TOD 10.01.07

Relativism is the idea that morality is relative to the individual or the community rather than being fixed for all people at all times. This has long been the view in American academia, but in recent years it has also become the default setting for Americans in general, whether they realize it or not.

Presidential candidate John Edwards recently remarked that he hopes his children grow up to disagree with him about gay marriage, as if to say he is a bigot but just can’t get over it because of his upbringing. This is not surprising. What was surprising was that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace also recently said that he believes, based on his upbringing, that homosexuality is not right.

Such catering to relativism is unsurprising among political liberals, but the felt need to cater to it by conservatives is truly troubling. If something is wrong, say that it’s wrong. Don’t hedge by calling it “not right” “in my upbringing.” That is a subtle way of accepting the premise of relativism.

TOD 09.28.07

I’ve been married for ten years, and sometimes my wife and I, having two different brains as we do, don’t always agree. I suspect we are not alone in this. When spouses disagree, there are essentially four options. The first is to quit on the relationship and get divorced. Not such a great option. The second is to fight to win by vanquishing the other. Of course, sometimes wars yield no winners at all, and, if practiced often, this approach can easily lead to option one.

The third is to discover the danger areas and then avoid them like potholes. Agreeing to disagree in a sort of permanent d├ętente, couples thus sometimes choose a cold war just to avoid the live fire. If they don’t know what real peace looks like, people can even think this is healthy. The fourth is to learn how to love your differences, fight fairly, and develop an organic relationship based on openness and compassion. This approach says, “I accept all of you, and my love for you is greater than any fight we have, or all the fights put together.”

You know, I’ve been talking about marriage, but now I suddenly wonder whether these ideas might not also apply to the way we argue with our fellow citizens about politics. Well, probably not. We don’t love them that much, right?

TOD 09.27.07

Imagine that you and your son are traveling by ship to a vacation in the Bahamas. On the way, a great and dangerous storm arises and everyone is instructed to stay indoors for their safety. Disregarding the instruction, one of the passengers goes out for a look and is swept overboard by a wave. You and your son rush outside and can just barely see the woman about to drown. You aren't much of a swimmer, but your son is a very good one. So you ask him if he can go rescue her.

He says he thinks it’s too risky and he’d rather stay on the ship, but you tell him to go anyway. Being obedient, he gives you a hug and dives overboard. When he reaches the woman, she is panicking and she starts to drag him down. He swims back to the boat with her as best he can; and, just as she drags him under, you are able to reach her with your hand. You pull her to safety, but your son has been lost.

Do you rejoice at her rescue? Neither would I. Which is all the more reason to stand in awe of the sacrifice made by God to retrieve us from drowning in our sin.

TOD 09.26.07

There are many ways God communicates to us, but there are also many ways people are mistaken in thinking that God communicates. For instance, the most common response to tragedy is to wonder why it happened. In trying to find meaning in the loss, many people say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Since the next logical step is to try to discern that reason, people start asking, “What is God trying to teach me by this event?”

Unfortunately, there are two basic mistakes here. The first is assuming that God causes everything that happens for the purpose of telling us something. The second is believing that God is such a poor communicator that He would prefer such a method of speaking. On the contrary, when God speaks, it’s usually quite clear to the person He is addressing. And if the message isn’t clear, the most likely explanation is that it’s not a message at all, but merely an event.

So, are ambiguously phrased evil events a preferred medium for God’s voice? Well, in my experience, God is both more clear and more loving than that.

TOD 09.25.07

Over the weekend, we were witnesses to a horrendous accident in which someone died. As a result, there was a massive traffic back-up, and we observed a wide range of responses. Some people wanted to be helpful and organize the mess. Some wanted to just know what was going on. Some were rude, and some were downright selfish.

For our part, having just barely missed being involved in it, we were grateful. A few hours is nothing compared to not being alive, and all lesser concerns seemed quite petty at the time. So it was very tempting to harshly judge those other drivers who wouldn’t make room for the emergency equipment or who wanted to inch up ahead or even who wanted to take pictures. But I continually reminded myself that they hadn’t experienced it my way, and they didn’t know as much as I knew. They were reacting largely how I might have reacted had I been in their cars.

It served as a very useful reminder to me to be cautious about judging others based on my knowledge and my perspective. We’re all fairly human, after all.

TOD 09.24.07

I find it fascinating just how many ways there are for people make themselves look bad unintentionally. For instance, I’ve always found it amazing that people go around complaining about their spouses to others. My question for them is always the same. “Wow, what idiot chose to marry a worthless person like that? I mean, geez, if a person’s a mess, that’s just who they are. But for someone else to actually choose to marry someone who’s such a mess. That’s really bad.” I get punched a lot less often than you might expect.

But isn’t that the point? Complaining about your spouse is really just another way of telling people you’re a fool, since you picked that person. But there’s another, less obvious way we do it, too. Many of us feel the need to win all our domestic arguments. But if you do win them all, that means you married someone so low in intelligence that they offer nothing to your marriage, which makes you look that much more foolish.

On the other hand, if you want to boast, brag about how many arguments you lose to the brilliant person you selected to marry. Just another one of those cases where losing can actually make your judgment look really good.

TOD 09.21.07

I was recently listening to the Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor, whose stories I love. He was telling one about a bartender explaining to another woman that getting cancer was great for her because it forced her to change her life and start doing what she’d always wanted to do. This seemed to help the other woman, who worried she had cancer, but it really made me think about the advice and the situation.

How would I live differently if I thought I only had a short time to live, like a year? Honestly, I wouldn’t change much at all. I do work that matters to me, I spend time with my family, and I have a lot of fun. I might sleep a little less and spend the extra time writing. But, then again, maybe I wouldn’t. See, I long ago realized something that this woman wasn’t quite saying out loud: we are all dying. And this means that we are dying for something, namely whatever we use our life to do. The only question is whether we are dying for something worth dying for.

So if you would live differently with only a year to go, I encourage you to either start doing so now or else consider the possibility that you aren’t going to because what you say would do in that case might not be all that meaningful anyhow.

TOD 09.20.07

Every night my wife and I take our two sons for a walk. Ethan rides in the stroller while Spencer usually rides his bike, and the rules for him are simple. He must stay close to us, and he must stop whenever he sees the headlights of a car. In the beginning, we had to remind him repeatedly, but now he’s internalized the rule and, with his excellent vision, often sees cars far away before we do. In fact, like most children, he has become quite proud of his ability to follow this rule vigilantly.

But there’s a problem. Sometimes the moment when he spies a car is also the moment when he’s crossing an intersection. He stops, and I must quickly push him to the other side. He almost yells at me, “But, Daddy, there’s headlights!” “I know,” I respond, ”but you also need to not stop in the middle of a road.” Although he has grasped the rule, he has not yet learned when breaking it would honor its purpose better than following it would.

Sadly, this inability to know the exceptions to ethical norms is not something only my three-year-old struggles with. Many adults do as well, just like the Pharisees did when they observed Jesus breaking the Sabbath to heal.

TOD 09.19.07

Imagine for a moment that you and your son are in a South American jungle fleeing from a band of guerillas with some villagers. Obviously, stealth is a key part of your escape strategy. Your young son has been quiet as a mouse, obeying everything you’ve told him, but one of the adult men in the group hasn’t really been taking the danger seriously. He’s been making noise and leaving bits of trash that put the whole group at risk.

Finally, even though you told him not to, he stopped for a break with the guerillas close behind, and you can now see that they’re going to catch him in a moment. Thinking of the only thing you can do, you tell your son to run across the forest to give himself up and distract them while you rescue the disobedient man. With a pained look, your son obeys, and you rescue the man, who is stunned and expresses his gratitude to you. But your son is lost.

Given this situation, would you make this choice? Neither would I. And it’s useful to remember this the next time we are tempted to think that God’s character and our character are very similar.

TOD 09.18.07

At Nathan’s annual hot dog eating contest in New York, guys (and some gals) from around the world try to force as many hot dogs into their mouths as possible, sometimes exceeding 60 in just 12 minutes. It’s simultaneously amazing and repulsive.

But imagine you were at a nice restaurant somewhere and the person at the next table was eating Chicken Marsala that way? Other than finding it gross, you would realize that no one can really enjoy food when they’re shoveling it that fast. At the other extreme, when I really want to enjoy a meal, I take a bite and actually close my eyes to savor the tastes and textures without having any visual distraction. It’s wonderful.

Likewise, even though I encourage people to read the whole Bible if they say they believe in It, I hope people don’t read it like it’s a hot dog eating contest. Instead, I hope they’ll savor it, with their eyes closed, chewing and pondering it’s sweet flavor. Remember, souls grow slowly, which is why sometimes faster isn’t.

TOD 09.17.07

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I love the Golden Rule, but does it always work? No. See, only people who already has a pretty good grasp on what is and is not good are qualified to perform the question. People with corrupt desires want others to do wicked things to them, just as they also want others to avoid doing some things unto them that would be good for them simply because they don’t recognize them as good.

Many so-called liberals make this mistake. They don’t see, for instance, that it can be extremely loving to criticize someone for a poor decision or to withhold from him the illicit sexual gratification he might desire. But that’s the point. People often want what is bad for them and they do not want what is good for them. But the fact that someone wants something doesn’t make it good, and love cannot require us to give people things they want which are bad for them.

And, although I love the Golden Rule, I hope that others will always love me enough to avoid giving me what I want if I shouldn’t have it, just as my friends, my wife, my parents, and my God generally do unto me.

TOD 09.14.07

Anger is a very instructive emotional response. One common source of anger is being caught off guard by criticism for something we do or believe that we discover we don’t really know how to defend. We try to cover this embarrassment with anger, mistakenly thinking that this portrays strength when it really shows weakness.

For example, I recently asked on the show whether scrapbooking cultivates an unhealthy attachment to the past. In response, the unprepared say, “That’s ridiculous!” which is really just another way of saying, “Man, I never thought about that before, and I’d rather get angry than think about it right now either.” Instead, those who have really contemplated their lives and values might say, “Yes, you’re right. That’s a real danger, and here’s what I do to avoid it.”

So what’s the lesson? First, examine our lives thoroughly. Second, use anger as an indicator of uncertainty that can remind us to stop and consider the merit in criticisms we haven’t previously heard. Then we can be calm because our confidence comes from growing wiser rather than from claiming we already are wise.

TOD 09.13.07

The other day I visited Fry’s Electronics for the second time ever. Wow! I felt so overwhelmed and lost that I almost asked a salesperson to page me…for me. As I was checking out, I noticed that the hand-held scanner the clerk was using didn’t work very well, so I quipped, “Ironic for an electronics store, huh?” No smile.

Then I noticed that every register has a green light on to tell people it’s open, but the one at the next register was apparently broken since the cashier was waving a ping-pong paddle with a number on it at the waiting customers. I kept my irony to myself this time. Not just that the light was broken, but that they had a whole system in place just for that sort of malfunction. But I was a bit saddened that the owners had given so much effort to building a great store but had failed to understand how such little things can undermine people’s perception of their products.

It’s a sadness I often feel when Christians don’t grasp how word choice or symbolic nuance can nullify so much of the good substance we have to offer. So my advice to Fry’s and my fellow Christians is the same: “Fix your lights and scanners. What you have to offer is well worth the touch-up effort.”

TOD 09.12.07

I was recently chastised by a loyal listener for asking poorly framed questions on my show. He said that I’ll ask a question such as “Is it immoral to drop by without calling first?” which invites a “Yes” or “No” answer when in fact there are too many variables to answer it so simplistically. Of course he’s right, but he missed the point.

See, I host a radio show which is designed to generate discussion for the purpose of finding wisdom. And in most cases, the Yes/No form of a question invites people to discuss the topic more thoroughly and raise the variables and different circumstances. By the end of this process, everyone who listens should have a pretty clear idea of when it’s “Yes” and when it’s “No.” Plus they will have a solid grasp of most, if not all, of the relevant principles involved in why those answers are what they are.

But the most valuable thing they have acquired is wisdom about the topic, wisdom whose main component is often precisely the recognition that the question cannot be adequately answered with a simple “Yes” or “No.”

TOD 09.11.07

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach recently commented that America is not a sex-filled society, but a porn-filled society. “The two are very different,” he said. “Sex is about intimacy. It’s about vulnerability. It’s about connection. Porn is about objectification. It’s about making people into commodities. Why do we do this? Because America is the money-obsessed culture. Everything has to be an object. We have to own it. We have to possess it.”

Obviously I think he’s on to something here, but the difficulty is imagining how we might escape the problem. See, in capitalism, the primary identity we have is as owners of things and the primary relationship we practice is that of buyer and seller. Thus, we have very little practice comprehending the relationship of sharing or even of giving and receiving. If so, then porn might be at least as much a byproduct of free markets as it is of lust.

Perhaps this is what Scripture intends to help us avoid when it says to remember that our bodies are not our own.

TOD 09.10.07

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” With this famous line, Shakespeare flung open a truly significant window on human language. As my father often said to me, you can tell a lot about people by what they bother denying. See, if something isn’t really a concern, you don’t respond to it. But when you vehemently deny something, it’s usually evidence of insecurity or uncertainty being vigorously covered over.

I recalled this over the weekend when I was discussing parenting with a single friend. She wants to be married but hasn’t found the right guy yet, and I almost said to her, “Well, don’t worry, there’s plenty of time.” In a rare moment of restraint, I held my tongue because I realized what an awful thing that would have been to say.

It sounds like an assurance, but in fact it would likely have made her upset because it’s effectively saying that the risk of never finding anyone is so real that it merits denying. In contrast, consider that I’d never bother saying to her, “Don’t worry, the sun will rise tomorrow,” because it’s obviously true. It’s important to realize that our words can easily tell more about what we don’t want to say than about what we actually do say.

TOD 09.07.07

My wife has recently become strongly attached, note I did not say “addicted,” to watching television shows about flipping houses and remodeling, something she’s always wanted to try. One of her favorites is about these people who take $2000 and use it to spruce up houses and prepare them for being on the market. They call the process “staging,” and it can easily mean the difference between selling a house in 6 days or 6 months.

At first it seemed like deception to me. Putting better make-up on a woman doesn’t make her a better wife-candidate, even if it attracts more offers. But then I thought about it differently. It’s just a matter of showing the house in its best light and making people more willing, even eager, to buy it. And if they’re happy doing so, everyone wins.

And I couldn’t help but think of Christians in the public arena and how we so often lament that no one wants to accept our wise and true ideas. And why don’t they? Because we are generally inept at staging, which is a shame, especially since the house we’re representing is worth so much more than the asking price.

TOD 09.06.07

Have you ever wished that people were just a little bit more consistent? I mean, if you’re going to drive fast, drive fast. If you’re going to drive slow, drive slow. Stop changing speeds! If you’re going to be interesting, be interesting all the time. If you’re going to be boring, don’t raise my expectations falsely with occasional flashes of comedy or insight.

If you’re going to be good, be good all the time. If you’re going to be wicked, be wicked all the time. Even if you’re going to be mediocre, fine. Just do it consistently. I don’t particularly care which you pick (although I have my preferences), but whatever it is, pick one and stick with it. It’s far easier to figure out how to interact with someone who is always bad than with someone who is sometimes bad and sometimes good.

I’m so sick and tired of trying to navigate my way through a world of unpredictable people. It’s like playing a game where the rules keep changing. I just wish God would have made a world with people who were more predictable, like robots or animals, instead of a world full of inconsistent people…just like me.

TOD 09.04.07

The other day I was walking between some cars at a strip mall, and I stepped out in front of a bicyclist without looking. He wasn’t all that close, and so I quickly crossed to get out of his way and apologized. He said nothing, which immediately made me think that I hadn’t really done anything wrong. But neither had he. Truly, neither of us was at fault, but only I apologized.

It’s like when I wait for the elevator. If I forget to leave space enough for people to get out, I apologize to them, and usually they do to me as well. And I guess I’ve just developed this habit in all sorts of similar settings. My impulse to apologize is almost instantaneous. And when everyone has this impulse, we all seem to come away from the encounter smiling and not irritated, and not second-guessing who really was right or wrong. At the risk of exaggerating, it seems like this attitude makes everything in society function more smoothly.

Now if I can just get myself to be as consistently decent to the one person I love most: my wife.