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Monthly Archives: October 2009

Facebook Rescue

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The other day my daughter came in from walking the dog with a gadget she had found in the street. It looked like a beefed-up tricorder from the original Star Trek. It had a large, greenish yellow LCD screen and lots of buttons with curious inscriptions, and it was evidently designed to take abuse. It’s rubberized case was further protected by a leather jacket. Lettering on the front indicated that it was a Wavetek SDA-5000 Stealth Digital Analyzer.

A quick Internet search turned up the information that the device was a specialized meter used to measure the characteristics of broadband signals on cable, the sort of cable people have going to their cable television or cable Internet. I also found that they sell for $5,000 to $6,000. Whoever lost it would probably want it back.

I turned the thing on, and after a brief initialization, it informed me that it could not find a telemetry signal. Great. Not very useful. I soon got the hang of navigating the menu system and eventually found my way to an info page. There was an Operator field with a name in it.

“Why don’t you look for the name on Facebook?” my wife suggested.

Sure enough, there were two hits. But how could I be sure the name listed was the person who lost the meter? Viewing the profile page was unhelpful. Like most Facebook users, the profile pages show only the name and photo to users who are not friends. There were also photos of a few friends and a link to see all.

I clicked the link.

Nearly all of this person’s friends were in the Minneapolis/Saint Paul network. Several were also in the Comcast network. Ah-ha! This person was a Comcast technician in the Twin Cities who used the meter in the course of his work. I decided I had enough confirmatory evidence to contact him. I sent him a message through Facebook and asked him if he had lost an SDA-5000. I also asked for additional descriptive information to assure myself that he really was the person who lost it. After all, there was no guarantee that the name in the Operator field was really the name of the operator.

Within hours I had a response with an accurate description of how the meter looked. It also included a phone number. Since it was late, I called the next morning and told the owner where he could pick up his meter. He came over later that same morning and picked up his meter, rewarding me with a few bucks for “lunch on him.” I split the reward with my daughter.

Later, another of my children said, “You should have kept that thing and sold it on eBay for $1,000.” I doubt she believed it. We pay lip-service to the ridiculous notion that money is the highest good, as if the simple kindness of returning something lost were somehow foolish. What nonsense! I only acted as I would wish some other person to act if I were the one who had lost something of value. It took me no more than 15 minutes to track down the rightful owner, thanks to Facebook. I did the right thing, and that is worth more to me than any money I might have gained from selling that meter on eBay.

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On Selfishness

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The concept of selfishness has such a wide variety of meanings and contradictory nuances that it is almost impossible to disentangle them all. Selfishness has been lauded as a virtue and castigated as a vice. Some have even attributed selfishness to objects that have no ‘self’: most notably to genes and memes. So let’s start with a definition:

Selfishness: the pursuit of one’s own happiness.

This is a very simple definition, but I think it helps us disentangle some of the contradictions bound up in the concept of selfishness. Pascal, in a famous passage from his Penseés says,

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Selfishness, by this definition is both universal and indispensable. In fact, despite Christian diatribes against selfishness, the Bible says almost nothing against it. Quite the contrary. The Bible assumes that people are selfish and addresses them accordingly with appeals to their happiness and self interest. You won’t find God encouraging self sacrifice for it’s own sake. If there is no vice in selfishness, there is certainly no virtue in unselfishness. There is nothing to be gained by harsh treatment of oneself. When Peter, apparently seeking commendation, tells Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you!” Jesus replies,

“I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.”

The implication is clear. “You got a bargain, Peter. Whatever you gave up, you get back in spades, and to top it all off, you get eternal life.” In giving everything up to follow Jesus, Peter had only acted with intelligent self interest. Even Jesus pursued his own happiness, for the writer of Hebrews tells us that “for the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame.”

If selfishness is universal and indispensable, why is it considered such a vice? Why do we teach children not to be selfish? Why do we revile the titans of industry who put their own interests ahead of their companies’?

That last question contains a clue. Hardly anyone objects to corporate executives reaping rewards for their diligent efforts as long as those rewards do not come at the expense of their employees or their customers or of taxpayers. When your pursuit of happiness infringes on mine, then I’m perfectly willing to denounce your selfishness. The idea is that in pursuing our own happiness we ought to take care not to obstruct others’ pursuit of their happiness. Selfishness becomes most selfish not when it is concerned with self but when it is unconcerned with others. This leads to a second definition.

Selfishness: indifference to others.

It’s not necessary to reconcile these two definitions; words can have more than one meaning. We just need to be clear what meaning we are using. The first definition leads us to a universal, essential characteristic of humans. But indifference to others need not be universal nor essential. In fact, taken to an extreme, indifference to others thwarts our pursuit of happiness.

Of course, some level of indifference is essential to our health and happiness. If I were really concerned about the plight of everyone in need, whether AIDS victims in Africa, child prostitutes in Southeast Asia, or poor people driven from their homes right here in America, I would be paralyzed by the magnitude of raw need. I can only be really concerned about those who come within my purview, those who are my neighbors.

This neighborly concern is not in conflict with my self interest. By showing kindness to my neighbors, I am making my neighborhood more civil, more charitable. If I have mercy on them, someone may have mercy on me when I am in need. Real kindness, however, does not spring from such enlightened self interest. It springs from genuine affection for others.

When Jesus wanted to illustrate neighborly love, he told the story of the good Samaritan. In the story, the religious “good guys” concerned with their position and reputation, do not see a fellow sufferer. They see an annoyance. The Samaritan, however, has compassion on him. When he sees the man bloodied and hurt, he hurts too. He is motivated not by self interest but by spontaneous affection for another human being. He suffers with him, envisioning himself in the same predicament. This upwelling of compassion compels him to tend the man’s wounds, take him to Urgent Care, and pay for his treatment.

Does the Samaritan act unselfishly? Yes and no. Certainly he was not indifferent to the wounded man. Love, by its very nature, is other centered. Love takes pleasure in serving the one loved. The Samaritan was not annoyed at having to stop. He was not grudging in his efforts to help. He gave freely and unconstrainedly. It was his pleasure to serve. In serving, he pursued his own happiness and no doubt found greater fulfillment than the priest and Levite who had each passed by the man and left him to die.

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New Problem of Pain

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Mark Tabb offers a very accessible explanation for why God allows pain and suffering in the world. Using the book of Job as well as anecdotes from his own experience as a pastor and chaplain, Tabb takes on the problem of pain and provides a defense that is compassionate, reasonable, and lucid.

The book of Job is not an easy book to understand. Written as ancient Hebrew poetry, it has troubled both translators and interpreters. Everything Job’s comforters say to him, for example, seems to come right out of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. Yet the author of Job charges them with bad comfort and—worse—misrepresenting God. Tabb does an excellent job navigating the concepts presented in Job, explaining their relevance to his theme, and making the book come alive for his readers.

Interpreting Job, however, is not Tabb’s main purpose. He wants to answer the question that forms the title of his book: How Can a Good God Let Bad Things Happen? He tells us right off that he has another question in mind, too, one that Job himself asks: Shall we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” (Job 2:10). Tabb squarely confronts the conundrum of a good God who nevertheless permits or even causes disaster (see Isaiah 45:7).

Throughout, Tabb’s style is conversational and personal. I never had the feeling that he was talking down to me or telling me just to buck up. His use of personal anecdotes as well as liberal quoting from the Bible and C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain appeals to both heart and head. This is a book for those who have experienced pain and loss. It is also a book for those who simply want to understand. The hardest part of sharing another’s grief is that you can’t. You want to empathize, to feel with them, but you find yourself able to offer nothing more than your presence.

Tabb leads us through the shock and horror of tragic loss, through anger at God and disbelief, to acceptance and perhaps something more, perhaps to genuine comfort. To some his answers will still seem trite. Certainly the last chapter, introducing heaven and eternity as balm for the wounded soul, is the weakest. He is at his best when dealing with the here and now. But his reasoning is theologically sound and thoroughly orthodox, an excellent antidote to recent works that explain pain by diminishing God.

This book is for anyone who has ever questioned how God can be both loving and all powerful. For some, this issue is a major stumbling block preventing them from coming to faith in Christ. It may also be for someone who has experienced suffering, but I would urge caution. Those who are grieving do not need more books to read. They need your presence.

Disclosure: The publisher, NavPress, provided me a copy of this book in exchange for a review.

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