Last Sunday evening in Phoenix I was enjoying a lovely dinner with Jeff and Patti Gokee, along with their two sons, Ben (11) and Cooper (8). A man unexpectedly came up to our table to verbally assault Jeff and me for what we had been conversing about with Ben and Cooper. It was surreal, shocking. I confess that I have never had a total stranger approach me in a restaurant with curses and insults during dinner. The place grew silent as people watched in amazement. Jeff and I both thought it was a joke until the man began to call us names and assault us angrily with everything he had but his fists.
To understand this verbal assault you must know that Ben (11) wanted to discuss some pressing theological concerns with me and his dad has encouraged him to ask at dinner. His questions were about his brother Cooper (8), who has been in a battle with leukemia for several months now. (You could easily tell that Cooper has been undergoing some serious medical issues by his physical appearance which is the result of chemo treatment.) Ben asked, “Did God give my brother this cancer?” I answered, “No, God does not send us evil diseases. He did not give this cancer to Cooper.” But Ben said, “If he is God then didn’t he allow this cancer since he could have stopped it?” I answered, “Yes, Ben this true.” I said that God had originally given us nothing but good but that creation was now touched by sin and evil because of the fall. The fall was allowed because God loved us and wanted us to love him back without constraint. But as a result of allowing sin God had planned to use evil like cancer for his glory and our good. He would reveal his love to us even in the darkness of human pain and cancer. I added that God is good, always good, but for some reason he sometimes allows evil to touch us for reasons that we can not explain. I concluded that someday we would see why he had allowed this evil to touch Cooper but this might not be clear at all until we are safely home with Christ and his people in the new heavens and new earth.
Jeff added a story about a man he had met in the morning where he had preached in Prescott, Arizona. This man had been in a battle with leukemia that began six years ago. He should not have survived but he is still alive. Jeff told how the man had been sleepless for days and was in intense pain in the hospital. One evening he asked God to comfort him and he felt as if someone can into his room and touched him and put him to sleep. Ten hours later, to the amazement of all the health care folks, he awoke refreshed. Over time he was proven to have been healed. We told Ben and Cooper that we believed it was right to pray against this evil and to intensely desire for God to touch Cooper’s body with healing.
During this conversation this still unidentified man came by our table and began to shout at us with intense anger. He told us that we were feeding lies to these young boys and we should be ashamed. He used several profanity laced sentences to tell me I was a preacher and I was in this line of work to make money. He added that I should be exposed as a complete fraud. As I said, it was a stunning moment. The whole place was watching. I tried to say something to the man as he walked away but he would not listen. I said, “Sir, I hope you feel better for sharing your honest concern. I would love to talk to you.” He turned and called me a name again and pointed at me and yelled, “You just ought to be ashamed!”
What do you do? What can you say?
First, we calmly talked about what happened. We concluded that the man must have had a very bad experience with Christians, and ministers in particular, and that he was deeply hurt and angry person. We felt deep sympathy for him and prayed for him. We also felt that something more than a human spirit had been present at our table. I am not one to “see” the demonic everywhere but when I see evil so brutally exposed I usually recognize it. Jeff and I have both seen the demonic openly in India and we both felt we had seen it again in Phoenix.
Second, we talked to the boys about what happened and how to respond. We asked them what they felt and why. We also told Ben and Cooper that they should always feel free to ask questions and talk about anything that troubled them about God and faith. We said that keeping these hard questions inside can lead to the reaction that we had just seen in the restaurant. I think we saw evil turned to good. Christ was honored and glorified.
Now, five days later I am still amazed at what happened last Sunday evening. It was one of the most remarkable encounters in a public setting that I’ve ever had in America. As we were leaving the restaurant the waiter came over and said, “God bless you!” Some people just say that but he said it with deep feeling. I believe he, and others, were watching to see what we did and how we handled it. By God’s grace I think we bore witness to the love of God. I still pray for this man and ask God to forgive him and heal him. I believe he has no idea how deeply he has been hurt. His pain is real. So is the pain of many, many people who have had a bad experience with Christians who talk about God. May we all be filled with pity and compassion for the lost and angry people we meet in our journey through this world.
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Yes, John, God bless you. I think the waiter’s comment was a part of how God interjected himself in the situation which is an unexplainable as was the topic you were discussing. My sense is there is a unity in all of that. As much as illness can be considered a form of evil or abject brokeness, so can the hurtful and inconsiderate actions we observe also be part of that brokeness. The man’s actions are all too common today. I perpetually battle with myself about unfriending some on Facebook because of the emotional, irrational and hurtful outbursts of some. I quit riding motorcycles years ago when I found drivers to be becomming more and more aggressive and presenting a greater danger to me than I was willing to take. Cable TV and talk radio is merely an ongoing diatribe. We have become so self identified with our own ideas that we cannot consider compromise any more than we would shed a body part merely at the request of a stranger. However, I do not think that we are “going to hell in a handbasked.” Rather Hell seems to be revealing itself by the basketfull. Is this not a Gospel opportunity, an opportunity to be light in great darkness? To be salt in great blandness? To be Christ in a very broken world. Thank you for being that salt and light John. And, thank you for the story.
A good days work brother. May God imprint those boys with the moment and yours and Jeff’s response in such a way that they become valiant for truth all their lives. And may our great God put believers in that man’s life who will not be intimidated by his anger and pain but who will love him and continue to speak the truth to him.
John, what a wonderful testimony to those who witnessed this and, especially, to those two boys. I pray that God would fill me with His grace if I ever encounter a situation like this.
What a story. How stunning and strange. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Well, there’s at least a little irony in the fact that he appealed to the concept of shame while publicly ranting at a stranger.
However, for some people, religion does provoke their deepest and most sincere ire, and the sad thing is that too often the church has justly provoked this. I wish we were more vocal and active in cleaning up our act, because unfortunately none of his accusations ring hollow. Too many are making a fortune off of ministry.
While I agree with you entirely I do wonder why faith expressed by sincere people draws such ire. Do we Christians deserve it at times? For sure. But what other subject draws this kind of fiery response and emotion? Perhaps politicians get this response too since we are so generally skeptical about them and their motives. And perhaps this is the general coarsening of culture. But perhaps this is what Jesus meant about the world hating us too. I tend to see all of those at work here and more. I know I deserve worse treatment if I am to be judged by my complete faithfulness to Jesus. As I have prayed for this stranger I have seen his face, heard his voice and asked the Father to pour out his grace and mercy upon him.
John, profound. Thanks for sharing. Seems the greatest lesson/reminder for you, Jeff, Patti, Ben and Cooper, and the strongest exhortation for all of us is that in your returning good for evil you all flourish, and the Name of God is lifted up. May it ever be – and increasingly – thus.