It’s All about Context

“Show me anyone who struggles at JCCC..I walk the parking lot and I see a whole lot of very nice cars.” These are the reported words of the president of my college, a month or so back, when he thought he was having a private breakfast conversation and wound up being overheard and live tweeted by someone at a nearby table.

Several of the things that this administrator said–and he never disputed saying any of them–are statements he probably wishes he could reel back in. A spokesman for the college noted that the tweets included comments lacking necessary context.

Some of my peers howled at the “context” defense. After all, doesn’t everyone, caught in an embarrassing situation protest that their words were taken out of context? I suppose they do, but then the spokesman didn’t exactly say the words were “taken out of context.” He said they lacked the necessary context.

What’s the difference? When we read a series of isolated quotations that were taken from an actual spoken conversation, we lose a great deal of the surrounding material. We lose the tone of voice of the speaker. We lose the things said by others involved in the conversation and the tone of voice that went into those. We lose all aspects of the situation. There’s a word for those things: context.

This man’s statements were unfortunate but presenting them in isolation, written when they were spoken, is unfair and borderline dishonest. Was he being goaded? Was his adversary, an elected official, saying things just as strident that went unreported? Without the context, we can’t know.

You probably don’t care about the politics of a community college in the Kansas City metro, but context is something that should always concern us. Specifically, I’d like to examine context as we read God’s Word. Let’s take an example from Job 15:20-22:

A wicked person writhes in pain all his days,
throughout the number of years reserved for the ruthless.
Dreadful sounds fill his ears;
when he is at peace, a robber attacks him.
He doesn’t believe he will return from darkness;
he is destined for the sword.

So bad things happen to bad people, right? They’re not just herded off to the left with the goats at the last judgment; according to this, they’re miserable throughout their lives. If you’re suffering, you must be bad. Hey, don’t blame me. It’s right there in the Bible.

The problem here is that these are the words of Eliphaz the Temanite, words that Job, in the next chapter, dismisses as empty. Read in the context of the broader drama that is the conversation between Job and his friends, it makes sense, but read in isolation, out of context, it teaches something contrary to the Bible’s overall message.

Context is important. In recent weeks I’ve spent excruciating time looking at Psalm 118:24 word by word. That’s fine, but if my reading ignores the surrounding context, then I’m doing the Word an injustice.

More Snow?

snow streetI’ve had enough of snow for the week or for the month or for the entire winter. I’d say that I’ve had enough for the year, but I’m fairly sure that I could tolerate a bit of snow in December–you know, White Christmas and all that.

A friend of mine sings the praises of snow. She loves it. She can’t wait for it to come in and make the whole world magical. But then she lives in mid-Tennessee, where a half inch of snow that lasts for three hours is a big deal. Here in Kansas City, we’ve had something white on the ground nearly every day since the beginning of the year. We had more snow in November than we had all of last year. And right now, it is coming down in fine flakes, almost too small to be felt. It’s the portent of more to come.

For a solid week now, I’ve been driving Penny crazy by, several times a day, saying, “I’ve had just about enough of this winter nonsense. Have I mentioned that?” She smiles as she grits her teeth. Tonight, in expectation of the blizzard that has just begun outside, we’ve now cancelled the third deacons meeting of 2019. It’s February 19 and we still can’t get the guys together. My school closed at 5:00 p.m., and I won’t cry if we get a snow day tomorrow out of the thing. That’d be the only positive to come out of another four inches of snow.

Why? Why is it still snowing? Why do we have to put up with this nonsense, watching our streets torn up by the freeze-and-melt cycle, struggling to drive here or there? Where is the justice in all of this?

Of course the answer is a non-answer. When Job wagged his finger at God, questioning God’s justice, the Lord’s response was simple and stern. It was an eloquent version of “Shut your mouth!” In part, it was like this:

Have you ever in your life commanded the morning
or assigned the dawn its place,
so it may seize the edges of the earth
and shake the wicked out of it? –Job 38:12-13

Why the snow? I don’t know. I’m still fed up with it, but no amount of my impatience will change a bit of it. So we just hold out for a snow day!

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.