighbors, for those who have suffered inexplicable loss. I immediately pray for what I feel I’m losing in those times—my faith. And then it starts. I check the back seat again. My boy is safe. I had better park closer to the building. Probably need to face the storefront. I need to go to the bathroom so I’ll pull right up to the door, then when my wife gets in I’ll lock her and my son inside the car and set the alarm. I wish the key fob had some kind of alert on it. I’ll have my phone and she’ll have hers. God, please don’t let anything happen to them while I’m in the Buc-ee’s bathroom. It hits me: in order to pray, I need to trust the God I don’t trust right now. This terrible tension robs me of joy and of hope. God, please protect my family. Did those families pray the same thing that morning? Why did you not protect them? Are you able? Are you indifferent? How can I trust that this prayer will reach attentive ears? That it will reach willing ears? That my prayer makes any kind of difference to the God that watched this from afar? 

He came down from his mountain and stood where we’ve been. He embodied youthful innocence cut down by insanity. His family and friends shook and sat devastated at the news. His story was not over. And neither is the story of Newtown. Nor the story of our broken world, replete with Newtownian physics. Our answer to the tragedy is love. It provides no “answer”—no satisfying logical conclusion, no scientific demonstration, no psychological evaluation, no retribution. It provides the direction, the power to move forward, the plan for continuing to create our world anew. Love moves into the destructive present and quells its acidic drip into weakened hearts. It promises to carry on and stand as the balm for roughened skins. Love moves into the disorder. Love takes steps, makes progress, comforts, and provides. It goes. It runs. The significance of the advent does not stand or fall with its historicity. I am not promoting demythologization here; if historically true, the advent is even grander than its ethical fodder. But the story of Christ’s coming into the world climaxes at the resurrection—the defeat of death, the ensuing outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the reinstatement of God’s people to reflect his loving image into the rest of the world. Precisely because people are infused with this love, and are commanded to love others, this message is historical here and now. It is the fact of loving people working together, creating, moving, going. The mobilization of an abdicating, sacrificing love cannot solve the logical problem of evil. It is not a “because” to any “why?” We may never receive or concoct a “because;” but we can always choose to respond in love—the perfect counter to any evil set on utter destruction.

The terrible event in Newtown has brought destruction; in its aftermath love can slow the spread and encourage us to build again.

Revisiting the Problem of Evil…Again

The problem of evil constantly occupies my thoughts. So much of theological reflection takes place within the emotional effects of reality; its practical import never escapes me and I fail to understand how so many Christians draw such a sharp distinction between theology and practice. These thoughts about evil have a direct impact on how we see things, how we treat people, how we handle the troubling things that happen to us and the rest of the world. Theological appropriation for the religious person is paramount.

While vacuuming my house today, I dwelled on the thought that if evil is the strongest argument against God’s existence, then God’s existence must be the strongest argument against the problem of evil. Maybe. If this life is not the whole story, if justice comes, if somehow all of the suffering proves to have been worth it, then that means evil does not ultimately prevail. Believe me: I tend to side with Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov and say that I would give that ticket back—the kind of suffering humanity has experienced can’t possibly be worth any compensation, can it? I suppose on certain levels the idea seems reasonable enough. Nasal congestion, pets dying, minor surgeries, bumps and bruises, even death at the end of a long life. But we all can think of myriad events and situations that offer an insurmountable case against any metaphysical compensation.

Christians speak of a hope that we can scarcely imagine: living on the new earth that God will create, in His presence, without evil or trial. We will have the “benefit” of having endured all the suffering, which indeed shapes us, yet living freely without fear or anxiety. Therein lies the appeal of universal salvation, at least for me. I have already done away with any notion that infants, the mentally handicapped, or any other person incapable of “making a decision for Christ” will undergo any kind of judgment. If God is all-loving and all-just then what possible reason would we have to think He could find an infant deserving of the same condemnation as Hitler? I’m familiar with the possible answers and, frankly, they all suck. They don’t actually answer the question. If you find yourself in a hospital with a mother who has just lost her child, you’re a monster if you give her anything less than hope that her baby is snuggled up with Jesus and waiting for her mommy to join her “soon and very soon.”

I followed Jesus for years before I became aware of the problem of evil. My most basic response then, as it is now, was “But that’s not the whole story.” The last twelve years have realized a persistent revisitation of the problem. Because of my insistence that theology directly impacts my life and ought to do the same for any Christian, I don’t find theological answers to this problem proving themselves utterly useless; indeed, the hope that my beautiful baby boy is loved by the God who created him supports my own weak love. When daddy fails him, when it seems like daddy doesn’t love him, he is loved on the deepest level with the unfailing love of the God who lovingly knit him for His own glory. Imperfections and all, babies belong to the Lord and I believe He is faithful to restore them.

I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know if every parent is reunited. I don’t know how the future will make up for the past and for now. Many days I don’t care how or why and I don’t believe anything can be compensated for. But I won’t hang up my hat. The irony presented by the problem of evil lies in the fact that it asks me to sacrifice what I now know for what is not a reality for me. When we shake our fists at the sky over what happens to others, we don’t abandon our families over it. Other evil is not my evil to endure in the same way, (and I think both sides of this debate do an awful disservice to those who have and are suffering by making them object lessons.) I don’t live less thankfully for my own child when someone is devastated by the tragic loss of theirs. Please understand, I’m weeping as I write this because I’ve seen what it looks like for a family to lose their child. I hate it with every fiber of my being. It utterly baffles me why God would allow such a thing in silence (which is perhaps a lesson to us theologians and to the apologists who venture “the answer” when even God won’t reach down in the darkest times and offer a whisper for a crushed family.) But whether religious or not, the response of every witness who has their own child is to squeeze that child even tighter and sigh grateful sighs that they still have their child. I just can’t hug my boy and not be grateful.

The suffering of others has set up camp in the center of my mind. I beg for an answer. I pray angrily sometimes and ask, “What are you doing?!” I’ve nearly abandoned my faith because of it on several occasions. But intellectual honesty and integrity don’t allow me to abandon the reality of the fact that I have been spared, and that the hope I have was given to me as a gift that I did not originally want, and that it circulates throughout my being with the same blood and along the same pathways as the hope I have for others. I don’t abandon that hope for others because as badly as I want their suffering to end, I want to give them hope. I want to comfort the dying child in his hospital bed. Russell may not have been able to believe in God after seeing that child, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to punt when that child asks me if she is going to heaven.

Take Some Wine for Your Demon

Sneeze.

“Bless you!”

“I don’t have a demon, but thanks.”

The “history” for the phrase “bless you” following a sneeze, cough, or other symptom is assumed by many to reflect the ignorance of Puritans or whatever other Christian group gets the blame for the allegedly ill-informed nicety. The way I’ve most commonly heard it described goes like this: “Did you know that they [the ‘they’ is never backed-up] said ‘bless you’ because they thought there was a demon inside you?”

The truth is that prior to widely available medical treatment, a sneeze or cough could mean you’re going to die in a few weeks. The common cold used to kill people. Saying, “Bless you” is a well-wishing, a pronouncement of God’s “blessing” on your life since you were probably going to die in a puddle somewhere. Ironically, famous 18th century theologian Jonathan Edwards died from the small pox vaccine. He accepted its use because he understood—along with nearly everyone else at the time—that bodily ailments are not chalked-up to demon-possession.

We can even go further back than that to the New Testament, wherein Paul advises Timothy, “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim 5.23.) Obviously Paul, as well as Timothy and anyone else who read the letter aloud in a 1st or 2nd century Sunday morning gathering, did not think Timothy’s “ailments” had anything to do with demon-possession.

As a matter of fact, it wasn’t even assumed that seizures or any other violent physical or mental ailment must be a demon. Jesus healed several people of physical illness and said nothing about demons. Demon-possession was a very specific thing. Someone could have an illness similar to what a demon-possessed person had but not be demon-possessed.

What makes this discussion even more fascinating to me is the fact that there are those today in Christian circles who attribute everything to some spiritual malady. We occasionally read about them in the news—they let their kid(s) die because medicine won’t fix spiritual issues or is of the devil or isn’t putting faith in God or something. There’s a very good reason why these are so few and far between, and it sure ain’t because they’re some extra-blessed group walking through the “narrow gate.” It’s because they’re ignorant people who have shunned not only medicine and basic biology/psychology, but also the rules of grammar and normal biblical interpretation.

Some Christians are less strict and happily find remedies for physical ailments that anyone else would use. But even some of these folks are unwilling to seek counseling, psychotherapy, psychiatry, etc. They’ve accepted a sharp dualism between mind and body that excludes any space-time involvement, assuming that only spiritual healing can bring about mental healing.

A third group makes things a little tougher. This group is fine with medicine and psychology, but groups everything under the “sin” rubric. In one sense I’m totally on board with this. In another sense I respectfully disagree. If everything was affected by the Fall of humanity, then everything is—in that sense—spiritually wounded and in need of spiritual healing. However, it isn’t necessary to assume that the means or processes have to originate from or actualize in some metaphysical, unobservable, unrepeatable way. In other words, if God is the giver and sustainer of my life, then allowing me to continue to seek professional help for my various psychological issues means that he is still the provider and source, but the way this works out doesn’t have to be in some metaphysical realm. The healing doesn’t have to be “miraculous” in order to find its ultimate source in God. Adam and Eve were instructed to actually do things; not sit around and wait for God to put everything in front of them. He provided the basics, but they were expected to continue the project as image-bearers of a creative God.

If Timothy’s ailments were alleviated by wine, Timothy can still thank God for the wine’s availability, and for Paul’s advice, and for the processes that make wine do the great things it does. Clearly, neither Paul nor Timothy expected some sort of “instant healing” that came from nowhere and defied all normal explanation. Why does Paul say “I discipline my body and make it my slave” (1 Cor 9.27) if he was expecting any and all help to only come in a mystical way from the Holy Spirit?

Can God heal someone in that way? Well, yeah—he’s God. Are we all to expect that? Not at all. In fact, there’s a joke that illustrates my point well:

A man was sailing in the ocean when suddenly his boat sank. As he tread water he prayed for God to rescue him. After a while, another boat came by and offered help.
“No, thanks” the man said. “I’m waiting for God.”

A second boat came by, offering help, which the man turned away. A third a final boat came by and the man insisted that God will rescue him and that’s what he will wait for.

The man drowns and finds himself face to face with God. “Hey, God!” he says. “Glad to be here but I gotta ask: why didn’t you save me out there?”

God responds, “I sent three boats. What more did you want?”

I have several issues I’m trying to work through right now. I don’t want to pretend that they are only psychological—I see how sin works in myself and others and I just can’t deny it in light of such evidence. But I also don’t want to shun every tool available to me and assume that God is going to just sort of “do something” to make everything go away. If he does—great! But sitting around and repeating myself in my prayers not only goes directly against Scripture (Eph 5.16 & Matt 6.7,) it’s a waste of the time and resources God has given me, which would make me a poor steward (Matt 25.) I’d rather not add more sins to the trouble my sin causes me. Instead, I’ll go see a professional, and thank God that I can.