Thought of the Day 01.05.09

I recently put a candy dish on my desk, which I filled with two types of non-standard candy corn: caramel chocolate (tan and brown) and caramel apple (tan and red). At first, people were cautious in taking them because quality was an unknown. They quickly discovered both kinds were good, just not equally good.

My coworkers clearly prefer the chocolate to the apple. So, although I fill each side equally, the chocolate disappears more quickly until it’s all gone. If I then refill that side, the same preference shows up. But if I don’t, people will simply eat the apple since it’s all that’s available. Any economist understands this perfectly well.

Given new products of the same price (free), people will sample them to decide quality, then consume the alternative they like best, and eventually settle for consuming what is merely available if they must. The implications for elections, relationships, jobs, and even church membership (in addition to mere economic questions) are fairly obvious.

Thought of the Day 12.23.09

Most people think of gluttony as the sin of eating too much. But why is that a sin? Because the person who puts too much of his reason for being into eating is declaring that God and God’s promises aren’t real enough to satisfy him. Sadly, the same theological defect underlies a much more common form of gluttony: the picky eater.

Doubting the ecstasy of eternity with God, this person is driven to fill this life with as much carnal pleasure as possible. He puts his faith in finding the perfect meal prepared the perfect way. Failing to recognize this as gluttony, his sin goes unnoticed. But what happens when these same patterns show up in a far more important area than food?

When I watch people searching for a spouse, it vividly reminds me of someone on a quest for the perfect culinary delight, a desire all the more pressing because he will have to eat only that one dish for the rest of his life. And trust me when I say that the consequences of such romantic gluttony are far more devastating than those of any mere culinary obsession.

Thought of the Day 12.22.09

I don’t know if any of you have ever heard of this concept, but I’m currently working on a list of tasks my wife gave me. It’s my favorite thing in the whole wide world.

Well, as you would expect, the things on this list are supremely irritating, mostly because I’ve neglected to do them across the span of so many previous lists that they are now gargantuan, both in reality and psychologically. But some of the items are irritating for another reason. Even though they seem small, they also seem to always have just one last little bit of them which never gets done. Like after I’ve mailed and handed out all the Christmas letters, I’ll discover one for which I have neither an address nor a likely personal encounter. No check mark yet. Drat!

But here’s the thing, even as annoying as these items are, I still feel a tremendous sense of relief when I can actually check one off. In fact, I suppose it’s precisely because they become so annoying that this feels so good. Do you think this might be why God allows some of the holiness goals in my life to remain unchecked for awhile?

Thought of the Day 12.21.09

The other day, I was walking to my car when I saw a piece of metal on the ground in the parking lot. I immediately picked it up and threw it over onto the rocks so that no car tire would be punctured by it. I did this so routinely that I barely thought of it as a virtuous act. But this instance exemplifies the process of moral evolution we all go through.

Stage 1: Moral ignorance. You don’t even think of the benefit of clearing the road this way.
Stage 2: Moral awareness. You see the benefit, but you don’t bother doing it.
Stage 3: Moral inconsistency. You sometimes do and other times do not pick up such hazards.
Stage 4: Moral virtue. You regularly do the good thing and feel sort of proud of this.
Stage 5: Moral constancy. Doing the thing becomes so automatic that you don’t even consider it a virtue anymore.

One additional interesting thing to note is that this progression, rather obviously, can also run in the opposite direction describing the cultivation of evil.

Thought of the Day 12.18.09

There’s something about being physically in the presence of another person which is fundamentally different from any other sort of interaction. Now in the old days, you basically had two options: meeting in person or writing letters. And even though writing letters is better than no communication at all, no one ever made the mistake of thinking that correspondence and being physically together were the same thing.

Nowadays, however, we have all sorts of gradations on the spectrum between those two extremes, from telephones to email to videoconferencing to texting. But all these technologies suffer from the same basic defect. Unlike what Ma Bell used to say, you simply can’t “reach out and touch someone” over a land line.

Why is this a problem? Because the existence of technology that facilitates the illusion of proximity has caused many people to lose actual proximity. As with so many other things, bad forgeries aren’t the real danger. It’s the well-crafted impostor which makes you forget the importance of having the real thing.

Thought of the Day 12.17.09

If you’ve listened to my show at all, you’ll know I’m not President Obama’s biggest fan. I’ve vehemently criticized his policies many times. And yet, just this week I spent an hour praising his Nobel prize acceptance speech both for its explicit content and for the courage he displayed in rebuking the Oslo audience with it. So how is it possible that I can so fiercely criticize him on one thing and then so effusively praise him on something else? Because I’m a Christian.

See, most people who engage in political discourse commit idolatry. They become so enthusiastic about their political ideas that they literally derive their identity from them. This forces them to slice the world up into friends and enemies. And once a person has been labeled an enemy, the political idolater must hate everything about him. Likewise, if a friend, no criticism can be voiced because that would jeopardize the satisfaction derived from being on “our side” of the battle lines.

Though I care about my political ideas, they don’t define me. Since Jesus validates me, I don’t have to accumulate self-worth by first finding enemies and then vanquishing them. I can afford to simply criticize mistakes and celebrate successes.

Thought of the Day 12.16.09

I despise the mobility of modern society because it robs me of my favorite thing in this world: my friends. What happens is I meet and grow close to someone because of a structural coincidence like sharing a job or a cul-de-sac or a common project. But inevitably one of us changes jobs or homes or endeavors and I lose them.

Oh, sure, we try to maintain contact, but the truth is that my acquaintances at work are more a part of my life than my best friends simply because we see each other every day. Just last year, I met one of my dear friends when he rented the house next to mine. But then he bought a house 15 minutes away, and now I rarely see him.

Can I Facebook him? Email him? Call him on the phone? Of course. Is it the same? Only a fool would claim it is. But there is a consolation prize. See, I know that when eternity comes, I will not only continuously be meeting the most interesting friends I’ve ever known, but nothing as silly as a new job or suburban community design will ever separate us thereafter.

Thought of the Day 12.15.09

Ethan (our 3-year-old) has developed the habit of demanding what he wants in a fairly shrill tone of voice. “Gib me one dos cookies!” So, we’ve recently been focusing on tone, form of address, and using the word please. Now, whenever he forgets, I’ll say, “That’s not the way you ask for something.” He’s pretty quick to rephrase, “Please, daddy, can I have a cookie?”

Unfortunately, he’s now beginning to make a fairly understandable mistake in his thinking. He thinks this new language game is about satisfying me rather than about him needing to learn basic social skills for his own benefit. This leads him to imagine his new magic wand will get him things he otherwise wouldn’t. “Please, daddy, can I play with your nail gun?” “No, son, but good job asking properly.”

Naturally, I still base my decisions on his welfare. The word may be “magic,” but it doesn’t magically make daddy stupid. As the man in charge of his future, I must still often refuse him, even though I’m glad he’s finally praying to me in just the right way.

Thought of the Day 12.14.09

I talk a lot about the ethics of driving, a fact which might strike some of you as a sort of peculiar moral obsession. Perhaps. But allow me to notice that there are basically three types of reactions to my driving comments.

The first person agrees with my assessments and is glad I’m promoting virtue in a daily activity like driving. The second person doesn’t necessarily enjoy hearing his own flaws exposed, but recognizes that it’s good for him. The third person is annoyed with me for intruding into his life by making these grandiose moral pronouncements about his driving, something he’s been doing all his life and knows at least as much about as any snot-nosed punk on the radio. talk radio host.

If you happen to otherwise be a moral conservative but still react in this latter way, today is a good day for you. The reason it’s good is because your irritation at me for constantly nitpicking your driving habits should give you a small sense of what it’s like for sexually immoral people to hear us constantly talk about their misbehaviors.

Thought of the Day 12.11.09

This morning, I finally figured out why it’s so irritating when other drivers change speeds on me. It’s because they’ve lied to me. See, driving is essentially a long series of short-term interactions with other drivers which requires us to predict their behavior in the near future and make our own moves accordingly.

Thus, when someone goes 60 on the highway, he is sending a message which says, “I will continue driving 60 unless I have to brake suddenly.” But when I pass him at the speed limit and he accelerates to 65, he is breaking the promise his prior driving had made. Being lied to in this way is extremely frustrating, especially since I’ve accommodated myself to the false information he was pedaling (sorry).

Loving our neighbor in driving means keeping them safe at the very least and helping them enjoy it at the very best. Achieving the predictability required by both goals entails a moral duty to send other drivers as much true information about our intentions as possible. This, by the way, should also explain why it is so patently immoral not to use turn signals properly.

Thought of the Day 12.10.09

Yesterday, I had a really neat opportunity to be a “celebrity” judge for a grade school spelling bee. Recalling my own somewhat mixed emotional memories from childhood spelling bees, I was eager to see how the process looked through adult eyes. I was not disappointed.

The most notable thing was the way the kids responded to the spellers. They were all soundly applauded when introduced. Then, every time someone got a word right, the place erupted with nearly deafening claps and hoorays. And whenever someone got a word wrong, the whole audience sighed in sadness, as if to say, “We’re sorry, too, and we’re with you.” This was of course immediately followed by reaffirming applause for having tried their best, despite failure. And then, predictably, there was a final round of applause for all the competitors at the end.

I obviously can’t know whether it would have been any different in another venue, but I do know one thing for sure: this environment of support and encouragement was extremely satisfying to find in a Christian grade school.

Thought of the Day 12.08.09

Last night, we spent an hour talking about the ethics of contraception, an issue which is notable mostly for not being an issue at all for the vast majority of Americans, both Christian and secular. As usually happens in these discussions, someone called to ask about getting married and waiting to have kids so as to pay off debts, in her case to facilitate going to the mission field.

I responded with a simple question: “If contraception were either unavailable or illegal (as it historically has been), would your marriage plans be any different?” She answered that they wouldn’t, and to her credit, I believe she immediately understood the reasoning behind both my question and her answer.

The truth is that technology has created and the law has permitted many things which Christians must pretend are not so. Though divorce is available, I must ignore the fact. Though abortion and pornography and even adultery are allowed, I must act as if they are not. And since contraception is such a grave moral evil (for reasons I obviously haven’t explained here), our simple duty in this society is to pretend it does not exist.

Thought of the Day 12.07.09

Northbound 51 exiting at Highland (on my way to work) is a horrible stretch. The merge area and the off-ramp are both regularly dangerous given the volume of traffic. But even if you make it safely to the light, another problem awaits you: the dreaded two-lane right-hand turn. I normally try to be in the right-most lane to avoid someone taking an obliviously wide turn into me, but today I was in the other one.

Naturally, the truck beside me did just what I had feared. But, since I was anticipating this problem, I avoided the accident and honked at him to let him know what he had done. Then something miraculous occurred. We both came to a stop at the next light beside each other, and I yelled over to him that there are two turn lanes there.

He replied, “Yeah, I’m so sorry, as soon as you honked I realized what I had done.” I immediately reassured him, “I’ve done it myself before, and I just wanted to be sure you knew for the future.” “Thanks,” he said. Reconciliation after a social breach just makes the universe seem a little bit prettier.

Thought of the Day 12.04.09

If I tell you that average American income, adjusted for inflation, hasn’t increased since around 1990, what’s your reaction? If you’re like most people, this makes you feel bad about how stagnant your life has been and makes you feel as though things aren’t getting any better, a narrative loved by our media.

But what if I rephrase and say that household income has remained constant for two decades? That’s logically the same thing, but psychology follows language, not logic. Whereas failing to increase sounds bad, remaining constant sounds like stability, a good thing.

Even so, there’s another, deeper deception here. Instead of asking whether the average worker today is better off than the average worker back then, why not ask whether the average worker today is better off than he was back then? How does the income of a typical 50-year-old today compare with a typical 30-year-old of 20 years ago? At least this comparison would acknowledge the fact that almost everyone lives better as his own life progresses.

I know this perspective doesn’t help reinforce the media’s cherished pessimism narrative, but it does help us remember how much better most of our lives become as we age, gain skills, and acquire wealth.

Thought of the Day 12.03.09

Imagine for a moment a fairly common problem in marriages: a spouse who doesn’t understand what the other spouse wants. For instance, let’s say a wife believes that her husband cares deeply about having the house nice and clean (perhaps because her own father did) when in truth he doesn’t care about that at all. Two consequences might follow from this error.

First alternative, she continually cleans the house and feels proud of herself. But, since he doesn’t care, her sense of wifely devotion is falsely inflated, which is why his lack of appreciation frustrates her. Also, in the effort to give him what he doesn’t want, she neglects doing other things that would, in fact, genuinely please him.

Second alternative, she rarely cleans the house and feels inadequate as a wife. Even though he’s quite satisfied with her, her unfounded guilt prevents her from knowing this. And if he ever does remark on the house, even just as a practical matter, she takes it very personally and feels defensive, leading to additional problems.

If you understand this catch-22, here’s the question: how sure are you that the things you’re proud of and also the things you’re ashamed of are actually things that your Lord God cares about?

Thought of the Day 12.02.09

Every parent knows the pain of seeing no change in behavior after repeated correction. Whenever I feel this way, it helps me to remember that there are at least four patterns of correction.

The first occurs when we correct something once or a few times and the children behave properly. This might be called the “miraculous” pattern.

Second is when we correct something ten thousand times, but it never really improves. Nevertheless, we continue correcting it anyhow because it’s right to do so, even in the absence of results. “Do not grow weary in well-doing.”

The only difference in the third pattern is that after enough tries, we simply give up because we realize it’s not bad or at least not so bad to keep fighting over.

But the fourth pattern is the one that gives me hope. This is when we have to realize that it will take several hundred or even several thousand corrections before change occurs. The hope comes from knowing that, whatever that magic number is, correction number 648 is one repetition closer to that tipping point than correction 647 was.

Thought of the Day 12.01.09

Consider for a moment the cumbersome process for incarcerating someone:

We have professional debaters present both sides of the issue.
We hear from as many witnesses as possible.
We give the accused a chance to defend himself or to say nothing at all, a choice which cannot be used to incriminate him.
We give him the right to confront all those who accuse him.
We carefully screen twelve jurors to prevent partiality or bias, then teach them the law, give them all available information, and require a unanimous decision.
In sentencing, information on character, background, and ongoing activities (or prior convictions) is presented so that the punishment fits the total context of the situation.
This is all overseen by a professional judge who operates within a complex system of appeals which takes a very long time to avoid the errors of haste.
And despite all of this, we still occasionally make mistakes.

So, if this is a reliable process for judging people, the question is, “How closely does your own mechanism for doing so resemble it?” I’ll let you judge what to do based on your answer.

Thought of the Day 11.30.09

I want to do something today which I almost never do in a thought of the day: refer you to another resource. Last week, Michael Medved wrote an outstanding column for USA Today correcting errors about the origins of this country. I strongly recommend you read it in its entirety.

The main one he describes is the inversion of motives for those who came here. Almost all of us have been taught that America was settled by people fleeing religious oppression to create a land of religious liberty and openness. This is exactly backwards.

The Puritans, for instance, came here precisely because they found European society too tolerant, immoral, and religiously lenient. They wanted to establish religious utopias with higher standards and greater purity (hence their name). And although it’s true that some did come here fleeing persecution like the Catholics, once here they established an extremely narrow religious society named “Mary”land.

The irony Medved hints at but doesn’t explicitly state is that America was founded by people who were fleeing places that had become, essentially, America in the year 2009.

Thought of the Day 11.25.09

Imagine you’re sailing to a new home overseas when the unthinkable happens: shipwreck. Somehow in all the chaos, you manage to find a lifeboat and scramble aboard with only a backpack containing your laptop, CDs, and DVDs.

After several days at sea on the verge of death, you finally float ashore an uncharted island, where you find people in a primitive society without electricity. They ask if you need food and water. “Yes, please,” you gasp. “Fine, what do you have to trade?”

Shocked, you eagerly show your electronics. “That is of no use to us. Do you have anything else?” Realizing they’re serious, you ask if you can roam the island for food. “No,” they reply, “All this belongs to us. Go find your own island.” Then, in stunned disbelief, you watch them turn and leave you to die amidst your useless wealth.

After considering the obvious evil of this example, I have a simple question. Just how sure are you that it’s perfectly okay for you to enjoy all those electronic gadgets while so many people in this world don’t have food and clean water?

Thought of the Day 11.24.09

The other day at the grocery store, I was looking at something when I thought I heard out of the corner of my ear a man gently telling Spencer, “No.” When I saw him near a big basket of beans, I inferred that he must have been touching them while the man filled his bag. So I called him back to me while the man (in his fifties) watched, uncertain about my reaction to him scolding my son.

I asked Spencer why that man had been telling him, “No.” “Was it because you were touching those beans.” “Yes,” he sheepishly replied. “It is not that man’s responsibility to correct you. You shouldn’t have put him in that position. You know better than that.” At this the man looked at me and said, “Thank you,” presumably for reaffirming his authority. But I wasn’t satisfied yet.

“You need to apologize to that man for inconveniencing him.” “I’m sorry,” Spencer said. The man simply smiled and told him, “That’s alright. You have a pretty good daddy.” “I know,” Spencer replied.

Although it might occasionally turn out wrong, I always start from the premise that 50-year-old men are to be trusted, and 5-year-old boys are not. Society can’t survive if that presumption is reversed.

Thought of the Day 11.23.09

If you’re a major league pitcher, one of the hardest things you are ever asked to do is walk an opposing batter intentionally. The reason this hurts so much is because you’ve spent your entire life honing the art of beating batters, and now you’re being told to surrender. Your manager is asking you to swallow your pride and trust him that this walk won’t come back to bite you even worse.

Similarly, major league hitters are sometimes told to give up the one thing that defines them at the plate: a hit. To help the team by advancing a runner, they may be asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt or hit a pop fly. As hitters and pitchers, players must be humble about their role in the entire puzzle of a baseball game and also trust that the manager knows best how to construct a win from that puzzle.

The funny thing is how few people ever truly realize that Christianity is a team sport. And if egoistic baseball players can trust a fallible human manager like this, why do we get so disgruntled when God declines to let our lives produce the individual results we yearn for?

Thought of the Day 11.20.09

As many of you know, I find the interplay between language and reason terribly fascinating. One of my favorite aspects is the way language use can backfire, communicating the exact opposite of what is intended.

For instance, I recently heard a Congressman dismiss concerns about the likelihood of passing health care reform with the assurance, “We will not fail to get this done, because failure is not an option.” This sounds nice, and it probably even comforts some people, but I saw it as admission of real uncertainty. After all, if failure truly weren’t an option, there wouldn’t be much need to reassure people by saying so.

Imagine legislative support for this plan was overwhelming, like say, like say 70%. In that case, the same man wouldn’t bother overstating his chances. He’d simply say, “We’ll get this done. We have 70%.” In situations where failure actually isn’t an option, no one bothers saying it. It’s a phrase used only when it isn’t true.

Thought of the Day 11.19.09

Last night at the grocery store, I had a rare opportunity to see the full range of feminine beauty represented side by side.

The first lady I saw walking with her man was stunning. She had beautiful hair. Her makeup and jewelry were perfect, and she was dressed in the most stylish clothes for her age, probably about thirty. But most importantly, she was thin, almost too thin, in that way men these days reward with an extra glance or three. Like I said, beautiful. As a man well-trained by this culture, I couldn’t help noticing her.

About ten feet behind her was a second lady, walking with her husband. Her hair was short, not flowing. She didn’t seem to have either makeup nor jewelry on, and she was wearing what would best be described as clothing, the sort that covers your body and that’s about all that can be said for it. And she was plump. Not so much fat, but certainly not thin, the sort of woman who might enter a singles bar and people would wonder why she was there, if they even noticed her at all.

Truth be told, under most circumstances, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed her. But in addition to my training as an American, I have also been trained by the Bible, and so I did notice the one key thing about her which made all the difference in the world to me: her three children. And seeing this stark contrast between a female body that promises entertainment and one that has actually delivered life, it was clearer than ever to me what real feminine beauty looks like.

Thought of the Day 11.18.09

I know in advance that I’m likely to be accused of reading too much into things with today’s observation, and that’s probably a fair criticism. Nevertheless, the other day we were watching a movie, and it suddenly struck me as quite odd that every last little contribution to the motion picture needs to be named in the credits.

A car doesn’t typically come with a brochure in the glove box telling me the names of all the engineers, accountants, and line workers who made it. The computer I’m writing this thought on was produced by the collaboration of innumerable people, most of whom will forever remain anonymous to me. And the same is true of most everything we own or enjoy, including most art other than movies. So why the distinction?

Perhaps one might say it’s merely easier to give credit here than in other endeavors, but I don’t think that’s the reason. To me, it’s arrogance. “Our work matters more than yours does. Look, we even have an awards show.” But this pride belies a tragedy.

See, the line worker who assembled my car long ago learned how to take joy in merely knowing his work makes other people’s lives better. The understudy to the assistant third foley, unfortunately, needs to see his name on that screen in order to feel significant.

Thought of the Day 11.17.09

The other day, Spencer and Ethan were doing what young children do: they were squabbling over a toy, which they both claimed to have had first. Since our general principle is that both boys need to share with each other and not fight, I took the next logical step. “Alright, if you can’t share properly, I’ll just take it away and no one can have it.”

This sent Ethan into apoplexy but Spencer simply issued a nonchalant, “That’s fine.” Feeling a bit like Solomon, I realized that there were several levels of evil going on here, so I made Ethan happy by giving him the toy.

At this point, Spencer complained of the injustice. So I told him that he clearly did not care very much about the toy, whereas Ethan clearly did want it quite badly. I told him that I was also very disappointed in him not yielding to his younger brother over something so obvious. But the worst violation of all was the fact that he would gladly have lost access to the toy himself so long as that deprivation made Ethan miserable.

A minister of justice must never let his rules be used as an instrument of injustice, especially by a five-year-old.

Thought of the Day 11.16.09

If I tell you that a particular man likes to go off in the desert for four or five hours several times a week to read the Bible and pray, what do you think of him?

I suppose most of us would initially envy his devotion and wish we could emulate his practice. But I’m not so sure. There’s a whiff of something here I don’t like, and if my sniffer is right, we should literally be praying for this man rather than praying like him.

See, I immediately want to know how much time he spends with other Christians discussing the things he learns in the wilderness because one of the irreplaceable benefits of other mature believers is their tendency to keep us from our own misguided exuberances. Just as a spouse tends to moderate our eccentricities, the fellowship of other healthy people keeps our dangerous intellectual impulses pruned back.

So while I admire this man’s devotion, I know that his solitude needs a community to guide his development in a healthy direction. The Bereans indeed searched the Scriptures daily. But they also compared notes with each other afterward.

Thought of the Day 11.13.09

Every day, salespeople encounter prospects who raise objections to buying their products. Good salespeople get excited when this happens because they know that objections indicate a desire to buy rather than an aversion to doing so. The person just needs help becoming sure.

See, if he didn’t want the product at all, he wouldn’t bother raising an objection. He’d just say, “No.” Whereas “I’m not interested” is the end of a sales call, “That costs too much” is actually the beginning of one. It’s a vital distinction far too few Christians understand, especially concerning the “problem of evil.”

See, when someone says that a good God wouldn’t allow children to get cancer, we tend to think we’re entering a battle to vanquish an opponent who is our intellectual enemy. Quite the opposite.

Most of the time this person wants very badly to believe in God, but is stymied by the pain of some loss. Far from advocating atheism, he’s actually making a coded request. “Please, sir, I want to make a much deeper purchase of faith. I just need your reassurance that this truly is a wise investment.”

Thought of the Day 11.12.09

One of the funny things about how both language and our minds work is the difference between accuracy and potency. Certain expressions have tremendous effect despite being untrue, whereas others which score high in truth value have virtually no impact at all.

Consider the well known aphorism, “Waste not, want not.” I suspect billions of minor resource use decisions have been turned by this particular turn of phrase. It’s a highly potent cliché. Nevertheless, neither of the common interpretations of it are true.

Frugality won’t always save you, as tens of millions of people around the world living on the verge of starvation can verify. Also, being wasteful won’t make you poor, as wastefulness is actually one of the most visible indicators of wealth.

So what phrase would be truer? “Waste not, and you’ll run a significantly lower chance of wanting under the right external circumstances.”

Truth be told, sometimes the truth isn’t worth telling.

Thought of the Day 11.11.09

Dear God, please protect my family from sickness and crime.

Dear Lord, please provide me with a job that pays our bills and allows me to use my talents in a way that really serves people.

Dear God, please bring my brother to know you and to serve you fully.

Dear Lord, please heal my friend’s cancer, and do it in such a way that even the doctors would come to believe in you as a result.

Dear God, please guide our leaders, and cause them to hear your voice clearly and to be willing to obey it, even if it means changing directions in what they planned to do.

I suppose we’ve all prayed prayers like these many times in our lives. Why? Because we all believe that God wants to do good things for us and will do so if we ask Him to, presuming that He can.

But here’s the question. When other people ask us for something good we’re capable of giving them, do we respond the way we hope God will respond to our requests?

Thought of the Day 11.10.09

There are four categories of sin.

The first is our favorite category: sins we’ve never struggled with. These are extremely comfortable to talk about because we’ve never been tempted by them and there can, of course, be no shame to us in discussing them.

The second category is potentially just as pleasant: sins we’ve overcome. Although we can be reluctant to admit our history, we’re usually more eager to celebrate God in the remedy. Having been sufferers ourselves, we tend to be more humble in discussing them.

The third category is very unpleasant: sins we currently struggle with. Obviously, these are things we prefer to avoid, both in disclosure and in conversation, except to the extent that we take pleasure in the hypocrisy of vehemently condemning groups to which we secretly belong.

The fourth type, however, is the most deadly: sins we don’t realize plague us. After all, the most durable slave doesn’t even know he is one, for what man fights for freedom when he thinks he already has it? Also, a group of equally enslaved people can easily persuade themselves that such slavery isn’t even slavery at all.

Thought of the Day 11.09.09

Imagine for a moment someone who believes in gay marriage and someone who opposes it having an argument. It could be pretty vehement, right? Now imagine someone walking up to them and offering the following advice: “Hey, guys. Why don’t you just realize that this issue is all a matter of opinion and it doesn’t really matter since there is no truth anyhow. Can’t we all just get along?”

Unless I’m really wrong in my assessment of human nature, the gay marriage advocate and the gay marriage opponent would immediately unite to fight off such an offensive bit of “friendly” advice. The amazing thing is how rarely the dogmatic indifference preached by relativists elicits that response.

See, the basic message of relativism isn’t that everybody is right, but that everybody is wrong for thinking that anyone can be right. In essence, they try to unite disagreeing parties through the supremely arrogant assertion that only relativism is right. At least those of us who disagree about what is right still agree that something is right and that figuring it out matters.

Thought of the Day 11.06.09

President Obama and the Democratically controlled Congress are trying to pass a health care package which will require health insurance for all Americans, provide that coverage for many of them, and intensely regulate non-government insurance plans. Both the scope and novelty of this proposal have led many people to question its Constitutionality.

See, no matter how good an idea is, Congress can only do what the Constitution permits. Everything else is illegal. And because states were scared of an expansive federal government, the burden of proof was historically against Congress. A law was presumed unconstitutional unless the power to pass it was specifically enumerated in Article 1, Section 8. This is why the President had veto power, not as a way of coercing them to pass his agenda, but as the first line of defense against Congress playing out of bounds.

Sadly, our founders may have had too much faith in the federal oath of office, or, more precisely, in the Constitutional knowledge which it presumes.

Thought of the Day 11.05.09

This morning, Spencer was twirling Sage around on his back by the legs on our bed. At first he was laughing, but then he stopped smiling and started complaining mildly. I immediately told Spencer to stop because “Sage doesn’t like that.” “But daddy, he was laughing about it,” he replied.

At this point, I realized I needed to be very careful how I proceeded because there were really two different things going on here. On the one hand, Spencer was doing what Sage didn’t enjoy, which needed some correction. But on the other hand, Spencer clearly was trying to entertain Sage and had been correct in sensing his early enjoyment, which I wanted to encourage and praise.

So, I said, “Well, honey, you have to keep paying attention because he can change quickly from liking something to being upset by it. But I’m really glad you’re playing with him, and I like that you’re paying attention to whether he likes it. That’s good.”

One of the great challenges of parenting is to nurture the good and also discourage the bad things kids do, especially when both are present in the same behavior.

Thought of the Day 11.04.09

As someone who loves language, I regularly find myself in a linguistic bind. On the one hand, I can use the word or grammatical construction which is common but which I know to be inaccurate. On the other hand, I can use the correct word or construction, knowing this will make me sound strange to most people. Loving others enough to want them unhindered in hearing my ideas, this dilemma vexes me. My normal solution is to find a different, correct way of saying the same thing without sounding weird…or British.

Consider the simple word “assume.” If, based on past experience, I say, “I assume he’ll pay his bill,” someone will likely quip about what happens to both of us when one assumes, heh, heh. Cute, but not helpful. See, “assume” can have many meanings, but “to form a belief recklessly” is not one of them. On the contrary, making an assumption requires some sort of reasoning process rather than wild (and imprudent) guessing.

To avoid this problem, I’m willing to use another word when I mean that I’ve thought about it and formed a rational conclusion. But what word should I use? Infer? Suppose? Reason? Surmise? Deduce? Presume? “Yes, Mr. Holmes. Quite so.” Only “assume” is not awkward in such expressions.

So, feeling like my culture has betrayed the language I love, I’m left without a satisfactory alternative. This makes me grumpy because I assume there’s just no way to win here.

Thought of the Day 11.03.09

Acts 3-4 tells a story about the apostles healing a man who was crippled his entire life. In response, the non-believing Jewish leaders imprison the apostles and confer amongst themselves. Startlingly, they admit that a genuine miracle had been done, which everyone in Jerusalem has to know. They even go so far as to say that there is no feasible way to deny the fact.

At this point in the story, we naturally expect the Jews to be converted. After all, they have seen a miracle and been told it was done by the power of Jesus Christ. But no. Their response is to try silencing the apostles so that no one else will be carried away by such demonstrations. This tactic, of course, does not work.

It’s amazing that these men could stand in total admission that a miracle had occurred (the very pinnacle of proof that any skeptic might want) and yet still seek to suppress the truth instead of being converted by it. It’s a sobering reminder not to be too optimistic that people will embrace the truth even when they’ve seen it with their own eyes.

Thought of the Day 11.02.09

This morning, my boys were squabbling over some toy. Their bickering waxed and waned over several minutes like a piece of music while my wife and I watched with mildly concerned parental amusement. Then, when the scratching and punching started, we paid closer attention, eventually calling a halt to the festivities.

But instead of simply telling the boys to knock it off, we repeated our simple advice to Spencer: “When Ethan wants to fight over something, just let him have it and leave the conflict area.” Rationally, Spencer knows his life will still be worth living even if he doesn’t get this toy this second. But we all have short moral attention spans, and it’s easy to forget in the heat of object-lust.

So I figure another thousand or so repetitions, and he’ll learn that the single best way to have control over a fight is to not be in it. There are surely times to fight, but only the person who is free to not have to do so is qualified to know when he should. There’s just nothing quite as empowering as the ability to yield.

Thought of the Day 10.30.09

“I’m telling you your behavior is sinful because I love you and I want you to know the truth.”

Perhaps. It is possible this is the true motive. On the other hand, it is at least as likely to be a moment of tremendous verbal self-deception.

See, even though Christians know salvation comes by grace, we still often find ourselves talking as if good behavior is what really impresses God. But there’s yet another, even more sinister possibility than mere moralism.

Every advocate wants others to share his beliefs. But that’s because doing so reaffirms his own sense of status as the winner of an idea contest. Since such power grabs are common to every belief system, it’s hard to believe they’re true expressions of Christian love.

So when you criticize sin, are you expressing love, encouraging moralism, or exerting ego? Well, that’s the funny thing about the words themselves. They can’t answer that question for you.

Thought of the Day 10.29.09

Virtually all American Christians would acknowledge that greed is a problem. It’s just not our problem. But why is greed so bad? Well, greed is being overly concerned about money as a result of basing our identity in material acquisitions. And since only God’s love of us can give us real significance, building our self-image on possessions is a form of idolatry.

But it recently became clear to me that thrift can be just as problematic. Thrifty people are either trying to maximize their material gain (which is just a smarter version of greed) or else they’re safeguarding their money as a way of gaining security. But just as significance only comes from God’s approval, security only comes from God’s providence. Thus, trusting in our wise use of money is yet another a form of idolatry.

In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches us to neither care about things nor to care about tomorrow. It’s a doctrine which equally stymies those of us who are greedy and those of us who are thrifty.

Thought of the Day 10.28.09

For most of human history, the idea of not eating something merely because of the taste was unimaginable. In contrast, most Americans are so accustomed to eating what we want that the idea of eating something we don’t like is almost unimaginable.

This is why Americans who go on short-terms missions trips must be carefully instructed to eat whatever is offered them so as to avoid offending a native host. Eating all his food is a way of honoring the person who served it, regardless of whether the taste is to your liking. But it’s much more than food.

Because of our prosperity and freedom, Americans buy cars, take jobs, make friends, and even attend churches based largely on what tastes good to us. So, when God has the audacity to put something on the plate of our lives we don’t want, we turn up our noses and complain as though He’s obligated to serve us a life that tastes good rather than one which glorifies Him. Maybe we’d do better to just eat and say, “Thank you, Lord.”

We are in His house, after all.

Thought of the Day 10.27.09

My son Ethan loves to help me cook. Naturally, this does very little to reduce the time it takes me to make a meal. He likes to do the measuring, which makes me anxious. He likes to do the pouring, which makes me anxious. And he likes to do all the mixing, which makes me anxious. But he loves to be a part of it, so this is what parenting means.

The one thing he does to distress me most is touch everything. Seriously, everything. Just as infants encounter the world by putting everything in their mouths, apparently three-year-olds think that if they haven’t fondled it, it isn’t real. So I’m constantly telling him not to touch things to avoid spills, a historically justified concern.

Well, this weekend, he did spill something just after I had admonished him not to touch it, and I lost my temper, which surely terrified him. But even this terror couldn’t deter him since, moments later, he was right back to touching everything again.

Now, if stopping a very simple behavior is so clearly impossible for my son despite numerous warnings, a desire to please his daddy, and the fear of his father’s anger, why do we think we are capable of overcoming our sins by our own abilities?

Thought of the Day 10.26.09

My wife and I have a problem. We’re very quick to accommodate each other. How could that be a problem? Simple.

Let’s say we want different things for dinner. She wants a hamburger, and I want Mexican. As a result, I’ll decide to give in to her and start driving to the burger joint. As we’re pulling in, she’ll say, “What are you doing? I thought you wanted Mexican?!” I’ll say, “Yes, but I decided to go here because it’s what you wanted.” She’ll respond, “But I adjusted and started getting hungry for enchiladas to please you.” At this point, we’re both frustrated because we’ve failed to get what we want on three levels.

Obviously, we aren’t getting the food we want. Second, we’ve failed at giving the other person what they want. As a result, neither of us is getting the “good-spouse” relational credit we had anticipated from making a sacrifice for the other person. It’s pretty funny, if you think about it.

Surely, such problems are the best sort of problems to have, but it does go to show that even when two people are trying to do the right thing, it can create a whole new set of difficulties.

Thought of the Day 10.23.09

Recently, I was unfairly accused of something I didn’t do, which infuriated me. So I explained to the involved people what had actually happened in great detail, seeking to dispel the allegations. In the end, it all seems to have worked out just fine, but it was a very educational moment.

See, I was infuriated by the idea that people would think less of me than I really deserved. Yet I have to admit that my outrage wasn’t really motivated by a zeal for truth, but only that portion of the truth that makes me look good. I’m nowhere near as eager to make sure people know all my defects and flaws.

Whereas I’m ferocious at defending my honor, I am at best lukewarm in defending my sinfulness. Is this Christlike? Well, my Savior regularly told people to keep quiet about the good things He did, and He kept silent, Himself, when He was accused of doing evil.

When, oh when, will I ever be as satisfied with God’s opinion of me as He was?

Thought of the Day 10.22.09

Sage is almost a year old now, and I think my favorite thing about him is his smile. His general expression is fairly happy, but when I catch his eye and smile at him, his cute little face erupts in joy. The effect is so thorough that it seems as if even his hair is smiling.

At the moment, Ethan is having sort of a rough time of it. At three, he finds himself being moodier and more distressed than I ever remember Spencer being at his age. But every so often, I’ll catch him when he’s not paying attention, and I’ll just smile at him as if to tell him I cherish him. He smiles back, and for a moment, all is right in the world.

Spencer is five, and I would say that smiles are one of the key currencies of our relationship. I see him doing something cute, he makes a joke, or I just want to remind him how much I love him, and I’ll smile so that he sees me.

In my own experience, the one consistent message God gives me is that He loves me and is pleased with me. Whenever I picture Him in my mind, He only ever has one facial expression.

Thought of the Day 10.21.09

Roughly half the time when I pour water into my coffee maker, some spills on the counter because the carafe is designed badly. This annoys me.

My cell phone sometimes changes the file name of songs I download or refuses to recognize their existence at all. This is frustrating.

Since the DTV switchover, I never know whether my attempt to record a show will have worked or failed until I sit down to watch it. This is infuriating.

When my computer is being slow, I get annoyed. When a cereal bag rips all the way down the side, it makes me want to scream. And there’s just nothing quite as maddening as a pen that is neither out of ink nor capable of writing properly, no matter how many circles I draw in the margin of the paper.

Unless I’m very badly mistaken, we all get angry when things don’t do what they’re designed to do. So why is it that people have trouble imagining God being furious with us when we hate, covet, lie, steal, lust, and refuse to love Him as we were designed to do?

Thought of the Day 10.20.09

On the west side of the 51, somewhere around Indian School, there’s a really large structure that’s been in the process of construction for a long time now. I think it’s connected to the hospital, but I still can’t tell whether it’s parking or offices or a new wing or what.

What’s interesting is that it sort of bugs me that it’s always there and looking so unfinished. At the moment, I notice it mostly because that is it’s condition, but I believe one day the job will finally be completed. And I suppose as I drive by, I will notice and think about it. I may object to having South Mountain obscured for a few moments, or I may find it pretty. Who knows? But I expect that, over time, I’ll start noticing it less and less. Eventually, it will simply be the way it is, and if enough time passes, I might even describe it as always having been there.

In the city that is our souls, this is essentially how habits are begun, pursued, and then made nearly permanent. They are noticeable in formation, but eventually they are simply who we have always been. And this is true for both good and bad soul architecture.

Thought of the Day 10.19.09

How do you respond when the Bible challenges what you believe?

The most common response is to pretend the passage isn’t there. Everyone does this sometimes.

The second response is to focus on other passages which reinforce your current view and marginalize the difficult one. This is an error theological conservatives are prone to make.

The third response is to explain away the passage as the byproduct of inferior people in a primitive culture. This is an error theological liberals are prone to make.

Unfortunately, all three of these responses end up treating the Bible as if the passage didn’t exist at all.

The fourth response is different. When the Bible challenges you, you stop and pay attention. You pray. You try to get as much information as you can to be sure you’re interpreting it properly. But if it becomes clear that the Bible is saying you’re wrong, you pray for God to help you live accordingly.

No one always honors the Bible. But only someone who is willing to let the Bible correct him can honestly say he is reading it as the Word of God.

Thought of the Day 10.16.09

What’s the difference between delivering a lecture and preaching a sermon?

What’s the difference between playing music and leading worship?

What’s the difference between reading announcements and proclaiming God’s work in the community?

What’s the difference between contributing money to a charity and honoring the Source of all blessings with tithes and offerings?

What’s the difference between eating bread and drinking grape juice and partaking of the Lord’s Supper?

What’s the difference between reading the Bible and feeding your soul on the Word of God?

What’s the difference between talking out loud or to yourself and praying?

I won’t presume to offer an answer to any of these questions in so brief a space, but I will notice something about all of them. Unless you know the difference, it isn’t very likely that you’ll do any of these things in a way that will make a difference.

Thought of the Day 10.15.09

This morning on my way to work, I took a road which normally has a 40 MPH speed limit. Unfortunately, I discovered after I was on it that there was a reduction to 25 MPH because it was under construction. So I slowed down and tried to obey this absurdly low speed limit. And both the zone itself and the people behind me who apparently thought the law to be optional frustrated me.

I know this speed limit makes sense. I know roads need improvements. And I know that driving 25 MPH for about one minute will barely impact my overall travel time, not to mention that I might have just as easily caught a light wrong before and not even have been ahead. Nevertheless, I was still frustrated.

Was it because I was already running later than I wanted? Was it because I have unrealistic expectations for travel? Was it because I wasn’t focusing on how grateful I should be for pavement, road crews, and enough personal wealth to drive my own car by myself to work? D. All of the above.

Thought of the Day 10.14.09

Is America a Christian nation?

I used to think this was a terribly important question. After all, if America was founded on Christian principles, then the abandonment of Christianity would eventually mean the loss of key American ideas. But then I found that people are irrational. Even though they do not recognize God as their source, they still believe strongly in the freedoms and rights our system protects.

So then I started thinking about whether it’s accurate to say America is a Christian nation now. Certainly if you look at the way we treat poor people, allow divorce, wage war, celebrate sexual deviance, hoard our money, and protect abortion, you’d have to admit at least that we aren’t a very good Christian nation. Besides, the popular view of America entails freedom of religion, or from it, as the case may be.

My task is to serve God by serving my country. I’m just not sure anymore whether the most effective way to do that is by persuading people that America is or ever was a Christian nation.

Thought of the Day 10.13.09

If I tell you that I like music by the band Air Supply, it’s entirely possible you would chastise me for liking silly, sappy, 80s soft-rock. Depending on how deep is my love, I might recant under scornful pressure. You’d certainly have the upper hand in tone if you castigated me for my favorable taste.

On the other hand, if I told you that I disliked music by Pat Benatar, it’s equally possible that you’d chastise me for not liking the hard-rocking 80s diva. However, depending on whether I think you’ve hit me with your best shot, in this case I’m more likely to stick with my negative judgment. You wouldn’t have the upper hand in getting me to affirm a taste for her music.

And that’s the point. Unless the social consensus is overwhelming one way or the other the pressure in our society is always towards disliking things. People almost never feel embarrassed to be caught disliking something, whereas they do often feel embarrassed to have been discovered liking something. It’s cool to dislike, but not as cool to like.

Thought of the Day 10.12.09

St. Louis Cardinals fans have an amazing reputation. We are widely known for being knowledgeable and fair about the game of baseball, but we are equally famous for being patient, forgiving, and encouraging with our players.

Whereas other cities regularly boo ex-players, Cards fans always cheer them. If someone makes a great play, even on the other team, we still applaud. And even when someone messes up, we soon remind them with our support that we still believe in them. About the only way to alienate us is to not respect the game by not trying your hardest.

New fans learn all this by example, and continuing this tradition becomes a matter of pride for us. As a result, players love to play in St. Louis and hate to leave. I expect all this will again have been shown over the weekend by the crowd’s positive response to Matt Holiday, whose error cost us game 2 against LA.
I really hope that someday my religious team’s fan base will have earned as good a reputation as my sports team’s fan base already enjoys.

Thought of the Day 10.09.09

There are two different kinds of deadly sins. Lust, Wrath, Pride, and Envy apply to things that are always wrong in any amount. In contrast, Sloth and Gluttony apply to desires that are good in moderation but bad in excess. So, in which group does Greed belong?

I’ve always thought that material gain fell into that second category, being okay up to some nebulous boundary marker beyond which it becomes sinful. The big problem with this is that degree-sins encourage us to soothe our own defects by comparing them with much more egregious examples. We look at the lazier, fatter, and greedier people and think we must be okay.

But what if Greed isn’t something that’s wrong in degree, but wrong as a category? What if it’s like Lust and Pride, where any concern for material possessions at all is a problem? More importantly, if you understand what I’m really asking here, what conclusion do you draw from the extreme discomfort which I’m sure even considering this question seriously is causing you?

Thought of the Day 10.08.09

While I was waiting for the gas pump to finish filling my car the other day, I happened to notice a partially unfurled roll of paper sitting on the ground. Since it looked mostly full, I picked it up to see if its size matched the receipt printer in the pumps, which it did.

So, when my tank was full, I walked over to the cashier inside the building and gave him the roll, briefly telling him I thought it was receipt printer paper. He thanked me, and I went back to my car.

Now, obviously it was only a roll of paper and perhaps not very expensive at all. Also, since I pay at the pump, I could have saved myself an extra minute of effort by just placing it on top of the pump and hoping for the best. But thinking about the station owners as if I loved them seemed to make this decision the obvious one.

The Golden Rule always leads us to do more than we are selfishly inclined to do. When we view ourselves as caretakers of other people’s problems and property, it becomes natural to serve them. And when we think we don’t need to help because it isn’t our stuff or our problem, well, that’s the beginning of evil, isn’t it?

Thought of the Day 10.07.09

Our culture has a negativity bias. By this I mean that all things negative have prestige over all things positive as a rule for us. Praise is nice, but condemnation is entertaining. So much so that one might say we have a criticism fetish, an unnatural eagerness for the next aria of fault-finding sung by the virtuoso of criticism. And yes. I grasp the irony of me criticizing criticism, even if that’s the only way out of the trap.

In beliefs, skepticism is our default. Question authority. Don’t take anyone’s word for it. Get it in writing. Believe it when you see it. And assume the worst. For Americans, disbelief, distrust, dislike, and disagreement all seem to be the normative starting points.

The benefit of this disposition is that we avoid error and the embarrassment of being fooled. But the price for such security is too high. The culture of “No!” winds up making the worst error of all. By betting on nothing, we lose the entire game because we never had a chance to win.

Thought of the Day 10.06.09

My sons love to eat meat. Chicken, steak, ham, ribs, bacon, bratwurst, pepperoni, hamburger. Meat. Pretty much all meat. Now, since I’m the cook, I usually serve their food warm. But somehow Ethan has gotten it into his head that meat is better cold, like hot dogs and boloney. This means that when I announce the menu, he often tells me that he wants it cold. It’s my job to know whether he’ll actually eat it cold, and either consent to or deny his request accordingly.

Well, this morning as I was reheating some fried chicken for breakfast, Ethan suddenly started insisting, “Don’t cook my chicken, daddy.” At first I ignored him, but I finally sighed and gave him a cold wing. Of course I knew he wouldn’t like it since he likes to eat the skin, and cold fried chicken skin is gnarly. So all I had to do was wait a minute until he took a bite and announced to me, “Can you cook this, daddy?” Of course I can.

My boys know I love them, and they know I know better than they do. But getting enough credibility with them to trust me just seems like one of those things all parents struggle to achieve. So, they still insist on things I know they won’t like and resist things I know they will like. Now why would God would make children be like that?

Thought of the Day 10.05.09

Americans love their rights. Unfortunately, too many Americans don’t understand what rights are for. They commonly think that rights exist so we can do whatever we want to do. Although this is what it means to have a right, it is never the reason God gave us that right. In truth, rights are always given to protect the most virtuous use of a freedom, not just any use of it.

For instance, property rights are not granted by God just so we can do whatever selfish things we like with our money. Instead, God gives us property rights so that we can use them to imitate Him by helping other people through interpersonal charity. We must be free to be selfish, but the purpose of that freedom is for us to not be selfish.

See, it’s a good thing to remind the world that we have God-given rights and to demand that a society protect them. But it’s an even better thing to remind people why God gave us those rights in the first place. Because when enough of us don’t use them properly, we make the best case against ourselves for having them taken away.

Thought of the Day 10.02.09

Phil Helmuth is one of the most successful poker players in the world, winning eleven World Series of Poker bracelets, including the main event twice. He’s also a grade-A, mind-bogglingly world-class jerk. His self-embraced nickname is “The Poker Brat,” and the only problem with this is how badly it understates the case. He berates opponents if he beats them, but he berates them twice as much if they beat him. In his mind, everything he does is perfect, and nothing anyone else ever does is worthy of his presence at the table.

I’d like to say I pity him, but the truth is closer to despising him, and I wish I never had to watch him ever again. My greatest hope in the world for him is that he would somehow learn to act like a decent human being. In wistful moments, I even imagine how I might effectively confront him if I were at the table. Though I might be inclined to needle him, I hope I could somehow penetrate his idiocy and get him to behave up to the standards we expect from kindergarteners.

And that’s the problem.

In a tournament filled with thousands of players, the vast majority of whom are clearly sinners lost without a faith in Jesus Christ, my biggest annoyance is Phil Helmuth…actually acting like a sinner. Apparently I have failed to grasp the Gospel, since my great hope isn’t that Phil would encounter Christ, but that he would learn to behave, more effectively hiding his sinfulness by pretending to be good…just like everybody else. It’s just so easy to care about decency rather than faith.

Thought of the Day 10.01.09

My wife recently checked out a book that happened to have someone’s drivers license and insurance cards stuck in it. We immediately contacted the library to tell them. Then we returned the book and the cards, making sure to notify the librarian about the situation. She seemed truly impressed with us for being so diligent.

But I wasn’t impressed with us at all. In our view, anything less would have been reprehensible. We just thought we were doing the minimum for decent citizens. Hence, praise felt a bit awkward.

Now, rationally, I know we live in a society where people often don’t satisfy such minimums. But maybe our basic problem lies in having allowed them to think that such low-grade civic obligations are optional.

People will always live within whatever range of options seem acceptable. Thus, there is a vast motivational difference between believing that an action is a very good thing and believing that the failure to do such action is a really awful thing. We simply must not confuse basics with virtues.

Thought of the Day 09.30.09

Every gift is an opportunity for either improving or harming a relationship. Good ones show love, and bad ones show that people don’t really know us or don’t care enough to give accordingly. But one of the powerful abilities of a good gift is that it gives you the strong sense that someone else really “gets” you and is on your side in the world.

For instance, my wife never sends me emails at work, partially because we just recently got the Internet at home and partially because, well, we talk for an hour each night on our walk. But just today she sent me a short note saying, “Thought it would cheer you up to know...Starting tomorrow the forecast is for a high of low 90's. Today is probably the last day of 100 degree weather.”

Obviously, the news of horrid heat ending made me happy. But being reminded that my beloved wife knows how much I hate Phoenix summers and cares enough about me to send this small, personal note brings me far more joy than the news contained in the note itself.

Thought of the Day 09.29.09

Among my circle of eaters, I am known for making really great pies, and I confess that it’s true. I do make excellent pies, and people always say the same thing. “Your pie is sooo good. The crust is amazing. How do you do it?”

At this point, I always hem and haw a little bit. It’s not because I don’t want to tell my secret. It’s because there is no secret to tell. I just follow the Betty Crocker recipe, with the exception that I make about 50% more because I prefer a thick crust. Since I feel like I just followed instructions, taking the compliment is a little weird. I’m glad they liked it, but the credit has to ultimately go to the cookbook and not me since I feel like I’ve actually done so little to make it turn out right. Mostly, I just did what I was told.

Similarly, whenever people are impressed by my kids or my marriage or my finances or even my wisdom, I’m always a bit embarrassed. God wrote the cookbook. Taking credit for myself just feels like plagiarism.

Thought of the Day 09.28.09

Every night, we go for an hour-long family walk. Unfortunately, the first step in this process is ending our sons’ naps, which involves wailing and gnashing of teeth. Well, the other day, Spencer took his complaints to a new level, declaring adamantly, “I don’t want to go for a walk. I’m not going.”

So, I said, “That’s fine. But just so I’m clear on the new rule of this house, no one has to do anything we don’t want to do. Is that right?” “Yes. I like that rule.” So I told him, “Cool. I won’t be cooking you dinner since I don’t want to. And I won’t play games with you since it’s too much work.” This made him look sad.

Then my lovely assistant joined in, “And daddy won’t make models or rockets with you or take you to the park anymore.” It’s nice to have an accomplice. After a minute, I asked him, “So what’s it gonna be? Will we all do what we want to do, or will we all do what we are supposed to do?”

“Let’s do what we’re supposed to do, daddy. I’ll get ready for the walk.” He’s sharp for a five-year-old. Sometimes he just needs a little help to see the right answer.

Thought of the Day 09.25.09

When I bought my car, I knew I would need a new clutch within the next six months or so. Well, a year and a half later, I still haven’t replaced that clutch, and the car shifts just as well as it did when I bought it.

A year ago, my wife had her brakes inspected, and they told her they were at 30%, which meant they would need replacing in the near future, but not immediately. Six months ago, they told her the same number. And then, just this week, when she took her van in for an oil change, the number still hadn’t moved.

How could these things be? Well, my wife believes the description of the Jews wandering the desert for 40 years without the soles of their shoes wearing out. So, when she prays, one of her requests is for our stuff to not wear out.

Does such prayer always work? I don’t know. But I do know that the clutch on my previous car lasted about 150,000 miles. So it’s okay with me if my wife keeps on praying for God to preserve our stuff. We are in the desert, after all.

Thought of the Day 09.24.09

On competition shows like America’s Got Talent, the winners always remind us what it takes to win. “Just don’t ever give up on your dream. If you believe in yourself and work hard, you can make it, too.” Sadly, this formula, so widely believed by aspiring performers, couldn’t be less true.

Despite working for a few people, tens of thousands of others tried this and failed. And an interview with them would yield a far less inspiring commentary: “I kept trying, working, believing, sacrificing, and dreaming every day. Yet, here I am, not a success. And keep in mind that I am the vast statistical norm.” No drug with such abysmal results would ever pass the FDA.

So what is the real secret to success, if not this? Truth be told, people win such shows because of genuine skill, temporary popularity, and a heaping pile of luck. And one time, I’d like to hear a winner admit he won because he was better than the other acts and he got really lucky. What’s true and what’s encouraging just aren’t always the same thing.

Thought of the Day 09.23.09

It irritates me that TV stations refuse to deliver ad content which is as safe for my family as the program we’re watching. Right there in the middle of a baseball game or Wipeout are PG-13 ads for murder shows, horror movies, or adult content like Cougar Town. These contain violence, frightening images, sexuality, and even profanity. This is one reason I tape most everything I watch.

So, for years, I’ve been either shielding little eyes with my hands or else telling them to look away until I can change the channel. Naturally, they disliked this, but their resistance was futile. But during a baseball game last night, something quite wonderful happened. An for Pandorum came on, and Spencer immediately looked away from the set, asking me, “Daddy, do you see how I’m not even looking?”

Not only was he quickly able to identify a problem ad, but he turned away from it and was eager for my approval for this act. So I praised him, which was easy since I was flush with the excitement of finally seeing years of parenting pay off so vividly.

Thought of the Day 09.22.09

Last week, I returned a DVD, which I told the clerk I had enjoyed. She said she hadn’t seen it, which didn’t surprise me. It was a slightly obscure Spanish film with English subtitles. Hearing this, she said, “I don’t normally like foreign films. I have to really be in the mood to read subtitles.”

My instinctive response was to feel a little bit of contempt for her, yet another superficial American who can’t be bothered to digest the artistic wonder of foreign film. But since contempt didn’t seem very Christian, I decided to say, “Yeah, they are extra work, aren’t they?” Being nice felt good.

But then I realized something. I actually agree with her! Although I occasionally watch a foreign film, I too dislike having to read the dialogue. Moreover, hadn’t she actually said that she does sometimes watch them? So there I was, secretly judging her for things we actually had very much in common!

I wonder whether I would have seen this accurately if I hadn’t forced myself to say something nice to her against my sinful impulses.

Thought of the Day 09.21.09

On the expressway this morning, I saw one of my most-despised bumper stickers. It was on a dump truck, and it proclaimed in very official-looking bright yellow, “Not responsible for damage caused by road debris.”

Now, I don’t everything about the law, but I’m pretty certain that legal obligations can’t actually be avoided simply by saying, “Not it.” If they could, just imagine the profit potential in a line of products bearing the message, “By the power of this magical sign, I am no longer responsible for anything.” Unfortunately, I can’t see a judge saying, “Yes, he did drop a piano on your dog, but he WAS wearing that sign.”

Mockery aside, this tailgate sticker offends me because it tacitly admits that dump trucks, by their very presence on the road, raise the risks to me and my property while the owners want to avoid all responsibility for that elevated danger. This isn’t just childish, but truly contrary to the basic principles of civilization. As my friend once put it, “Hey, man, we’re trying to have a society here.”

Thought of the Day 09.18.09

“I would consider becoming a Christian if only it weren’t for the absurd idea of a man being raised from the dead.”

Ignoring for the moment that Christianity without this fact is not Christianity at all, there is some very good news for such a doubter: the original apostles were every bit as skeptical about the resurrection as he is.

First, the women told them about the empty tomb and weren’t believed. Then, two disciples who spent the day with Jesus on the road to Emmaus weren’t believed by them either. Finally, when Jesus appeared directly to the apostles Himself, they thought they were hallucinating. (Mark 16:9-14, Luke 24:1-39, John 20:19-29) If even the disciples needed convincing against such strenuous denials, then doubting the resurrection must clearly be quite normal.

But there’s also some bad news as well, because Jesus severely rebuked those same doubters for their reluctance to accept what they should have eagerly believed. From all of this we learn that skepticism about Christ’s resurrection is both absolutely normal and yet also absolutely unacceptable.

Thought of the Day 09.17.09

Today, while I was helping my grandmother eat lunch at her nursing home, I had a chance to look around at all the other residents. And, as always, watching them at their various stages of disability made me sad.

Partly, it forces me to think about my own future in old age, but more so it bothers me to see all these formerly strong, capable, and smart people now unable to do almost anything for themselves. Comparing them with fully functioning human life makes me pity them in their diminished condition. But today I suddenly realized something. God must feel just such sadness whenever He looks at us.

See, He knows what fully functioning human life really looks like because He designed us to live that way. He also has a dismally accurate view of what actual human life is. And whereas my definition of healthy life is merely the average of what I see around me all the time, His definition of healthy humanity is the example of His Son: an ideal compared to which even the most capable of us look embarrassingly incompetent.

Thought of the Day 09.16.09

There’s a file cabinet in my broadcast studio where I keep most everything I use for the show. Last night, when I was closing up shop, I happened to notice something missing from the back of one of the drawers. Well, obviously the idea of people rummaging through my stuff and actually taking something was pretty unappealing. And since numerous people come in and out of the studio when I’m not here, I started worrying that other things might also go missing.

Then it occurred to me that one of my friends might have borrowed it without saying so. Since this explanation was both more likely and also more comforting to imagine than the alternative, I chose to believe it and emailed to ask. Sure enough. The reply confirmed they had needed it for a client. Problem solved.

But here’s the funny thing. Even though there was a perfectly good explanation and there is no more evidence today than there was yesterday that we have a security problem around here, I’m still feeling less secure simply because I lived with that possibility for a few hours. Truly, the human imagination is a powerful and irrational faculty.

Thought of the Day 09.15.09

Have you ever been driving along the highway when someone tries to merge right in front of you, cutting you off? I know, right? What an idiot! I’ll tell him how stupid he is with my horn.

But what if you took a second look and realized it was one of your good friends, whose car you just hadn’t recognized. Wouldn’t you be embarrassed and maybe even offer an apology later?

Have you ever been trying to merge onto the highway but discover that there’s no room for you? So you speed up and nose your way in front of the inconsiderate jerk who wasn’t paying attention? What? He honked at me? How dare he! That guy really needs to know Jesus!

But what if you took another look and realized that he was actually one of your friends, whose car you just hadn’t recognized. Wouldn’t you be embarrassed and maybe even offer an apology later?

Because we feel anonymous in the car, we often both behave worse ourselves and judge others more harshly than we ever would in person. Even if that other person isn’t actually my friend, pretending he might be will probably make me behave slightly more like a Christian should.

Thought of the Day 09.14.09

George Barna recently wrote a book claiming that American Christianity is in a crisis because so many born again Christians are living as sinfully as non-Christians. His solution is to reexamine every aspect of institutional church practice and, essentially, reform them all.

In response, John Piper has written a book challenging Barna’s core assumption: that anyone who says he is born again is in fact born again. Because accepting this would mean rejecting the Biblical doctrine that being born again always results in a radically changed life, Piper instead concludes that vast numbers of American Christians must not really be born again.

The elegance of this response must not be understated. Whereas Barna presumes that human incompetence can ruin the plans of God, Piper shows that human arrogance about our role in salvation is the source of the seeming paradox that so many people can declare their own salvation even while anyone else looking at them would surely doubt it.

Thought of the Day 09.11.09

My wife recently started selling some of my books online, and, amazingly, 8 of the 25 sold in the first week. As a result, she’s been going to the Post Office a lot and has learned all about mail options; “media mail” usually being the best choice.

To avoid waiting in line every time, she asked if there was another option, and the clerk recommended using the automated kiosk. Unfortunately, the kiosk doesn’t dispense media mail postage, which meant she had to wait in line again on the next visit. So this time she asked if she could buy postage online, and was told she could. But again she discovered that the website only offered first class and priority mail, so it was back to the line again.

When she told me this saga, all I could think was: this is what happens when the government runs something. Sometimes people are great, but other times people are incompetent to a degree you don’t expect in an ordinary retail store.

And it’s experiences like this that influence my thinking when someone tells me that the best approach to any of our problems is to let the federal government solve them for us.

Thought of the Day 09.10.09

I absolutely love Christian charity, the act of sacrificing some of your own lifestyle so that you can support someone else in need. There’s just nothing like imitating my Lord Jesus Christ in this way by giving out of my abundance to others who haven’t been as fortunate as I have.

For instance, there is this one small family I’ve been helping support for a few years now. It’s a mother and her three young children who live in a really barren part of the world where life is basically miserable all the time. But because of my support, she’s able to feed her children and even give them clothing and shelter. As is common with such programs, I have some pictures of the kids, and whenever I pray for them, I just can’t tell you how much it fills my heart to know that my generosity is blessing them and making their lives better.

But I think the best part of this particular program is that it allows me to see firsthand the impact I’m making when I tuck them in for bed each night and kiss their mother, who happens to be my wife.

Thought of the Day 09.09.09

I realize not all of you will appreciate this, but I enjoy watching the World Series of Poker. I’m fascinated both by the characters who play and by the intensity of the game played at that level. But one thing that I’ve noticed this time around is the difference between how the celebrities and the professional poker players behave when they get eliminated.

When the celebrities lose, they generally seem fairly happy in spite of the fact. In contrast, when pros get eliminated, they often seem truly devastated. But why the big difference? You might think it’s because the $10,000 entrance fee means so little to boxers and TV stars who make millions a year, but the poker pros play with sums of money like that all the time.

Far more than money is at stake here. See, when a TV star loses at poker, he still has his acting accomplishments to validate him. But when a poker pro loses, he’s failed at what makes him who he is. His identity has been challenged, and for a time he really doesn’t know his place in the universe.

In a nutshell, this is why Christians can be happy in any circumstance. Since our identity is based only on Christ, we know who we are in spite of any endeavor we might fail at. Truly, we are always TV stars just playing in the world’s poker tournament.

Thought of the Day 09.08.09

A friend of mine was recently telling me about a young girl that he’s been mentoring through the youth group at his church. One of her challenges is an extremely low self-esteem, in part because she was always told she won’t amount to anything.

My friend said that he’s trying to help her realize that she can do all sorts of things and to not believe what she’s been told about her abilities, at which point I wanted to caution him a bit. See, if she comes to view herself as valuable based on her skills and abilities, we’ve only given her a different assessment without changing the basic problem. This way of acquiring high self-esteem would actually be an opportunity lost rather than a success.

Instead, I encouraged him to focus on teaching her that she has infinite value precisely because she is made in the image of God and was thought worth saving by Jesus Christ. If skills fix your esteem issues, then skills will earn your adoration. But if God fixes them, He will earn your worship.

Thought of the Day 09.04.09

If there is a more deeply embedded contaminant in me than dishonesty, I don’t know what it might be. I’ve spent my entire Christian life trying to dig it out at the root, and I’m constantly stunned by how invasively tangled into me its tendrils are

Just this morning, I walked into the office and saw our new sales coordinator, whom I had met once just two days before. I wanted to greet her and chat a bit, but I couldn’t remember her name. So my instinctive impulse was to go check the updated staff list on my desk or ask a coworker. But why was I so reluctant to merely approach her and say, “Hi, please tell me your name again?”

Obviously, because I wanted that additional mote of esteem that comes from seeming like the sort of person who remembers your name. In other words, I wanted to deceive this new acquaintance into the impression that I’m better than I am, a practice so common that recruiting accomplices is easy. Instead, I voted for honesty and simply asked her.

One tiny little tendril removed, probably only a thousand or so to go.

Thought of the Day 09.03.09

This morning, I decided to give my back yard its quarterly mowing. When I primed the mower and tried starting it, nothing happened. This didn’t surprise me, since it had been sitting so long. So I pulled again. Nothing. Several more tries, same result.

Annoyed, I went through every point of maintenance I could think of. I checked the oil, cleaned the air filter, added gas even though it wasn’t empty, spun the blade manually to make sure it wasn’t stuck, and even sanded the spark plug prongs. After all this, I first dry pulled and then primed and pulled to no avail.

Exasperated, it occurred to me to pray. This seemed silly, but I was reminded of Peter filling his boat with fish after Jesus told him to try once more. So, touching the handle, I started to bless the mower. God told me to touch the engine itself, so I complied and blessed it to function properly in Jesus’s name. “Prime again?” I asked. “Yes,” He answered. I pumped twice. “One more,” He said. Okay.

Expecting disappointment, I pulled on the chord one time, and the mower exploded into life and ran like a champion.

Thought of the Day 09.02.09

Americans seem angry to me. Angry to a degree I find troubling. Angry as a constant tension just waiting for a fresh outrage to unleash upon. So what can be done about this?

Well, the Christian perspective on anger has three elements. First, we aren’t really supposed to direct anger at the world around us. We offer salvation, not contempt. And anger usually means we’ve forgotten that sinners tend to behave sinfully. Second, we are allowed to be angry at our own shortcomings, especially insofar as that drives us to God in prayer that we may become better representatives of Him. Third, we’re commanded to trust that God in His infinite wisdom and power is truly in control, regardless of what we see happening around us.

So our task, then, is to diminish our unproductive anger at the outside world, enhance our productive anger at the inside world, and reinforce our calling to have faith in the God who holds the whole world in His hands. Will you join me?

Thought of the Day 09.01.09

I used to know a guy who ran a very successful web design company, and the one thing I always remember him telling people over and over was a simple formula which has stuck with me for years. He’d tell them, “I can make you a website that’s excellent, I can make you a website fast, or I can make you a website inexpensively. Pick two.”

His fairly obvious meaning was that you couldn’t have all three, but any two could be arranged. Good and now at a high price. Good and later at a low price. Or bad now at a low price. And his implication was that if someone else told you he could deliver all three, he was lying.

This, in a nutshell, is my biggest concern with President Obama’s proposed health plan. He tells me it will give far more people far better health care at a far lower price, especially if we do it really fast right now. Since I know this to be a fantasy, I’m left to wonder which part of his offer won’t come true, and my concern is that the more “right now” the thing gets done, the more likely it is that’ll be the only part that will turn out to be true.

Thought of the Day 08.31.09

Have you ever wondered what percentage of your beliefs might be mistaken? I mean, we all think that every particular belief we hold is correct, but we also know that we must be wrong about a lot of them and just don’t yet know it. Despite being a talk show host and editorialist, I have to honestly say that I suspect something like 50% of my beliefs are wrong. However, there are about 20% of them I know for sure I’m not wrong about.

I bring this up because I think that something like 90-95% of most people’s beliefs are ones they aren’t justified in saying they “know” with any degree of confidence but rather take for granted. So, what makes beliefs not be in this category?

Well, obviously you can put more confidence in ones you have changed during your lifetime because you’ve lived on both sides. Also, beliefs that deal with controversial subjects are slightly more reliable if only because they get social discussion. Thirdly, it’s possible to intentionally explore your belief in any area. All of these strategies help us make fewer blunders in our beliefs.

Thought of the Day 08.28.09

Our culture is terribly confused about the nature of love, the basic error being that love and pleasure are the same thing. Thus, we love people who bring us what we want and we love people by giving them what they want, both of which generate pleasure. Since no one is pleasured by criticism, giving it is viewed as unloving and receiving it is viewed as an impediment to love.

So when the Bible tells us to love our neighbors, our culture mistakenly believes this means we must never criticize them. Unfortunately, the Biblical concept of love is rooted in devotion rather than in pleasure. And if I am devoted to the wellbeing of my neighbor, then I might very well confront him if he is behaving in a self-destructive way.

Loving our neighbors, then, looks a lot like loving our children. We make tremendous sacrifices for their benefit, but we also correct them and even withhold things from them if that is what they need from us. To do otherwise, either to our children or to our neighbors, would look much more like hatred than like love.

Thought of the Day 08.27.09

Critics sometimes say that the only reason Americans are Christians is because they grew up in a Christian culture. Had they grown up somewhere else, they would have believed something else.

Ignoring the irony of hearing this objection from someone who also grew up in America but rejected Christianity, let’s consider the real issue here. The underlying idea is that people tend to adopt a faith that matches their socio-cultural background. Thus Middle Easterners become Muslims, Indians become Hindus, and Americans become Christians.

However, although Christianity has long dominated Europe and North America, it is currently growing exponentially in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In contrast, the local religions of those areas have never successfully penetrated other parts of the world.

Thus, even though those cultures strongly condition people to be something other than Christians, they still convert to Christianity by the millions. Viewed globally, then, the “religion is culturally conditioned” argument actually backfires into becoming one of the most powerful endorsements of the trans-cultural truth of Christianity. It also shows why the label “world religion” technically only applies to one faith group.