Tag Archives: Engineering

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].

Stumbling Over the Basics

As I wait another 2 months for the results from my engineering exam I took in October, I have time to reflect on the test and the last year of preparation for it, and see some applications to my Christian walk that may be of help for some of you out there, too. So let’s work through that today.

There were some pretty obscure scenarios that showed up in both practice problems and the real exam, and it’s good to know where to go to find the needed information to solve those problems. But some of the problem types I was working were just about guaranteed to be on the exam. While some problems caught me off-guard, others were practically required questions because they were basic concepts that the practicing structural engineer needs to understand, even if he works in a smaller niche of the overall profession (like steel connection design for me). In fact, for a long, timed test like this, the more typical design problems need to be almost instinctive so that you can make up time on them, knowing the more complex or more obscure problems will eat up that gain.

What does any of that have to do with Christianity? Well, there are areas of Christian doctrine that need to be almost reflexive for us. We should be so prepared beforehand that a response is immediate, as thorough as it needs to be, and – most importantly – true. Christianity is not something where you can just “wing it”, making it up as you go. But while knowing those core doctrines is important, it also needs to go beyond just intellectual assent. After all, as James pointed out, the demons can recognize many of those truths, but they shudder rather than rejoice in them [Jam 2:19]. That’s why Peter told his readers facing persecution to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” [1Pe 3:15]. Of course, this presupposes that you a) have a hope in you, and b) that it shows forth enough for people to want to know why. But then Peter says to be “ready to make a defense”, i.e. to be able to lay out solid reasons. Out of a holy heart submitted to Christ flow actions that demonstrate the redemptive work of God and cause people to ask questions. And out of a prepared mind flow the ready answers to those questions. Then head and heart come together to demonstrate the truth of Christianity in word and deed more powerfully than either alone.

That word “defense” is the Greek legal term ἀπολογία (apologia), from which we get apologetics. In fact, 3 of the other 7 uses of apologia are related to Paul having to defend himself, either before an official tribunal or an angry mob ready to kill him on the spot [Acts 22:1, 25:16, 2Tim 4:16]. Now, you wouldn’t approach a court case (or an angry mob) without preparing, would you? That would be about as foolish as me going into that engineering exam without studying and working practice problems. But have you, dear Christian, thought about the reason for your hope? What happens when you find yourself “on the spot”? Will you ready to give an answer, or will you stare dumbfounded at your questioner?

Going back to the exam, I didn’t have to know everything (as if I even could). Most questions required some amount of consultation with my reference books just because you’re not going to have those kinds of things memorized unless the question happens to be in your specialty that you maybe deal with everyday.  So you need to know where to go for the answers ahead of time. But then there’s some questions that just come out of left field, and you find yourself having to learn the material fresh (and quickly) before even being able to attempt an answer. As a Christian ambassador [2Co 5:20], I don’t have to be able to answer everything on the spot, but  I shouldn’t stumble on the basics. When the people cried out to Peter “What must we do to be saved?” [Ac 2:37], he didn’t say “Let me do some research and get back to you on that….” But many questions or objections will require some digging. Do you know where to go for answers? Do you know your way around the Bible? Have you invested in some good references and figured out how they’re organized so you know where to start tracking down an answer when the need arises? Although outside help many not have been allowed in my exam, that resource is open to you! When you get those questions out of left field, do you have knowledgeable pastors, mentors, or friends you can consult with? Don’t forget that Christians are all members of the body of Christ, each equipped to supply what is missing in another [Ro 12:4-6, 1Co 12]. Thankfully, you don’t have to try to do it all yourself (nor should you).

In hindsight, it wasn’t being unable to answer the obscure exam problems that bothered me the most; and it wasn’t the in-depth questions that I ran out of time on. Rather, it was the simple questions that I knew I should know, but still stumbled on. Don’t let that be the case when granted the opportunity to share the truth revealed to us… the hope that anchors us… the assurance and peace we are blessed with… the “words of eternal life” [Jn 6:68]. Instead, be ready!

Reflections on the SE Exam

My practice exam… with my tickets for the real thing

A few days ago, I took the longest, toughest test of my life: 16 hours of structural engineering problems over 2 days. Reflecting on that, a few observations occur to me that I think are applicable to the Christian walk as well.

  • Know what you know. You can’t know everything about even one subject, and certainly not multiple subjects, but it sure is nice when you see a test question that you’ve already worked out many times in practice. You see it, and think, “I know this one!” and don’t even need to grab a reference book. That’s a great place to be in a major test because it’s almost like being rewarded  for your studies with bonus time to spend on the tough questions. Memorizing Scripture holds similar benefits. You may not be in a timed test like I was, but whether it’s a question from a friend, a challenge from a skeptic, or your own internal struggles, having the appropriate answer in mind right when you need it… is priceless.
  • Know where to find what you don’t know.  Just as it’s nice to see a problem you’re familiar with, it’s quite depressing to see that odd question out of the blue that you don’t even know where to search for a possible solution. I had just over 100# of reference books with me in the exam (yes, really), and several questions on bridge design seemed like they might be straightforward solutions… if I only knew where to look in the massive 4″ thick bridge manual. Don’t let that be the case for you with the Bible, which far surpasses in value anything you could possibly read in any reference books.
  • Exams are passed or failed in study rather than during the test. The actual test only proves the learning that did (or did not) take place beforehand. As much as I studied this year, it doesn’t appear to have been enough. We’ll see when I get my results back. But there are moral tests we face in life that are more important than any licensure test, and how you act when your integrity is on the line will largely depend on decisions made long before the temptation arises. What will you do when everything indicates you can “get away with it”? Let’s just take a couple of practical examples. The Bible tells us not to covet, and with good reason. You don’t have to watch too many documentaries on murder cases to start recognizing coveting as a common first step on a path that ended in murder. Granted, most people will never go that far, but it still doesn’t do them any favors. Don’t assume you’ll make the right decision if you spend all your time envious of someone else’s wealth, fame, or spouse, and then the opportunity presents itself to take what you’ve been obsessing about, at their expense. Likewise, the Bible warns us to “flee youthful lusts” [2Ti 2:22] and to think on what is honorable and right and pure [Phil 4:8]. Many a person has said they’d never cheat on their spouse, but then filled their mind with porn. At some point, the fantasy will seem more appealing than the real life commitment that real love requires. If the opportunity to live out a fantasy presents itself in one of those tough times, don’t assume you’ll suddenly be a beacon of virtue and moral fortitude if you’ve been acting out the exact opposite in your mind up to that point. The Bible sets guardrails in our lives for good reason, so if you want to pass the moral tests in life, commit to obeying God before you find yourself in the test.
  • God’s more interested in developing your character than getting you out of a jam. Did I pray for success on the exam? You bet I did. Would failing the exam impact my belief in God? Hardly. While “unanswered” prayers have caused some to stumble, I recognize that my imperfect requests may not line up with God’s perfect plan.  There’s nothing wrong with asking God for the things we want, but we have to understand He’s not some genie granting wishes. His purpose is to make us holy, not necessarily happy (although I would suggest you’ll find genuine happiness in holiness). Now, suppose God intervened and granted me photographic recall of everything I’d studied or even skimmed over during the last year, as well as supernatural comprehension of it all for a couple of days, so that I had passed with flying colors. But then, if I passed the exam without really being qualified, and I took on projects beyond my capacity, the results could be deadly for people living and working in the buildings I designed.  Or, what if I only became arrogant and condescending to those who hadn’t passed?  Not as deadly, perhaps, but it would still fall far short of His call to be a Christlike ambassador; and it would also fall far short of God’s better answers to prayer, which sometimes include things like “No,” “Wait,” and “Keep struggling through this.” I heard one of the other 2 guys taking the test with me tell someone the second morning that the first day was “humbling”, and he was spot-on. And that came from a more knowledgeable, experienced engineer than myself. Yet if we fail a test, but learn humility and compassion and perseverance in the process, then that is character development that can have greater impact on those around us than any professional development that might have been gained in passing it.

There’s a few lessons I walked away with. What about you? Have there been tough tests in your life that have helped you gain new perspective? Events that have helped you recognize God’s work in your life in ways you wouldn’t have before? Times God used to teach you valuable life lessons?

Follow the Load Path!

The altered load path responsible for 114 deaths in the 1981 Hyatt Regency walkway collapse.

On July 17, 1981, 114 people died, and over 200 more were injured, when two suspended walkways at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City, Missouri collapsed. A connection between the 32 ton walkways and their hanger rods was poorly designed, and a more constructable connection was proposed and quickly approved. What went unnoticed was that the seemingly innocuous revision dramatically changed the load path, doubling the load on the upper walkway, overloading it, and causing it to crush the lower walkway, which then fell to the ground. Since then, this tragedy has been a constant reminder for engineers of the importance of “following the load path”. But we need to do the same when building our worldview. What do I mean? Let’s roll up our sleeves and work through that today.

Like the buildings we design, thought has structure. Good, clear thought builds on the solid foundations of true premises joined together by the strong connections of valid reasoning to achieve a stable structure in the form of a true conclusion that follows from the supporting premises. Bad, confused thought, on the other hand,  may be built on the shifting foundations of false premises, or have true premises inadequately connected by invalid reasoning, or have a true conclusion that doesn’t actually follow from the premises. Reasonable thought requires all the pieces to work together, while just one part being off can make for an untrustworthy belief. Let’s look a little closer at the premises, the logic, and the end goal: a true conclusion.

  • Premises are like the beams and columns that we build with. And a foundational principle in engineering that is applicable here is that all loads have to go to ground. There are no “skyhooks” that can support the structure without all the loads – wind, people, snow, whatever –  eventually being transferred to the ground. Now, the load path to ground better be through a well-designed structure and not via collapse. But one thing is certain: the loads won’t just magically sort themselves out; ignorance is not bliss in engineering! Therefore, as an engineer, I always need to “follow the load path” and make sure I’m not leaving any “loose ends”.  Just like all of my building loads must eventually get down to the ground, our worldviews also need to be firmly grounded in reality. We can’t make assertions without any support, and that support needs to be true; it needs to correspond to reality.
  • They say “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”, and that was certainly proven with the hanger rods at the Hyatt Regency. But our premises also aren’t worth much without valid reasoning  connecting them together. In my own engineering niche of connection design, Bill Thornton, a leader in the field, has pointed out that most structural disasters have resulted from connection failures. The strongest beam imaginable won’t stay in place if you only provide one small bolt at each end. Our thoughts are similarly ineffective without being connected to one another correctly. However, when adequate framing is all connected together well, the pieces become locked into a stable, sound structure. Likewise, valid reasoning locks our true thoughts together into a sound argument.
  •  Just as a completed structure is greater than a pile of the same building materials laying on the ground, a completed argument is greater than the premises, for it gives us new information in the form of a true conclusion. For instance, the premise that “the universe began to exist”, and the premise that “anything that begins to exist has a cause” – by themselves – are like that pile of beams laying on the ground. It’s when we logically connect those thoughts together that we deduce the new truth that therefore “the universe must have a cause for its existence.”  Building on that new conclusion, we reason that the cause of the space-time continuum must exist apart from space and time.  A structure of knowledge begins to take shape as we continue adding new premises to build on previous conclusions, learning more and more characteristics of this spaceless, timeless, powerful, personal first cause that starts to look an awful lot like the God of the Bible.

I harp on logic a lot on this site, but for good reason. Whether you are checking out someone else’s view on a topic, or formulating your own, logic is your friend. For the Christian, God gave you a mind, and said to love Him with all of it [Mk 12:30]. Loving God for who He is requires learning about Him, and discerning truth from error. Moreover, we are told to test everything and hold fast to what is good [1Th 5:21], and to examine ourselves to see that we are in the faith [2Co 13:5]. Luke commended the Bereans for examining the Scriptures to see if Paul’s message corresponded to the truth of God’s Word [Ac 17:11]. Testing and examination require sound reasoning to judge what is true and determine what to do. The Christian is simply not allowed to put their brain in neutral. For the skeptics, you can attend “reason rallies” all you want, but reason is ultimately on God’s side. To paraphrase Augustine, all truth is God’s truth. That’s why I can have no doubts whatsoever that skeptics who follow the “load path” of their own worldview will find it resting on shifting sands, but if they continue to chase after truth, without rejecting God a priori, they will find their surety in God [Ac 17:26-27]. Blessings on you.

When Challenges Are Opportunities

Study Time!

Studying for the Structural Engineering exam is forcing me to tab and highlight and underline and make margin notes and explore and systematize my steel manual (and most of my other reference books) like I never have before. Why? Because I’m about to be challenged on my knowledge of it like I never have before. But that challenge is a good thing, because it’s forcing me to take the time to study hard and become a better engineer. I may not need to have have every bit of knowledge memorized, but I do need to know where to find what I need and how to correctly apply it when I find it. In the process, I’m learning about seldom-used tables and provisions that are outside of my normal practice. Yet, even in the areas I’m more familiar with, working through practice problems without the aid of the computer programs we engineers have, for better or worse, become reliant on, is helpful. And I think there’s a parallel here for Christians as well, so let’s work through that today.

I remember getting challenged about my Christian beliefs by a colleague several years ago. “How can you call yourself an engineer and a Christian at the same time? Aren’t those mutually exclusive?” I knew that Christianity and science weren’t incompatible in the least, but I’d never prepared for a challenge like that, and it took me by surprise. That challenge exposed a lot of “comfortable Christianity” in my life. What do I mean? I mean that it hadn’t been challenging to be a Christian for most of my life. I hadn’t had to really “count the cost” as Jesus had advised [Lk 14:27-28], like so many Christians around the world have had to do over the centuries, and still do today in around 50 restricted nations. I grew up in the church, and all of my friends were Christians (or at least claimed to be). My first job out of high school was working in an engineering office where many of the employees didn’t just go to church, but went to the same church. I pursued my engineering degree at a Christian college, and came back to that same Christian-friendly workplace every time school was out. It simply was not uncomfortable to be Christian (or at least to play the part), so there was little motivation to really know what I believed and why. It wasn’t like my life depended on it; my family wasn’t going to disown me for choosing that path; my employer wasn’t going to fire me over it; my professors in college weren’t going to fail me or ridicule me over it. It was easy to just float along in the stream of a predominately Christian culture.

But that challenge several years ago woke me up from my slumber, and helped me understand the importance of being able to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”[1Pet 3:15 NIV] So, for me, my Bible and a lot of my apologetics and theology books and commentaries look like my steel manual – highlights and underlines and margin notes everywhere. That’s how I learn, but regardless of how you process what you read, the main question is if your Bible is well-studied or just casually skimmed? Like the old Gatorade commercials asked, “Is it in you?” For a casual skimming won’t suffice when challenges come, whether that’s one’s own doubts, or sincere questioners, or cruel torturers. When the apostle Peter wrote to his readers that they should be able to give an answer – a reasoned defense – for their hope in Christ, he was writing to people for whom this wasn’t just an intellectual exercise; he reminds them in that same letter not to be surprised at the severe persecution they were experiencing.[1Pet 4:12-16] They needed to know that what they were getting tortured for was true, and be able to articulate why to those around them, maybe even to the very people persecuting them.

The subject matter in the Bible is simply too important to blow off, both for your own life, and the lives of those you may meet. This is why Paul encouraged Timothy to be diligent to show himself approved before God, rightly handling the word of truth. [2Tim 2:15] This is why King David would talk about meditating on the law of the Lord day and night [Ps 1:2, 63:6, 119:15,48,97,148]. So ask yourself, will I be prepared to answer those who ask before or after the opportunity has passed? And whether it’s a friendly question or a snarling challenge, it is always an opportunity to be an ambassador, so get started preparing. Familiarize yourself with the areas you’re weak in. If you like to hang out in the New Testament, study the Old Testament. If you’re a theology nerd, dig into some biblical history. Learn about the different genres, the historical settings, and the original recipients’ culture. Find a more mature Christian who can disciple you. Set aside time each week for uninterrupted study. And talk to the Author of the Book you’re studying: God. God gave us this amazing revelation of Himself in the form of the Bible, and He will honor the prayers of those sincerely seeking to understand His Word. There’s a thousand lifetimes worth of learning in there, so what are you waiting on? Dig in!

A Matter of Interpretation

Finding gems in unexpected places…

Are there common rules for interpreting books that we can also apply to the Bible? I think so. In fact, I was reminded of that in a surprising way recently, so let’s work through that today.

Studying for an upcoming engineering exam has taken me deeper into some of the various standards and codes than I’ve previously needed to go in my job. Focusing on concrete in particular recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the American concrete code. Unable to find what I needed to solve a practice problem, I turned in desperation to Chapter 1. For many code books, chapter 1 is pretty general, introductory stuff unlikely to help with a particular equation, but I thought maybe there was some helpful tidbit, “misfiled” there, as it were. Well, my answer wasn’t to be found there, but I did come across section 1.5 on “Interpretation”, where, in a book dealing with concrete design, I found the following three truths that can be helping for interpreting the Bible.

  1. Distinguish between the Code and the Commentary. Our American concrete design code, referred to as ACI 318, is arranged in 2 columns on each page: a left column that is the official design provisions (i.e. “the Code”), and a right column that is any applicable background or explanation for that section of provisions (i.e. “the Commentary”). This particular section reminded the reader that the code is mandatory, while the commentary is not. While the code provisions are binding and enforceable, the commentary is simply there to help the reader understand the code. Now, I have several excellent, time-tested commentaries on the Bible from some brilliant theologians. But this distinction applies here especially. No matter how much you may appreciate a particular preacher, teacher, or commentator, no matter how helpful their words are, no matter how universally accepted they are – comments on divine revelation are not on par with divine revelation. This is especially important to remember with the plethora of “study Bibles” on the market now that combine a lot of extra-biblical material into the Bible as section introductions, margin notes, informational sidebars, passage commentaries, and so forth. Being included in the Bible directly can sometimes cast a reflection of inspiration on these generally helpful additions, but it is important to keep the sources of each in mind. 100 years from now, a view stated in a note in your study Bible may be proven false, but “the Word of our God stands forever” [Is 40:8].
  2. Interpret coherently. This section clarified that “This Code shall be interpreted in a manner that avoids conflicts between or among its provisions.” code committees aren’t perfect, but their intent is to write a coherent, noncontradictory standard. Interpret accordingly. This statement has bearing on interpreting the Bible for both the skeptic and the Christian.
    • For the skeptics, don’t interpret two Bible passages in such a way as to paint them as contradicting if there is a third interpretation that reconciles both. Just as I shouldn’t interpret the concrete code in the worst possible light, looking to fabricate contradictions where there aren’t any, the skeptic should refrain from doing so with the Bible.
    • For the Christian, this is a word of caution that we shouldn’t interpret Bible passages in isolation. You can see this in the false “prosperity gospel” so popular today, that latches on to verses about blessings, to the exclusion of all the many passages that speak of good and faithful servants of God suffering tremendously for obeying God. You simply must interpret all the passages that deal with a particular topic in a coherent manner. Ignoring ones that don’t fit your interpretation is no better than the skeptic trying to create textual problems.
    • The concrete code made another statement in that paragraph worth noting here to skeptics and Christians alike: “specific provisions shall govern over general provisions.” In other words, don’t think the code is in error because some general provision doesn’t work for your odd situation, if there is a specific provision that does address it. Similarly, sections like the Proverbs are general rules of life, not guarantees for every possible situation. It is no error in Scripture if a child, “trained up in the way he should go” [Prov 22:6], does, in fact, depart from it when he grows up.
  3. Use the “plain meaning” of words. ACI instructs the reader that their code is to be interpreted straightforwardly, per the “plain meaning” of the words, unless noted otherwise. Moreover, if a term is specifically defined in the book (and they do that in Chapter 2), then that definition applies to their use of the word regardless of how the rest of the world uses the same word. This is important, because words can have many different definitions, applicable in different contexts. This is especially true in technical documents where jargon – specialized terms for those “in the field” – is used as a shortcut to convey big ideas quickly and succinctly. However, our default assumption should be the simple “plain meaning” unless the context makes it clear that something else is meant. Moreover, this also means that we shouldn’t try interpreting the author’s intent based on our own “pet” definition. Atheists often want to define faith as “belief in spite of contrary evidence,” or some similar nonsense, and then decide that Christianity is simply unintelligible. Indeed, it probably won’t make sense if you read your own contradictory definitions into it first. But when trying to interpret something – anything really – you should always do so with the goal of understanding the author’s intent, not reading your own views into their work.

And there you have it – 3 tips on correctly interpreting the Bible… tucked away in with a bunch of guidelines for designing concrete structures! Till next time, keep “examining the Scriptures daily” like the Bereans [Ac 17:11], “accurately handling the word of truth” [2Ti 2:15], striving to interpret what you read correctly [2Pe 3:16-17], and applying it in your daily life, “being doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” [Jm 1:22]. Blessings on you.

Sharpen Your Pencil

Photo Credit: freeimages.com/Beate W

“Let me sharpen my pencil and see if we can’t make that beam size work with the extra load the owner wants.” What does sharpening pencils have to do with designing beams? That’s simply an old expression in engineering regarding the need for greater accuracy in some particularly critical calculations. We tend to use a lot of approximations and rules of thumb that we know are not exact but will err on the side of caution. While a safe design is our duty to the public; a safe design produced in a timely manner makes for happy clients and keeps us in business. But sometimes, those typical procedures and quick approximations result in a design that doesn’t meet some project requirement. And while computers have replaced nomographs and graphical analysis methods – and the need to keep a sharp point on one’s pencil to get a more accurate result – we still use that expression to signify when the situation warrants a more detailed design. Back in the days of solving something by drawing similar triangles, the method – pencil and paper and straightedge – was often the limiting factor on our accuracy. Now, computerized methods allow us to be as accurate as we could ever need, so sharpening the pencil now is more about our assumptions. Did I assume a higher typical load than what is actually present on the current project? Did I use a simpler formula that doesn’t account for various load reductions or strength increases that actually could be applied to my current project? However, sometimes, in sharpening the pencil and wading into the details, we find that a particular situation isn’t quite as similar to past projects as we thought, and our assumptions we thought were conservative are actually overlooking critical factors. And that’s an issue I see outside of engineering as well.

One’s eternal fate is of critical importance. No one is promised their next breath, so where you’ll be a few minutes after your last breath, whenever it comes, is not something you want to miscalculate. What assumptions are you making that you need to revisit?

  • “The idea of God is outdated stone-age superstition and simply unnecessary now.”  Regardless of how old the idea of God is, that doesn’t make it unnecessary. We still need an explanation for the world around us, and scientific observation can only go so far. You can scientifically measure water boiling all day long and precisely explain how it’s boiling, and never explain why it’s boiling if you’re unwilling to admit that somebody put the kettle of water on the stove and turned it on.
  • “Science will answer everything someday.” The idea that science is the silver bullet to all our problems has a problem of its own: not all questions (and their answers) are scientific in nature. Metaphysical questions about the meaning of life and ethics are on the “ought” side of the ought-is dilemma, outside the scope of science, which can only observe what is, and not how it ought to be.
  • “Science has explained away God.” This idea that explaining the mechanics of our world does away with the need for God is a common assumption today, but this is akin to thinking one has explained the origin of a car by explaining how it works. The scientific method has allowed us to advance our knowledge of the mechanical workings of our world tremendously, but it is useless in a universe not governed by causality and logic. Our universe exhibits an organization that is best explained by a Master Designer. Indeed, modern science was based on the idea that the universe could be investigated and understood because God had created it in an orderly manner conducive to study.
  • “Religion just causes arguments and isn’t worth thinking about.” Maybe you’ve assumed that discussions about religion are just a waste of time and a needless source of feuding. But what’s the real problem there? Is it the subject matter, or the way we discuss it? Maybe civility and sound reasoning are the solution, and not indifference. Suppose you and I have gone for a flight in a mutual friend’s airplane. Beautiful, wide-open countryside passes below his Cessna 182 as we bask in the view. But then our friend passes out at the yoke. Now we are left with a very serious problem: what went up will eventually come down, one way or another. To make matters worse, we have very different ideas of how to fix the problem. But does our disagreement mean we should simply ignore the entire question of how to revive our pilot friend and/or land the plane? No! The problem remains even if we ignore it. In fact, it’s likely getting worse with each passing second. Likewise, the question of whether God exists, what we can know about Him, and what He may want of us are some of the biggest questions we can ask in life. No part of our lives are unaffected by the answers to this issue, and the urgency of finding the answer only grows the more we ignore it.

If any of those initial assumptions described your thoughts on the matter, I’d like to kindly suggest it’s time to sharpen your pencil and work through that problem again, my friend. But “time waits for no man”, and like the ground filling more and more of the Cessna’s windshield,  “the God question” can only be put off for so long before it’s too late.

Dangerous Assumptions

Ever assumed you knew something that turned out to be completely different? I know I have. It doesn’t take long to learn how embarrassing hasty assumptions can be. Yet we still have to make a lot of assumptions in life every day. I have to assume when I go to bed each night that my truck will start in the morning, and I don’t actually need to get up at 2 in the morning and run an ultra-marathon just to get to work on time. A dead truck is a possibility, but practically speaking, my assumption of reliable transportation is a fairly safe assumption given that truck’s history of dependability. In engineering, we have to make a lot of assumptions that can drastically change the results, and we’re expected to be able to judge whether those assumptions are justified or not. Assuming certain vibrational characteristics for a project, only to find out your structure’s resonant frequency actually matches the frequency of the average person’s walking gait, can change a client’s bold, cantilevered office building with a view into a nauseating life of trying to do office work on the end of a diving board. Assuming a connection to be rigid when it’s not, or assuming a high frictional resistance that may or may not be present can completely alter load paths, and divert force into components never designed for it. Assuming a beam is adequately braced when it’s not can change the mode of failure from a nice slow yielding to a sudden lateral-torsional buckling, drastically lowering the safe load on the beam, and possibly resulting in a structural failure. Just like assuming a snake isn’t poisonous, a lot of engineering assumptions can pack a deadly bite.

So what is it about assumptions that can be so disastrous? The issue is how close they are to, or how far they are from, reality. In essence, it’s a matter of how truthful the assumption is, for truth is simply correspondence to reality. If I assume the max unbraced length of a 30 foot long beam is 5 feet and it turns out to be 6 feet, then I’m fairly close to the truth of the matter , and I’ve erred on the side of caution, so my design should do well. If I assume it’s 30′ and I don’t need any bracing at all, then I’m working off a false premise, and I’m flirting with disaster. Sadly, a lot of people are making an even more dangerous assumption every day, many never realizing it until it’s too late.

What is this deadly assumption, you ask? Let’s work through some examples of it and find a common denominator:

  • “God is love, so that means everybody goes to heaven, right?” This assumes a very one-dimensional caricature of God, who is also just and righteous and holy. One could just as easily state, “God is just and we’re all sinners, so that means everybody goes to hell, right?” Or we could see Him as He has revealed Himself to us, and recognize that His love provided a way for us to be reconciled and justified before His perfect unbending justice, but only if we don’t reject it. Thus, some will be saved and some won’t.
  • “I’m a pretty good person, so God surely wouldn’t send me to hell.” This assumes that an absolutely perfect and holy God grades on a curve. We may lower our standards but why assume a perfectly just God would do the same?
  • “I don’t need God to be a good person, and that’s what counts, right? – Leaving the world a little better place than I found it?” This common misconception is based on a relativistic notion of “goodness”. But unless you happen to be the one perfect person in the whole world, good isn’t good enough to meet God’s perfect standard. And besides that, a lot of people throughout history have convinced themselves their heinous actions were actually for the “greater good.” So beware of subjective standards of “goodness”.
  • “I don’t like this God yours, so I’m going to just find one I like better.” My preference often has little to do with reality, and this dangerous assumption makes the mistake of thinking one’s dislike and rejection of God somehow circumvents the need to deal with God’s independent existence (and our potential obligations to Him) on His sovereign terms.
  • “I hadn’t really thought about what happens when I die, but I’m sure it’ll all work out in the end.” When has apathy and sticking one’s head in the sand ever been a good strategy for anything? The person saying this isn’t really sure of anything other than that they don’t want to think about anything that might require them to change course.

There’s a common assumption at the base of all of these statements – that we, as individuals with our finite comprehension, somehow know better than our omniscient Creator how He should’ve done things. It’s the notion that our way – our personal and very subjective way – is the right way, instead of God’s way. Ultimately, it comes back to pride, which, as the Bible wisely warns, “goes before destruction” [Prov 16:18]. So be wise and learn from the mistakes of others, and avoid the eternal consequences of these most dangerous assumptions.

No Extra Screws

Leftover screws… and washers… and dowels…

There’s a joke that when engineers put together objects with “some assembly required”, whether assembling a kid’s toy or rebuilding a car, they end up with extra screws left over at the end because they made the object “more efficient” by only using what was actually needed. Of course, if the original designer was careful, then there really was a purpose for those “extra” parts, and we just didn’t see it from our perspective (or didn’t bother reading the instructions…).  Why does Flap A have to go in Slot B before attaching Part C that I attached 3 steps ago? What is this extra screw I’m left with, and does that have anything to do with why my wife’s car won’t start now?

Seriously though, have you ever felt that your life was just one of those “extras” in the grand scheme of things, like the extra screws that come with a lot of boxed furniture? This useful, practical – maybe even beautiful – object is constructed, but there’s extra supplies left over that played no part in it. They either get thrown out or stuffed in a drawer somewhere on the off-chance there’s a use for them later. Sometimes, even Christians, who understand that the Creator of the universe loves us dearly, even though there are no works we could do to justify that love, can still feel disappointed by our ordinariness and our lack of “big” accomplishments. Sure, Paul talks about the goodness of living a “tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” [1Ti 2:1-2], but we still want to do big things.

Billy Graham, probably the most famous evangelist of the last century, died last week at the age of 99. It’s estimated that he preached the good news of Jesus Christ live to 200 million people all over the world, and reached many more via radio, TV, and print. That’s certainly an amazing accomplishment. Most of us will never do that, or even a millionth part of that. And yet, that’s OK.

That may not be God’s plan for us, but it may be part of His plan for us to reach the one who will go on to reach millions. Think about Billy Graham. He wasn’t born saved; nobody is. Someone preached the Gospel to him [Rom 10:13-15]. Do you know who that person was? I got curious about that several years ago and looked him up. That someone was one Mordecai Ham. He was descended from eight generations of Baptist preachers.[1] That’s quite the preaching pedigree, but even as famous as Ham was for a time in the American South, Billy Graham delivered the gospel to more people in more places than Mordecai and his previous 8 generations of preachers – combined! In that respect, one might be tempted to forget about people like old Mordecai (or people like you and I), and focus on who the next “superstar” might be. But Ham didn’t need to reach millions to fulfill his part in God’s plan; he just needed to reach the people God ordained for him to reach, like a teenager named Billy. And the same applies to each of us. 57 years after he died, Ham’s name is only a footnote in history, but it’s better to be a footnote in God’s story than the star of our own story.[2]

We can know God’s overall plans for world history, and often we see parts of those plans acted out by certain people who become famous in the process, but we don’t realize all the contingencies that God orchestrated in between to bring about His sovereign will. Just like with a race car, we can see the driver hit the gas and shift gears, and see the amazing results as the car accelerates out of sight, but we overlook the complex series of gears and pistons and belts and timing chains and whatnot hidden under the hood, all of which have to consistently do their small individual tasks to accomplish the driver’s intent. Likewise, the Christian can take comfort in knowing that we don’t have to have millions of Twitter followers, or run a “megachurch” with thousands attending every week, or have best-selling books on the store shelves to be successful before God. In fact, those who compromise God’s truth to achieve those things would actually be the failures, regardless of the worldly success they may have. Rather, all God asks is that we be obedient in the little things He has called us to do. Does God need you or me or Billy Graham to accomplish what He wills? No, of course not. I think another Mordecai, from the book of Esther, made it clear that if we refuse to do the task God offers us the privilege of performing, our refusal won’t stop Him from accomplishing it [Es 4:13-14]. But it will keep us from being part of His plan, and we’ll reap the consequences of that. Yet if we are faithful to obey in the little things, God will use that in ways we won’t even be able to understand until glory when we shall “know fully” [1Co 13:12]. For there are no extra screws or throwaway parts in God’s designs.


[1] https://www.preaching.com/articles/past-masters/past-masters-mordecai-ham-the-southern-revivalist, accessed 2018-02-26.
[2] To borrow an expression from a 2013 sermon from one of my church’s teaching pastors, Ben Parkinson.

Armchair Engineers

I just got back from representing my state structural engineering association at the National Council of Structural Engineering Associations 2017 Summit. Besides the normal business side of being a representative in an organization, and getting to learn about new products from vendors at the accompanying trade show, there were also lots of great educational sessions on things like blast design, progressive collapse, wind and seismic design, and even design of wood skyscrapers. A little slice of “nerdvana”. We even got to hear a keynote presentation from 2 of the engineers involved in the repairs to the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument after a 2011 earthquake damaged those two masonry structures. It made for a very busy but fun week. But one thing I was reminded of repeatedly that is worth noting here is that there really is no perfect design. What do I mean by that? Let’s work through that today.

We can arrive at an optimum design, but as long as there are conflicting parameters, there can never be an actual design that maximizes everything we want to maximize (like strength or flexibility) and simultaneously minimizes everything we want to minimize (like weight or cost). We have to pick and choose, and so any designed item will always fall short of perfection in one aspect or another. And this isn’t just a structural engineering issue. The session that most brought this point home was an extended session looking at the recent publication of ASCE 7-16, the “Minimum Design Loads & Associated Criteria for Buildings and Other Structures”. I know, we can’t even design a short name for our standards, but long names aside, that book is an integral part of most of our structural design. Changes there have major impacts on our daily work. A gripe from many engineers, myself included, has been the ever-increasing size and complexity of the overall building code, and this portion in particular. In fact, the growth from one volume into two this version was a particular incentive for a meeting to discuss on a national level the direction this was going. But as the committee chairman pointed out, we have 3 main goals – safety of structures designed to the standard, economy of structures so designed, and simplicity of applying the provisions of the standard – but you can only achieve two out those three! We certainly don’t want to  have a simple code that allows for cheap buildings at the expense of life safety. But do you make a standard that is simple and extremely conservative, that makes buildings too expensive to actually build? As it turns out, we engineers have tended to emphasize the third way: safety and economy at the expense of design simplicity. Hence, the now 800 page, 2-volume standard that is just one of an entire shelf of standards with which structural engineers are expected to be familiar. And let’s not forget all the revisions to each one of those each code cycle. So while information overload and lack of transparency are problematic, design simplicity is one of those competing parameters that just ends up having to take a lower priority.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Christianity? Well, there are some “armchair engineers” out there that like to try to say that nature testifies against the existence of God because it is evidence of “bad design” which an all-knowing and all-powerful Creator wouldn’t use. And just like the “armchair quarterbacks” out there, so insistent on what play the real quarterback should’ve executed, these skeptics are great at second-guessing God, but pretty bad at proposing better alternatives. Like armchair quarterbacks, they can criticize what’s currently in play, and sometimes throw out some quick, “obviously better” alternative, but they come up sorely lacking when the pros and cons of each option are subjected to a careful, rigorous analysis. Just like me, I could gripe about the new 2016 design standard, but sitting in a room with the chance to actually vote for how I would like to see the standard changed for the 2022 edition, I found myself reluctantly accepting of the current version. When it came to actually fleshing out what any proposed changes might entail, I found myself a lot more understanding of the ASCE 7 committee’s final version of the current standard that I had complained about before. Alternatives that seemed so much better couched in  vague terms like “less complicated”, “clearer”, and “more practical” ended up having unintended consequences that I liked less than the current book when it came to working out the real effects of those ill-defined wishes. It reminds me of what’s been said about God’s choices: “If God would concede me His omnipotence for 24 hours, you would see how many changes I would make in the world. But if He gave me His wisdom too, I would leave things as they are.”[1]

Can I always explain how God’s design is the best choice? No – I am all too aware of my limitations in knowledge. But I can easily see cases in daily life where, not seeing the big picture, I would make ultimately worse choices trying to fix what I initially perceived to be a bad choice. Then I am reminded all the more why we should always approach God with humility. It seems the drive-by allegations by skeptics of bad design in nature  are highly suspect given our very limited human perspective, especially when we do investigate certain cases and find them to be astonishingly well-designed. So I would encourage my skeptical readers to approach the possibility of design in nature pointing to God with at least as much humility and openness as we engineers (try to) give our colleagues when critiquing their designs. After all, we often don’t know all the reasons behind the decisions with which we disagree, and learning those reasons often puts our criticism to rest.


[1] J.M.L. Monsabre, source unknown.