TOD 03.06.08

Since Ethan is only 21 months old, a significant portion of our house is structured around making it difficult for him to hurt himself. One example is the bathroom door, which stays open during the night in case Spencer needs to go, but which stays closed during the day so that Ethan doesn’t go swimming in the tiny pool or worse, although worse is hard to imagine.

This morning, when I took him out of his crib and put him on the floor, he immediately looked at the open door and said, “Uh-oh.” As he started to walk toward it, my first impulse was to shut it and keep him out, but I paused, wanting to see what might happen. He waddled up to it, grabbed the handle, and then very deliberately walked backwards until the door was closed. Then he looked at me and smiled. After praising him, I pondered what an amazing thing had just happened.

Without any need for an explanation, Ethan had simply internalized the notion that daddy wants that door closed. And, even though he certainly understands that it is closed to keep him out, he still eagerly wanted to help enforce my will. Now, what was it you wanted me to do again, Lord?

TOD 02.29.08

In ethics, there are three different kinds of rules. First, universal rules, which apply to all people in all places, such as, “Do not murder,” or, “Devote time to God in prayer.” Second, particular rules, which apply to all people in a group, such as, “Drive 65 or less on most American interstates,” or, “Obey your superiors in the military.” Finally, personal rules, which apply only to you, usually based on your individual purpose, character, or commitments, such as, “No alcohol because drunkenness tempts you,” or, “No motorcycle riding because your wife hates it.”

Many people wrongly deny one or more of these categories, and this leads them to be mistaken about how a rule applies. Denying personal rules leads people to turn them into universals, such as, “No one should celebrate Halloween.” Likewise, denying universal rules leads others to wrongly reduce them to merely personal, such as, “I would never have an abortion.”

Since the universal rule to love others requires us to assist them in living well, we must also be careful to correctly know whether and how the other rules apply to them as well.

TOD 02.28.08

I walk around this world in constant awe and wonder, amazed on a daily basis at how much more of God there is to grasp all around me. For example, we just moved to a part of town where there is a lot less light pollution, so the stars are beautifully vivid at night. And as we take our evening walks, I would have to be avoiding them to not notice the constellations.

Of course there is Orion and Cassiopeia , but the one which I most easily see is the big dipper. And following the front edge of the big dipper, I immediately find the North Star. Permanently at due north because of the orientation of the earth and never moving in spite of its rotation, I’m forced to congratulate God on such a useful forethought. And I’m also forced to wonder at those who think, myself formerly among them, that this was just a lucky happenstance.

It’s truly amazing what we can talk ourselves into believing when once we have chosen to deny the divinity of the truly amazing.

TOD 02.27.08

Much of the wisdom we need to live well comes from simply understanding our desires and motivations and manipulating them for a purpose. For instance, my father recently told me that he always encourages singles to date a lot of people at the same time rather than having a series of exclusive relationships. This immediately struck me as tremendous wisdom because of what it does for decent people.

The reason most singles have trouble resisting premarital physical affection is that they don’t properly view it as infidelity. At best, it’s cheating on a potential, future person. Most of them would find it much easier to avoid such activity if it seemed like cheating on a whole group of real, current people. Ironically, dating many people gives both the boundaries we need and also the honorable excuse we might be glad to have. “I wouldn’t do that to them, just as I wouldn’t do it to you,” is both easier to say and sounds much more virtuous than, “I won’t do that with you.”

When we date many, we have sex with none. When we date one, we have sex with many. Contrary to what most people practice, the best way to preserve marriage may actually be to avoid imitating it before the fact.

TOD 02.26.08

Over the weekend, as I was waiting for my wife in the car with sleeping children, I happened to see a Muslim woman leaving the store. I inferred she was Muslim because she was wearing a traditional-looking scarf which carefully covered her neck and head except for her face in the way I have seen many Muslim women do.

What intrigued me about her attire, however, was the fact that she was also wearing some sort of eye-catching waist jewelry, a cute top, and high heels which were mostly hidden underneath the hem of her extremely form-fitting jeans. Because of the rest of the outfit, the scarf had almost taken on its own air of allure rather than modesty, which I presume was its original purpose. I have no idea what her peers or parents think, but I thought her dress was as effective a demonstration that you cannot enforce principles through the application of specific rules as any I had seen.

The child’s body may be sitting on the chair, but if he’s still standing up on the inside, one may well wonder what good the rule has really accomplished.

TOD 02.25.08

I love ethics. I love thinking about what is right and wrong, discussing it with other people, and trying to make my ideas of virtue match up with God’s ideas. For thousands of years, philosophers have been trying to identify the heart of ethics, but I think I know the answer. Much as grammar is the rules that describe how people speak when they know a language, ethics is the rules that describe how people behave when they have acquired the language of love.

Thus, teaching morality is really teaching people to imitate love; to behave as if they were loving, even if they really aren’t. And as much as such instruction helps define the language of love, the only real way to learn it is by drawing close to God, who is the only pure speaker of it, and acquiring His heart. Just as children do not learn to speak in grammar class, but learn to refine their speaking there, we must never think that we can imitate love merely by memorizing the rules that describe it.

The critic knows the rules, but the artist creates the masterpiece.

TOD 02.22.08

For the last two and a half years, we have lived in a third floor apartment with two boys under the age of four. Having neighbors below us, you’d actually have to sit down and count which my wife and I did more times in those years: breath or tell our sons to stop running and jumping. It seemed like no matter how many times we tried and no matter what penalties or tactics we employed, it just couldn’t be done. Getting a toddler and a preschooler to stop running and jumping isn’t hard. It’s impossible….almost as if we were trying to outlaw their identity.

The parental deficiency here wasn’t our inability to control them. It was the mistake of putting them in such a frustratingly impossible situation to begin with. Now that we have a house, of course, things are wonderful for them and for us. It’s such a relief. Liberated from an oppressive situation, they’re actually able to obey the rules they should.

Maybe it was something like this that Paul had in mind when he wrote that “it was for freedom that Christ set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)

TOD 02.21.08

Is a man’s life better off if he married an excellent wife? Of course. But if he chose poorly or if she isn’t making his life better, should the government step in and provide him with what his wife is not? Of course not. Is a man’s life better off if he has good friends? Of course. But if he doesn’t, may he demand the state send him an enriching government-delivered social circle? Of course not.

See, relationships matter, and one of the ways we acknowledge their importance is by not trying to replace them with government substitutes. That’s why it bothers me that so many Americans seem to think it’s the business of government to make sure every child has the benefits that come from having great parents.

Parenting matters tremendously, and though I desperately want all children to have great ones, I don’t believe it is the business of government to step in and meet the needs which God designed parents to satisfy. I dread the dangers of a million bad parents, but I dread the danger of one giant nanny state even more.

TOD 02.20.08

This weekend I took the boys to play at a large park near our house. In preparing to go, Spencer requested all of his favorite outside toys: baseballs, basketball, glove, bat, golf balls, Frisbee, and more. Once we got there, a fascinating thing happened. Spencer wanted to play Frisbee, but only for a moment. Then he wanted to hit balls, but only for a moment. Then he wanted to play soccer, then bouncing golf balls, then back to Frisbee, and so on.

He couldn’t stand to stick with any one activity very long because his eye would catch sight of some other activity he was missing. With so many options, the opportunity cost of doing one became unbearably high because it meant not doing three others. He was a whirling Dervish of activity as he literally tried doing them all simultaneously.

So I decided to stand back and let him calm down to the point where I could do just one thing with him properly. Naturally, I felt somewhat to blame for his overwhelmed condition. After all, I’m the one who gave a three-year-old more options than he could handle.

TOD 02.19.08

When I look around at this world, I see endless problems, and, like all Americans, I seem to have a pathological impulse to fix every one. But I force myself to stop and ask some questions before I do anything.

First, who is most directly responsible for causing this problem, and can this person solve it himself? If so, then I’m done. Second, who most directly suffers from this problem, and is there anything this person can do about it? If so, then, again, I’m done. Third, if the source won’t or can’t change and the victim won’t or can’t make him, now and only now do I ask whether the rest of us can do anything about it.

I remind myself that knowing when to do nothing at all is the most vital part of being wise about solving problems, because it’s always possible we may not find any solution that doesn’t cause even greater harm than it relieves. After all, if God allows a world of evil, it’s at least possible that I may not be able to improve upon His choice.

TOD 02.15.08

Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus have been bothering me recently because, in them, the apostle says that people who like to discuss controversial matters are dangerous to church harmony. Since this is basically what I get paid to do, I began to worry that the Bible was telling me I couldn’t be a talk show host, much like I’m not allowed to be a psychic or a stripper.

But then I noticed that Paul’s real concern was the division and strife such talk can cause, and that’s why I haven’t resigned yet…because, far from producing those results, I believe we discuss these matters in such a way that we relieve the already-existing tensions over doctrine and morality. See, Paul was worried about immature people hating each other over such stuff, whereas my goal is that people mature so they can love one another in spite of and even because of their disagreements.

My hope is that by doing the opposite of what Paul says, I am actually accomplishing the objective he had in mind. I can’t be sure, of course, but I would certainly like to believe that Paul would have been a fan of the Andrew Tallman Show.

TOD 02.14.08

Yesterday we had a discussion about sadness and happiness because I argued, quite ludicrously, that it’s sinful to be sad. One thing that really struck me during that conversation was the potential that these dual-edged emotions have to impact our relationship with God.

When we are happy, it can bring us closer to Him as we express our gratitude to Him for the blessings. But happiness can also lead us to falsely think that we don’t need God at the moment because things are going so well. Similarly, sadness can bring us great intimacy with God as we depend upon Him to comfort and guide us through grief or disappointment. But sadness can also cause us to become bitter at God for allowing such pain to beset us.

Thus we have the power to turn blessings into curses or curses into blessings…depending on whether we creatures here below use them rightly to spur us toward the One from whom all blessings flow.

TOD 02.13.08

Driving to work yesterday, I saw a church sign that said, “Christianity is a work in progress.” Being the oppositional thinker that I am, I immediately thought that some people would defiantly reply, “No, Christianity is a finished work of Jesus Christ.” But, of course, there’s no reason we can’t affirm both statements with equal vigor.

An important principle of philosophy is that you cannot simultaneously affirm and deny the same idea, so long as you mean them in the same way. Yet precisely such variation is the issue here. Christ indeed finished the sacrificial system and atoned for all sins forever on the cross. But the evidence of the transformation that this completed work accomplishes in our lives is a gradual and continuous manifestation of Christlikeness.

The danger of being highly invested in a doctrinal dispute is that you too easily view all statements as taking a side in that conflict. Just because a statement can be taken the wrong way doesn’t mean that it cannot be taken a right way.

TOD 02.12.08

Have you ever heard the expression, “God will never permit you to receive more troubles than you can bear?” It sounds nice, but, like most theology that sounds nice, it’s not true. In fact, God not only allows us such burdens, but sometimes He actually causes them. And the reason is pretty simple once you think about our possible reactions to such difficulty.

One, we can try to handle it by ourselves and get crushed in the process. Not a great idea. Two, we can take it to God and develop a deeper faith with Him. This sounds right, but I think it’s still missing something fundamental. Three, we can let others share our burdens with us, spreading out the load and strengthening our fellowship with them. See, people are one of God’s primary mechanisms for meeting our needs, and one He prefers because it allows all involved to benefit greatly.

So, does God give us more than we can bear? Sure. But He never gives us more than we can bear with the help of Him and His earthly instruments.

TOD 02.11.08

While my wife was still asleep this morning, Spencer started playing noisily with a toy on the coffee table. I told him to stop because “Mommy is still sleeping.” He waited a few moments and then played with it again, so I asked, “What did I say about that?” he replied, “But I want to play with it.” So I told him he had a choice, either he could stop playing with it or I could take it away. After a few more moments went by, he resumed playing with it, but much more quietly. When I looked at him, he said, “It’s not loud. I won’t wake mommy up.”

I had to chuckle to myself because this was such a strange mixture of parenting success and failure. On the one hand, he was clearly disobeying me. But on the other hand, he had learned that the principle was more important than the rule made for it. In finding a way to satisfy the purpose of my command while still doing something he wanted to do, he showed me that I’ve created a rational problem-solver.

After all, though I want him to obey me, I also want him to think …especially for those times when I may be wrong.

TOD 02.08.08

In His abundant generosity, God gives each of us skills, opportunities, desires, ideas, friends, and many other things. So how should we respond to these gifts? Well, when it comes to our abilities, we really have three options.

First, we can develop them as much as possible and use them God’s way for His glory. Certainly this is best, and one example might be Tony Dungy, coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Second, we can develop them fully but use them our way for our glory. An example of this might be Aerosmith, an outstanding group of musicians serving only to themselves. Third, we can neglect the abilities we’ve been given. For obvious reasons, no famous illustrations spring to mind.

Though I think we could have a robust debate over whether the misuse of God’s gifts or the nonuse of them is a more grievous error, my only real task is to take option number one. In doing so, I show gratitude for His generosity. But perhaps just as importantly, I show people that God was not a fool for entrusting them to me.

TOD 02.07.08

Imagine a man is forced to live in some horrendous place he detests like, say, Phoenix. He hates the heat, the dull landscape, and the lack of seasons. But then imagine that this man subsequently finds a fantastic job. Then he meets a wonderful woman who loves him and gives him beautiful children. He discovers a church where he really belongs. And he even starts to enjoy the local sports teams.

Is this man happy? Yes. Is it because Phoenix cooled off, became more colorful, or developed seasons? No. It’s because he found blessings of far more importance than these flaws. He didn’t forget about them. They were outshined. And that’s how it works with God. At first, we might come to Him hoping He will fix our “real” problems, and maybe He even does so. But eventually, simply having Him becomes so potent a blessing that alleviating the former problems becomes insignificant.

And the only real tragedy is that some people never get to see enough of God for that to become their reality.

TOD 02.06.08

For anyone who loves simple answers and has a deep bias against nuance and complexity, the Bible can be very frustrating. For instance, how does the Bible say we should fight stupidity? Jesus says to not cast pearls before swine, but He also preached to thousands of people. Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal, but Paul reasoned respectfully with the Romans. Jesus confronted and insulted the Pharisees publicly, but James says to correct brothers privately. Solomon says to both avoid answering fools and also to answer them.

Thus, even a cursory reading says that the Biblical answer to this particular question is an emphatic, “Well, it depends….” This may not be satisfying to us who want simple, rigid, absolute answers, but it is an indication of two important facts.

First, God is complex when He should be complex, which means He remains complex even when we wish He would be simple. Second, the Bible was not concocted by men. Man’s concoctions don’t so brazenly contradict his own desires.

TOD 02.05.08

It’s nice to have rules. They make it possible to play games, earn grades, and make a living. when it comes to politics, I worry that we’ve fear we’ve learned to not care about those rules, the Constitution. Compare two different issues. Concerning gun ownership, there is an explicit protection in the rules, but some people have argued that the wording only protects the arming of militias. Concerning abortion, there is no explicit protection in the rules at all, yet many of these same people have concluded that this must be an unlimited right.

Paradoxically, they claim that a few sentences point to nothing beyond the narrowest understanding of the words used, whereas no sentences at all point to the most expansive interpretation of the silence. Ironically, this view implies that an actual amendment concerning abortion might have allowed fewer of them whereas the absence of a Second Amendment would have required the government to subsidize handguns.

Yes, having rules is good, but when people care so little for trying to follow them, what solace is there that they even exist?

TOD 02.04.08

One common theoretical objection to Christianity is that it would be unfair to send people to hell for merely never having heard the Gospel. Ignoring all the mistaken premises here, is the main idea even right? But, is it always wrong to hold people accountable for what they don’t know? If so, then the absurd conclusion would be that we should flee all knowledge so as to avoid all blame.

Yet, when a criminal doesn’t know his behavior was illegal, the courts tell him that ignorance of the law is no excuse. When parents say they are doing the best they know how, we properly tell them that they should have known more. And, in a more tangible way, contrary to the popular aphorism, what you don’t know can make you poor, make you sick, and even kill you. This isn’t a judgment per se, but it’s certainly a form of accountability. So whether it’s from the punishment of people or circumstances, ignorance often will not protect you.

Thus, we say that a person should work hard to be sure he knows the most he can. And if so, how much more true for us blessed with personal, direct access to God’s Word for ourselves?