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Why did God allow this to happen in Newtown?

Flickr CCL Sharon Mollerus

The murder of so many little children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, December 14th, is a hard thing to face and leaves everyone a little bit short of the answers they seek.  In response the sadness my sister felt over the event, she told her friends and co-workers that while we’ll never find a satisfactory answer for why this happened, “we can all pray for God to comfort all the parents as we’re reminded of how little control we actually have over life and death.”

The first response she got was, “The same god who allowed this to happen?”

Psalm 24 begins with the reminder, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.”  Every person and every place in this world are subject to our God’s sovereignty.  So why did God allow this to happen?  How can we pray to a God that has the sovereign power to remove evil from this world, but allows children to be shot in their schoolroom?

This not an easy question to answer, and when we find an answer to hold on to, it will inevitably leave us wanting something more satisfying.  Christians have been faced with this type of question since the foundation of our faith.  Even the Apostle Paul dealt with great sorrow when faced with the accusation that God is unjust.  If we could handle the issue better than one who saw the risen Christ with his own eyes, it would be a miracle.  People have struggled with the problem of evil in this world for millennia, though some have handled it better than others.

In every case our questioning of God’s sovereignty is met without any direct answer.  Job never got a reason for his troubles, and God replied by asking, “Who are you to question Me?”  Similarly, Paul rebutted his accusers by asking, “Who is man to question God?”  We continue to do it anyway, though.  We question God every time we can’t understand why such bad things happen.  These questions are real and they are serious.  They force Christians to take a real look at the state of this sinful world and at the character of the God we serve.

When we do respond to questions about God in the face of tragedy, and we must, we have inspired scripture as our guide.  We know that God will return and remove evil from this world, and when that happens, it will not be a job half done.  The problem for those asking for God to swoop in and keep evil things from happening is that when God returns to remove evil from this world, this world will end.  It will all be over when our good God keeps bad things from happening.  It won’t just be the crazy mass murderers that are taken away, but also those who lied even once, those who cheated just a little, and those who disobeyed a single thing their parents said.  Grades of punishment for different sins are given only for mankind’s governance of this world.  In the presence of a perfect and holy God, the slightest sin is a damning sin.  When we ask for God to stop the evil in this world, we are asking Him to either deny His own standard of perfection, holiness, and justice or we are asking Him to end this world.

Well then, what’s stopping Him?  Why can’t he just get it over with so we don’t have to struggle through murders and disasters?  The Apostle Peter tells us that we suffer through these things during his so-called delay because He is patient with us.  We suffer in this temporary place so that every person possible has a chance to hear the gospel and have fellowship with God for eternity.  Such is the severity of the punishment we face after death without the salvation found in Jesus Christ.  Such is the desire of God to save His children.  That this answer leaves us wholly unsatisfied points out our inability to comprehend the severity of Hell compared to what we suffer here.

I am under no illusion that this answer makes this situation easier for the parents and family of those who died in Newton, Connecticut.  This answer does not make the loss of a child more bearable or take away the intense grief when a family member dies.  This answer leaves us wanting.  Even Jesus wept at the loss of his friend Lazarus when he knew full well that he’d just call him out of the grave five minutes later.  Life is precious and of great value.  This answer won’t dry any tears, but I do believe this is why God does not swoop in and keep disturbed and sinful people from making their evil choices.

So what good does it do?  What comfort can such a God possibly bring in this situation?

The answer to this question is easier to bring into focus.  God addressed the needs of each person in that town long before this tragedy took place.  He provided for them though the sacrificial act of atonement of Jesus Christ who died in our place so that sin itself would be condemned.  Through the death of His only son, Jesus, God took care of the eternal destiny of the children and the eternal destiny of the murderer in the same act.

Because of scripture passages such as Deuteronomy 1:39, Matthew 18:3-6, and Matthew 18:10-14, we can be certain that God holds children in a separate category from those who understand the difference between right and wrong.  Many also believe that 2 Samuel 12:21-23 is an example of David expressing belief that he would see his dead son again after he dies.

God provides comfort to the grieving parents in Newtown by assuring them that their children are in heaven and that through faith in Christ, they will see their children again.

The one who committed the act of murder now faces God’s judgement.  He does not face jail on our government’s dime with free food and clothes for the rest of his life.  He faces eternal torment for his sin.  Some may find this disturbing because of his known mental problems.  But there is no escaping the plans and choices this young man made over an extended period of time that led to this event.

God can provide comfort to the people in Newtown by assuring them that effective justice for the murder of their children and family members has been dealt.

God did not prevent this terrible event from happening, but He has not ignored it.  Nor did it catch Him by surprise.  God sent his only Son at just the right time so that those children could spend eternity in heaven and so that justice could rightfully be given to a murderer.  Let us mourn with those who mourn, and pray that Jesus comes quickly.

My sister summarized it well.
“The same god who allowed this to happen?”
“Yes,” she replied, “the same One who also understands the real pain of losing your child.”

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How important is four months of life?

On September 25th, 2010, an article was put out by Associated Press titled “$93,000 cancer drug: How much is a life worth?”  The basic story was one of huge medical bills charged to cancer patients for very little return in length of life.  Insurance picks up most of the tab, but the money does have to come from somewhere.  And so the question, how much is a life worth?  If it costs $100,000 to add four months to someone’s life, do you spend it or decide that the gain is not worth the cost?  What about $21,500 for 11 weeks?  What about $24,000 for 12 days?

An answer to this question can come from at least three points of view: from the cancer patient, from the strangers in the insurance office, from the family and friends of that cancer patient.

If you knew you would only live another 4 months, would you ask your family to give up what would likely be a large portion of their retirement savings?  If you knew you would only live another 12 days would you ask your family to give up a significant portion of a year’s salary?  Weighing cost and benefit like this, it would be easy to say no.  I don’t think I would ask my family to trade in real opportunity for real trouble just so I could die a little later.

If a stranger was tasked with overseeing a fixed amount of dollars that could be spent on helping to pay other people’s medical bills, how does he or she approach the question?  He can either give one person 4 more months, or give 4 people 12 more days.  He also could do neither and give 100 people prescription drugs that raise the quality of life indefinitely (or years beyond the time scale considered here anyway).  He could say that one person’s 12 days aren’t worth the suffering of 100 people for years.  The decision does have to be made, after all.  There is a fixed amount of resources and an ever growing number of people asking for them.

The third viewpoint is the hard one.  Would you spend that money so that the family member you love would live another 4 months, or even 12 days?  How would you even begin to think about it?  It seems that if the decision is based solely on your emotions, then your own recent history is what determines the fate of your loved one.  If you’ve been stressed out about money then the prospect of having to pay such a huge sum is just going to send you into despair. If you have been doing well, then anything is worth the effort of raising the money to help your family member live even 1 day longer.  Is one answer correct or does it just depend on the situation?

I’m not trying to set aside quality of life issues.  No one wants to prolong someone’s groaning pain by artificial means, but that is not generally what people are asked to do.  That is not what the drugs in the AP article do.  They give a decent quality of life for the amount of time that is given.

And so, is the value of life really dependent on our emotional state or size of our bank account?

It is most comfortable to say that the value of a person’s life, loved one or stranger, should not be determined by economic reasoning at all.  Nor should we have to rely on our fickle emotions to guide us.  Each human being is unique and has value that is independent of the power of a dollar.  The measuring stick is wrong, like asking for the color of the wind.  I think that is why the question makes you feel like you have to disembody yourself from human experience to come up with an answer that makes sense.

What brought this question back to mind was a story tonight on Rock Center with Brian Williams about making end of life decisions along with your family instead of waiting until your family members are the only ones capable of answering.  One of the points in the story is that quality of life can be better than quantity of days.  It is not a story about euthanasia.  Killing yourself is an absurd decision that is made from a place of despair and ignorance.  The Rock Center story is one about having the discussion of when to deny treatment in favor of palliative care, and focus on comfort of the person.

The topic of the Rock Center episode seems to be slightly different than the question of cost of care, but another point in the story is that the ultimate cost of care goes down when these decisions are made ahead of time.  Rather than the default always being incurring more cost in hospital stays and treatments, many decide on comfort rather than more days to live.

In the Old Testament it always seems so much easier.  Abraham just laid down and died peacefully.  Jacob gave everyone a verbose farewell and laid down and died peacefully.  Moses gave a huge speech and went off into the mountains.  It didn’t cost any money at all to die back then.  How do we take guidance about answering this question from those types of examples?

Well, for one, the value of life is everywhere upheld and purposefully ending your own life early is everywhere rejected.  The bible also reminds us that, for those whose faith is in Christ, this life is not the end and that better things await.

Wait.  That’s not helping.  It just means you should stay as long as you can, but don’t bother with staying as long as you can because it’s better elsewhere.  Those types of tensions are found all over the place when looking in scripture.  Each one reminds us that we are not in control.  At some point we have to look to God and let him show us when it is time.

So here is my take on the issue.  Get the best insurance you can so that cost is taken up in other ways, because we should seek to honor the life of our loved ones even if that life will last only 4 more months.  That time with your loved one is worth the cost.  But when you come to the limit of what your economic situation in life will allow, don’t feel guilty about seeking comfort over length of stay.  God has allowed you to live in the place where you are.  He is in ultimate control of when we are called home no matter how much treatment we receive.

The tension and sorrow at these times is real.  There is no such thing as an easy and comfortable loss of a family member.  It is very easy to second guess after the end of life decisions are made because life is worth whatever cost we can bear.  But remember that maybe the death of Abraham, Jacob, and Moses are portrayed in such peaceful manners because that is how it is supposed to be.  Quality of life is worth the cost.  But as we try and color the wind we can also remember that we are not in control of our number of days.

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You will never "find yourself"

I have heard it a million times.

“Teenagers are just trying to find themselves.”
“You just have to let people find themselves.”
“Young people are just experimenting to find themselves.”

I have always thought that was one of the dumbest things people say as it has no practical meaning, serving only as an excuse for poor behavior.  Thank you to Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn and author of The Start-up of You, for finally talking some sense:

“Contrary to what many bestselling authors and motivational gurus would have you believe, there is not a ‘true self’ deep within that you can uncover via introspection and that will point you in the right direction,” Hoffman writes. “Yes, your aspirations shape what you do. But your aspirations are themselves shaped by your actions and experiences. You remake yourself as you grow and the world changes. Your identity doesn’t get found. It emerges.”

You cannot “find yourself.”  You will never find a “yourself” somewhere that you don’t already know about.  What you can do is… do something.  By doing something you put experience to your ideas and find what is possible and what is not possible right now.  You do not find some “yourself” and a magical path that will allow your “yourself” to blink happiness and success into existence.

Like the quote above says, what you do shapes your aspirations.  If you let your peers or children or whoever choose foolishness in the name of “finding themselves” then you are letting them shape their aspirations with foolishness.  What kind of person can we possibly expect to emerge then, but a fool?  When a person’s real choice is to do something, instead of “find themselves,” we have a responsibility to try and guide them in a wise manner so that their aspirations are shaped by a solid foundation, not tossing waves.

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The New Writing Plan for 2012

The New Plan for 2012 is not quite as ambitious as the Unaccomplished Plan of 2011.  In looking back on how my time was spent, I have tried to come up with something that still sets high goals but also is in the realm of something a novice can do.   There are fewer goals and they are less specific.  Hopefully this will accommodate shifting priorities and allow for new ideas to find their way into the work plan.  I don’t know if this is chickening out or a growing wisdom, but if you ask me to my face I’m saying its the wisdom thing.

The New Plan:

  1. Read 24 books without pushing to read more.  Pushing to read more is what pushed writing out of the picture on 2011.
  2. Keep up with blogging on the premise that being in the habit of writing something makes it easier to write other things as well.  Post somewhere at least twice per month.
  3. Write poetry.  Continue through Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Traveled and finish all of the exercises.  Attempt some original poems along the way.
  4. Finish at least one short story. I have at least 5 stories with beginnings.  One of them needs to be finished.
  5. Submit finished poetry and short stories somewhere for publication.  This implies learning self-editing skills and convincing someone else to spend their time reading my stories so I can get feedback.
  6. Write and publish two more scientific journal articles.  This should be easy but also should have already been done.

Grand plans were made for 2011 and I came through on only one of them.

  1. Read 10 books.  Well I read 25 books, so that one turned out well.
  2. Finish the Needed Elsewhere story.  I didn’t write even one more word in that story.
  3. Finish the Bernis Brown story.  I worked on it quite a bit, but didn’t finish that one either.
  4. Start on the Set in Stone story.  I didn’t do that either.
  5. Write and edit at least 1000 words every two weeks.  Nope.
  6. Spend five hours per week on writing projects.  Nope, except some of the books I read were writing references.
  7. Publish four scientific articles.  I published one article.
  8. Learn Biblical Hebrew.  I did not.
  9. Start my own company.  I did that but have not monetized on that at all yet.

On the surface it would seem that last year was a bust as far as accomplishing the goals I thought I wanted to accomplish.  I really don’t feel like I wasted my time, though, so perhaps the better way to think of it is that I just wrote down the wrong goals.  After all, I did accomplish everything I made time to do.

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Your clothes are talking to me

An article posted recently on the Christianity Today website speaks rather well to the issue of clothing people wear to church.  There is an idea sneaking into the more contemporary religious mind that the clothing you wear to church makes no difference at all.  It would seem that anyone who has something to say about your dress is simply guilty of judging you.

Some point to passages like 1 Peter 3:3-5 that say your adorning should be from the inside out and pretend this means your clothes are irrelevant.  Others would point to the words of Jesus, such as Mark 12:38-40, which point out that fancy clothes are not signs of true righteousness.  But neither of these passages are really addressing clothing.  They are addressing your heart.  A fancy outer shell will not make up for a dirty heart.

Maybe someone can show me where the bible says a clean heart is best recognized by shabby clothes?

People seem to forget that your clothing speaks.  Clothing is not personal.  Clothing is what you are showing everyone else.  If you follow the warnings of the previous scripture references, it will show up in your clothing.  Non-verbal communication is still important when you go to church.  The apostle Paul obviously thought non-verbal communcation as it applies to clothing absolutely did matter.

Here is the conversation we have when someone walks up to lead worship wearing tennis shoes and faded jeans:
That Guy: “I’m lazy and can’t be bothered to show you any respect.”
Me: “You seem lazy and can’t be bothered to show me any respect.”
That Guy: “Hey! Don’t judge me!”

My dad addressed this same issue in a few handwritten paragraphs I found that were meant for his short lived blog.  What would you think if you walked into the doctor’s office and the person who was supposed to be the authority on healing your body was dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and sandals?  You want your doctor to be dressed professionally.  It shows that he respects you, that he is serious about being a doctor, and implies that he can be trusted.  Walking around UVA there is no doubt which students are in the medical school.  Even underneath the clean white coats they are all dressed very well.  They obviously realize that non-verbal communication matters.

Remembering that clothing matters doesn’t directly translate into a coat and tie in every situation (I have no idea how to describe fancy women’s clothes, sorry).  There are cultural norms to consider that will be different in every place and that change over time.  It obviously doesn’t mean booting visitors or treating them poorly because their clothing isn’t nice.  But that does not make your clothing irrelevant.

Let your clothing reflect your heart appropriately for your situation instead of hiding or disguising your heart in a lazy dress code.  In doing so you will show respect to those around you and better reflect what these passages of scripture are teaching.

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What neuroscience has to say about Romans 7

I recently listened to a couple of interesting podcasts on neuroscience that gave insight into a hard passage in Romans. Read Romans 7:15-25 and then take the time to listen to a couple of episodes from the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast put out by How Stuff Works.  The 9/15/11 podcast “Is free will an illusion?” which lasts about 40 minutes and the 11/8/11 podcast “This is your brain on art” which lasts about 44 minutes are both worth listening to. The first gives insight into how our subconscious can be at odds with our conscious mind and the second describes how we can force ourselves to re-evaluate what the subconscious presents and make different choices.  Of course, both over state the case of what the science actually reveals, but the relevance to the passage in Romans was interesting to me.

Stuff To Blow Your Mind on iTunes

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Sincerely Bob

Dear Professor,

                Sorry about the mess in the lab.  All the animals are gone now.  I don’t remember how that happened.  I was trying to finish the latest experiment over the weekend.  Evidently one of the subjects reacted badly and seems to have bitten me.  I don’t remember how that happened.  I tried to seal the biter in and start the sterilization.  The break in the glass must have kept that from working.  I don’t remember how that happened.  I think I called out for help from one of the other students.  She is mostly gone now.  I don’t remember how that happened.  Now that as the hour is getting late I have become hungry and need to grab something to eat.  If you will stand very still while reading this letter, you won’t remember how it happened.