Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

Next week will be American Thanksgiving (I refuse to call it “Turkey Day” on principle). It will be a day of food, of family and friends, a day in which we, those who have been incomparably blessed by a magnificent and glorious God, simply say “Thank you.” It is a day in which we become living eucharists, and we would do well to remember the Great Thanksgiving and the whole of salvation history as we tuck in to our overflowing plates.

But this year, things will be different for countless families. They will, for the very first time, observe the holiday without a family member. A parent has died in the last year, a sibling disowned his or her family, a spouse did the unthinkable and the other was forced to end the marriage in a bitter divorce. Chairs across the country will be empty, and those who remain will remember the ones who once sat across the table.

They never really leave us, do they? Grandparents and parents in particular live on in their families. We share traits with those who have gone on, little quirks that always remind us they’re not truly gone. My sister buys raisin bran so she can pick out the raisins and have frosted bran flakes (like our grandfather did). I have a fondness for chocolate-covered cherries (like our grandmother). A cousin has her mother’s eyes, a father carves the turkey with the same knife his father used, and on and on and on. It’s those little moments of recollection which give us a twinge of memory, a faint smile, and the hope of one day sitting around the table with them in the age to come.

Others have a more difficult time of it. Families ripped asunder by divorce may sit in awkward silence, a mother dreading a child asking why a father isn’t home this year. A man who believed he had found “the one” sits alone in the only apartment he could afford and wonders why she suddenly stopped loving him. Holidays are hard days.

Regardless of the nature of the missing, those people will still be missed; they will be conspicuous only by their absence, but that absence will be felt. Even though they’re gone, they remain a part of us, and we carry them with us throughout our lives. I’m reminded of a Wordsworth poem, “We Are Seven.” It’s a bit long, but it’s worth the read.

“We Are Seven”

———A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.
She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
—Her beauty made me glad.
“Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said,
And wondering looked at me.
“And where are they? I pray you tell.”
She answered, “Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.
“Two of us in the church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the church-yard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother.”
“You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
Sweet Maid, how this may be.”
Then did the little Maid reply,
“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.”
“You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five.”
“Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
The little Maid replied,
“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
And they are side by side.
“My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.
“And often after sun-set, Sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.
“The first that dies was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.
“So in the church-yard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.
“And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.”
“How many are you, then,” said I,
“If they two are in heaven?”
Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
“O Master! we are seven.”
“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

 

Take time this Thanksgiving to offer thanks for another year with a family intact. Take time to remember those who face an empty chair but whose hearts still say “We are seven.” And give thanks to the God who gives us all things, the creator and sustainer of all which is seen and unseen.

If you still have time after that, go eat some turkey.

F.A.Q.: The Problem of Evil (A Reasonable, Rational Faith Part III)

I once attended a debate between two philosophers of religion (who were also philosophers of science). One was an ardent atheist, the other a committed Christian, and, as you’ve probably already guessed by now, the debate topic was the existence of God. When it came time for closing comments, the atheistic philosopher said something like this: “When someone asks me why I absolutely cannot believe in God, my answer is always ‘Anne Frank, Anne Frank, Anne Frank.’ I cannot and will not believe in a God who would allow this little girl to die. She believed in him, she prayed to him, and he let her die for some evil reason. And as long as evils like that exist in the world, and as long as a God who is supposedly good allows them to exist, I cannot believe in his existence.”

And you have to admit: it’s a pretty good argument. And a pretty common one, too. I’d say most atheists I have personally met don’t disbelieve out of a commitment to a particular epistemology or other form or worldview; they don’t believe in God because there seems to be so much evil in the world, all of which functions as evidence to the contrary. As I’ve said before, the God of Christianity is an O-O-G God: omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good (and omnipresent, too). A wholly good God will only do good things. It stands to reason, then, such an entity would seek to eliminate all evil, or at least mitigate or alleviate it somewhat. As the philosopher from the debate said, the very existence of such an incomprehensible evil as the Holocaust must in some fashion be evidence against theism. He reminded me of a quote allegedly found scratched into the walls of a barracks in the Mauthausen concentration camp: “If there is a God, he will have to beg my forgiveness.”

It’s a natural, human response to seeing such an atrocity. For someone or something to have the power to spare millions of lives at will and to not do so . . . surely that counts as evil. Or, at the very least, the ultimate litmus test for its existence — and it comes out negative.

So it goes. The Christian martyrs, the ones of whom the world is not worthy according to Hebrews 11:38, all died believing in the God who let them die. Other people point to more personal evils and sufferings. Why do children have cancer? Why are they born with AIDS, addictions, and terminal illnesses? Why was my daughter raped? Why did he kill my son?

Powerful, emotional questions. Questions which demand an answer. So I’m going to give you the best answer I have:

I don’t know.

No one does. It is, perhaps, the single greatest unanswered and unanswerable question in the world (or at least of which I’m aware). But there are potential answers, and it’s those I’d like to address. But let me begin by making my personal theological convictions crystal clear: I do not believe the existence of evil to be the direct act of God. I don’t think it’s God’s will babies are stillborn and miscarried. I don’t think God looked down one day and said, “You know, I think I need to off a few million of my greatest worshipers.” I just don’t. There’s an entire school of theological thought which does believe such things, which says everything happens because God directly makes it happen. If that’s the God you don’t believe in, let me join you. Because I don’t believe in such a God, either.

I also don’t believe evil is always the result of a great personal sin. When Christ restores sight to a blind man in John 9, the Twelve ask Jesus, “Who sinned, him or his parents, that this man was born blind?” That was contemporary thought in the first century. If something bad happens to you, it was because someone sinned. I’m not convinced that always the case. Don’t get me wrong; I still believe in a God who disciplines His children, because that’s the God we encounter in Scripture (Hebrews 12). I just don’t believe that to be the case 100% of the time, because then you get a God who is responsible for all evil. Again, I don’t believe in that kind of God.

But I do believe in a God who honors the free will of the individual. Probably the best answer to the problem of evil (as it’s known; in theology, everything is a “problem” or a “scandal”; it’s rather disheartening, really) I’ve heard is what is now known as the Free Will Defense. The free will defense runs something like this: God is good; God gave humans free will as part of the image of God which we bear; free will is good; God will not revoke free will; free will can be used for evil; God will not stop evil when to do so would violate free will. It’s possible for almost all evil to be a result of a free will decision at some point in life (I still struggle with a few things, to be totally transparent). But this shifts the blame for evil from God to a fallen people living in a fallen world dominated by the true progenitor of all evil, Satan himself.

If that one doesn’t do it for you, there’s the classic “Greater Good” argument which I find a bit . . . problematic. According to this one, existing evils are permitted because they in some fashion achieve a greater good. It’s a rather utilitarian calculus I’m not sure God buys into, but here we are. So here we have a model wherein God is not responsible for evil, but can use it for His (often inscrutable) purposes.

In any event, it should be noted that God will not allow evil to continue indefinitely. There is a final judgment coming, after which no evil may persist. All things are redeemed and made new; they are sanctified and glorified, and evil will not remain. Everything will be in the presence of God, and a holy God cannot have sin in His presence. Evil will be destroyed, eternally punished. That should give us some comfort, even as live through great sorrow. We serve a just God, and His justice is terrible. (Old school “inspires terror” terrible, not the “eww, that’s rather shoddy work” kind of terrible. Just FYI.)

Again, I don’t presume to know the answer here. I know how I believe, and I can only offer a couple of the classic responses to the question of evil. But I don’t think the existence of evil precludes the existence of God. Both evil and a wholly good God can exist — temporarily. And until evil is destroyed forevermore, until the day when only He of the two of them will live forever, God will be with us, comfort us when we’re broken. Christ will look at his scars, gaze into our eyes so full of hurt, and whisper, “Me, too.”

Ours is a God who has truly felt our pain. And He is a God who will one day wipe the tears from our eyes forever.