Tag Archives: planning

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.

Breaking the Accident Chain

Me at the Airport
“A long time ago, in a Cessna far far away”

Several years ago, I invested the time and money to get my private pilot’s license. I can attest to the truth of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous quote “Once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.” But our temporary habitation among the clouds is a fragile thing, maintained only through the pilot’s continual vigilance, and even then always uncertain. Storms, fuel limitations, pilot disorientation, mechanical failure, and migrating birds are among a host of factors that may bring a plane crashing back down to earth. That place we long to be is not a stable position, and there is more working to bring us back down than there is to keep us aloft.  And so pilots have made a habit of reviewing the final reports of NTSB accident investigations to (hopefully) learn from the often fatal mistakes of others rather than learning the same deadly lesson themselves. My aviation magazine had a regular feature each month titled “Never Again”, a somber warning written by pilots who had survived a near-accident, but realized how it could’ve easily turned out differently.

Now, every accident investigation and every personal story of survival reveals a series of cause and effect events – links in the so-called “accident chain” – that, if stopped prior to a point of no return, would have prevented the accident. What often happens is the pilot doesn’t realize the danger he’s in, and so continues down the causal path leading to the accident. Call it tunnel vision or target fixation, or “gotta-get-there-itis”, the pilot often ignores red flags pointing to a growing problem. Sometimes they see the warning signs, but underestimate their seriousness, maybe due to problems like hypoxia (low blood oxygen level, typically from flying too high in an unpressurized aircraft). Other times, they think they can make it through this event because they’ve managed to somehow pull a solution out of thin air before. This blind faith in their own “luck” or in their own abilities without any understanding of how they previously survived their bad choices is particularly dangerous.

Spiritually, many are not aware of the danger they are in. Whether through apathy (“I don’t want to think about that…”) or willful rejection (“How dare you tell me I’m a sinner!”), people continue down a causal path that can only result in God’s judgement and their condemnation. But just like the pilot flying into a storm, understanding the reality of the danger is the first step. Hence, the Christian focus on man’s sinfulness and God’s holiness. God’s supreme love for us, and His action to rescue us, falls on deaf ears until we understand our need to be rescued. Like the pilot suffering from hypoxia, we may feel everything’s going just fine, even as we unknowingly approach the time of our own crash. The Bible warns that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”[1] We can choose to ignore warnings like that; we can choose to ignore the “close calls” with death that should be wake-up calls; we can think this flight will never end, that this physical life is a stable thing that won’t plummet downward and be over before our next breath. Or we can face the seriousness of the situation and prepare accordingly.

I’ll leave you with a frequent memory from my flight training. My flight instructor was always fond of cutting the throttle on me when I was most preoccupied, sometimes with a statement like, “Uh-oh, your engine just died – now what?”, and sometimes more sneakily later in my training.  As I would trim for best glide speed and frantically try to remember the last suitable emergency landing spot I’d seen, Walt would remind me that I should already know where I’m going to try to land before the emergency. Do you know where you’ll be “landing” spiritually when you die? Have you made the needed preparations beforehand? The Bible gives another warning about the danger of delay when it says “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.”[2] You don’t know when your time on this earth – this training flight, if you will – may come to an unexpected end. Don’t assume there’ll be time to “get right” before you die. That’s why the Bible says the right time is “today”. Plan well for eternity, and you’ll break the links in the spiritual “accident chain” that lead to an eternity separated from God.

[1] Hebrews 9:27, KJV.
[2] Hebrews 4:7 NASB.

“Spaghetti Bowls” & The BIG Picture

Large highway interchange under construction in South AfricaEvery week for the last couple of years I have driven through a large highway interchange under construction just a few blocks from my office (and probably will for another year).  Recently, a large portion of my commute has turned into a multiyear construction zone as that highway and it’s associated bridges and ramps are reworked to add more lanes. This isn’t as bad as it might sound. I actually enjoy watching these large-scale construction projects, and try to see as much as I can while driving through (without causing an accident).
For a classic “spaghetti bowl” interchange, multiple elevated highway crossings are being built at the same time from one end of the project to the other. Some interchanges can have 5 different levels of highways crossing over and around and through each other in a dizzying display of coordinated chaos. While the new interchange here is no record-breaker, there were still 7 cranes in a relatively small area lifting multiple girders into place after the Friday afternoon rush hour one day.  Coordination like that and long-term sequencing of future events that often have to be completed in a specific, precise order to even be feasible are critical to the success of one of these projects. Complications like weather and working around existing traffic with minimal interruption  only add to the challenge.
As an engineer, I know that every step of the project has already been mapped out long before spectators like me ever see the actual construction begin. Even knowing that, it’s still fascinating to watch large projects like interchanges take shape. When you see several ramps being started at various points around the perimeter of the interchange, it can make for a lot of questions of how they’ll eventually snake through the future maze of crossings to connect. Ironically, all my questions 2 years into watching this project unfold were already answered on the plans before I even knew this project was going to be built.
Similarly, we see life unfolding little by little, never seeing the detailed plans except in hindsight, if at all. Some might say there is no “master plan” at all. I think our view is a very narrow and short-sighted, ground-level view that leaves us bewildered by new changes. We make plans to merge or exit, and suddenly find barricades across our path and a giant “DETOUR” sign confronting us. Meanwhile, God, that greatest of engineers, sees the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10) and is arranging the construction zone of this world according to His master plan.  Sometimes it may inconvenience us, sometimes we may even suffer in the process (Acts 9:16), but we can know that His plan is the best overall good that can be accomplished in this world. Paul tells us in Acts 17 that “…He determined the times set for them and the exact times they should live. God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us.” And God told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).  We can take comfort in the fact that whatever we may go through in this broken world, it’s not a surprise to God. His plans are robust ones; He can take all of our hurts and pain, and even our rebellion, and accomplish His plan. In fact, in the story of Joseph, we see that He can even take the  betrayal of one’s own family and turn it for good : Joseph told his brothers “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:19-20). Will we always see the good result in the end like Joseph? Not necessarily. Many missionaries have been killed by the very people they desperately loved and to whom they wanted to bring the good news of Christ, and the fruit of that sacrifice didn’t reveal itself till many years later. But our faith – our trust – is not in chance or karma or serendipity. We trust in the all-knowing Creator who designed all we see, from the smallest subatomic particles to the largest galaxies, from the simplest salt crystal to the complex system of tens of trillions of cells making up our own bodies. He lays out the master plan – the big picture – and fine-tunes the details like no human engineer ever has. Just a thought from my commute to yours 🙂