June 8, 2013

Let Me Be More Explicit ... (Part Three): Permanent Goosebumps

At 10pm on June 8, 2003, my wife Vonna experienced what has been described, even to the most dubious of my fellow skeptics, as a genuine, documented, and verified "miracle".

From wheelchair dependent ...

Ten years ago, Vonna had been deemed “permanently disabled” by four years of rapidly advancing secondary progressive multiple sclerosis.  She was numb and partially paralyzed over the left half of her body.  She experienced double vision and eye pain.  She suffered cognitive impairment and debilitating fatigue.  She was dependent on leg braces, canes and an electric wheelchair, forcing us to move to a handicap-accessible house.  Halfway towards being licensed as a marriage and family therapist, Vonna was unable to continue working, and had to let go of her career aspirations.  At this point,the best we dared hope for was that continued medical care would at least slow down the inevitable deterioration of her condition.  But even that hope was growing thin.

... to playing volleyball.
Then, at 10pm on June 8, 2003, as Vonna was falling asleep, and several hours after we skeptically allowed a visiting minister pray for her, Vonna was startled awake by an intense heat penetrating her body, lasting for about five minutes.  The next morning, she got out of bed to the astonishing realization that, for the first time in years, she had feeling on the left side of her body, that her left leg was responding, and that she had to awkwardly try to remember how to walk with two working legs.  Within days, Vonna began kayaking, hiking, swimming, and even playing volleyball.  Whatever had happened that evening was beginning to seem like not only an instantaneous, but a complete healing from every trace of MS.   But for a skeptic like me, the next question became, was it permanent?

With skeptical hyper-vigilance, and a certain measure of stunned disbelief (at least on my part), we kept looking for the slightest hint of any of the all-too-familiar symptoms.  But none ever returned, not even for a moment.  A few weeks later, Vonna returned to see her neurologist, who examined her diligently, trying to make sense of what he was seeing, finally confirming that, as far as he could tell, Vonna had no detectable indications of MS.  In stunned amazement, he was left with nothing to say other than “It’s a miracle,” and to tell her there he saw no reason she needed to take another dose of the dozen or so medications on which she had been dependent.
Today, we are ten years closer to the declaring Vonna's healing as not only instantaneous and complete, but permanent.

If we had dared to ponder in early 2003 what things would be like ten years in the future, the best we probably would have expected was that Vonna might still be able to take a few steps on her own, and would hopefully have not yet reached the point of needing full-time care. Never could we have imagined that instead we'd be spending the day kayaking and biking. We are thankful and blessed beyond our wildest dreams.   
Word for the day:  horripilation

And that's why, ten years later, thinking about what happened at 10pm on June 8, 2003, still gives us the goosebumps.

December 9, 2011

Let Me Be More Explicit ... (Part Two)

"In the pages that follow, we want to shine the spotlight on a remarkable woman who had a remarkable journey toward healing. Was she skeptical about people who claimed to have special powers? Absolutely. Until ..."
Thus begins one of the stories in the recently published book “Miracles Are For Real” by James Garlow and Keith Wall – a collection of stories that I, as an inveterate skeptic, would normally treat with a high degree of suspicion as being potentially distorted, exaggerated, or completely fabricated.

Only this time, something is different. In this case, it’s a story which I had the unique opportunity to test with an unusually intense level of scrutiny. Whereas other times I would only hear of these supposed miracles after the fact, this time I was able to fully observe the relentlessly deteriorating condition of this woman for four years prior to the “miracle”. I was there to take in all the sights, sounds, and emotions connected the “miracle” event itself. And I’ve spent the last 8½ years testing the completeness and permanence of this claimed healing. You see, the “remarkable woman” described in Chapter 7 of “Miracles Are For Real” is my wife.

June 8, 2011

Let Me Be More Explicit ... (Part One)

You’ve probably seen the cartoon of two scientists standing at a blackboard full of equations, in the midst of which are the words “then a miracle occurs …”  Pointing at these words, one scientist says to the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”

On June 8, 2003, I was a witness to an extraordinary event that many people have called a miracle.  At about 10pm that evening, my wife Vonna, who had been deemed “permanently disabled” from a highly aggressive and rapidly advancing form of crippling Multiple Sclerosis, felt a sudden surge of heat through her body, a few hours after being prayed for at our church by a so-called “faith healer”.    She woke up the next morning to the astounding realization that that the disabling symptoms that had plagued her on a daily basis for the previous four years, were suddenly nonexistent. The day that I'm writing this marks eight years since every trace of an incurable and incapacitating disease instantly vanished, never to return.

Upon hearing of this story, the authors of a new book (to be released in October) called "Miracles are for Real" decided to investigate, and have included a chapter on what happened.  That's remarkable in itself, because I’m always skeptical of stories like this.  My first inclination is to wonder how much of the story is fabricated, distorted, or just delusional.   So how did I handle it when I suddenly had to deal with the evidence on a firsthand basis?  Did a skeptical, scientifically-minded person like me have to resort to a “then a miracle occurred …” explanation?   Well, in response to the cartoon, let me be more explicit …

February 22, 2011

One Hump, or Two?

I’ve recently begun participating in the pilot run of a discussion group called “Skepsis”.   The goal of Skepsis is to encourage openness and dialogue among atheists, agnostics, and believers, in an atmosphere of healthy skepticism which, in its purest form, simply means “exploring truth claims from all angles”.   (For more on skepticism, see my earlier post, “The View from the Skeptic Tank”.)

In the introduction to this eight-week

December 5, 2010


I’ll admit it.  I’m a perfectionist.  I hate mistakes.  If you want to drive me crazy¹, just show me a sign with an unnecessary apostrophe, use the phrase “between you and I,” or pronounce “poinsettia” as if it had only three syllables. 
¹ (As my wife would say, “it’s not a drive, it’s a putt.”)

Sometimes, there’s a sense of irony attached to the mistake, such as when the error appears in a pronouncement touting the quality of the local schools.   Or when people use an erroneous understanding of inerrancy to perpetuate erroneous ideas. 

May 28, 2010

Random Thoughts

Where did the universe come from? How did life develop? Do we have a purpose?

To the philosophical naturalist, our existence is the result of pure accident – the product of a series of random events in a multitude of universes.

Most Christians would take the opposite stance:   that the universe reflects God's intentional and purposeful design.  After all, the concept of chance is inconsistent with an omniscient and omnipotent God. 

Or is it?

March 23, 2010

An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution: Encouraging Critical Thinking in Evangelical Churches: The Scientist as a Bible Teacher

I was recently invited to submit a guest post to an online series of articles on "Evangelicals, Evolution, and the Church".  My topic was the importance of, and what can be done to promote, critical thinking in churches:

An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution: Encouraging Critical Thinking in Evangelical Churches: The Scientist as a Bible Teacher

February 14, 2010

Maimonides, Monkeys, and Monet

Basic Teleology

There is a story, attributed to the 12th century Jewish teacher Moses Maimonides, in which he shows his students a beautiful landscape painting, and tells them that the painting was the result of someone bumping a table, and accidentally spilling paint on a blank canvas. As the students laugh at this preposterous claim, the teacher asks, “Then how can you believe that the complete cosmos, in which everything is held in perfect balance, appeared by chance?”

January 9, 2010

Mind the Gap!

If you've ever ridden the "Tube" in London, you've heard the warning "Mind the gap!" as you step from the train. But the warning to "mind the gap" is one that should also be heeded by those engaging in discussions of science and faith. A recent question about a new scientific discovery led to the following discussion of the "God-of-the-Gaps" fallacy, and why we should be careful to avoid such arguments:

December 13, 2009

If You Want to Fish for Men, You Have to Cut Debate

To listen to many American Christians, you would think that the main mission of the church was to fight a culture war. There seems to be an implicit belief that if we can just win that culture war (whether that means ending abortion, banning gay marriage, or proving science wrong), then people’s hearts will change.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t recall Jesus ever using that approach. He didn’t debate science, run for political office, or lead demonstrations. It seems to me that He was more interested in changing hearts, one person at a time.

November 29, 2009

Phil's "Etch A Sketch of Understanding" Proposal

Pianist/comedian Victor Borge used to joke that the first piano ever invented was very boring to listen to, because it only had one large key. It wasn’t a success until somebody finally came along and invented the cracks. 

I wonder if there was a similar problem with the invention of the Etch A Sketch®. Perhaps there was an early version that only had one knob. With one knob, the drawing stylus could only go back and forth along a single straight horizontal line. The novelty would have worn off rather quickly. Not until some genius came up with the idea of a second knob would the vertical dimension be added, and the Etch A Sketch would be on its way to becoming the most popular drawing toy ever invented.

November 19, 2009

Is God Bipolar?

Critics of Christianity often point to, and Christians themselves are often troubled by, the apparent differences between the “Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God”. How did an Old Testament God, who was all about laws, judgment, and “eye for an eye” vengeance, transform Himself into a New Testament God who is all about grace, forgiveness, and “turning the other cheek”? Does this prove that the Bible is inconsistent? Is it just a work of fiction, in which the New Testament writers forgot to check for continuity errors? Did God undergo some kind of transformation between the Old and New Testaments? Does God suffer from bipolar disorder?

November 2, 2009

How Many Lutherans Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?

As both a scientist and believer, I’ve always been baffled by the attitude many believers and churches have towards science. For me, discovering something new and unexpected in God’s creation is always an opportunity to find out new and unexpected things about God Himself. Yet many believers and churches tend to be react with cynicism, fear, or downright hostility towards science. Scientists are cast as promoters of some subversive godless agenda, in spite of the large number of professional scientists who actually do believe in a personal, prayer-answering God.

Over the next few blog postings, I’m going to explore some of the issues that lie at the heart of this attitude of skepticism, fear, and hostility, and how to deal with them.

The first issue I’m going to address is: Resistance to Change

October 2, 2009

But It's Counterintuitive!

I recently had someone tell me that one of their reasons for doubting a certain scientific explanation was that it was “counterintuitive”. That got me to thinking – how reliable is our intuition, and is being counterintuitive a valid reason for rejecting a premise?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that almost all useful advances in knowledge begin with a counterintuitive step. And that’s precisely where scientific discovery operates, and where science is often attacked: at the point where new observations contradict our intuition.

April 3, 2009

Why is the Water Boiling? (A Parable)

Science and faith each claim to be pathways to discovery of ultimate truths. Yet the answers they come up with often seem so different, that one wonders how they can both be observing the same reality. How is it even remotely possible that science and faith could have equal validity as I seem to be claiming?

To address this paradox, Cambridge mathematical physicist and Anglican priest (how’s that for a set of credentials?) Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne often cites the different types of answers that could be given to the question: “Why is the water boiling?” To further illustrate the point, I have embellished the illustration into the form of the following parable:

April 1, 2009

The View from the Skeptic Tank

Are you a skeptic? Before you answer that, let me tell you that, in my opinion, most people who call themselves skeptics are frauds.

You see, a skeptic is someone who doubts, probes and questions. Skeptics don’t accept commonly held beliefs just because they are popular, sound good, or tend to confirm a position they’ve already taken. A true skeptic continues to question and reexamine positions including, and I would say especially, their own.

On the other hand, most self-proclaimed skeptics I know of have long ago staked out their position, and exercise their “skepticism” only against those with whom they already disagree. In my mind, that makes them “cynics”, not “skeptics”.

March 27, 2009

Introducing "Faith for Thinkers"

“Make a choice. You can believe the claims of science. Or you can believe the Bible. But you can’t have it both ways.”

No matter which side of the wall you’re on, you’ve probably heard those, or similar words. Maybe even from your own lips.

When spoken by a believer, the implication is that the claims of science are nothing but godless speculation. Science is fundamentally flawed, and has deluded the world into believing a system of lies in a desperate attempt to explain away anything supernatural.

When the same words are uttered by a scientist, the implication is that Christians have been deluded into believing a fairy tale, for which there is absolutely no evidence. Science deals with observable, provable facts, while Christianity is founded on make-believe.