Remembering Joshua – 1986 – 2009

It was five years ago today that my son Joshua died. As has become common at this time of year my thoughts of him are vivid and more frequent than ever. A couple of weeks ago my wife and two daughters and I attended a weekend retreat sponsored by the military for parents and siblings of someone who has died while in the military. There were about 40 families each with their own story. I talked to fathers and mothers who also lost their sons or daughters. Someone said that we are part of a club we wish would never have another member. But we know there will be. On my daily commute to work there are electronic signs that give the drive time for certain routes, weather reports, accidents etc. On some days they simply note how many traffic deaths have occurred in Michigan so far this year. The current total is 624. The number is staggering and it gives me pause as I drive to work thinking of all the families involved. At Baker alone we have had two people die in traffic accidents in the past few years. In addition to that one of my coworkers recently lost his wife. Another has suffered a miscarriage. Death is painful and ugly. It leaves wounds which, while they may heal with time, will always leave a scar. So what helps me? Remembering. Joshua is gone but his memory is still very much alive and when I remember him it helps me get through the darker nights. I’ve shared memories before but allow me to share one more.

For several mornings I noticed it was getting increasing difficult to get Joshua up for school. He kept insisting he just wasn’t sleeping well. One night I got up and happened to look in his room. It was about 2:00 a.m. and, you guessed it, he wasn’t there. I was livid–and worried. I stayed up and then about 4:00 a.m. I heard some noise from his room. When I went in I confronted him and he confessed he had been sneaking out of his window and meeting a friend. Fortunately they weren’t being too mischievous but simply “hanging out.” That ended that night. He made a lot of mistakes as many boys do. He spent time in detention and was brought home more than once in a police car. About a year before he died he said to me, “Dad, you know everything you’ve told me was right. I simply had to learn it the hard way.” After the birth of his daughter I noticed a distinct change in him. He was now a father and he was going to be responsible. I saw maturity grow in him faster than ever. He made me proud. For me September 18th will always be a painful day but memories help me get through it. The picture below is a selfie of him. It is one of my favorites. He was quite the ham. Many say the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. That’s fine. I’m proud to be that tree.


Recently Read

A few quotes from the many books vying for my attention.

“By the later fourth century when Athanasius made his list of New Testament books, many features of the church that evangelical, particularly free church, Protestants find questionable are already functioning. Does it make much sense to say that the fourth-century church was making very good decisions about the Bible but mostly poor ones about everything else?” (“The Canon of Scripture in the Church” by Frederick W. Norris in The Free Church and the Early Church edited by D.H. Williams, p. 15 – unfortunately it is out of print.)

“Changing the world can be a way of actually avoiding the opportunities we have every day, right where God has placed us, to glorify and enjoy him and to enrich the lives of others. It is all too easy to turn other people in our lives into a supporting cast for our life movie. . . . Boomers believed that traditional church experience was too ordinary—even boring—with its weekly routine of preaching, sacraments, prayer, praise, teaching, and fellowship. What was needed instead was a new plan for personal growth, something that would take our walk with God to a ‘whole new level,’ Boomers tended to make the Christian life—and the church—more individualistic and performance-oriented, removing checks and balances, structures and practices that have historically encouraged and sustained growth in faith over the long haul.” (Ordinary by Michael Horton, pp. 16, 17.)

“The point I’m making, then, is that Jesus didn’t come to make the ‘world’ a better place or to ‘influence’ or ‘transform’ the world. He came to redeem people out of the world. Trying to make the world a better place is a species of worldliness, and ‘worldliness,’ to quote Hauerwas and Willimon, ‘is a hard habit to break.’” (Kingdom Conspiracy by Scot McKnight, p. 16)

“Everyone wants a miracle. But here’s the catch: no one wants to be in a situation that necessitates one! Of course, you can’t have one without the other.” (The Grave Robber by Mark Batterson, p. 14)

“Not only did martyrs picture Christ for the average person, they carried prayers to them as well. Ancient Christians delighted in the knowledge that they could share prayer requests with friends who already dwelled in the presence of God. When modern Christians struggle with some significant issue in their lives, they ask their fellow believers to intercede with the Lord. Together these friends approach the throne of grace, seeking mercy through their several petitions. But how much more glorious would it be to think that a martyr, who already resided in heaven yet remained spiritually accessible at his or her grave, might actually pray to God on one’s behalf? This possibility reassured the early Christians as they faced life’s uncertainties. At its best, the, the cult of the martyrs was about the twin ministries of imitation and intercession. Visiting a martyr’s shrine served as a profound inspiration to draw ancient believers closer to the sufferings of their Savior, and deeper into the prayer life of the body of Christ.” (Early Christian Martyr Stories by Bryan M. Litfin, p. 14-15)

“Francis is the world’s most popular saint, as well as the primary inspiration for our new pope; but Francis of Assisi is misunderstood. more books have been written about him than about any other person in history but Christ, but much of what’s been said and written is misleading or downright incorrect. Peter Barnes, one of the great playwrights of the late twentieth century, once said: ‘If you didnt’ know me you’d think I was a stranger.’ Francis of Assisi might say that to us.” (When Saint Francis Saved the Church by Jon M. Sweeney, p. 17)

Book Give Away

I took some time off last week from blogging. I’m back and I think you will be impressed with this week’s give away. I’m offering volume 3 of Craig Keener’s commentary on Acts. This is hot off the press and covers Acts 15:1-23:35. I’ve spent most of my time in volume 1 but have perused both of the first two volumes and they are amazing.  Leave your name in the comments section by NLT Friday, Sept. 19th, 6:00 am EST. International entries are welcome. I’ll announce the winner that Friday. If I don’t hear back from the winner within 7 seven days the book will go to another entry. This is the third of a projected four-volume set. One more to go.


“Suffering and the Search for Meaning” a Review

The problem of evil is “the one argument against God’s existence worth taking seriously.” Everyone will eventually encounter pain and suffering. In his new book, Suffering and the Search for Meaning, Richard Rice offers a picture of seven of the most common theodicies. In each chapter he describes one theodicy, offers the theology behind it, why some find it appealing and some of the major objections to it. Rice astutely observes that “while no theodicy perfectly answers all the questions that suffering brings, looking at the options may help us find a way to respond to suffering resourcefully when we need it most.” (39)

Chapter two discusses “Perfect Plan Theodicy.” This view sees suffering as within the perfect plan of God. A notable advocate of this view is Jon Eareckson Tada. This theodicy “goes hand in hand with the idea that the universe at every moment and in every detail is the precise expression of God’s will.” (35) Of all the views none “attracts more ardent support or more robust criticism than” this one. (39)

In chapter three we have the classic Free-will Defense. The chief advocate of this is Alvin Plantinga. Because of free will “God is responsible for the possibility of evil, but not for the actuality of evil.” (47) Evil is not construed as something in itself but rather as a privation.

The “Soul Making Theodicy” is the topic of chapter four. Here the benefit of evil is seen in the character it produces. John Hick is the example offered as the defender of this view who, in turn, points us to Irenaeus of Lyons as an example from early church history. This view says that suffering can help us find the meaning of life. (64) Soul making theodicy contends that some virtues depend on the presence of suffering in some form. “If no one ever suffered there would be no opportunity to show compassion, nor any need for it.” (67)

Chapter five features the theodicy championed in recent years by Gregory Boyd: the Cosmic Conflict Theory. At the root of all evil and suffering is Satan. According to this view “we do not suffer because God wants us to—God’s role is to relieve suffering. We suffer because we live in a war zone.” (79) I was surprised to learn that the founder of the Seventh-Day Adventists, Ellen G. White, was a defender of this view. “In Boyd’s estimation, she ‘integrated a warfare perspective into the problem of evil and the doctrine of God perhaps more thoroughly than anyone else in church history.” (80)

Chapter six features a theodicy based on Open Theism. Open Theism rejects the doctrine of absolute foreknowledge. The future free decisions of people cannot be known even to God. Central to this theory is that “God is genuinely affected by everything we go through, good and bad.” (97) Suffering is not part of God’s will and there is “little to be gained by trying to find a specific divine purpose or reason for it.” (98)

Chapter seven offers the Finite God Theodicy. Harold Kushner’s Why Bad Things Happen to Good People is the prime example of this theory. Essentially it maintains that God is limited in what he can do. It finds its philosophical roots in process philosophy. Because of God’s relatedness to the world he is “unable to interrupt or intervene in the course of creaturely events.” (110) An attractive element of this theory is that “it relieves God of any responsibility for suffering.” (112-13)

A final theory is unfolded in chapter eight which Rice describes as Protest Theodicies. This is basically atheism. It says evil and suffering is incompatible with the existence of God. “So conventional theodicies are not just logically or philosophically unconvincing, they are personally and morally offensive.” (125)

It is one thing to formulate a theodicy. It’s another to live with it. “Concrete suffering . . . can seriously alter our outlook on reality as a whole. And we may find that some of our cherished views cannot survive the pressure of experience.” (156) In the final chapter, “Fragments of Meaning”, Rice argues that everyone should assemble a practical theodicy since “[w]hen it comes to a personal theodicy, there is no such thing as ‘one size fits all.’” (139) A practical theodicy draws from a number of different areas including the standard theodicies. Rice says it is less like a puzzle and more like a quilt. When the elements are put together they may “lack perfect logical coherence yet [they may] provide personal strength and reassurance.” (142) “A practical theodicy will almost always contain diversity and tension. And this is where practical and theoretical theodicies differ.” (142) “To concrete sufferers, however, the differences among theodicies are less important than the various strengths they provide. Practical theology is by nature eclectic. It pulls together strands from various theodicies, even those that seem incompatible on a logical level.” (142)

I found Rice’s book to be enormously helpful. It admirably lays out the various theodicies in a concise manner without being simplistic. His conclusion on a practical theodicy was intriguing and I think warrants some thought. Some will wonder about his guidance to formulate a personal theodicy from contradictory theories simply because they find it comforting. It amounts to saying something like, “I will choose to think this about God. It may not be true but it helps me.” Many of the theodicies are not mutually exclusive and they overlap quite nicely with others. Integrating them successfully is perhaps not always the work of a philosopher but of the sufferer. That is the strength of Rice’s book.

Richard Rice is professor of religion at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. He is the author of several books, including God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will and Reason and the Contours of Faith.