Tonight I went to the web-page of my local newspaper looking for a local perspective on a national news story. In the “Popular Stories” section, I happened to notice a headline about an “abolitionist” who fights “modern day slavery.” I read the article about a local man who has devoted his life to fighting the slavery driven by the modern sex industry. It recited the horrible abuses I know exist but which are largely hidden from my sight: children and teens, runaways and illegal immigrants, lured or abducted and forced to perform unspeakable acts to titillate consumers of internet porn. The article included chilling quotes like this one: “With the Internet, the child-porn industry has exploded. There’s a huge demand to see children in porn, from teens to infants.”
Just like the modern drug trade, the modern slave trade is driven by demand—the demand of seemingly respectable people who see very little wrong with their “harmless” acts of voyeurism.
After reading this article, I returned to the newspaper’s home page and looked again at the “Popular Stories” section. Right next to the above-mentioned article was a thumbnail picture of a woman at the beach, with a headline praising the bikini body of this ex-wife of a popular sports celebrity. The juxtaposition of these two stories was striking. The one article reminds us that the voyeuristic consumption of internet pornography results in the abuse and exploitation of countless innocents, while the second article invites us to ogle a woman who wore a bikini to the beach!
I didn’t click on the thumbnail of the bikini-clad woman or read the accompanying “article,” but the thumbnail itself looked like a telephoto shot taken by paparazzi from a distance. While I suppose this celebrity ex-wife may have been looking for that kind of attention, it is far more likely that this photo represents an invasion of her privacy—an unwanted act of voyeurism which is now being featured on the home page of an ostensibly “respectable” newspaper.
The appearance of these two articles right next to each other is a visual reminder of our cultural ambivalence toward voyeurism. On the one hand, we recognize a direct connection between pornography and exploitation; on the other hand, we use more “innocent” forms of voyeurism to sell products, drive web traffic, and entertain ourselves. Yet even the telephoto shot of a bikini-clad woman is fundamentally an act of exploitation. If we were stalking this woman in person and snapping pictures of our own, we would quite reasonably be regarded as creepy. But if a creepy paparazzo takes the picture, we see nothing wrong in consuming the result of his creepiness: namely, the objectification of the woman in question.
Ultimately, the difference between child pornography and the countless embarrassing or private moments which are now “caught on camera” and spread via the internet is merely one of degree. Seemingly “harmless” acts of voyeurism still objectify people and invade their privacy, but even worse, they desensitize us to darker and more exploitative forms of voyeurism—the voyeurism that drives the enslavement of the innocent.
If we want to combat the growing epidemic of sexual enslavement, we ought to begin by examining our own hearts to see where we contribute to its spread. What forms of voyeurism have you and I developed an appetite for? What invasions of privacy do we excuse as harmless? Which people do we find it acceptable to ogle and objectify?
Remember, it is demand which drives the sexual slave trade. To reduce that demand, we need to curb our own appetite for voyeurism—in all its forms.
“Oh, the depth of the riches and
wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments
and how inscrutable his ways!”
Dear Family and Friends,
Lisa and I had been looking for a reliable second car for the better part of a year. Our oldest son, David, had begun taking dual-enrollment classes at the local community college, and we needed something he could drive to school. Unfortunately, we struggled to find a good used car that was not ridiculously overpriced.
Our youngest daughter, Alexa, was with us when we found a cherry-red PT Cruiser convertible. We test-drove it with the top down and my wife and daughter began grinning from ear to ear. I told the car dealer I wanted to act all cool and disinterested, but I knew my girls’ giddiness would betray me. We bought it the next day for a very good price.
Lisa had always thought these cars were “cute,” and the fact that it was a convertible made it especially fun to drive. I always scoff at the car commercials that promise happiness and serenity during a busy morning commute, but it’s hard not to smile when driving with the wind in your hair and the sun on your face. After years of minivans, I was excited to get Lisa a car she could really enjoy—and doing that without breaking the bank seemed too good to be true. We regarded the car as a gift from God, and we repeatedly thanked Him for it.
You can probably guess where this is going. Over the past year, our “fun car” has turned out to be anything but. A string of major repairs has hit our pocketbook hard (in spite of our mechanic giving us generous price breaks), and each time the car has been in the shop it has been a challenge getting everyone where they needed to go. Thankfully, my mom and dad were gracious enough to loan us one of their vehicles for much of that time.
Each time we thought it was over, a new and costlier problem would arise. It can get very discouraging and confusing. Will one more repair do the trick, or are we simply throwing good money after bad? We’ve done our best to take it all in stride, but there have admittedly been times we have wondered how this “gift from God” could present so many challenges!
God’s gifts often bring challenges. When an angel told a young Jewish girl she would give birth to the Savior, he made it clear that she had “found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). What a gift! What a privilege! But what a challenge! How would she explain her unexpected pregnancy to her fiancé? What would the neighbors think? Her cousin Elizabeth would call her the “most blessed of women” (Luke 1:42), but I imagine Mary didn’t always feel that way when faced with the disapproving glares of her family and friends.
When God gave me Lisa to be my wife, I marveled at how richly he had blessed me. Yet over the last eighteen years, she has challenged me more than anyone else. She balances out my excesses, softens my rough edges, inspires me to try harder, and helps me see things from a different perspective. That can be terribly frustrating when I want to be rash, grumpy, lazy, or selfish, but that’s all part of the gift. God loves me too much to leave me that way, so he gave me a wife who could help me become the man he intends.
When God blessed Lisa and me with five children, they certainly presented their share of challenges. Having David (17), Caleb (16), and Bethany (14) before our fourth anniversary really kept us on our toes, and any illusions we had of being perfect parents were shattered early on. Having three teenagers in the house now presents a new set of challenges. Yet by the time Alexa (11) and Jo Jo (3) came along, we had plenty of capable helpers. Our house is sometimes noisy, but it is a noise made up of music, laughter, and good conversation. We also have our moments of bickering, but loneliness is never a problem.
Too often in life, we focus all of our attention on the problems we face, the trials we endure, and the little annoyances that come with every relationship. We wonder why God didn’t make life easy and carefree. We look around at others and wonder why they seem to have things so much easier. Yet when we do that, we lose sight of the gifts from God those challenges accompany.
Each time our car was in the shop and I would see another PT Cruiser on the road, I would joke, “There’s a PT Cruiser that works!” But all kidding aside, if God chose to give us a “fun car” with challenges, I’ll have to take the setbacks in stride and enjoy the fun whenever I can. After all, doesn’t having car problems result from having a car? A lot of people in this world never have car trouble. But then, those are the people who walk everywhere!
In the same way, whenever you get frustrated with how difficult your job is, remember that not everyone has one. Whenever you get annoyed with your spouse, remember that it sure beats not having someone to love. Whenever your kids are driving you crazy, ask yourself what life would have been like without them. So often, life’s challenges are merely the flip side of life’s blessings. Would you give up the blessings to avoid the challenges?
This Christmas, take some time to thank God for the gifts he has given you, even if they come with challenges. You may not understand everything he is up to. You may ask with Mary, “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34). But if you are wise, you will also say with Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38). Then you’ll be able, like Mary, to face whatever comes and to “treasure” it, “pondering in your heart” (Luke 2:19) the wonderful “depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” (Romans 11:33).
May you experience that wonder this Christmas, even if you have to deal with car trouble!
The Lang Gang
David, Lisa, David, Caleb, Bethany, Alexa, and “Jo Jo”
“…the chuckle with which [Scrooge] paid for the turkey, and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried.”
One of my family’s Christmas traditions is to watch the movie Scrooge, one of the earliest film adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I have never seen a better Ebenezer Scrooge than Alistair Sim. He is absolutely loathsome in his pre-Christmas scrooginess, and thoroughly delightful in his Christmas day warmth and generosity. Playing Scrooge requires the ability to play both a heartless miser and a generous philanthropist. Yet it’s not just a matter of being able to play two radically different characters: you have to convince the audience that these two characters are really one man whose life has been forever changed.
I think I love the story of Scrooge so much because it so beautifully captures the reality of redemption. As a sinner saved by grace, I understand how book-Scrooge could chuckle until he cried, or how movie-Scrooge could say, “I don’t deserve to be so happy!” That is the wonderful experience of new birth (John 3:3), of becoming a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), of dying to sin and being made alive with Christ (Romans 6:3–11).
If we really understand it, redemption in Christ brings with it an emotional roller coaster of laughter and tears. With our burden of sin and self-reliance lifted, we can feel with Scrooge that we are as “light as a feather.” With our debt forever paid, we can feel as “giddy as a drunken man.” Finally released from slavery and despair, we shed tears, not altogether sure whether they are tears of sadness over what we were, or tears of gladness over what we are now destined to become. When we ponder what it means to be redeemed, we, like Scrooge, simply “don’t know what to do.” The reality is too wonderful, too overwhelming, and seemingly too good to be true.
But it is true, and whether the truth of it makes you laugh or cry, may you “keep Christmas” as Scrooge did: forever changed and forever grateful.
Debates about gay marriage and gay rights are often cast in terms of love and hatred. Dan Cathy’s remarks about “traditional marriage” have been roundly condemned as hateful to gays. The thousands of people who flocked to Chick-Fil-A restaurants on Wednesday have likewise been criticized for communicating a message of hatred toward gays. I have seen a number of blogs in the past few days complaining that by participating in this event, Christians have missed yet another opportunity to show the love of Christ to the homosexual community.
The problem with these criticisms is that they fail to articulate what Christian love toward homosexuals should actually look like. As we discussed in a previous post, Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) activists see anything short of unqualified acceptance as “anti-gay.” Thus, they would regard any disagreement with their worldview or opposition to their agenda as “unloving” and even “hateful.”
Yet sometimes real love must manifest itself in ways that the recipients of that love regard as unloving. For example, I have a nephew who died of leukemia at age nine. His father often had to hold him still while he underwent incredibly painful treatments, and I am sure little Chad wondered how his daddy could love him and let him experience so much pain. Yet it was precisely because Chad’s father loved him that he subjected him to the pain he hoped would save his life.
A friend addicted to alcohol might think that the best way you could show love to him is to buy him a drink. Yet if you really love him, you’ll do the very thing he regards as unloving and deny him that drink. What’s more, you’ll do everything you can to help him break his addiction, even if he comes to hate you for it.
If Christians take the Bible seriously when it says that homosexual acts are sinful (1 Corinthians 6:9), and that all sin leads to death and eternal separation from God (Romans 6:23), then the only truly loving response is to call homosexuals to repentance and offer them the good news of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Merely letting them embrace their sin with our tacit approval is the least loving thing we could do. In fact, it is the ultimate act of hatred.
This does not mean, of course, that Christians have not often condemned homosexuals in an unloving and unredeeming way. All too often we have acted as if homosexuality is the height of depravity or a somehow unforgivable sin. We have forgotten our own sinfulness and need of a Savior and voiced our disgust at sins to which we may not happen to be tempted. In contrast to such moments of judgmentalism, we are called instead to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
When I was in my early twenties, a dear Christian friend of mine grabbed me on my way into church and said he needed to talk. He was obviously upset, so rather than going into church, we walked to a nearby lake. When we got there, he said, “Last night I went over to someone’s house for the express purpose of sleeping with them.” We were both single at the time, and we both believed the Bible teaches that premarital sex is a sin. My friend was confessing a sexual encounter that did not merely involve unexpectedly succumbing to temptation, but which he had purposefully chosen to pursue.
But there was more. I could hear the fear in my friend’s voice as he asked, “Do you love me, Dave?” I assured him that I did. He then blurted out, “It wasn’t a woman!”
My friend took an awful risk that day: that I would react with disgust, condemn him, reject him, or tell him I could no longer be his friend. Yet on the contrary, I admired the courage it took him to leave the man he had slept with, come to church and seek me out, and confess a sin he feared I might regard as unforgivable.
The first thing I did after he said this was to reach out and put my hand on his shoulder. I wanted him to know that I was still there for him, that I didn’t reject him, and that I didn’t regard this sin as somehow making him unclean or untouchable. He was still my friend, and I wasn’t going anywhere.
I then listened as he told me things about his past he had never told me before: about the male camp counselor who had molested him when he was in his early teens. He then tried to assure me that our friendship had never been about same-sex attraction. I brushed that aside as something that would never even enter my mind. We talked for a long time, encouraging each other with the truths of the gospel and praying together for forgiveness and renewed strength.
My friend knew that day that I truly loved him. Yet I never told him that what he had done was okay. I never encouraged him to embrace his same-sex attractions as his true sexual orientation. I never soft-pedaled the fact that what he had done was a sin. I simply assured him that I understood what it is to be a sinner and that what he had done didn’t make him any more a sinner than I am. Together we asked God to “have mercy” on us as sinners, and together we went away “justified” (Luke 18:13–14).
I understand that those who see same-sex attraction as something you’re born with and can’t help will regard my actions that day as terribly unloving. However, showing someone the love of Christ doesn’t mean leaving them to die in their sins, but offering them the hope of deliverance from sin which can only be found in Jesus. After all, the same Jesus who said, “Neither do I condemn you” also said, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). He then offered us the hope that only His love can give:
I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life. (John 8:12)
That is the love that Christians have to offer homosexuals. It is not a love that leaves them groping about in darkness, but one which enables them to experience the light of life. It is not necessarily the kind of love they are demanding, but it is the very love they need.
In fact, it’s the very love we all need.
Jesus once said, “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1–2). In other words, the basis by which we condemn others will inevitably be used to expose any hypocrisy on our part. When church leaders and “family values” political candidates abandon their families or are caught in extramarital affairs, their opponents are perfectly right to scoff at their so-called “family values.”
In much the same way, it is legitimate to apply to Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) activists the same measure they use when they accuse someone of being “anti-gay.” In yesterday’s post, I examined what these folks really mean by “anti-gay.” They do not mean that someone bears open hostility toward those who self-identify as homosexual. On the contrary, they apply this label to anyone who does not accept their understanding of sexual orientation or who opposes any part of their agenda. As I wrote yesterday:
It is not enough to be tolerant of homosexuality in general, to be sympathetic to the difficulties homosexuals face, or to love homosexuals as sinners who, like all of us, struggle with their sinful predilections and addictions. On the contrary, it is necessary to accept their understanding of the world, their assumptions about human nature, their views of what constitutes moral behavior, their reading of the Bible, and ultimately, their theology. Fall short of total agreement, or at least, of unqualified acceptance, and you can count on being regarded as “anti-gay.”
LGBT activists have been very careful to frame their agenda as “a campaign for full LGBT equality” rather than as an attack on Christianity, the Bible, or so-called “traditional family values.” They would understandably chafe at the accusation that they are “anti-Christian,” “anti-Bible,” or “anti-traditional family.” Yet if we apply the same standard they use to determine who is “anti-gay,” how can we conclude anything else? If being “anti”-something means falling short of total agreement or unqualified acceptance, then LGBT activists are clearly “anti-Christian” according to their own standards of judgment.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not think it is helpful to brand LGBT activists as “anti-Christian” any more than I think it is helpful for them to brand those who disagree with their worldview as “anti-gay.” Using such inflammatory labels does nothing to promote dialogue or understanding. I’m simply trying to make the point that if we will condemn as “anti-” anyone who disagrees with our worldview, we are gearing up to fight the kind of sectarian wars which result in many casualties and few converts.
The recent brouhaha over Chick-Fil-A’s “anti-gay” stance has reached something of a crescendo. Tomorrow, August 1, 2012, has been designated Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day by television talk-show host Mike Huckabee, who is encouraging people to support the company by dining there. Meanwhile, gay-rights activists are organizing “kiss-in” protests at Chick-Fil-A restaurants on Friday, August 3.
Chick-Fil-A has been criticized as “anti-gay” by Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) activists for some time now, but the latest dust-up appears to center around two things. First, a group called EqualityMatters, which describes itself as “a campaign for full LGBT equality”, published a list of so-called “anti-gay groups” to which Chick-Fil-A’s charitable foundation has contributed. Second, in an interview with Baptist Press, Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy described the company as “guilty as charged” with respect to its support of the “traditional family.”
It is Cathy’s comments in particular that seem to have LGBT activists seeing red, but they must be careful how they express that outrage. While they can be quite vitriolic in their criticism of Cathy’s statements, they must nevertheless be careful not to dispute his First Amendment right to make such statements. Consequently, many of Cathy’s critics have retreated to the seemingly more secure position of criticizing the company’s financial support of “anti-gay” organizations. I’ve heard a number of Cathy’s critics say something like, “Sure he has the right to say whatever he wants. The real issue is that Chick-Fil-A gives money to support an ‘anti-gay’ agenda!”
The disturbing thing to me in all of this is that this “anti-gay” label is never clearly defined. On the surface, to be “anti-gay” sounds like it means to bear open hatred and hostility toward homosexuals. The Cathys have protested that they are not “anti-gay,” by which they mean that they will not deny service to homosexual customers or deny employment to applicants on the basis of their homosexuality. But that is not what LGBT activists mean by “anti-gay.”
Look at EqualityMatters’ list of so-called “anti-gay groups,” and it becomes clear that they regard as “anti-gay” any person or group which:
- understands the Bible to condemn homosexual acts as sinful
- affirms the value of “traditional marriage” (generally understood to mean monogamous heterosexual marriage for life)
- disagrees that “marriage” should be legally redefined to include homosexual couples
- believes that homosexuals can and should leave the “homosexual lifestyle”
- (apparently even worse) attempts to help people leave the “homosexual lifestyle”
In short, LGBT activists regard anyone who does not accept their understanding of sexual orientation or who opposes any part of their agenda as “anti-gay.” Any Christian ministry which promotes a biblical understanding of sexuality is therefore “anti-gay.” It is not enough to be tolerant of homosexuality in general, to be sympathetic to the difficulties homosexuals face, or to love homosexuals as sinners who, like all of us, struggle with their sinful predilections and addictions. On the contrary, it is necessary to accept their understanding of the world, their assumptions about human nature, their views of what constitutes moral behavior, their reading of the Bible, and ultimately, their theology. Fall short of total agreement, or at least, of unqualified acceptance, and you can count on being regarded as “anti-gay.”
I believe many—if not most—Christians who oppose gay marriage or otherwise disagree with the agenda of LGBT activists do so not because they bear personal animosity toward those who self-identify as “gay.” Most Christians are horrified at the antics of the Westboro Baptists who seem to delight in declaring that “God hates fags.” Most Christians would rightly oppose the persecution of homosexuals or the abrogation of their Constitutional protections. However, many Christians, no matter how tolerant or willing to “live and let live,” are constrained by their understanding of Scripture to regard homosexuality as a “lifestyle” which cannot be condoned, promoted, or embraced. They are likewise constrained by their understanding of Scripture to want to strengthen the “traditional family” by opposing divorce, pornography, infidelity, spousal abuse, and anything else which contributes to its disintegration.
As far as I can see, the Cathys’ position on these matters is hardly exceptional. It is a position consistent with their Christian worldview and their understanding of the Bible. They are only “anti-gay” insofar as their Christian worldview disagrees with the worldview of the LGBT activists, and their only sin appears to be that they lend support to those who agree with their worldview.
Because I too hold to a Christian worldview, I will be supporting the Cathys by taking my family to Chick-Fil-A tomorrow. It may mean that LGBT activists will likewise label me as “anti-gay,” but I reserve the right to disagree with their definition of the term.
Lately I’ve been writing an article on crucifixion for a project I’m working on. This rather gory subject has led me to examine Old Testament passages which refer to hanging someone “on a tree.” These passages may refer to a number of things: hanging the corpse of someone who is already dead as a very public warning to others, actually impaling a living victim on a pointed stake and letting him die slowly, or crucifying someone by suspending them by their hands or arms. While it’s not always clear which form of “hanging” is in view, the Bible is very clear that any form of hanging on a tree is a sign of divine judgment:
And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:22–23 ESV)
In examining all these passages about hanging, I noticed a number of instances of people being hanged in the books of Samuel.
After Saul dies in battle with the Philistines, they cut off his corpse’s head and hang his body from the walls of a nearby citadel. In order to rescue Saul’s body from this accursed fate, some of his most loyal subjects then embark on a covert mission to recover his body and give him a proper burial (1 Samuel 31:8–13).
With Saul and his eldest sons now dead, David and Saul’s son Ish-Bosheth begin fighting a civil war for the throne of Israel. This war comes to an end when two rogues, acting on their own, murder Ish-Bosheth in his bed and take his severed head to David. They think David will reward them for this, but David punishes them for shedding innocent blood by killing them, cutting off their hands and feet, and publicly hanging their mutilated corpses (2 Samuel 4:12).
When David’s son Absalom rebels against David and seizes the throne, David eventually regroups and defeats Absalom’s men on the field of battle. As Absalom flees through the forest on his mule, he gets his “head” entangled in an oak tree and is left dangling in midair as his mule runs out from beneath him. When David’s men eventually find Absalom in this predicament, they murder him (2 Samuel 18:10–17).
This last passage is especially rich with the symbolism of poetic justice. While Absalom’s hair is not specifically mentioned in this passage (only his “head”), his previously mentioned pride in his long hair (2 Samuel 14:25–26) leads the reader to assume that it was his hair that got entangled in the branches of the tree. The mule he was riding is the symbolic mount of kings, yet it apparently rejects his kingship when it abandons him. Finally, Absalom’s getting hung in a tree shows that he is under God’s curse for rebelling against his father and God’s anointed king.
In fact, all of these “hangings,” as a symbol of divine judgment, reinforce the central message of the books of Samuel, which is that David is the rightful king of Israel because God Himself placed David on the throne.
If we set aside for a moment that the books of Samuel are part of the Bible, we can appreciate the fact that they are a brilliant work of political propaganda. David’s enemies would have had plenty of reason to question the legitimacy of his reign. They would have argued that the descendants of Saul are the rightful heirs to the throne and that David wrongfully seized the throne through civil war and assassination. They would also have celebrated Absalom’s rebellion as a sign that David was finally getting his just deserts.
Against these views the writer of Samuel makes it abundantly clear that Saul and his family were rejected by God in favor of David. Saul’s downward spiral and repeated failures end in his suicidal death and the public hanging of his corpse—abundant evidence that he is under God’s curse. Yet far from celebrating his death, David kills the foreigner who falsely claims he had assisted in Saul’s suicide (2 Samuel 1:1-16). Likewise, Saul’s heir Ish-Bosheth is shown repeatedly to be unfit for rule until he is eventually murdered in his bed. Again, David does not reward the murderers of his political rival but kills them and hangs their corpses publicly. Then there’s Absalom, who reveals his accursed state by getting himself hung in a tree. Over and over again, David’s enemies conveniently die in an accursed state.
Some people dismiss these symbolic evidences of divine judgment as being too convenient to be historically accurate. The assumption seems to be that if these subtle details all serve to advance the book’s purpose of justifying David’s kingship, then they are more likely to be the clever embellishments of the author than a true reporting of actual events. This is why so many “Bible as literature” courses seem to question the historical accuracy of the Bible. While they claim not to be concerned with historical accuracy at all and that they are merely analyzing the literary aspects of Biblical narratives, the subtle implication is that if the Bible’s history is not completely disinterested and unbiased, it cannot be completely trusted.
Biblical narratives such as the books of Samuel or the four Gospels are anything but disinterested catalogs of historical events. On the contrary, they offer theological interpretations of those events and present the historical details within that theological framework. Recognizing that framework and appreciating the literary artistry with which it is presented does not require us to conclude that the historical details are nothing more than clever fictions. We can appreciate the Bible as literature while also recognizing it as the Word of God.
After all, why would we expect God’s Word to be anything less than a literary masterpiece?
How God Brings Good Out of Tragic Loss
[This article was first published on Memorial Day, 2004 in response to an article in the Washington Post Magazine.]
Luther and Warhol
Martin Luther once wrote that “a theologian is born by living, nay dying and being damned, not by thinking, reading, or speculating.” Andy Warhol is often quoted as saying that “everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” What do these two quotes have to do with each other? Simply that the truth of them both has been profoundly driven home to me this Memorial Day.
First, let me give you a brief account of my—or more precisely, my family’s—fifteen minutes of fame. The cover of this week’s Washington Post Magazine features a photograph of a young World War II soldier in uniform, along with a black-and-white snapshot of a young woman with her infant son. The title reads, “The Soldier in My Attic: A yellowed paper discovered in the rafters after 60 years leads to a forgotten hero, his lost son and the meaning of sacrifice.” That “forgotten hero” is my grandfather. His “lost son” is my father. And the woman in the snapshot who loved them both is my grandmother.
It’s not every day you get a reporter for the Washington Post piecing together your family history for you, but that is precisely what happened in our case, and the blessing it has been will be felt long after our fifteen minutes of fame are over. Peter Perl, a reporter who has lived in the Washington D.C. area for years, went into his attic one afternoon to measure it for new insulation. In the process, he discovered a tattered cardboard cylinder containing the personal effects and Purple Heart certificate of Second Lieutenant George Charles Oertel Jr., a soldier killed in World War II. Curious to find out who this soldier was, Mr. Perl embarked on a process of discovery which has helped to fill in some of the blanks in my family’s history and to acquaint my dad with the biological father who died when he was just six months old.
I would, of course, encourage everyone to read the aforementioned article, not merely because it concerns my family, but because it is a powerfully written and fitting Memorial Day tribute to the soldiers who have sacrificed—and who continue to sacrifice—everything for the cause of freedom.
By now it should be clear why I quoted Warhol’s comment about everyone enjoying fifteen minutes of fame, but Luther’s enigmatic statement about a theologian “dying and being damned” may take a little more explaining. I understand Luther to mean by this that a true theology must be worked out in the context of real life and refined in the crucible of facing death and its aftermath. Theology cannot merely be done by means of scholarly research and philosophical speculation, because it deals with questions of life, death, and the hope of salvation. The true theologian is one who can apply his theology to life, and whose life informs his theology.
My grandfather’s brief life and tragic death raise an important theological question: how could a good God allow such a promising young life to be cut short? It is a question we ask whenever we witness tragic loss, senseless suffering, or random catastrophe. If God is perfectly good and all-powerful, why does he permit such evils to take place? Theologians and philosophers refer to this question as the “problem of evil,” and it has puzzled mankind since the beginning of time. Assuming, however, that Luther was on to something, let’s use this real-life tragedy as a test-case for understanding the problem of evil. Can we make sense of such a senseless loss? Can we possibly see God’s hand in the midst of it?
A Tragic Loss
My grandfather’s brief life was one of tremendous promise, as I think anyone who reads the Washington Post article would agree. First, there was the promise of his individual potential. A gifted athlete, he had dreams of a professional baseball career after he returned from the war. As a soldier, he appears to have distinguished himself, going from enlisted man to Second Lieutenant during his training, and receiving the Combat Infantryman Badge for “exemplary conduct in action against the enemy.” As a young man, he was apparently deeply religious, very close to his family, and devoted to his young wife.
This last character trait brings us to another area of promise in this young man’s life: the promise of his family legacy. George Oertel Jr. had met and married Gabrielle Louise Hopping, the nineteen-year-old daughter of Brigadier General Andrew Hopping, while back home on leave. They got pregnant right away, and he was shipped out just before George Oertel III, my father, was born. Father and son never saw each other except in photographs, never got to toss the baseball George Jr. was so adept with, never got to live together as a family.
George Jr. was cut down by German artillery fire in an Italian village when my father was still a baby. His wife was a widow at the age of twenty, and she and my dad went to live with her parents for a couple of years. Eventually, she met and married Allen Lang, who adopted my father and changed his name to George Charles Lang.
It’s a Wonderful Death?
For all the reasons listed above, my grandfather’s death was a tragic loss that makes little sense. This loss is compounded when you consider that he was just one of many millions of young soldiers and civilians whose lives were lost in that epic war. But what if that war had never happened? What if my grandfather had been allowed to grow old with his new wife and son? Asking these questions is a little like It’s a Wonderful Life in reverse, but it’s an exercise that will help us come to terms with the “problem of evil” in a way that no logical syllogism could ever accomplish.
If World War II had never happened, if Adolf Hitler had been content with murdering his political rivals in Germany rather than embarking on a course of world conquest, it’s uncertain whether George Oertel Jr. would ever have met, much less married, Gabrielle Louise Hopping. Theirs was a whirlwind, war-time romance, and if it hadn’t been for that war, my father might never have been conceived. For that matter, if it weren’t for World War I, my grandmother likewise might never have been conceived, since she was the daughter of an American doughboy who married a French woman, my great-grandmother “Dee-Dee” (so called because my dad couldn’t pronounce Gabrielle). In a very real sense, I owe my life to the two costliest, most devastating wars in history.
Now, suppose my grandfather had survived the war and returned home. If that had happened, it is doubtful my father and his family would ever have moved to Florida. My grandfather’s family lived in the D.C. area, and he likely would have done the same. Even if he would have decided to move his family elsewhere, what are the chances he would have taken them to the small town of Winter Haven, Florida, where my father met my mother? My father moved there because that was the home of his adoptive father, Allen Lang. Had my grandfather lived, I might never have been born, my wife would be married to someone else, and my four beautiful children [now five] would never have come into this world. When that artillery shell exploded on July 11, 1944, it tragically ended a promising young life, but it also set into motion a chain of events for which I cannot help but be thankful.
Was it good that my grandfather was killed a few short months before his twenty-fifth birthday? Absolutely not. But can it be said that God has used that tragic event for His good purposes? I’d like to think it can. I’m not so sure my presence in the world can be considered an unqualified good. I’m certainly not a better man than the one whose blood runs through my veins. But when I look into the faces of David, Caleb, Bethany, and Alexa [and now also Josiah], I know that God has used my grandfather’s death to make the world a better place. My grandfather gave his life to stop fascism, and God has used his death to bring about new and wonderful life.
It’s Not Always So Easy
It’s admittedly not always so easy to see how God uses tragic events for His good purposes. My grandfather was cut down in his youth, but not before he had conceived a son who in turn has had two children and seven grandchildren [soon to be nine when my sister has her fourth child later this year]. There were countless other soldiers who died without leaving any descendants behind. Where is the good that came out of their deaths? Or what about my nephew, Chad, who developed leukemia at age four and died just weeks before his ninth birthday? Where is the good in that tragic loss? What about the thousands who died in the World Trade Center and Pentagon on what would have been Chad’s twelfth birthday? How has God used that horrific event for good?
We may never know, or see, the countless ways God brings good out of evil, gain out of loss, or blessing out of tragedy. Yet we have two sources of assurance that God always intends for good what man and his fallen world have intended for evil (Genesis 50:20). First, we have the example of the cross: how the salvation of many was accomplished through the greatest evil the world has ever known. Second, we have the assurance of God’s Word, which tells us that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NASB). We may not always see how, but we have no reason to doubt that God will be true to this promise. The cross of Christ, and the empty tomb, should be all the evidence we need. And if we look closely at those tragedies which touch our own lives, we may just catch a glimpse of God’s good purposes in them, and find reason to give thanks even in the midst of our tears.
After eighteen years, I dared to call myself a man.
I was headed off to college, to learn and understand
The world I thought I held in the palm of my own hand.
Just eighteen years of age, and I thought myself a man.
Now eighteen years have passed since I first called myself her man,
And the wonder that she is I still long to understand.
My grip had proven weak until she offered me her hand,
And without her by my side I would be merely half a man.
These last eighteen years have been far better than the first.
Although we’ve known our share of “for better” and “for worse,”
I still gaze into her eyes and feel my heart about to burst.
Eighteen years have passed and I’m now eighteen years more hers.
My eighteen-year-old follies have all slipped away like sand:
I know the world cannot reside in my poor failing hands.
Yet my world stays in orbit like a golden circling band
Around she who after eighteen years still loves me as her man.
This morning Jo Jo, our three-year-old, came into our bedroom with a little stack of LEGOs. Proudly announcing that this was his “channel changer,” he pointed it at the TV and began pressing it with his thumb. Intending to play along, I grabbed the real TV remote and began turning the TV on and off each time he pressed his toy remote. My wife looked over, smiled, and said to me, “You’re such a fun dad!”
Alas, it was fun until I explained to Jo Jo that his “channel changer” didn’t really control the TV; that I had been controlling it with the real “channel changer.” He got mildly frustrated with me and decided to hide my remote behind the curtain so he could be sure I wasn’t repeating the trick. Then he stood in front of the TV for several minutes pressing his LEGO remote. When it didn’t work he asked me to fix his remote so that it would work again. I explained the impossibility of that to him, then stepped out of the room for a minute. Moments later, I heard the TV come on, so I knew he had now begun using the real remote and finding that it worked.
When I came back in the room, a disappointed little boy brought me his LEGO remote and said, “Daddy, I don’t want this channel changer any more. It’s broken!”
I’ve learned my lesson. It is apparently unwise ever to play games with another man’s TV remote! Some things are just too close to our hearts.
As funny as this little scenario is, Jo Jo’s disappointment at not really being in control was real. It made me wonder how many times this same scenario is played out between us grownups and our heavenly Father.
The older I get, the more I come to realize how little in life I really have control over. Most of us tackle life with the expectation that if we work hard, use our talents, and behave responsibly we can be healthy, wealthy, wise, and happy. Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that all our plans can easily be derailed by an unexpected illness, an accident, the foolish decisions and evil actions of other people, economic forces beyond our control, changes in the weather, and those huge natural disasters we usually describe as “acts of God.” How many of our personal triumphs and crowning achievements really amount to us benefitting from the gracious hand of God in ordering those circumstances we cannot control?
It is as if we’re pressing the buttons on our LEGO remotes while God stands behind us pressing the buttons on His real one. When we see the TV come on we think, “Look what I did!” We don’t realize that God is the one who is really in control, and that we should be expressing our gratitude to Him. The American revolutionaries who managed to defeat the most powerful nation on earth often spoke of the gracious hand of Divine Providence in fighting on their behalf, and when you consider how many of their victories depended on favorable weather and historical accidents it is easy to see why. Somehow when we face less overwhelming obstacles we find it easy to forget the hand of Providence and assume our LEGO remotes are working.
Proverbs 16:9 reminds us who is really in control:
A man’s heart plans his way, but the LORD determines his steps.
We do well to remember that His “channel changer” is the only one that works.