An Engineer’s Hymn

“Man Singing Hymn”, by Arvid Liljelund, 1884

I admit: I am a nerd. I’ve joked sometimes that I was born an engineer – it just took a few years for my education to catch up with my desire to design. While I may not have been aware, in my youngest days, of what that desire would someday translate to professionally, it was surely set permanently in me with my first exposure to Legos.  Occasionally, that engineering mindset comes through at odd times, like singing hymns at church. But I couldn’t help geeking out a little when singing Hillsong’s “In Christ Alone (Cornerstone)” song recently.

“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus’ name”

As an engineer, I get to design building frames to resist wind and seismic loads, and I try to design them such that they can be trustworthy. However, while the engineer’s first duty is to protect the public, we still have to recognize that we don’t know everything, that we can’t anticipate every possible future condition, and what’s considered recommended practice now may be seen as inadequate 20 years from now. But my hope as a Christian is not the wishful, unfounded emotion that we commonly mean when using the word “hope”. Rather, it’s founded on the unchanging nature of God and the completed work of Jesus’ sacrifice for me. That is a surer foundation, a stronger frame, and a mightier structure than anything I could ever design out of mere steel and concrete.

“Christ alone; cornerstone,
Weak made strong; in the Savior’s love.
Through the storm, He is Lord,
Lord of all”

The Bible refers to Christ several times as our “cornerstone” [Mt 21:42, Ac 4:11, Ro 9:33, 1Pe 2:7, see also Ps 188:22, Is 28:16].  He is that stone that establishes the overall building location and ties adjacent walls together. Even today, “cornerstones” of sorts are still significant in masonry construction where several courses (levels) of masonry blocks are built up at each corner, with the wall built from the corners inward. Therefore, the first blocks on each corner establish the total length of each wall, and any variance from standard block lengths is taken up with trimmed blocks at midspan so the wall will still look symmetrical.

“When Darkness seems to hide His face,
I rest on His unchanging grace.
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.”

Storms can test buildings severely. On the 2nd day of my structural engineering exam, one of the long design problems dealt with proving that a given structure was adequate for the wind loads calculated based on the building being on exposed shoreline in a hurricane zone with wind speeds of 170mph. Needless to say, the building framing had to be rather substantial to resist those levels of wind. But something not addressed in that particular problem is nevertheless a critical issue in any real-world building design: anchorage. Now, this song lyric and Hebrews 6:19 that it is drawn from are both referring to ships’ anchors, but the analogy stills applies to structural anchors. As any good engineer will tell you, a well-framed structure that isn’t also well-anchored is a potential disaster waiting to happen. In fact, this has been observed quite often in surveys of tornado damage: uplift from the wind offset the dead weight of homes anchored to their foundations by a few old, corroded anchors, and houses were simply pushed off the foundation and tumbled to pieces at wind speeds of relatively moderate tornadoes.

But there are 2 aspects of anchorage: the strength of the anchor and the strength of the material anchored into. A corroded anchor into concrete and a strong new anchor into mud are both inadequate for protecting your house from “every high and stormy gale”. But the “anchor of our souls” is sure and steadfast, and “enters within the veil” [Heb 6:19]. What veil is the author of Hebrews talking about there? The veil that separated the outer area of the temple devoted to sacrifices – the holy place – from the inner chamber of the temple – the holy of holies – where God chose to make His presence manifest. This heavy veil of separation was a physical reminder of our separation from the unapproachable splendor and holiness of God. But this is where our certain hope is anchored – not in ever-changing contingencies of this life, but in the unchanging nature of God.

Yes, I tend to bring my engineering perspective to church and notice things others may not (and not notice things everyone else does). But I see a bigger application here: do I also bring my Christian perspective out in the world with me? Do you? It’s hard for me to just “switch off” the engineer side of my brain when I’m out of the office, but it should truly be impossible for the Christian to go anywhere without seeing the world in the light of Christ: a beautiful but broken world in need of redemption by its Creator. Is your Christianity something you switch on and off at the “appropriate” time, or is the Holy Spirit part of you, as the Bible says [1Co 6:18], with you in every place at every time? What would that look like in your life? People sometimes can guess the engineers in a crowd when we’re looking up at the roof trusses of the art museum instead of the art, and from all the other odd things we do, but does your Christianity stand out from the background noise of this world similarly? O that everyone would recognize in us what the Jewish priests and elders recognized in Peter and John: “they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus” [Ac 4:13].

The Bible & Slavery

The Cursed Field – The Place of Execution in Ancient Rome – Crucified Slaves, by Fyodor Bronnikov, 1878.

Skeptics often like to criticize the Bible for not addressing issues they think it should’ve addressed (and often for addressing issues they would prefer it didn’t). Typically, however, it is more of a case of the issue not being answered as plainly as they would like. I get it; we all like things to be spelled out simply so we can have our answer quickly and move on. I get frustrated at times with some of the codes I have to use in engineering when I read a page that is supposed to be addressing a particular issue I’m working through, and there’s no single bullet point that says “if this, do that.” With project deadlines and impatient clients, the last thing I want to do sometimes is wade through hundreds of pages of code provisions, find some nuanced recommendations and dire warnings in the commentary, correctly interpret everything, and try to implement a solution that is safe, justifiable, and not over the top (knowing that almost anything I come up with can or will be second-guessed by someone). But, do you know what? If structural design was just picking components out of a book without needing to understand the concepts behind those choices, engineering wouldn’t be needed. In fact, “engineering judgment” presupposes an understanding of the concepts involved so as to make a reasonable choice because the engineer can “connect the dots” and foresee the consequences of a certain choice even when there aren’t explicit guidelines. So what about the Bible and slavery? Is the Bible wrong for not clearly condemning it? Or are the concepts there if we take the time to investigate? Let’s work through that today.

Continue reading The Bible & Slavery

Grief, But Not Without Hope

“Return of the Peasants from a Funeral in the Winter”, by Vasily Perov, 1880.

I attended the funeral last week of a fellow engineer and longtime member of our state structural engineers association. I had known he was sick, and had meant to visit him, but somehow was always too distracted at the office to ever remember to visit him and follow through on those good intentions. Although I hadn’t known him personally, he had always been friendly at our monthly association meetings, and encouraging to me during my tenure as President. In the course of conversations at the funeral and the visitation the night before, I learned a lot I never knew about him. But something that surprised me was the dramatic contrast in my reaction to two pieces of information in the email that he had passed away over the weekend. There was initial shock at this unexpected reminder of the ever-present specter of death. Though it wasn’t a surprise for him, given his age and his diagnosis, it was like a bolt out of the blue for me amidst my flurry of workday activity. There was also regret as I realized the worthlessness of those good intentions to visit him in his illness. And yet, I suddenly experienced relief, and even joy, upon reading the last line of the email, which described him as “an exemplary Christian.” What difference does that make? Let’s work through that this week.

The apostle Paul wrote to his Christian readers at the church in Thessalonica that he didn’t want them to be uninformed about those who were “asleep” (i.e. had died), so that they “would not grieve as do the rest who have no hope” [1Th 4:13-18]. Of course, there is still grief at the loss of a person’s physical life, and the ensuing separation from the one who died, for those of us who remain here. But for Christians, that separation is only temporary, with an eternal reunion to follow. And that is something to rejoice in!

But what about those “who have no hope”? Paul expands on what he mentioned in the Thessalonian letter in his first letter to the Corinthian church. He notes that “if the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'”[1Co 15:32]. If this life is all we have, and it can end with our very next breath, in spite of all our best efforts to prolong it, then why not live to maximize the pleasure we can scrape out of it in the little time we might have? Why bother laboring and working your life away if you might die without ever getting to enjoy the fruits of your labors? And even if death doesn’t come “early”, the longer we live, the more inescapable our impending death becomes. If there is nothing after physical death but the cessation of existence and the permanent extinguishing of the flame that was “me”, then hedonism and nihilism seem the most reasonable result.

However, Paul prefaced his summary of hedonistic reasoning with “if the dead are not raised….” Thankfully, we can know that the dead are, in fact, raised; that this physical life is only a drop in the proverbial bucket of a life that will continue on eternally, and that our soul does continue to exist after our body dies. For, as Paul explains, Jesus’ resurrection was like the first fruits of a harvest – a signal of what what to come []1Co 15:20]. He goes on to describe the triumph of Jesus over death, and what that signifies for us:

For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. [1Co 15:53-57]

That said, we are also told that this victory is only through Christ [Jn 14:6]. “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” [Heb 9:27], but through His atoning death for us, and our trust in Him alone, we are saved from the perfect justice of God. So you see, when I read that my colleague was a Christian, I could grieve his departure, while still having hope and joy. For I could know that he was with Jesus even now, and that I would see him again someday. What about you, friend? Do you know that, if you died right now, you would be spending eternity in the presence of God?