Friday, August 15, 2014

What I learned from my brush with depression

The last two weeks have been tough. I feel a little like a diver who is just surfacing, his lungs crying out for air.

One of the reasons for this is the difficult news about Robin Williams' depression, substance abuse, illness, and suicide, and all the discussion (most of it, I think healthy) which has followed it.

This has kicked up dust around memories ... of friends who have committed suicide, and even of my own (mercifully brief) period of depression, back in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at college.

I haven't shared my experience with a lot of people, for one thing because of the stigma, and for another because in many ways it was not nearly as bad as many other people I know who have gone through depression a lot longer and deeper than I did. I never even sought professional help, or took medication, or anything like that; I merely sought some adjustments in my personal life, and prayed they would help. Along with the encouragement of friends and loved ones. And by God's grace I survived.

So I don't feel like I have a whole lot to contribute to the discussion. But, nevertheless my experience has shaped me (and my empathy for people who do go through depression) in certain important ways.

A Wake-Up Call

Most people's freshman years at college are a wake-up call. Or at least mine was. You have made a major transition out of a home you shared with parents and siblings, and now you share your life with a roommate (someone you may not have even known before) and fellow students. You have to work a lot harder at schooling. You have new challenges to your social life. And new financial challenges. In short, you are suddenly "adult" and have to figure out how to start acting like one.

I'm pretty Type A, and my response to some of these challenges was to burn the candle at both ends: Work harder, study later, get less sleep than I needed. Before the end of my freshman year, these bad habits contributed to me coming down with a serious case of the flu, one which I had a tough time healing from due to the pit of exhaustion I had dug myself into. I was still sort of healing from that, about the time finals occurred, in all their nastiness. Then school was out and I went back home for the summer. I went from a mad, careening kind of existence to a very slow-paced, lounge-around-the-house, do some yardwork, not-know-what-to-do-with-yourself kind of lifestyle. The transition really threw me for a loop.

Something snapped. By "something," I mean I now realize some sort of chemical reaction occurred deep in my brain which affected my sense of well-being very negatively, and plunged me into the depths of a black depression. It was sudden, it was something I had never before experienced. And it was absolutely and utterly terrifying.

The fear of it had a unique taste or a smell (sort of ... it actually wasn't either, but that's the closest way I can explain it) which was overwhelmingly unpleasant. This sounds subjective, but it was very objective to me. I remember one day I was driving my car up this street in my hometown and approached a signal, which had turned green. I was crossing this major intersection. As I entered the intersection, everything was fine. But something descended on me like a cloud of lead right as my car was traversing the intersection. And when I came out of it, several seconds later and 100 feet further north, I was in a black pit of despair.

And there was absolutely no rhyme or reason to it. It was utterly terrifying.

I tried to reach out to those I was closest to in the world ... my mom, and my girlfriend (who is now my wife). Both were sympathetic, but I knew with terrifying clarity that they didn't REALLY understand what I was going through. How could they? When someone tries to describe what I just described, what more can you do other than look at them with pity and lay your hand on their hand and assure them of your love and prayers and that everything will be okay. Which is what they did.

And I'm sure it helped ... but it wasn't enough. For I had the utter conviction (caused by whatever chemical imbalance was going on in my brain) that the demon that had descended to smother my used-to-be-peaceful-and-normal life would NEVER leave. When I was in the blackness, I could never conceive of being out of it again. It's hard to conceive of light when you're surrounded by total darkness. It was as if I was paralyzed and floating face-down in inky black water, holding my breath as the seconds ticked by and my lungs screamed out for air. In those moments I could not conceive of ever feeling normal again.

And may I say that, even after I did (after a few months) finally feel "normal" again, I could still taste or smell that lingering fear just behind the frontal lobes of my brain somewhere. It hasn't completely left, to this day, nearly 40 years later.

Lots of Questions

So, I'm sure you have questions. What helped? How did I come out of it? Did I ever consider suicide? What role did my faith in Christ play?

What helped? How did I come out of it? I did make a decision, which I now feel was the right one, to change venues. I discovered that someone associated with Biola was looking for a housesitter for the summer. The house was an hour away from my parents' home. It was a fearful decision to take such a move, which looked a little like isolating myself, but it really wasn't. I did stay in good touch with friends and family, plus added a layer of new friends, my fellow students at Biola who were sticking around town for the summer and working on various projects. I got a summer job at the school working on just one such project, and busied myself with that ... but not TOO busy. (I had learned that lesson from earlier.) I made sure and left plenty of time to breathe deeply and smell the roses.

I ate nothing but my favorite foods (I practically subsisted on watermelon and bean soup), cleaned up after myself, earned money, enjoyed my new friends, and suddenly began to realize I could be a productive member of society on my own as an adult, out from under my parents' supervision. (I'm not blaming my parents, mind you -- they were wonderful and supportive. There just comes a time when you need to do life on your own. God wired us that way.)

And, I got lots of rest, which I really needed. I'm not talking about sleep-in-til-noon rest, but sit out in the sun and get a tan and enjoy watching the hummingbirds kind of rest.

And slowly I began to improve, and I rejoiced in that improvement because it meant my previous feelings (that I would never get better) must be a lie. I realized (and cherished the realization) that whatever was afflicting me was not primarily demonic, or spiritual, or a result of my own sinfulness ... it was physical, it was chemical. As Jim Daly said in an excellent Focus on the Family article today, "A Christian is no less susceptible to mental illness than to diabetes." (Now that I have diabetes, nearly 40 years later, that struck me as particularly apt.) But even then, I realized my depression was a (mercifully brief, although it didn't feel that way at the time) mental illness.

The Temptation To End It All

Did I ever consider suicide? No, I don't think so, at least not seriously. I've always believed the fundamental truth that God gives life, and God alone has the right to say when it's over. Someone else I read recently made the important distinction between depression (and other forms of mental illness), which are amoral (just like diabetes), and the actions we might be tempted to take, which have entirely moral implications ... like intentionally hurting ourselves or others ... even things like lying, which you might be more prone to when in the throes of some mental illness. I'm sure there are people with sexual addictions that might be caused by some hormonal imbalance. The tendency itself is not sin, just like temptation is not sin. It's the act of yielding to the temptation that's sin. As someone once said, "You can't stop the birds from flying over your head ... but you can decide you're not going to let them build a nest in your hair."

Nevertheless, one of the things my experience did for me was create a significant reluctance to judge someone who does succumb to the temptation to take such actions. I had a friend at church who committed suicide following a very painful brain malfunction and mental illness. Because I've been there (just a little bit), empathy makes me very hesitant to judge someone who has been subjected to a level of pain I will never know. You would obviously have to be very desperate to do what Williams did, to end it all because you cannot see a way out (and on top of that are paralyzed by the fear of an incurable physical illness which is descending upon you).

People say, "Suicide is the ultimate act of selfishness," and that's probably true. But I'm not sure a person in that level of pain sees it that way, at the time. Mental illness prevents you from seeing truth clearly, from holding right attitudes.

But, while I don't want to judge people who may be in that situation, I also don't want to encourage others who may be confronted by such pressures to consider suicide as an option. I do take comfort (and believe it is true for all people at all times) in the Scripture which says: "No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it."

I'm so grateful that God knew exactly where I was in my mental illness, and provided a way out. Claiming His promise helped me hold on.

The Role of Faith

Which leads to the final question: What role did my faith in Christ play?

That to me is one of the most interesting questions. While there were certain lifestyle choices that I had made (like staying up late studying and not getting enough sleep) which contributed to my condition, I honestly believe there wasn't a significant "spiritual" component to my illness. My life with Christ was as strong or stronger than it had ever been, when I entered my depression. There wasn't any huge hidden unconfessed sin I was struggling with. That's one thing that made my depression so terrifying at the time, there really didn't seem to be any reason for it that I could identify. Life was good. Why was I so anxious?

Something very interesting happened after I began my housesitting assignment. In the midst of my illness I had been trying very hard to keep to a regular "devotional" schedule, reading the Word and praying. But every time I opened the Bible, it just felt like homework, and it made me feel literally sick. So finally I said, "I'm sorry, God, this is just not working" and I stopped (temporarily) opening the Bible. Instead I just focused on pouring my heart out to God. "Lord, I definitely want to hear from you about this ... but right now, I'm just in a lot of pain, and I need to know You are listening, that You understand."

Amazingly, when I stopped reading the Bible, my prayer life actually improved immensely. Then, in a month or two, after my healing had really taken hold, I slowly began picking the Word up and reading it again. This time, it seemed full of life! God began speaking back, slowly and gently. And my healing progressed. (I remember some points, later that summer, when I could barely stop reading the Bible!)

This all led me to a conclusion that has since been reinforced by many other life experiences. The Christian life is not formulaic, it's not about finding the right structure. A personal relationship with God really is that -- a personal relationship. While it's principle-driven, it's going to look different at some times than at others. Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord all night, until finally Jesus wounded his hip! That's not exactly normal devotions, is it?

(And, by the way, it's exactly this kind of "wrestling" event, about eight years later, that really pointed my life in the direction God wanted it to go, when I was in the midst of a crisis of another sort. But I'll save that for another time.)

Well, please just let me end with a couple of conclusions that I hope will be helpful ...
  • Mental illness can strike anybody at any time, just as physical illness can. We all live in a fallen world and are all susceptible. As compassionate people of Christ, we should respond accordingly: With compassion, praying for healing.
  • When suicide occurs, it's extremely UNhelpful to talk about whether the person committing suicide is "going to hell" or not. I've heard Christians claim that because "suicide is a sin you can't repent for," it's unforgivable. Such arrogance has no foundation in Scripture, and in fact belittles the grace of Christ. Jesus has already forgiven all our sins, past and present (with the exception of "the unforgivable sin" which is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, repudiation of the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ). The Apostle Paul was a forgiven murderer. I fully look forward to seeing my friend, who took his life in an act of desperation, in Heaven someday. We will praise God together for our total healing and deliverance from pain.
  • If you are struggling with depression, be smarter than I was and seek some help! Professional help is most advised. There are so many God-given paths to healing nowadays that can come through a good Christian counselor or psychiatrist. At least talk with a trusted pastor or friend. Don't let the stigma hold you back.
As always, I'm grateful if you've read this far! I don't think I could have made it even through my brief illness without the love and help of caring friends and family, and the gentle guiding hand of my Savior. Scripture says to "comfort one another with the grace with which we ourselves have been comforted." Let us be grateful for another opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ to one another!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Link Arms Across the Planet

I am constantly amazed that, out of all the periods of time when I could have been born and lived on Planet Earth, this is the particular moment when God chose to place me here.

Think about it. Any of us could have been born in the dark ages, in some godforsaken hovel in primitive Europe at a time when the Bubonic Plague was raging. Or in Northern Africa during the height of the slave trade. In China during the Communist Revolution. Or a Jew in Germany during World War II.

Sputnik 1 in orbit (artist's depiction)
But no, here I am in the lovely and wonderful Pacific Northwest of the U.S. My own birth was almost simultaneous with the birth of the space age (the first manmade object, Sputnik I, was lifted into orbit 6 short months after I was born, and the first human, Yuri Gagarin, went into space when I was just 4.) I had no sooner entered the workforce when the Internet became a thing, and I was even privileged to be one of its first pioneers in the nonprofit space, back in 1997.

Guy Kawasaki himself (the social media pioneer and one of the principles of Apple) told me about Twitter when it was just newly birthed, and I got in on that marvelous new phenomenon when it was just a few months old.

So one of the things I've also been privileged to witness is the evaporation of national borders which has occurred, if metaphorically, with the dawn of the Internet and social media age. My Aunt Dorothy, my mom's oldest sister, left for the mission field in deepest, darkest Africa (Niger, one of the world's poorest countries) when she was in her early 20s, and worked there for about 50 years. In addition to being a nurse, she is a gifted linguist and translated Scripture into local dialects. My brother and I operated a typesetting business in Southern California in the late 1980s, and she would slow-boat handwritten translations to us from Africa; we would meticulously type up galleys of Scripture using a font negative that we had modified by hand, then slowboat them back to her for proofreading. The process took several years but ultimately produced a version of the New Testament in the local language she was working in.

Today, on the other hand, just a few short years later, I check my smart phone when I wake up in the morning and I usually have several messages from friends in Africa. It is evening where they are, and we often chat for awhile before I officially start my day (and they end theirs).

Boaz (top row, center) and the orphans of Ttamu.
One of those friends I met several years ago. He is a young man named Boaz, and lives in Mityana, Uganda. He has a passion from the Lord to help rescue children who have been orphaned in the AIDS epidemic, and in his late 20s runs an orphanage with 28 beds. He employs a schoolteacher/helper with the kids and several volunteers, and together they seek to raise up these disadvantaged boys and girls, ages 6 through 17, in the hope and knowledge and grace of our Savior. It's a marvelous ministry, but it is VERY hand-to-mouth. They are always praying for where their next meal will come from, or how they will replace worn mosquito nets, or where they will find money to buy badly needed medicine to combat yellow fever, malaria, or tooth decay. Theirs is truly a life lived on the knife's edge of faith.

Mandy and Gracia in May 2006.
One of the huge blessings in my life has been the privilege of sponsoring a number of kids in various countries. My wife and I are not wealthy (by American standards), but we are well off enough to be able to tithe to our church and also contribute to a variety of international and domestic causes. Our first sponsored child was with World Vision in Haiti, and then for a long time we were able to sponsor a girl named Gracia in the Democratic Republic of Congo. My daughter and I even got to spend a day with Gracia and her family in 2006. Next came a little boy, in the Congo's Ubangi Province, an AIDS orphan sponsored through the Evangelical Free Church of America's TouchGlobal mission; and then another girl in the Congo. And then Moses.

That's right, we're sponsoring Moses! Not the one in the little ark made of reeds, hidden in bulrushes, but his namesake, an 11-year-old boy in Boaz's orphanage in Mityana. Here's his photo and basic information, at left.

I've worked with a team of others here in the U.S. to help establish a sponsorship program for Ttamu (the orphanage in Mityana), and by God's grace more than half of the children are now sponsored at $35 per month. This has provided hitherto undreamt-of resources for Boaz and his team -- to be able to prepare healthy food for the children and ensure they have good bedding to sleep on; to get them uniforms and supplies for school; to purchase firewood to cook on; and to be able to provide important medicines or health care when they are sick. What a privilege it is for us here in the U.S., who have so much, to be able to participate in the lives of people in such great need in a place as faraway as Uganda!

Jesus said (in Luke 6:38), "For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you." He spoke in the context of giving ourselves away, of loving others. If we love others with a large heart, then our generosity will be rewarded with largeness of blessing from God. This isn't speaking of financial blessing, which is the least of the various kind of blessings that exist. God blesses us with peace, with tranquility, with a sense of joy in the fulfillment of His purposes for us. Do you want to be blessed? Be sure your heart is big enough to give generously.

I'm grateful for the opportunities this day and age affords to partner in ministry with brothers and sisters in Christ, like Boaz and his team, in Africa and across the planet. And I would like to challenge you to consider joining me! $35 a month is less than many people pay for the privilege of enjoying an occasional latte at Starbuck's. And yet it can mean fullness of life for an orphan child in a place like Mityana, Uganda.

As a companion piece ot today's blog, I've prepared a Buzzfeed article displaying the photos and basic details about 13 children at Ttamu who are yet to be sponsored. Please pray over these photos, and if you would like to help, click here. Also reply and provide me with the name of the child you would like to sponsor. And I'll make sure it happens!

You will be able to correspond with the child and invest more of your life in them, as well as receive regular updates of their progress. So please take a moment and click on this Buzzfeed link:

Together we can link arms across the planet and demonstrate Christ's love for all children everywhere!

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

'Mushroom Worker's Lung' ... Apparently It's Real

If you've been following my exploits so far this spring you are fully aware that I have Mushroom Fever. That's not a disease, per se, unless you consider an obsession a disease. It's just that I've just learned to love and enjoy hunting for wild edible mushrooms in the beautiful Pacific Northwest (PNW), previously in the fall (for Chanterelles and many more varieties) and more recently in the spring (for Morels).

The culprit: Pleurotus ostreatus
(Oyster mushrooms) pinning
from a straw log which used to
live in our "Upper Room."
Because there is a long winter season inserted between the two here in the PNW, with no wild mushrooms growing outdoors, I decided to feed my obsession by beginning the cultivation of edible mushrooms indoors. We have an attic room which we've used as a bachelor studio and home theater, and are currently also using as a work-out room, wine cellar, and now a mushroom-growing laboratory. I started this winter by growing Pearl Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) and also crimini and portobello mushrooms (which are the same organism, crimini just the underdeveloped version and portobello the fully mature adult fruit).

I'd been doing this for some time in what we called "The Upper Room" and getting fairly good at it, I think, when my wife began to complain about allergy-like symptoms every time she worked out there ... congestion, low-grade fever, etc. She asked me if I would search the internet to see if there were any possible negative side effects from growing oyster mushrooms. "Yah, sure, honey," I said, convinced it was just her usual allergies combined with the fact that I was enjoying growing mushrooms indoors so much and therefore needed to be reigned in a bit. Seriously, I thought how could she possibly be allergic to being in the same room with an Oyster mushroom, if eating them didn't bother her in the slightest? I did intend to do a search but didn't jump on it very quickly.

So of course she grew tired of waiting for me to do it, and did a little "Let me Google that for you" research on her own. And lo and behold, she turned up quite a substantial number of case reports and other documentation online of the severely allergic effects that the spores of Pleurotus ostreatus apparently have on many people:

And that's just a start.

Here's a fascinating article talking about how prolifically Pleurotus ostreatus produces spores ... a single large mushroom cap can eject, the article says, 100 million spores per hour! The estimate of the number of spores in a cubic meter of "clean, country air" where some Oysters might grow is therefore 10,000. The article concludes, "You can now buy the Oyster Mushroom in supermarkets.   It grows quite nicely in commercial mushroom houses.  As the mushrooms reach maturity, the level of  spores in the atmosphere of the mushroom house must be incredible."

By the way, mushrooms eject such a prolific amount of spores for precisely the same reason a human male creates such a large number of sperm. If it's any comfort to my wife, the article says only about 1 in a billion spores are estimated to survive the environment they are ejected into. (Roughly 10 hours' worth of work for a mature Pleurotus ostreatus cap, by my calculations. Not too bad. It took my wife and I several years to create two marvelous kids.)

Needless to say, I've now moved my straw log mushroom growing operation outdoors, next to my maple nursery logs. (Actually, it's doing better than I thought out there ... although I am a little concerned about what will happen if we get a heat wave this summer.)

I also have learned, once again, to apologetically recite the very humbling mantra: "Yes, dear, you were right. Once again." Note to self: The wife is always right.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Weekend Mushroom Hunting Report: The Elusive Black Morel

Just wanted to give a quick report of our first hard-core spring mushroom hunt. My son Nathan and I spent the weekend (Friday-early Sunday) in the mountains just south and slightly east of the Blewett Pass area in eastern Washington, hunting for the elusive black morel.

Our spacious free basecamp site
on Williams Creek.
We arrived early Friday afternoon and found a lovely base camp spot at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campground on Williams Creek near the historic gold mining town of Liberty, Washington (just a mile east of the 97 on Liberty Road). The sites were spacious, well lined with trees, plentiful, and best of all free for the first 14 days. We had good walking access to a clean pit latrine and the sites had good firepits with steel cooking grates, and most had picnic tables. You had to bring in your own water and haul out your own trash. A small price to pay.

Our site was directly across the trail from an old gold mine, well posted with claim and no trespassing signs. In fact, our only complaint was a crazy woodpecker that began rat-a-tat-tatting on a corrugated tin claim sign about 5:30 each morning. What an alarm clock!

A tinpecker used this to
wake us up at 5:30 a.m.
The sign was full of bullet holes, so you could tell other campers had experienced the same frustration with this confused tinpecker.

After setting up camp we launched in Nathan's new fourwheel-drive Toyota pickup. Our first stop was at about the 3,500-foot level in a burn area near the forest service road. Terrain was steep but accessible, and we were encouraged to find our first five morels within the first 10 minutes, less than a hundred yards from the road. (No, I'm not going to give you an exact location!)

Black morels gathered during the
first day of our hunt.
So we anticipated better things to come. But alas, two more hours of hunting in this same stretch of forest yielded only one more morel (growing in a the hole formerly occupied by a burned tree which had collapsed). But it was huge.

Beautiful view of snow-laden
mountains from the Forest Service
access road.
We then started heading uphill toward more of the burn areas. Some ninety-odd wildfires plagued this area in the fall of 2012, and morels are known to grow in year-or-two-old burn areas. We looked at several other spots with no success. When we arrived at about the 5400 foot level we were on a high ridge which looked quite dangerous due to a large volume of loose shale which had showered the narrow track during frequent landslides. And we were also into snow at this point. But we gave it the college try and hunted once more in a burn area, but found no mushrooms at all. We decided it was still too cool that high for morels, and returned to base camp.

Black morels, tri-tip, asparagus and
mashed potatoes — quite possibly
the best meal I've ever had.
The evening's meal was fantastic -- we had two large tri-tip steaks, asparagas, and mashed potatoes, grilled together in cast iron over a campfire of smoky maple wood, well seasoned (which we brought with us). We sliced our 6 black morels and grilled them with shallots, sea salt and cracked pepper, and reduced with a nice sweet tawny port. Mixed with the gravy from the tri-tip, this made for a truly unforgettable meal. Nathan is an extremely skilled cook and despite a downpour of rain during the preparation, we ate like kings and retired in comfort. (I really want to write a blog about how to camp in style!)

We anticipated our next day's hunt, which we hit hard and early (thanks to our tinpecker alarm clock) after a fortifying breakfast, would be lovely and would restock our mushroom supply. We hunted all day long, mostly at lower elevations. We basically hunted fruitlessly all the way from Liberty, down to the high desert north of Ellensburg, before looping back around on the 97 and returning for a late lunch. We then picked up the hunt again, returning to our original spot in desperation, as it was the only place in about 10 hours of hunting we'd seen any morels.

During this time we also talked to a number of other morel hunters we encountered, including one couple which resided in a remote cabin at the 4,000-foot level and was climbing a steep road up to it in an ATV.  Everyone confirmed that their luck was as bad as ours had been, and the local couple blamed a relative lack of moisture in the area. (Some years, they said the morels were so plentiful you could pick them while walking alongside the forest service roads, without even going far into the forests and climbing the steep slopes, which is hard work indeed.) But not this year.

And the forest ranger had forewarned us with a similar warning that she was receiving very few find reports, either from the professional collectors or the amateurs like us.

So in a way this is encouraging. We plan to return to our "spot" at a time when the mushrooms are heavy, hopefully next spring.

Most of the other amateur hunters we talked to had found only a handful, a half dozen or a dozen, just as we had.

So, Saturday afternoon we found only one more (smallish) morel, pictured here, which we were able to bring home to prove we actually found something. Plus I found about five impressive Gyromitra montana (a false morel, pictured below) growing in a suspicious, spider-webby animal hole of some sort. (I'm reading up about their edibility on various websites, which disagree on the topic. I may these in very small quantities somtime this week. I'll let you know if I survive. Gyromitra shrooms supposedly taste like morels but contain a small amount of toxin which is supposed to evaporate out if you cook them well enough. And I'll cook the heck out of mine, I can assure you. Also, the G. montana are the variety which is supposed to be the most edible of the lot.)

Gyromitra montana mushrooms
deep within a she-lob lair.
We slept great on Saturday night, despite the disappointing day's hunt. (Tromping for hours through steeply forested burn slopes is a good way to work up an appetite and ensure exhaustion!) In fact, I even slept through the tinpecker alarm clock on Sunday morning.

After breaking camp we headed north to the lovely town of Leavenworth and enjoyed a pint of raspberry wheat ale at the new-ish Icycle Brewery facility there. Then it was home to clean off the charcoal-y grime of two days of mushroom hunting amidst haunting burned-out pine forests.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. If the Cle Elum Forestry ranger tells me the morels are "on," you can expect me up on the ridge in about three hours. Hopefully next time I'll bring back enough to share with friends.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hell needn't be hot. Mere bad engineering will suffice.

Please be warned: I am going to use A LOT OF CAPITAL LETTERS in this diatribe, since I am mad as heck and I'm not going to take it any more.
Our Whirlpool dishwasher ... and its evil,
seriously over-engineered silverware tray.
Several years ago we bought a Whirlpool dishwasher. With the appliance itself, I don't have any serious complaints. (Except for the time it sudsed over onto our new wooden kitchen floor because we put a little too much soap in it.) But this isn't what has my goat. It's this one very small, seemingly simple piece of equipment associated with this purchase that has come to represent pure evil to me.


We have a routine in our household. Throughout the day, we load the dishwasher. At night we usually have enough in it to run it, and since utility prices are lower at night, we turn it on shortly before we go to bed. By morning, the dishes are clean, dry, and cool. So far, so good.

Three days a week, my wife leaves before I do, so it's my privilege to unload the clean dishes and put them away. I do fine until I get to the dreaded silverware basket.

This one little piece of equipment demonstrates vividly to me, each day, what happens when you overengineer something and then (obviously) don't test it in the laboratory of real life.

Wait a minute, you say ... a silverware basket? We're not talking about a space shuttle here. It's a simple thing, right? It has little compartments that you put silverware in. Then you should just as easily be able to take them out and put them away. Right?

So I would once have thought. So what's the problem? Where do I start ...

First, the basket is designed (as any good silverware basket should be) with little hooks on it that fit into the lower rack of the dishwasher, so it can be lifted out. So far so good. (Except for the fact that these hooks aren't quite big enough or obvious enough to keep the silverware basket secured to the rack, and it sometimes comes loose, causing the entire operation to grind to a halt. But, that's a comparatively minor issue.)

When you lift the basket out, it looks as if it has a flat bottom and you ought to be able to place it upright on the countertop for unloading. Right? But, not so fast! THIS particular basket is a little too vertical, and the bottom edge on one side is ever-so-slightly rounded. You set the basket on the counter ... wait for it ... then, satisfied, you turn your back ... and it falls over with a huge clatter! Silverware is flung hither and yon, sometimes breaking expensive glassware, sometimes pitching sharp knives point-first toward your bare feet. But most of the time, it simply pitches clean silverware onto the floor, meaning of course that particular silverware promptly has to be rewashed.

Making the bottom a little more square and testing its stability in the basket design would have been a simple thing. But NO.

Once you pick up all the scattered silverware, reload any that is contaminated, stop any bleeding, and calm the cat, the next problem presents itself. The individual compartments in the bin are only connected toward the top, so with any motion at all, some of the silverware slides down and goes horizontal in the bottom of the tray. You now have silverware stuck in the bottom of the tray, and there is no way to get it out without opening the latched "easy open" door that these brilliant engineers built into one side of the tray. (In the photo, you can see the door opened.)

Simple, right? Snap open the latch, open the door, remove the silverware, and shut the door again.

Only one small problem ... instead of a REAL hinge, these brilliant engineers built this sophisticated peg-and-hook system so the door could actually be fully REMOVED. (And WHY?) So of course the door invariably comes OFF when you try and shut it again.

Now the challenge is to try getting the door back ON ... and though this should be simple, it reminds me of trying to solve a rubix cube. For there are three pegs-in-hooks and then this little slot-in-hole thing at one end which I think is designed in an effort to keep the door from coming off too easily (which of course it doesn't do, since the door once opened ALWAYS comes off, but instead prevents it from going back on again). You have to get these three pegs-in-hooks all aligned just perfectly, and then you kind of have to slide the entire thing over just so in order to get that locking slot into the hole. It rarely can be done on the first try, even when you do this EVERY MORNING OF YOUR LIFE.

So, every morning of my life, after spending an inordinate amount of time trying to get my silverware successfully unloaded, I am now fuming and frothing at the mouth and trying not to swear or fling the silverware tray across the room. (Which would only warp it so I could NEVER again get it open ... or shut ... or rescue my poor lost silverware. Making the entire dishwasher absolutely useless, and ensuring my cat would never again come out of her hiding place.)

Okay, I know what you're thinking. Why on earth has he taken all this time to write this whole long blog about a silverware tray? And why did I read this far, anyway?

Actually, it's therapy. (For me, not you.) And writing this has taken me less time than it typically takes me to successfully unload my silverware.

By way of a moral to the story, suffice it to say that there is a special compartment in hell for engineers who build complicated things like this, all for the joy of making them complicated, when it should be SO simple. (And then of course they don't test them in the laboratory of real life to see what kind of havoc they have wrought.)

How many things in life do we make WAY TOO COMPLICATED when a simple solution is the best solution? What are the over-engineered things in your own life that make you want to WRITE IN ALL CAPS???

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

What YouTube Missed

May 1-8 is Global Week of Action for Children's Health. Millions of children worldwide are not registered at birth, and therefore are unable to access critical health care resources necessary for them to "Survive To 5."

Join World Vision and Child Health Now in calling for a global effort to ensure newborn children have access to the health care services that could save the lives of many.

For more information, visit Child Health Now.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Calvinists vs. Arminians: Can't we all just get along?

On February 13 I wrote a blog post titled, "Oh, Hell" in which I expounded upon some of my personal doubts and wrestlings with the concept of hell as presented in the Bible. I also mentioned I was reading Rob Bell's book on "Heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived," titled "Love Wins," and that I would get back to you when I was done, with my thoughts.

I finished the book on a jet plane, coming back from a vacation in beautiful Savannah, Georgia last week. And so, I intend to make good on my promise here.

Bell raises a lot of perceptive and fascinating questions about the Bible's treatment of the afterlife. I don't think he deserves all the criticism he's received (for instance, that he's a heretical universalist); he certainly doesn't take that position directly, although the questions he raises about the nature of God, and what really is or isn't said about hell in the Bible, might leave you with that impression.

Basically, if you want to walk away with clear ANSWERS to the questions he raises, this isn't necessarily the right book for you. Also, I think you should realize from the outset that much of what is discussed in this book might lead you (as it did me) into direct explorations of the various (perceived) conflicts between 5-point Calvinists and Arminians.

By way of review (and these are my own words), the extreme Calvinist position says that salvation (when it comes to who is saved and who is not) is "100% God's decree;" in other words, God chooses "the elect." We may think we are making choices for (or against) God, but in reality because we are elected (because those choices are foreordained by God), we are not really responsible for them. God alone decides who He will save, and who He won't. There really is no free human choice on our part involved.

On the spectrum of God's will/human choice, Arminianism swings to the opposite extreme. Salvation is completely a matter of free human choice. God has provided the means for salvation (the blood of Christ), but we are the ones who choose it. Therefore, some Calvinists accuse Arminians of believing we humans "deserve" at least "some of the credit" for our salvation. After all, we repented and made the choice. However, the classical Arminianist position itself clearly denies this.

For many years I've believed that at least the extremes of some of those who embrace both of these positions are in error, if you look at the whole of the Bible. The answer has to lie somewhere in between (or perhaps wholly outside of) these two extremes. Yes, the Bible makes it clear that God foreordains/elects the saints. (But, what does that mean? Calvinists say it's the salvation that's foreordained, and Arminianists say it's the future life of those who have been saved that is foreordained.) And yes, on the other end of the spectrum, it also makes it clear that our free will, our human choices, matter enormously.

This tension plays out in numerous places in Scripture. Despite many warnings, Pharaoh chose to oppose God and seek to keep the Israelites enslaved. The Bible says that God "hardened Pharaoh's heart" in these choices. And of course, the dramatic release of the Israelites from Egypt was part of God's plan all along, to demonstrate His glory to both Egyptians and Israelites.

So, it was both God's perfect will (His election), and man's choice (Pharaoh's decisions) that made this happen. Somewhere in the middle of our two extremes ... and it all works together for good for those who love God and "have been called" according to His purpose! (Romans 8:28)

Bell might tick off hard-core Calvinists in his assertions that God does not violate the principle of human freedom (if someone rejects him, walks away into a hell of his own making, God lets him go); and that God truly does not wish any to perish (and that God gets His way ultimately, which leads to the conclusion many people have reached that "Love Wins" is universalistic). I experienced this reaction first-hand when I discussed the book with a Calvinist friend recently.

(By the way, I know some hard-core Calvinists who spend a lot of time wrestling with the fear that they aren't really saved ... that, despite their acceptance of Christ's forgiveness for their sins, God may somehow ultimately "elect" for them to be damned ... which I think is possibly one of the more negative ramifications of Calvinism's extremes. Scripture says "All who come to me I will in no wise cast out" and urges us believers, time and again, not to fear! These Christian friends of mine have chosen to come to Him. Shouldn't they therefore release that particular fear? Would God break His promise?)

What Bell does do, through his questions, is pop some evangelical/fundamentalist "bubbles" that may need to be popped, or at least thoroughly discussed. For instance, take the contention (supported primarily by 5-point Calvinists, but also assumed by many other Christians) that at the moment of death, the curtain drops and your fate is sealed. That even if (when confronted with the majestic God who created you, in judgment) you fell to your knees and said, "I'm sorry I didn't believe in you and receive you earlier! I now understand the error of my ways. I believe in You now. Please forgive me, cover my sins with the blood of Christ!" God would shake His head and say, "Nope. Too late. Your fate is sealed, and now you will be tormented in hell forever for not doing this 10 minutes earlier. Sorry!"

That sounds extreme, I know, but that really does seem to be what many Christians believe. Bell points out that the loving Father who "desires for all men to be saved," the Father who hiked up His skirts and ran out to welcome His prodigal son back into the fold, wouldn't be capable of such evil. And, I have to say he has a good point.

However, I realize that 5-point Calvinists will make two valid points (which Bell plays around the edges of but doesn't really address directly): 1) The words of Christ himself (in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) seem to imply that the decisions we make in this life, and the inclination to make those decisions (based on the "ordainment" of God, according to Calvinists) are effective for all of eternity; and 2) If God truly does ordain those whom He desires to be saved, to eternal life, and those whom He desires to be damned, to eternal death, then He would certainly do so before the "it is appointed unto man once to die, and then the judgment" deadline.

Actually, my main bone of contention with extreme Calvinists is reflected in that last sentence. Could the Creator God of the Scripture really "desire some men to be damned?" Isn't this in clear violation of his own stated will, expressed in Ezekiel 18:27-32, 1 Timothy 2:3-4, 2 Peter 3:9, and elsewhere?

However, I would point out to those who argue (on the basis of Heb. 9:27's*, "It is appointed to men once to die, and after this the judgment"), "Once saved, always saved" and "Once you die in your sins, you are always lost," that even that proof text itself is not explicit about the amount of time, space, or other events that may elapse between those two things ("once to die," and "then" -- when? -- judgment). Catholics would probably insert into this space, "Hence, Purgatory" which of course is the view that an intermediary state of being is needed to fully purge/cleanse our souls from sin before we can be allowed into a sinless heaven.

Not being Catholic (and not seeing any direct evidence for Purgatory in Scripture), I naturally do not accept this contention, but something akin to Purgatory (and supported by the Old Testament metaphor of the "Outer Court of the Gentiles" when it comes to the Temple, or to similar outer areas of the Tabernacle) might possibly exist in the fringes of the journey to Heaven. C. S. Lewis alluded to this in his brilliant allegory, "The Great Divorce," wherein a busload of passengers are delivered on a day-trip from Hell to Heaven. They have great difficulty even stepping upon the grass of Heaven's outlands, as they are so incorporeal, and it is quite clear that they must become "adjusted" to the realities of heaven (their souls cleansed from all that binds them to hell) in order be able to traverse "inward and upward" toward the Center of God's universe.

The Great Divorce leaves us with the sense that all of the bus riders save one judge this journey too difficult to make. They are too comfortable in hell, having gone there in the first place because they are too uncomfortable being exposed to the holiness of God, with all of its demands. In other words, they are too used to being the captain of their own ship. The narrator alone leaves the reader with the impression that he is going to miss the bus ride home to hell, and seek to make the changes necessary to travel inward and upward. (I.e., repentance after death!)

Based on Bell's words in "Love Wins," I think he would agree with Lewis. Although I don't think he necessarily views hell as a place of punitive justice (where God pours out his wrath on sin by torturing lost souls in eternal torment), he certainly does contend that "a hell of our own making" exists. He affirms free will, the fact that God gave men the ability to choose, and will never force them to do otherwise. He agrees that if God freely gives man the ability to choose his grace, there must be the possibility that some will not choose it, perhaps may never choose it.

But, at the same time, as I mentioned earlier, he raises some intriguing questions. Evangelicals agree that God is omnipotent (as expressed by Bell's phrase, "God gets His way"). And most of them agree with straightforward interpretation of the verse "God desires that none should perish." (Although I recognize that 5-point Calvinists might not acknowledge the straightforward interpretation of this verse. One friend said to me: "That verses doesn't mean 'everyone' ... just the elect." But I'm sorry, that's not what it plainly says ... is it?) If God wants all people to be saved, and He ultimately gets His way, what does this portend for the future of all people?

Also, there is the intriguing passage in Isaiah 45:23 — "By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’" Which is reinforced quite heartily by Paul in Romans 14:11 and Philippians 2:9-11. If every knee will bow and every tongue will confess (swear allegiance to, according to Isaiah) the Lordship of Christ ... then where are His detractors?

Only three possibilities, as far as I can see, remain: 1) Rob Bell is right: Love Wins in the end, and ultimately God gets His way. All ultimately repent and are covered by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. 2) Those who fail to repent (the goats of Matthew 25) are destroyed in the "Second Death," the lake of fire reserved for the Devil and his angels (Revelation 20;14), and all others (the sheep) worship God forever as He intended. Or 3) This verse doesn't really mean what it seems to mean ... either "every" doesn't really mean "every," or as one of my Calvinist friends might contend, "bowing to the Lordship of Christ" is forced upon wicked unbelievers somehow ... which raises the question: is forced allegiance really allegiance?

I've ordered those three possibilities in accordance with what I hope is true. But, scripturally, I think the best argument really lies with option #2. Scripture doesn't really seem to entertain the possibility that Satan and his demons will ultimately repent and serve God, although I don't see this as outside the realm of possibility for God's grace, certainly. (Remember, "He who is forgiven much, loves much" Luke 7:47.)

The bottom line is, just as Scripture really isn't clear on these things (what we need, after all, is to trust God today, and having the answers to these questions doesn't necessarily lend itself to this trust, does it?), I don't think we as fallible human beings can be completely clear, either. Bell makes a good point that there is not a hard-and-fast, clear-cut interpretation of these matters. My Calvinist friends might shout "Heresy!" but just shouting heresy hasn't ever helped the cause of Truth, as far as I am aware. I don't see that Rob Bell's conclusions (or at least the questions he raises) are anti-biblical in any way, so I'm certainly not ready to throw the first stone. (And, might I add ... I've actually read the book! Many of his critics have not.)

There are some things about the WAY Bell writes (his imprecise, somewhat vague, poetical style, which I assume comes from the way he preaches) that annoyed the heck out of me. But once I survived this in the first half of the book, I felt like the second half made wading through the first half worth the wait.

*By the way, even hardcore Calvinists will agree that Scripture presents several different types of "judgment," and it is not immediately clear which type Heb. 9:27 is referring to. If "judgment" refers to the Great White Throne Judgment, the final judgment at the end of days, depicted in Revelation, then certainly there is some "space" which must be inserted where the word "then" occurs in this verse.