Life is Not a Movie Cliché

Ecclesiastes 7:15

I’ve been on this earth, living this futile life, long enough to have seen some pretty revolting things. A couple of years ago, I watched two good men die long before they should have from the same disease: pancreatic cancer.

Mike was about 60. He’d done all the right things in life. After serving in the Navy, he got married and raised three children. He worked hard and well building and maintaining roads in Kansas. Mike doted on his grandkids, kept his house in good repair, and grew some of the most stunning flowers you’d ever hope to see. He volunteered with the preschool kids at church and spent countless hours cutting out things and otherwise preparing for his and other classes on Sunday mornings.

George was in his 40s. A police detective, he wasn’t a guy who would ever rise to become the chief, but he also wasn’t the sort who would embarrass himself and his profession in some dreadful video. George worked his duty, but he tried to make the world better even as he arrested people. He left behind a loving wife and two teen sons, who, along with their baseball teams, sorely miss his presence.

I think of these two, who died in the same year, when I read today’s verse:

In my futile life I have seen everything: someone righteous perishes in spite of his righteousness, and someone wicked lives long in spite of his evil.

Ecclesiastes 7:15

WWHD?

Although Hollywood has long made films that shock us with their ambivalent or even tragic endings, most of their fare and the TV stories that followed, has run against what the verse above suggests. What would Hollywood do? Think Walker, Texas Ranger. A bad guy does bad things. Ideally the bad guy does really bad things to really good people. Maybe he highjacks a bus load of nuns and little kids. He punches women and tells the kids that Santa isn’t real. This villain is a nasty fellow.

And in the end, Walker overcomes long odds to kick said bad guy in the face, preferably a number of times. There’s catharsis and a sense of cosmic justice. The little kids get ice cream, the nuns get whatever nuns want, and Walker’s crew winds up laughing around a table. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.

That’s what Hollywood used to always do and what they mostly do today. Even when a beloved character dies at the close of a film today, it’s usually framed in a positive or understandable light. In 90 percent or more of Hollywood’s offerings, the world has to make sense.

But Ecclesiastes notes the reality that good men die young from cancer while dreadful people make billions of dollars at the expense of all manner of good and decent things. Life is, after all, futile.

Getting in Tune

So how does the follower of Jesus deal with these very un-Hollywood storylines? How do we reconcile ourselves to terrible people prospering while fine people suffer? I’d suggest three thoughts that can help us retain our confidence in a good and loving God even as things stink.

First, let’s never forget that Genesis 3 happened. We live in a fallen and sin-drenched world. From God’s holy perspective, Mike and George were filthy sinners. Anything good that happens to anyone should really be what surprises us and seems unfair, but of course we don’t want to look at ourselves that way.

Second, we mustn’t ignore the fact that we can’t see the entire playbook that God is using. We can’t know the causes, natural and supernatural, behind these events. We can’t know, and we shouldn’t pretend to know.

Third, we need to recall that our ultimate reward will not be meted out in this mortal life. I’m confident that even though people like Hitler and Stalin seemed to escape true justice, they will be dealt with in the proper manner.

None of that makes the loss of Mike or George any easier. But nobody said that this futile life would be easy.

Don’t Fight the Spectrum

Ecclesiastes 7:13-14

I mentioned yesterday that my mother’s 99th birthday had come and gone. On the day itself, we hosted a party for 46 people at our house. I think the fire marshal might have been circling the block and considering an intervention.

The oldest guest was, not shockingly, the birthday girl herself. The youngest was my four-month-old granddaughter. In between, however was a young man on whom I’d like to camp out for a while: “Lewis,” one of my nephews.

Lewis is somewhere on the autism spectrum. Now a teenager, he didn’t speak until just a few years ago. He’s generally good natured–as good natured as kids his age will normally be. If you ever wanted somebody to make sure all the doors in your house were closed, Lewis is your guy.

I’ve heard people wonder why this boy would have this condition, when his siblings show no autistic tendencies. Some wonder why God would make such a “mistake.” They won’t get an answer, but they’ll find the topic taken up in Ecclesiastes:

Consider the work of God,
for who can straighten out
what he has made crooked?
 In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity, consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that no one can discover anything that will come after him.

Ecclesiastes 7:13-14

Renovating God’s Blunders?

What did Koheleth have in mind when he spoke of the work of God that “he has made crooked”? I suppose that it could be referring to things like mountains and rivers. Although humans have shown great ingenuity in overcoming some of the challenges of topography, the great rivers still go where they want to go and the mountains show no sign of surrendering.

But I’m inclined to see in these crooked works the things like cancer and mental illness and deafness and, yes, autism. Despite the best efforts of various doctors, cancer still takes down many people. While medicines can help, the bipolar person remains distinct. Although the deaf might protest that they are different rather than deficient, they still cannot hear a bird sing or an orchestra play. People can diminish these bits of crookedness, but they cannot overcome them.

Are these works of God blunders? Is my cousin with cancer being afflicted by either God’s carelessness or His malice? Is Lewis a giant mess-up? What pretentiousness we have if we claim to understand matters better than God. Sometimes, like in the case of my cousin’s cancer, the problem may lie with people. In his case, Agent Orange from Vietnam might be the culprit. There might be a human actor behind Lewis’ situation as well. Or maybe these are just things that God has caused or allowed to happen for reasons we’ll never understand.

Getting in Tune

“If there’s a loving God, why is there so much evil in the world?” That question is an exceptionally tired refuge of skeptics. Think about it. If there is a God who could create and control the enormity of the universe, would you expect that all His ways would be comprehensible to you?

We cannot put straight what God has made or allowed to be made crooked. We cannot magically pluck Lewis off the spectrum, and that’s okay. Our calling is not to utterly fix this broken world. Our calling is to do what we can with what we have, to be joyful with the good and thoughtful about the bad.

That’s why, even though I have never had a meaningful conversation with him, I will always have a place in my heart and my home for Lewis. God made Lewis. That’s enough for me.

How to Save $457 Million and Your Skin

red-headed-woman-clear-skin-looking-at-arm-mol-melenoma-skin-cancer-handbagSince 1982, rates of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, have more than doubled from 11.2 cases per 100,000 people. That may not seem like a lot unless you happen to be one of the those odds-beating people diagnosed. It is estimated that 73,000 people will be so diagnosed in the United States in 2015 with a projected 113,000 cases in 2030. I’ve seen two of these diagnoses in my own family, so the matter is high in my attention.

Treating melanoma costs something like $457 million in 2011. As health care costs go, that’s not too extreme, weighing in around $6,000 per case. Most cases will involve a chunk of skins being taken out in a relatively simple outpatient surgery. An unlucky 9,000 per year, however, die from this form of cancer.

So how do we save that $457 million? Or at least save ourselves from becoming one of those statistics?  Not only is it reasonably simple to shift the odds in our favor but the remedies have other benefits as well.

  • Wear sunscreen. By wearing sunscreen you’ll not only reduce your risk but you’ll also avoid painful sunburns.
  • Cover up with hats and clothes. You can avoid slathering sunscreen on yourself by wearing long sleeves and brimmed hats.
  • Stay out of the sun. By avoiding the heat of the day, you not only make the most of the shade but give yourself a good excuse not to mow the grass.

That’s it. Melanoma–and other skin cancers–are not mysterious afflictions, like pancreatic cancer, that seem to pop up for no real reason. By far the biggest risk factor is exposure to the sun (or other sources of UV radiation like tanning beds). Avoid the sun and you’ll likely stay out of those statistics.

Even a diagnosis of melanoma shouldn’t rob someone of hope. With Job, that person can claim, “Even after my skin is destroyed, Yet from my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26). But better yet, avoid the destruction.

 

Vitamins–No Shortcuts

Vitamins and SupplementsI’ll proclaim my bias right here. I have never been a dietary supplement kind of guy. I’d prefer not to get my nutrition in a pill. Still, it is pretty clear why people would want to opt for the convenience of the supplement. After all, why labor through all of that chewing to get your B vitamins or beta-keratin when you can down it in an easy-to-swallow capsule?

A recent study presented at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting suggests that excessive vitamin doses–the sort of doses you’re only likely to get by swallowing pills–are a negative influence on our health. Dr. Tim Byers presented his findings:

“We are not sure why this is happening at the molecular level but evidence shows that people who take more dietary supplements than needed tend to have a higher risk of developing cancer,” explains Byers, associate director for cancer prevention and control at the CU Cancer Center.

Some specific findings of the study showed bad results in the form of increased incidence of cancer from excess vitamin E, folic acid, and beta-keratin. This shouldn’t come as a tremendous surprise to us. God gave us a multitude of nourishing foods, foods that will, if eaten wisely, will provide all of the vitamins and minerals our bodies need and more. What fools we humans are to think we can effectively short-cut that process in the form of a pill.

I was never a “Flintstones Kid” when growing up. After reading this study, perhaps I should thank my mother for not jumping onto that bandwagon.