TOD 12.03.07

Celebrities don’t matter. The box office take of a recent movie doesn’t matter. Sports results don’t matter. And, if we’re honest about it, the vast majority of politics doesn’t matter either. Even if you disagree with this statement, you’d have to agree that your opinion about these things matters even less than the things themselves. So why talk about such stuff? Well, there are two benefits.

The first is that it trains your mind so you’re mentally fit when you have to make a decision about something that actually does matter in your own life. Such discussions are a sort of mental weight training so your mind is strong when it counts. The second is that these topics offer a fertile soil out of which conversations and, therefore, relationships with other people can be grown. That said, it should be easy to see that such discussions become counterproductive either when they divide us from others or when the fun of mental exercise displaces the necessity of doing actual mental labor on our real responsibilities.

By definition, perversion is whenever something good is used contrary to its intended valid purpose.

TOD 11.30.07

At lunch yesterday I was talking with a friend about how quickly his mind works, and I told him that it would be more loving for him to slow down for other people and explain things more thoroughly to them. Since communication is about working with people rather than by ourselves, this is correct advice. But he pointed out something equally important in response.

He said that too much accommodating other people winds up allowing them to dominate and destroy our own identity. He’s exactly right. Just as it is unloving to not accommodate others, it is also unloving to allow them to so control our interaction that we lose who we are in the process. Love must affirm the value of both participants.

The main goal of wise love is that others become loving as well. That’s why love yields to them but also encourages yielding in response. Too much accommodation seems like love, but it’s really just selfishness depriving them of giving the gift of accommodating us. It’s not loving at all to allow others to remain unloving toward us.

TOD 11.29.07

“All women are bad drivers.”
“Most women are bad drivers.”
“Some women are bad drivers.”
“That woman is a bad driver.”
“That woman is driving badly.”
“That woman is driving badly right now.”
“That woman is driving badly right now according to me.”
“That woman has done one thing while driving that I do not like.”
“That woman has done one thing while driving for a few seconds that I do not like but which may have a perfectly decent explanation and which I’ve certainly done myself in the past and would not want to be judged by.”

It sounds downright silly when I say it like that. Almost like stereotyping is dumb…and unloving.

Remember, the language you use in your head is the most potently repetitive mechanism of belief formation you have. And by the way, one final thought. Why does it even matter that the other driver was a woman?

TOD 11.28.07

I love my children. I want only the best for them, which often is at odds with what they want for themselves. Hence, I am constantly guiding, correcting, and disciplining them. Of course I also give my children at least as much affection and encouragement as possible, but I must confess that it’s all too easy to begin to see them primarily as a bundle of errors needing correction.

That’s why it was so valuable to have my father visit us during Thanksgiving. He gave them unconditional love, attention, and indulgence, which means they really liked having him around…naturally. After all, he doesn’t have to shape them and mold them and keep them alive. All he has to do is play with them and take joy in them and then leave the dirty work to us.

But instead of resenting him for this, which would have been easy, I took it as a reminder that I’ve been entrusted with a masterpiece. And it’s useful as a parent to remember that Claude Monet’s paintings were neither created by nor intended to be enjoyed by looking through a microscope.

TOD 11.27.07

“I disagree with what you’re saying, but I’d fight to the death for your right to say it.” To me, this has always been the heart of the American philosophy of freedom and tolerance. Unfortunately, I see a lot of people these days who seem more prone to saying, “I disagree with what you’re saying, but I’ll fight to the death to stop you from saying it.” Although I hope we all recognize this as tyranny rather than tolerance, I think there’s some merit in considering which freedoms we value enough to defend when people use them differently than we do.

For instance, I wouldn’t lift even a finger to protect the right to publish pornography. However, I would risk my life to protect someone’s right to read the Koran. I would never shop at a store owned by racists, but I would in fact put my life at risk to protect people in believing that all races are not equal. I support making abortion illegal, but I would gladly risk my life protecting the publication of books advocating evolution.

See, it’s easy to defend what we admire. But until you have identified at least some things you hate but believe in protecting, you have not actually embraced the idea of freedom. Giving other people the freedom to do as you would have them do isn’t really much of a definition of freedom.

TOD 11.26.07

If someone came to you and claimed to be a really fast runner, how would you verify it? Would you measure the muscles and tendons in his legs? Would you study the aerodynamics of his head? Or would you just grab a stopwatch and go with him to the track?

If someone came to you and claimed to have all sorts of parenting wisdom, how would you verify it? Would you see if it makes sense to you? Would you look to see whether his book has been endorsed by other experts? Or would you ask to meet his children?

Finally, if someone came to you and claimed to have great stock advice, how would you verify it? Would you listen to his theories and formulas to see if they seem reasonable? Would you ask to see his brokerage license? Or would you ask him how much money he has in the bank and many shares he is buying with it?

In many areas of life, we get confused over the difference between persuading other people that you are qualified and actually being qualified. And what I find so problematic, even revolting, about the political selection process in the United States is my recognition that the guy who makes the best car salesman is not likely to be the same guy who makes the best cars. And whereas only a foolish business owner would hire a salesman to design his cars, I worry that we are electing political salesmen (or women) to design government policies.

TOD 11.21.07

Although we never left our first-born, Spencer, with anyone else until he was over two, we’ve relaxed a bit with Ethan and allowed him to go into the nursery at our church most Sundays since he’s been one. However, this decision always depends upon whom is there that day. If we don’t know or don’t fully trust someone’s ability, we either stay in there with him or keep him with us. He’s our son, after all.

Usually he doesn’t complain about being left, or at least not much, but last Sunday was different. As soon as I gave him to one of the volunteers, one he knows well, he started screaming and reaching for me. So I took him back with me into the service and held him on my lap during the sermon, and he was fine.

See, my theory is simple: if my son wants me, my son gets me. At his age (19 months) there is no such thing as too much security or too much dependency, and if I give him what he needs from me now, he’s less likely to believe he doesn’t need anything from me later in his life…when it really matters. The currency of influence is purchased with the coin of met needs.

TOD 11.20.07

Our 19-month-old loves to get into everything. Of course. He’s 19 months old. And one of his favorites is our entertainment center, with its glass doors and push-action magnets. So last night when he was again playing with them, I told him, “No,” and was about to intervene when he started to comply. He shut the door, but the only problem was that he had gotten his fingers stuck inside in the process.

It wasn’t hard enough to really be painful, just irritating because he couldn’t free them, and he started to cry about it. My first inclination was to help rescue him, but I didn’t. Instead, I waited about 30 seconds for him to get really bothered by the situation, then I released his totally unharmed fingers. See, I figured this was useful in deterring him from playing with the doors because the next time he was inclined to do so he would remember the previous experience. I allowed him to suffer so he could learn a lesson I wanted him to learn through a pain that I knew wouldn’t really hurt him in the long run.

I’m sure this story has no theological implications whatsoever.

TOD 11.19.07

People sometimes have the funny idea that it’s wrong to evaluate someone based on his clothes. Yet the same person who’s indignant about judging on this basis is usually quite particular about which clothes he wears, viewing them as a very personal expression of his identity. The irony, of course, is that this is exactly what I’m using his clothes to do, identify his identity. And although clothing is an imperfect marker, it still quickly conveys a massive amount of information about a person. To some this seems shallow or presumptive, but, to me, it’s just being prudent.

When two ships approach from a distance, the very first thing they want to know about each other is country of origin. Some countries are friendly, and others are at war with each other. And then there are pirates. Thus, finding a ship’s flag answers a lot of preliminary questions.

That’s why I find it so odd that people who so clearly fly the flag of their basic values in how they dress would become frustrated that others might recognize the insignia and act accordingly.

TOD 11.16.07

Pity and judgment seem like totally distinct reactions, but they’re much closer than we think. For instance, when I see someone in a restaurant being rude to a server who is slow bringing food, I judge him. In contrast, if I discovered that this same person had just been told that his mother had died, I might well have pity on him, knowing that his anger is really just grief in other clothing. I pity him just as I would an infant who cries for food because I recognize a situation that’s beyond his capacity to handle.

In short, I judge or pity others by measuring them with the yardstick of my own life. If young or highly stressed, I have pity. If mature and moderately stressed, I judge. But do I know enough about them to do this? The problem is that I can’t tell how mature a person’s character is based on how mature his body is.

In truth, God alone knows where people really are, and He may well judge the person I pity and pity the person I judge. That may be the reason He reserves judgment to Himself.

TOD 11.15.07

Whose fault is it when I stub my toe on the Legos my children leave out in the middle of the floor? Whose fault is it when I bump my head on the cabinet corner of the incredibly poorly designed kitchen I’ve been using for the last two years? Whose fault is it when there’s construction on the only construction-free route to work I’ve discovered on a day when I’m already running late for a meeting?

Well, of course, the right person to blame is my children, the cabinet-installer, and the construction crew. At least, that’s the conclusion you would draw from my frustrated reaction to these events. But the real answer in all of these cases, of course, is that it’s my fault. I have eyes to see Legos, the cabinets don’t move, and surely I could have left for work earlier. But if I think too much about these facts, then I lose the justification of my righteous wrath.

So, who’s responsible for the anger I choose to feel and the frustration I choose to express in response to these things? Probably the same guy who prefers to criticize others rather than himself. Now if only I could find that guy to blame.

TOD 11.14.07

Immanuel Kant believed that ethics was about following certain rules and that the results were irrelevant. John Stuart Mill believed that the only rule was to get the best results. And most of the disputes in ethics can be reduced to an argument between these two views.

For instance, some say war is always wrong on principle, but others say it’s necessary because of the reality of evil. Some say that taxation is wrong because it’s theft, but others say it’s necessary to provide safety and security. Some say that corporal discipline is wrong because it teaches violence, but others say that you can’t reason with a two-year-old. This same tension is bothering pro-lifers struggling with the idea of candidate Giuliani.

Kant’s approach focuses on being a morally pure agent. Mill’s approach emphasizes accomplishing good in the world. And, as the other cases show, sometimes wisdom requires us to sacrifice our own feeling of principled purity for something more important than moral pride. That’s a virtue another famous philosopher called prudence.

TOD 11.13.07

When I was at church Sunday listening to a very engaging sermon, I happened to look down at my shirt and discover I had dribbled a little bit of coffee on it. Had it been a pattern or some color, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. But, of course, it was white, now with a little unwanted dollop of brown. Recognizing that the sermon was more important than some silly shirt-stain, I decided to ignore it. But I couldn’t. It kept bothering and distracting me.

I wanted to go clean it off, and I was worried that one of my favorite shirts would be ruined. So I sat there, trying to pay attention but only succeeding somewhat. And as I tried, I kept thinking how stupid this was. It’s just a shirt. It’s just a little stain. And I’m letting this distract me from a great sermon? How neurotic is this! That’s when it hit me. I wasn’t being a silly little human, I was being very much like God.

When He looks at us, we might be all white with just one little stain, and that one little stain becomes completely distracting because of His Holiness. And just like dried coffee stains on a white shirt cannot be removed completely, no amount of self-scrubbing and better behavior will ever do enough to clean us in His eyes. We need a different kind of cleanser altogether.

TOD 11.12.07

The Chinese government recently gave us a scare when it was reported they would ban athletes from bringing Bibles into the Olympic village housing. It turns out to not be true, but we all immediately understood why the Chinese would have done it if they had: they don’t want Christian athletes sharing the Gospel with the others.

In all the hubbub, one element of this story can easily escape notice: the Chinese take ideas seriously. Of course they must, since all totalitarian regimes only exist so long as the people are kept indoctrinated. But as awful as censorship is, at least it reminds people that ideas have consequences, good and bad. Starting from the same premise, our philosophy is to protect the sharing of ideas so that the important ones thrive in competition with each other. But consider the implication: from a society where all ideas are treated so equally by the law one could easily draw the conclusion that they either don’t matter much or else are all equally valid.

A society that censors thereby declares the importance of ideas. A free society must sometimes remind people of the fact.

TOD 11.08.07

Almost every morning, I grind fresh coffee for myself. Since the grinder makes an outrageously loud noise and the complexity of grinding extends to pushing down a button, I usually let one of the boys do it with me. When he was younger, this was Spencer’s task. And now that Ethan is old enough, I let him do it because it’s one of the few things he can help me with. But almost every time I offer it to Ethan, Spencer pleads with me to let him do it.

I explain to him that he gets to do other stuff that only big boys can do and this is something that Ethan can do, but Spencer doesn’t care. All he knows is that whatever it is I’m doing, he wants to be doing it with me. In contrast, Ethan likes grinding the coffee but wouldn’t throw a fit if I didn’t let him do it. You see, Spencer is what we call our “black hole of attention.” Ethan, still lacking a nickname, is more self-directed and generally indifferent to our presence unless he needs something.

Because they are different people with different needs, we parent them differently. When it comes to grinding coffee, I encourage Ethan to participate while I fend Spencer off. I wonder whether God does this with His different children.

TOD 11.08.07

In the last half century, the idea that the ultimate purpose of our lives is leisure and recreation has metastasized into a virtual axiom of the modern mindset. We see it when people declare they are “working for the weekend.” We see it in when people look past their current endeavors toward “retirement,” a mythical paradise of inactivity and whatever level of hedonism their 401k will permit. And, sadly, we see it in the Church as well.

It shows in how we think about heaven, but it has also poisoned our understanding of why God called us in Christ. Rather than saying that we are saved from hell so we can enjoy our lives, Ephesians 2 tells us that the reason God gave us this free gift was so that we should walk in the good works we were created for.

There is much work to be done according to God’s Will, and it’s hard to see how neglecting it will honor His purposes or Glorify Him. Being born again and being retired are opposites, not synonyms.

TOD 11.07.07

Some favorite expressions of people who wind up in Hell:
  • “Everybody’s doing it, how bad could it be?”
  • “God already knows what I’m going to do, and He’s already forgiven me for it.“
  • “God helps those who help themselves.“
  • “To each his own.”
  • “All paths lead to the top of the mountain.”
  • “I’ve done a lot of good things in my life, so God will cut me some slack.”
  • “As long as I don’t hurt anyone, whatever I want to do is okay.”
  • “How is that my problem?”
  • “I’m basically a good person.”
  • “I don’t need anybody else to tell me how to live my life.”
  • “Every man for himself.”
No, saying these things won’t send you to hell, of course, but there will not be a shortage of people in hell who say these things. So then the only question is which one you want to fight with me about because you say it.

TOD 11.06.07

Words are like the clothing for ideas. So learning how to dress our ideas effectively starts with picking the right words and avoiding the wrong ones. And just as clothes have function and style, words have logical and emotional content. For instance, how should you respond when someone says, “Well, I don’t believe in discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation?”

First, recognize the dangers. Although “discrimination” is a perfectly good word (I discriminate between lying and truth-telling and between coffee and tea), it has come to imply unfair oppression. “Evaluate” is better because it lacks the baggage. Likewise, “sexual orientation” is a flawed term because it ignores the distinction between desire and behavior. So a linguistically savvy response might be, “Well, I believe it’s wise to evaluate people on the morality of their behaviors, don’t you?” A slightly stronger version might be, “I believe it’s unwise to ignore a person’s immoral actions.”

The first step in showing beautiful ideas to others is refusing to allow your opponents to dress them for you.

TOD 11.05.07

What would you say about a person who claims to love his wife but rarely spends recreational time with her? Or about a person who claims to have a heart for the poor but rarely donates anything to charity, or who claims to value education but rarely reads a book? What about a person who claims to value health but rarely exercises?

The common thread is a lack of integrity; not the character defect that we usually associate with that term, but the technical defect in which the values a person is speaking don’t match the values he’s behaving. One may wear stripes or one may wear plaid, but one may not wear them together. Likewise, every choice we make with our time either matches our values and builds our integrity or clashes with our values and tears it down. It’s not that people are lying in these examples so much as it is that they just haven’t practiced integrity enough to look like they’re telling the truth. And the good news is that we can always start moving in that direction at any time.

This, in part, by the way, is what the Bible calls repentance.

TOD 11.02.07

Elizabeth writes, “I found some time to pray in my busy schedule and it occurred to me that I don't do that nearly enough, especially with [some major events coming up in my life]. There simply aren't enough hours in the day. The first of God's worshipers offered sacrifices of fatted calves and grains, the best of what they had, that on which they lived, that which was most important to them. I could be mistaken, but isn't this the origins of tithing?

The modern interpretation [is] that I give 10% of my income to my church, but perhaps there is more to tithing than just my paycheck? Money isn't really that important to me. If I set up an automatic payment to my church straight out of my paycheck, I don't even notice. What if I gave 10% of the food I buy to the food pantries or 10% of my clothes each season to the homeless?

If I think about what is truly the most important to me, it would be my time; and I know I don't give 10% of my time to God. Perhaps two and a half hours a day devoted to God would be more precious than gold.”

Nice thought, Elizabeth.