Saturday, August 25, 2007

A Sad Rush to Judgment

[UPDATE, added August 26, 2007: Something I meant to include in this post originally was a mention of my initial reaction to this tragedy, which was a rush to judgment. But as I read and heard more details, I felt very wrong about that. A good lesson for me in this is to always get my facts straight before forming an opinion.]

In conversations I've had by email, telephone, and face-to-face today, people have described Brenda Nesselroad-Slaby as a great person. A competent, caring educator. An accomplished musician who played piano at her church. A loving mother.

While I've never met Nesselroad-Slaby, those who've told me these things about her are all people for whom I have the deepest respect.

Nonetheless, the assistant principal of Glen Este Middle School here in our community, Nesselroad-Slaby has been villified over the past few days on local message boards, radio call-in shows, and at the proverbial workplace water coolers.

On Thursday, Cecilia Slaby, her two year old daughter, died in the Glen Este parking lot. It happened as she sat, strapped into her car seat in her mother's car. Cecilia may have been there for eight hours, as her mother did her job. With temperatures rising to 100-degrees here in the Cincinnati area that day, it's no wonder that Cecilia died. It's a horrible tragedy!

In fact, "accident" is exactly how our Clermont County prosecutor, Don White, a man who is tough on crime, has described the tragedy. He has indicated that while some charge may be filed, he has little thought that either parent intentionally caused the death of their child. Both Nesselroad-Slaby and her husband have been cooperative with authorities and teachers and school administrators on the scene when Cecilia was found describe a mother who was clearly distraught, hysterical with grief.

Over the past few days, local media reports have taught our community that about thirty such deaths occur in the US every year. Often, they happen in the households of busy two-income families where a sleeping child may be in the car seat of a parent who thinks it's not their "day" to take the little one to child care. Prelimimary indications are that that's what happened with Cecilia.

But some in our community are skeptical, others downright hostile, certain that Cecilia was murdered.

I suppose that, to some extent, the suspicions are understandable. Less than a half-mile from the Glen Este parking lot where Cecilia died, foster child Marcus Feisel lost his life.* Marcus, readers of this blog will remember, was wrapped in duct tape and thrown into a closet by his foster parents and their live-in lover. While the three spent several days in Kentucky at a family reunion, Marcus died. Two of the conspirators took his body and incinerated it, while a third told police and the media that the child had gone missing in a local park. Hundreds of community volunteers joined law enforcement officials in searching for Marcus. When the story of what really happened came out, all of us in the community wanted justice to be served. We also developed an acute sensitivity to the vulnerability of children.

With the memory of Marcus so fresh, particularly for those of us who live in the West Clermont Local School District where these events have happened, some skepticism about the circumstances of Cecilia Slaby's death was bound to surface.

But others refuse to even entertain the idea she was the victim of a terrible accident. "I think the parents did it on purpose," one co-worker told a friend of mine on Friday. I'm told that the West Clermont board offices were flooded with telephone calls from people who have already charged, convicted, and hanged Cecilia's parents.

I suspect that some of these reactions stem from something other than a desire to protect children. Among some people, guilty-until-proven-innocent seems to be the prevailing attitude. Their hearts are cold with sin.

I believe that a relationship with Jesus Christ, based on grace and not legalism, changes the way we think about our lives and the world. Our sin inclines us to violate God's command to not bear false witness which, as explained in Martin Luther's Small Catechism calls us also to "put the most charitable construction" on the actions of our neighbors. Jesus Christ, Who died for sinners--that's the whole human race--helps us to be more charitable and less judgmental.

I highly doubt that Cecilia Slaby was the victim of murder. If her parents had wanted to take the little one's life, they could have hatched a more resourceful plot, one that would draw attention away from themselves. Simply leaving Cecilia in her mother's parked car at her place of work is an unlikely way for two intelligent people wanting to get away with murder to go about it.

It looks like an accident to me and that those who are crucifying Cecilia's parents are not just jumping to conclusions, but assassinating their characters. Cecilia's death makes me sad. So does the rush to judgment some are making.

*Marcus Feisel died five-hundred yards from where I live. Our two children attended Glen Este Middle School, but years before Nesselroad-Slaby began working there.

Update on South Korean Christian Hostages in Afghanistan

Bruce Armstrong has it. Please pray for the release of the remaining nineteen hostages, who went to Afghanistan to help rebuild that country.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Why Do the Innocent Suffer?

[This is a slightly updated version of a column I first wrote back in 2003. Consider it a condensed version of this series. I hope you find this column helpful.]

Why do bad things happen to innocent people?

Like almost everyone, I guess, I have seen really good people, believing people, and children, subjected to crushing difficulties, afflicted by illness, or taken far too early by death. Maybe you’re one of those good or believing people or children who have been hit by undeserved suffering or grief. You may be inclined to wonder, “Where is God now? Why am I left to fend for myself in the face of this overwhelming pain?”

I’m not sure that I have any answers. But I do have a few responses.

My first response is that you’re not alone.

When God came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, He underwent suffering. The New Testament book of Hebrews describes Jesus as humanity’s “high priest,” the bridge between God and us. Through Jesus, we have access to God’s help, even in tough times. Hebrews assures us that in Jesus, “we don’t have a high priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

When we’re knocked down by suffering, the God we meet in Jesus Christ “gets it.” God understands our pain. And He promises to be with those who see Him as their Lord “to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

The second thing I want to tell you is to ignore those who try to say that every bad thing that happens to you is your fault. It isn’t!

There are times when bad things do happen to us as the result of our bad decisions. There are also times when God, as a loving Father, disciplines us, thwarting us when we rebel against His will. But don’t let anyone tell you that the loving God of the universe is waiting to wallop you with a cosmic sledge hammer for every mistake you make. God is no monster!

Jesus’ followers—disciples—once pointed a blind man out to Jesus and asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus said neither the guy’s parents or he were guilty of a sin that caused his blindness. Instead, Jesus said that God allowed the man to be blind so that God’s glory could be seen in the man. Jesus proceeded to give the man sight. (John 9)

Sometimes, God allows us to keep suffering even after we’ve prayed. But in these circumstances, it's likely that God’s motive is the same as Jesus’ motive for healing the blind man: to let us see Him at work in our lives. One of Jesus’ followers in Bible times was a man named Paul. We don’t know exactly what it was, but Paul said that he suffered from what he called a “thorn in the flesh.” In the New Testament, he says that he asked God to remove it three times. God refused. As Paul explains it, “...[God] told me, ‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’” (Second Corinthians 12:1-10)

God makes our suffering count for something when we go through it with Jesus Christ: He teaches how we can rely on Him and He shows His goodness and power to others through us. On this latter point, it’s been my observation that often, as Paul sensed God telling him of Paul's suffering, it’s in those who suffer with Jesus that we most clearly see the presence and power of God.

Only heaven can be described as “paradise” (Luke 23:43). That’s the ultimate destination of all who follow Jesus Christ. This temporary home we call earth and the life we live here will never be a paradise free of suffering. But it is a place where we can know God intimately, experience fulfillment, love and encourage each other, and go through every high and low with God beside us.

Suffering may never make sense. But God’s love is always there for us.



Rick Moore thinks that Mitt Romney has changed his position on abortion in yet another way. If that perception takes hold among Rick's fellow conservatives, Romney's efforts to cultivate conservatives will come to grief.

He writes:
The fact that Romney has articulated several different positions on abortion tells me he really has no core belief in this issue, but is making statements based on what he thinks the listener wants to hear, and that's a problem. If you know what you believe it should be that hard to articulate it each and every time consistently.

All that aside, abortion is still an issue about which the president has very little control. He can't ban it or institute it. He can control funding to a small degree and can veto or sign legislation that comes his way. And I still believe that is is wrong to make this the one factor upon which someone makes their voting decision. We should be more worried about the things the president can control and not so much about the things he can't.
In the final analysis, my guess is that the perception of Mr. Romney as a flip-flopper is a far bigger threat to his candidacy than his Mormon religion. Most Christians, for example, even most evangelical Christians, are willing to vote for a Mormon for President so long as they believe the candidate will refrain from using the presidency to impose his or her faith on others. But if changes in political positions appear to be based on positioning and expedience, candidates will be universally villified.

I'm inclined to agree with Romney's handlers that the less they say about his religion the better. (Although, since Romney's campaign was the first to bring up the "Mormon issue," it may be hard for him to button up on the matter now.) But he probably needs to preemptively take on the "flip-flop" perceptions sooner, rather than later.

Whether Rick is right in saying that Romney's recently articulated position is another flip on the abortion issue, I don't know. But I do think that he's right in saying that the President has little direct control over abortion.

"This is the summer of our mourning."

See here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Please Pray for Northern Ohio

Flooding is happening in or threatening much of northern Ohio. Please pray for safety for everyone in the rain-deluged areas.

We lived in northwestern Ohio and have a real love for the area and its people.

The Power to Hope

"The Christian faith makes it possible for us nobly to accept that which cannot be changed, to meet disappointments and sorrow with an inner poise, and to absorb the most intense pain without abandoning our sense of hope, for we know, as Paul testified, in life or death, in Spain or in Rome, that 'all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose.'" [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.]

See also here.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Pray for Jamaica

See here.

One of the organizations which I'm sure will be doing relief work there is Lutheran World Relief. You can make donations or find ways you can provide material aid or volunteer here. (There, you can also find info on how to help earthquake victims in Peru.)

Hope for Workaholics (Christians and Work, Part 3)

[This message was shared during worship with Friendship Lutheran Church of Amelia, Ohio on August 19, 2007. If you live in or are visiting the Cincinnati area, feel free to worship with us. We have Sunday worship at 10:00AM. Starting September 8, we'll resume our Saturday worship schedule. The Saturday service, which won't happen on September 29, incorporates the opportunity to informally discuss the Biblical texts and the life issues they address.]

Luke 10:28-32
The story’s told of a couple who had decided if they had children, that only one of the parents would continue to work outside the home. The other would stay at home with the kids. In this particular family, the man kept his 9 to 5 (or 9 to 6, 9 to 7, 9 to 8) gig and the woman took primary responsibility for child-rearing and household management.

One day, the guy comes home to find total mayhem. “The kids were outside, still in their pajamas, playing in the mud and muck. There were empty food boxes and wrappers all around. As he proceeded into the house, he found an even bigger mess — dishes on the counter, dog food spilled on the floor, a broken glass under the table, and a small pile of sand by the back door. The family room was strewn with toys and various items of clothing, and a lamp had been knocked over.

"He headed up the stairs, stepping over toys, to look for his wife. He was becoming worried that she may be ill, or that something had happened to her. He found her in the bedroom, still in bed with her pajamas on, reading a book. She looked up at him, smiled, and asked how his day went."

He looked at her bewildered and asked, "What happened here today?” She again smiled and answered, “You know every day when you come home from work and ask me what I did today?” “Yes.” She answered, “Well, today I didn’t do it!”

I tell that story for a reason. You see, when some of you heard the incident involving Jesus and two of His friends, the sisters Mary and Martha, being read to you from the Bible, a little voice inside your head said, “Oh, boy, here Daniels goes again. He’s going to talk about how great it was for Mary to sit on her blessed assurance and how faithless it was for Martha to scurry around working like a madwoman while Jesus was teaching at their house.” But that’s not what I’m going to say.

At least, that’s not all I’m going to say.

I am going to say that sometimes we all feel like that stay-at-home mom did. Or like Martha did when Jesus came to visit her brother Lazarus, her sister Mary and her. Both felt that their hard work was unappreciated or underappreciated.

And there may have been times when Martha’s beef with Mary was completely warranted. When you look at another place in the New Testament where Martha and Mary figure, John, chapter 11, and you see that Martha is a person of action. Mary is more of a contemplative. Sometimes action is needed more than contemplation or rest. But not on the day our Bible lesson recounts.

If you’ve derived any kernel of Biblical truth from the first two installments of this series on Christians and Work, I hope that it would be that work is a good thing. God made us to do work. It’s part of what makes us human. It’s a way that we can worship and honor God.

Think of work as being like a fine piece of furniture, say that dining room set you scrimped and saved to buy. Now, when the delivery people arrive with it, you wouldn’t take them out the back door to the deck, where it could be exposed to the sun and the rain and all the elements, and say, “Just set it here.” That would be a complete misuse, an abuse, of a finely crafted piece meant to last for generations.

Work has its place. The work of hospitality that Martha thought she was doing, has its place. But there comes a point when work is misused and abused.

Martha had the opportunity to hear Jesus’ liberating word for repentant sinners, the Good News that we are freed from sin not by our efforts or good deeds, but solely by our trusting surrender to the Savior Who dies and rises for us.

But Martha was too busy acting important, being the linchpin who held civilization together, to pay attention to Jesus. Martha, at least in this instance, was being a workaholic. She exemplifies the lifestyle of workaholism, which always stems from a combination of personal insecurity, or a desire to be noticed, or the fear of insignificance, or idol worship, whether the idol is self, money, or power. Workaholism is never from God. And its effects can be devastating.

Some of you have heard me tell the true story of a business executive who had achieved great financial success. There was just one problem: He never saw his wife and kids. He never made his children’s school events. He only took “working vacations.” Finally, unable to take the life they were leading, his wife issued an ultimatum, “Get your workaholic lifestyle under control or I’m leaving and taking the kids with me. A divorce will only confirm the reality of our situation because right now, we're not really married. We just share a house....sometimes.”

At first, the exec was dumbfounded. He thought his wife was being ungrateful. Here he had provided every material thing anyone could want and she was talking about divorce!

But his wife stood firm. The next morning, he astounded his family by calling his office, clearing his calendar and telling them that he was taking the day off. He took the kids to school and spent the day talking with his wife.

At the end of the day, he came to an astounding decision. He would leave his job and use their savings to buy a little marina in northern Michigan. “We’ll work and play together,” he declared. “There’ll be no pressures or deadlines.”

Wife and kids were happy and within weeks, they’d made their move. But it didn’t take long for the old workaholic ways to re-emerge. The guy expanded the marina, added a restaurant, and built time share condos. He was at it from dawn to beyond dusk. One night, he returned home to an empty house. There was a brief note from his wife. This time, she would divorce him.

A few months later, an old acquaintance visited the guy at his empire by the lake. The exec took him for a spin in his boat. The acquaintance looked at all the exec's holdings that set on the shore and said, “When you look at all that, you must feel very proud.” “Frankly,” the executive said, “when I look at it, it makes me sick to my stomach.” Within days, he died of a massive heart attack. He was in his mid-forties.

Once workaholism has a person in its grips, it becomes a monster that needs constant feeding. It kills people’s relationships with God and others. It eventually kills the person never freed from it. It kills them spiritually and then it kills them physically.

So, can we be free of workaholism, free of work as an addiction?

I think that if we go back to that incident in Bethany again, we can find Jesus’ prescription for workaholism.

Remember what happened? Martha is busily serving. The workaholic executive who worked too many hours and did way more than was necessary for doing an excellent job, was resentful of his wife’s criticism. Martha is just like him. Doing way more than excellent hospitality demands, she resents her sister’s decision to sit and listen to the Lord. Seeing herself as a martyr and a model of good citizenship, Martha runs to Jesus and, in effect, upbraids Him for His insenstivity.

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Workaholism is all about choices. Hard work and a commitment to excellence are good choices. But work to prove our self-worth or to call attention to ourselves are very bad choices. Martha was making a bad choice. Mary was choosing the Savior Jesus, a gift that could never be taken from her!

The child of God, the person who has turned from sin and believes in Jesus Christ, will want to work hard at the right times for the right reasons.

And this same child of God knows that she or he has nothing to prove to God or to the world. God has already given His approval to their lives.

They know that it’s okay to relax, that it’s even okay to sometimes says, “No” when the church asks them to take on a job.

Children of God relish the realities...
  • that they are of central importance to God;
  • that God created this world for them to enjoy; and
  • that to prevent them from experiencing eternal separation from God, the rightful punishment for our sin, God became human, died for us, and rose to give us eternity with God. You are worthy. God says so. The shed blood of Jesus on the cross says so!
For those who struggle with workaholism, that comes as wonderful news!

God’s antidote to the combination of self-hatred, self-worship, the need to be in control, and personal insecurity that expresses itself in workaholism, is embodied by Jesus.

Jesus brings us what the Bible calls grace, God’s charitable acceptance of repentant sinners offered to us through Christ.

The New Testament tells us, “by the free gift of Jesus Christ...” we are set free. With nothing left to prove, the follower of Christ is set free to move toward being who God made us to be. We're liberated by the realization that we aren't human doings, but human beings.

And there’s another freedom that God gives to us.

I read once about a fellow who had a strange habit. On Monday mornings, as a good friend was just sitting down at his desk for a new work week, he made a phone call. When his friend answered, the guy dispensed with small talk. All he said was, “This is God. You have the freedom to fail. I’ll still love you if you do.” Then he hung up.

When we belong to Jesus Christ, we have the freedom to fail. We have the freedom to do our best, fall flat on our faces, and know that we still have value. And know that if God gives us tomorrow, we can try again. We have the freedom to fail because God never fails to love us, stand by us, or bring the people and support we need to keep on keepin’ on whatever life brings.

God never fails to love you. Today, I challenge you to believe that, to latch onto Jesus Christ, and know, success or failure, God will never let go of you.

[The story about the messy house and yard are from The true story of the Michigan business executive is one I heard Bill Hybels tell more than twenty years ago.]