Diagnosing the Miraculous

My guess is that the story of Ema McKinley will eventually gain some national traction.  Ema is already a local celebrity here in Rochester, MN.  She had suffered 20 years with what was diagnosed as Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, a rare neurological disorder that left her disfigured and wheelchair bound.  On the morning of this past Christmas Eve, Ema fell from her chair.  But instead of it complicating her condition, Ema says that after 8 continuous hours of crying out to God, he came to her in her most trying time and healed her.  Today she is walking, pain-free, and telling the world about God’s healing hand in her life. (If you’d like the full story of Ema McKinley, it’s linked here.)

Well…..this is an interesting case study for demonstrating how your preconceived worldviews interpret data, in this case, extraordinary data.  Some will look for a purely naturalistic explanation (by the way, these people likely also believe in Darwinian evolution).  Some will point to this simply as the “hand of God” without any desire for further explanation (by the way, the Christian who is most inclined to do this is one who belongs to a Christian church which strongly promotes charismatic gifts like speaking in tongues and miraculous healings).  And just so that we’re all on the same page here, pumping the brakes of belief here with the Ema McKinley story doesn’t make you a bad Christian any more than the Bereans searching the Scriptures to validate what Paul was saying makes them unnecessarily cynical (Acts 17:11).  New Testament Christians are to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) when they see something they perceive to be out of the biblical ordinary, particularly if it’s acclaimed as spiritually extraordinary.

This all serves as a good opportunity for Christians to figure out how to process this kind of information.  There are really only three options.  1) This is a hoax.  2) This is a “coincidence” (i.e. it happened by chance, not exactly as Ema describes it).  3) It was indeed divine intervention.

In no particular order, let’s briefly investigate the evidence for each:

1) It’s a hoax

For this to be an elaborate trick that Ema is pulling on us, it’d require some commitment to the craft.  I mean we’re talking like the magicians in The Prestige level of dedication here.  Ema was wheelchair-bound for 20 years.  I know several individuals who knew her personally.  Her unusual and unfortunate condition – always leaning over the side of her wheelchair – was hard to miss.  No one would do this voluntarily.  And now to be up and walking around unhindered.  There seem to be too many credible witnesses (including the testimony of a Mayo Clinic doctor, shown in the link above) for a hoax to be a truly plausible explanation.

2) It’s a medical “coincidence”

By a “coincidence,” I mean that through random good fortune, Ema’s circumstances improved – sort of like winning the lottery.  Now, please understand that as a Christian who appreciates the providence of God, I don’t truly believe that anything is entirely random.  However, there is a big difference between a woman falling out of a chair and this sending a jolt through her body that somehow aligns things to the point of healing, and God working through that, as opposed to God appearing to Ema in a white robe to heal her after levitating a wheel of her chair to spill her out of it.

Looking around on the internet for a while, it appears that Ema’s diagnosis, Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), is not considered curable, but is considered treatable, particularly if caught in the early stages.  I ran across several message boards where people claimed “miraculous” recovery through various forms of water treatment or oxygen treatment.  While that doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about whether or not this was miraculous, when we see others treated successfully for a condition, it does suggest that when the circumstances are right, relief can be found through some kind of natural measures.  This, then, would logically be different from say an amputee spontaneously regenerating a limb.  Both could be cured through miracles.  I have a more difficult time, however, imagining the circumstances in which an amputee could grow a limb back than someone with RSD finding significant relief for pain.  One would be a more likely “coincidence” than the other.  This might influence our reaction.

3) It’s divine intervention

If you believe that the Bible is historically accurate, which I do, then you’ll have no problem believing that miracles are possible.  The Gospel records are chalked full of testimonies to Jesus’ miracles.  Perhaps most similar to Ema’s situation, in Luke 5:23-26, Jesus told a paralyzed man to get up and walk, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” He said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 25 Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. 26 Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”

Clearly God is capable of such things and carries them out according to his desire.  However, even in the New Testament accounts we start seeing that the miraculous healing begins to wane.  Paul encourages Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach (1 Tim. 5:23), not just pray for miraculous healing.  Paul continues to struggle with a “thorn in the flesh” which may or may not have been a physical debilitation, but wasn’t cured (2 Cor. 12:1-10).  There are many other examples.  But what you see is that while the disciples were capable of some extraordinary things through God’s power, they didn’t have the power of Jesus.  And the farther away you get from Jesus, the less miraculous power you see regularly demonstrated in church history.  So while Jesus certainly has the power to do stuff like this, we can’t simply ignore the reality that this isn’t typically the way he’s operated for the majority of the past 2000 years.

Random Thoughts

In many ways, this is much like the post that I wrote several weeks ago, Where Dreams Fit Into Our Spiritual Lives.  While God can do anything that pleases him, what he promises he has done/will do for us should preoccupy our thoughts more deeply.

At this point, I haven’t personally seen anything that indicates I should doubt Ema McKinley’s testimony.  Having done some background research on her, she does not come off as a Benny Hinn-like charlatan, but seems to be a reliable witness.  And just as important, she has other reliable witnesses corroborating her story.  At this point, the evidence would seem to suggest that she’s telling the truth.  If you want to passionately suggest otherwise, I’d ask you to check and see if your current worldview even allows for anything miraculous in it.  Some people have been so conditioned to naturalistic explanation that it would not matter if Ema was flying around on a magical talking unicorn that introduced himself to them, they’d remain unconvinced simply for the reason that their worldview does not allow for that to be possible.  For some scientific minds at nearby Mayo Clinic, I’m sure Ema’s story ranges from interesting to uncomfortably paradigm-shaking.

With all of that said, and while I know this next opinion isn’t as exciting because we all generally want concrete answers, neat categories, and bold labels, but there’s a part of me that simply wants to say, “Isn’t it enough to be thankful on behalf of Ema?”  MUST we be able to label something that admittedly seems somewhat unknowable?  Can’t we just be grateful for God’s mercy to her in whatever way he chose to grant it?  In other words, while I know that miracles are certainly possible, I also know it is not God’s accustomed method of operating, so I’m very careful to authoritatively use that particular label.

I get the impression that sometimes people want to know for sure whether or not cases like Ema’s are indeed “miracles” for personal reasons.  People generally seem to feel that if the miracle is authentic, this will 1) convince unbelievers to believe (probably not true), or 2) perhaps others can push the same supernatural buttons in their life as the miracle receiver and create healing as well (also not true).

While walking this planet, Jesus WAS the quintessential miracle worker.  And that changed every unbelieving heart, right?  Wrong.  It got people’s attention, no doubt.  But people still chose to deny the evidence for their own reasons.

Secondly, God chooses to bless whom he wants in the ways he wants according to his divine insights.  I’m a little concerned that the Christian who is begging for a miracle does not yet understand the doctrine of the Resurrection.  On the Last Day, all that is wrong will be made right.  All that is broken will be mended.  All that is hurt will be soothed. So I’m thrilled that Ema was healed, but quite honestly, it was a matter of time.  If God grants us a glimpse of Resurrection joy like Ema, praise be to God!  If God, in his infinite wisdom, deems it wise to allow our own “thorns in the flesh” until the Resurrection so that he may be glorified in our weaknesses, praise be to God!

Conclusion

I don’t know.

How’s that for satisfying analysis :).

Like half the planet, I saw The Avengers last week.  Now I’m all for logic.  But I also understand that one of the fastest ways to ruin a remarkable tale of the heroic is to say “I can’t appreciate what I’m seeing here until I’ve had every detail rationalized away.”  Ema was in a wheelchair for 20+ years.  She isn’t anymore.  And she’s pointing to Jesus as the hero who made it happen.  As a Christian, that sounds about right.  I’m satisfied with that.

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The Gospel and Bullying

We’ve had our fair share of tragedy in school bullying issues recently here in Rochester, MN.  Undoubtedly a nationwide issue – bullying, and it’s frequent and ugly consequences – is obviously a horribly painful thing for a community to go through.  Why does it have to happen?

Since the infamous Columbine High School massacre in 1999, there has been a significant rise in the awareness to bullying issues.  Many dollars and much time and energy have been invested in the prevention of school bullying.  Currently, 48 U.S. states have anti-bullying laws and educational programs in place in school systems to discourage bullying-type behavior.

The reviews of such programs remain mixed because the results remain questionable.  My local paper, the Rochester Post-Bulletin suggests: “Indeed, we must admit that anti-bullying campaigns — and news reports about anti-bullying campaigns — have become so commonplace that they’ve begun to take on a “white noise” quality.” (see full article here) The writer went on to say that the most recent incident in a nearby town – a girl who committed suicide and cited bullying as the cause – will probably wake people up to the voice of the campaign warnings.  Without sounding too cynical, I’m not nearly as optimistic.

For sure, I think the recent incident will raise attention to the bullying issue for a time.  But we humans tend to have a reactionary way of handling such things as this.  If we don’t change the way people view the world, long-term societal changes are difficult, if not impossible.

As a pastor who believes that the Bible is divine insight from the one who created humans (i.e. God himself), I think the root cause behind bullying is not a lack of awareness nor do I think the answer to it is a general tolerance of anything and everything.  And I have absolutely ZERO confidence that Hilary Duff’s insights are going to have lasting impact on the bullying issue.

So, let’s get down to the heart and core of it.  Why do we bully?

As a Christian, I believe that we have an imperfection that now permeates us as the result of our ancient ancestor’s fall into sin (Romans 5:12 sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin).  We were NOT created to be broken, sinful, and hateful people.  In fact, we still maintain a semblance of the way we were created to be (Genesis 1:27 in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them, see also Gen. 9:6; Acts 17:29; 1 Cor. 11:7)  This internal dissonance leads to frustration.  We often take our frustration out in unhealthy ways – sometimes on ourselves (over or under eating, perfectionist tendencies, asceticism, drugs and alcohol abuse, even suicide) or sometimes we take out frustration on others (bullying physically, verbally, emotionally, or “new” to the mix, cyber-bullying).  In both cases, i.e. both the bully and the victim of bullying, the problem is that we all, to a degree, hate ourselves for the imperfection that we don’t believe should be there.

So, how do we deal with bullying?

Well, again, as a pastor, I believe that the gospel (the message of salvation gifted to us through Jesus) is the most powerful motivating force in the universe.  Therefore, if you’re trying to motivate people apart from the gospel, you’re simply using a lesser tool.  Granted, these tools can work for a time.  But they can’t truly change hearts and therefore they can’t have true long-term impact.

The (non-gospel) motivational tools that I most often see being used in society, and sometimes amongst Christians, are pride and fear.  Think about it.  When you have Hillary Duff telling you how you should or shouldn’t use the word “gay”, what are you doing?  You’re having someone you believe society deems “cool” tell you that it’s “uncool” to speak a certain way.  So either you use words the way she thinks they should be used and are part of the inner circle of people in-the-know (i.e. pride as motivator) or you do your own thing and be on the outskirts of society as the one who talks stupid, dresses stupid, and is stupid (i.e. fear as motivator).  You could make the case that in her anti-bullying campaign……..she’s bullying!!!  Am I insane or am I the only one who sees the inconsistency there?

Please understand, I’m not at all suggesting that the point and purpose of anti-bullying campaigns is bad.  I’m suggesting that the motivating forces are not as strong as they could be and the execution of such campaigns is sometimes embarrassing, and I think many people are savvy enough to see through the garbage.  I believe this leaves people searching for a better answer.

Cue the gospel

I believe that the Christian faith alone possesses the ultimate answer to bullying.  Yes, I have proof :).

As I mentioned earlier, the bully and the bullied both generally feel terrible about themselves (God forgive me, I’ve probably spent more time as the former than the latter).  The act of hatred towards another is fueled by pain and generates pain.  But what if the bully or the bullied were to take their eyes off of themselves and fix their eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:2), their perfect Savior?  If you were as obsessed with Jesus’ perfection to the degree that you are aware of your own imperfection, do you really think you’d be as preoccupied with your own shortcomings and feel as bad about yourself as you do?  In other words, if you truly believed that all of your personal flaws and mistakes were covered, paid for, and erased by a loving substitute, would you feel so bad about yourself that you’d take it out on others? (Rom. 1:17; 8:1)  If you truly believed that regardless of who does what to you in this lifetime, you have an eternal wealth, comfort, acceptance, and happiness coming to you, do you really think what others said about you would bother you so much?  (1 Cor. 2:9; Isaiah 64:4)

How many anecdotal evidences would you need to see before you believed that the gospel can have this effect on people?  Saul of Tarsus, when converted, went from regular bully of Christians to regular beatings for his Christian faith (Acts 7:58 and the change to Acts 14:19 & Acts 16:23).  As far as we know from church history, every one of Jesus’ disciples except John faced bullying and martyrdom for their faith and did so willingly.  Finally, on the cross, Jesus asked his Heavenly Father to forgive the people who bullied him unto death.  He went to die to pay for the sins of the very men who were bullying him!  And this is all after he went and loved and served the very people whom society had bullied (Luke 15:2; Matt. 9:10-11; Mark 2:15-16; Matt. 11:19 Matt. 21:32).  Who does that?!  Only God himself.

I hate to say it, but I think what it’ll take for the world to recognize that the gospel is the best answer to bullying is for the world to eventually see Christians living out their faith AND bullied, even to death, and for Christians to not try to combat through revenge or legislation but to respond with love and truth.  If the world can see that the gospel allows us a more beautiful approach to life, the beauty will attract like a light on a hill (Matt. 5:14).

In the meantime, what can we do as a church?  I will defer to the wisdom of my wife on this one from a comment she made years ago.  I was remarking how churches seem to have a fairly high percentage of socially “strange” people.  And she reasoned, “It’s because every other social group might reject someone, but a church won’t.”  Yep.  I think she was onto something.  If we believe the gospel – that we’re all truly sinners saved by God’s grace – then we’ll never have a reason to view ourselves as inferior to OR superior to anyone.  Regardless of appearance, intelligence, personality, social class, ethnicity, etc., we’re all sinners saved by God’s grace.  That’s the bottom line.

Conclusion

So what’s the motivating force for bullying to go away?  Let’s be honest, a shallow encouragement toward “Tolerance” is not enough.  There must be something deeper, more profound.  I think everyone senses that.  And there IS something deeper – the love of God expressed through his Son.

When the Penny Hasn’t Dropped

When I was young, some of the most frustrating and devastating experiences in my young life were the few occasions when I would put my change into a vending machine and punch the E6 Milky Way button only to have a coin get stuck in the drop slot.  The chocolate, caramel, nougaty deliciousness would sit there taunting me.  Furious, I would literally beat the machine for robbing me, trying to get those nickels and dimes to drop.

I know that you’ve had similar experiences with vending machines and arcade games.  It’s such a common experience, in fact, that this is where the phrase “the penny dropped” came from.

Older, wiser, and now a pastor, would you believe that this same “penny dropping” analogy continues to be the cause of some the most frustrating and devastating experiences in my personal and professional life?

When I became a pastor, I was very excited about the idea of reaching the lost with the gospel.  I still am.  What I wasn’t anticipating, however, was the need for helping the gospel penny drop in the lives of existing Christians.  I now find this to be nearly as important of a mission as general outreach.

What do I mean by helping the “gospel penny to drop” in the lives of believers?  Well, we live in a culture where, statistically speaking, 80% of people claim Christian faith but less than 20% are committed enough to those beliefs to let those beliefs affect their lifestyle in any sort of drastic way.  In a sense, Christian conversion is a one-time occasion in which the Holy Spirit enters the heart of a human who is by nature opposed to God.  This happens when the Spirit creates a trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.  The converted individual now has two “selves” – an old self and a new self.  In theological terms, this conversion is called subjective justification.  In another sense though, a Christian continues to convert throughout his/her life.  They develop a deeper, more profound understanding of what the gospel really means for their life and the end result is that their life experiences some external changes that fall more in line with God’s design for them.  In theological terms, this “continued converting” is generally called sanctification.  I’m referring to this moment when the gospel moves from being an intellectual truth to a life-altering, joy-inducing, existential reality as…..”the penny dropping.”

If this still isn’t making sense, maybe some practical examples will help.  So, as not to sound like I’m picking on anyone, I’ll start with myself:

In my youth, when I struggled mightily with obsessive-compulsive disorder, I washed my hands constantly.  The fear of getting sick ran my life – my functional master.  But I wasn’t using the resources that the gospel allowed me.  The gospel of Jesus Christ says many things about physical sickness.  For starters, throughout Jesus’ ministry, he repeatedly healed the sick.  And yet there were many sick on the planet that he didn’t heal.  What this indicates to us is that Jesus possesses the power to heal, but doesn’t always, and in both cases it’s for the benefit of the individual.  Jesus proved his ultimate control over sickness and its final outcome, death, by rising from the grave.  Consequently, the evidence suggests that Jesus must be stronger than germs, bacteria, and any possible illness.  There is nothing to fear.  Sounds obvious, right?  The penny hadn’t dropped yet for me though.  I knew the truth intellectually, but my heart was not yet rejoicing in that truth, allowing me to express the faith necessary to touch public doorknobs, use community phones, or even exchange money.  Since then, the penny has dropped in that aspect of my life.  All of this wasn’t just a phase I worked through.  It was an actual obstacle to faith.  And when the Spirit of God penetrates your heart to the point that it’s changing your behavior, it’s a freedom that feels like heaven.

Similarly…

If you’re constantly stressing out about money, it’s likely that the penny hasn’t dropped.  (By the way, Luther said that last thing converted on a man is generally his wallet).  Understand, I’m not suggesting some don’t have serious financial situations that require a great deal of concern.  Nor am I suggesting that, in faith, we sit back and wait for the divine abracadabra from heaven to change our financial situation.  That’s tempting God, abusing the gospel, and spiritually irresponsible.  However, if there is a disproportionate amount energy and thought in your life about the bank account, the gospel penny simply has not dropped.  In Matthew 6:33 Jesus says But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as wellIf you really believed the gospel, you’d constantly be looking for ways to share your money, because you’d understand that it’s not really your money in the first place.  God has simply allowed you to manage it for a time, and He, not you, is going to make sure your needs in life are truly met. 

Likewise…..if you desperately pursue physical beauty in your life to a consuming degree, it’s likely that the penny hasn’t dropped.  Again, taking care of yourself physically is not the problem here.  In fact, I’d suggest that sometimes Christians, perhaps under the guise of living for the next life, poorly manage the body and appearance that they’ve been given in this life.  Over-management and under-management of blessings are typically out of line with God’s will.  But for the young woman (more often young woman than man, anyways) who sacrifices endlessly for worldly attractiveness, there is a mistrust in the gospel.  Peter tells women, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment…..Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” (1 Peter 3:3-4)  Most Christian women know that intellectually.  The problem is that they don’t understand the beauty they already have in Christ.  In Psalm 27, the psalmist says, “One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.” (Psalm 27:4)  Paul then tells us in the New Testament that all of the ugliness and imperfection that we have was placed upon Jesus on the cross and, at the same moment, all the beauty of Christ, our LORD, became ours (2 Cor 5:21).  To the degree that you understand that – that a greater beauty than the one you’re pursuing is ALREADY yours in Jesus – you will be able to put down the endless obsession for beauty in this life, freed from cosmetic slavery.

Likewise……for many men, who are wired for success through accomplishment, who put in endless hours at the office or can’t sleep at night because they’re mind is  racing about work, it’s likely that the penny hasn’t dropped for them either.  By the way, accomplishment obsession is why men’s lives seem to revolve around a series of “highlights” and life markers – video clips of sports, animal heads on walls, trophies on mantels, merit badges, certificates in offices, letter titles before or after our names on our doors and name tags.  Why do you think Crocodile Dundee wore sharp, rotten teeth around his neck, even in formal settings?  Only a dude does that.  For many men, fear of failure and pride in dominance and victory drives us. 

Hard work is great.  Accomplishment is a blessing.  But if you think the milestones you’ve reached in your life are primarily your own doing, or you continuously dwell on the missed opportunities of life, the accomplishment of Jesus in the gospel hasn’t taken hold of your heart.

For starters, the Bible says that every accomplishment we enjoy is really the product of God’s work – Isaiah 26:12 LORD, you establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished you have done for us. Second, the greatest accomplishment imaginable – putting mankind on your back and carrying them across the finish line – was already done through Jesus on the cross (“It is finished.” John 19:30).  This is a victory that he now shares with us.  An immeasurably distant second place is the highest we could ever rank on the ultimate man’s man list.  However, if your existence is already “in Jesus” then the pressure to perform is off, the victory is already won, and all that stupid Rocky Balboa “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” nonsense can go away forever.

Likewise……for many parents, providing their child with every possible resource to get ahead in life, every wall of defense against evil, and every comfort possible in general is an all-encompassing endeavor.  Of course taking care of the needs of the family is important.  Of course love leads you to want the “best” for your kids.  But if you are constantly micromanaging your children, a phenomenon that 21st century psychologists have labeled “helicopter parenting,” it’s likely that the gospel penny hasn’t dropped.  While you may understand the gospel proper – that Jesus paid for all of your sins and your children’s sins on the cross, you still don’t get the broader gospel implications.  In this specific case, what the parent needs to recognize is that the gospel teaches us that God actually loves our children more than we do, and since he’s holy, righteous, and blameless, unlike us, that means that he’s significantly more qualified to watch over and guide our child’s life than we are.  Jesus expressed his interest in parenting our children when he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matt. 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16)  The practical gospel reality is that if Jesus has already laid down his own life for my family so that we can call his Father our Father, wouldn’t it make sense that he’s going to protect his investment by continuously watching over our family?  When you realize that, it naturally leads to sounder nights of sleep.

Enough examples?  Maybe I didn’t hit yours.  But I think you get the point.

Most importantly, the gospel provides you with the necessary resource for salvation – Spirit-given faith in your Savior Jesus.  But when you grow as a Christian, the penny drops further into your heart so that you begin to see all of the enormous and glorious implications of the bottomless gospel.  The gospel transforms your future life from the outside-in (Jesus’ work becomes your work for eternity) and this then transforms your life right now from the inside-out (from your heart to your hands – real, measurable, tangible changes).

Pray that the penny drops.  A wonderful peace comes when it does.