Thought of the Day 02.02.09

When someone learns an art form, they always go through essentially the same progression: First, functional knowledge. Then, accurate performance. And finally, beauty.

In music, the child first learns the basics of the instrument. Then he learns to play a selection of pieces without making any errors. But eventually, the goal is to transcend the idea of correct notes and start interpreting the music and bringing it alive for an audience to be moved by it.

In art, the students learns to hold the brush and how colors interact. Then he learns to paint a variety of simple images in a way that reflects reality. But eventually, the goal is to paint in such a way that a truth of the subject originally hidden from ordinary eyes is opened to them with such talent that one feels indebted to the artist for revealing a richer reality than had been previously seen.

It’s the same thing with expressing ideas. We first learn how to use words grammatically. Then we learn to describe truth accurately. But eventually, the goal is to make our presentation of ideas so elegant that even those who do not agree are enticed to want to by the beauty of our expression.

In all forms of art, loving others means honing our God-given skills so that we can serve our unique slice of the Divine to them in a way they will find delicious.

Thought of the Day 01.30.09

We recently enjoyed the competition show, Superstars of Dance. In spite of the producer’s pathological need to constantly change camera angles, it was still fascinating to watch such a tremendously wide variety of dance styles performed to perfection by their devotees.

But as the competition unfolded, a problem emerged: How do you comparatively judge such incomparable styles of dance? Sadly, it soon became apparent that the judges’ answer was, “I’ll reward what I understand and like.” This showed in paradoxes such as the comment that a particular dance was executed to perfection (meaning it couldn’t be done any better) and yet scored only a 7. In effect, the judge was saying, “To impress me, you should have chosen to master a different kind of dance your whole life.”

Yet isn’t this the same thing we see in Christianity? There are so many different ways for us to dance our faith. But because most of us only know one or a few of them, the constant danger is failing to appreciate the excellence of other ones or, even worse, alleging that they aren’t even genuine styles at all.

Thought of the Day 01.29.09

It’s human nature to overreact.

If you were asked to give a formal presentation on the history of errors in the Christian Church and you only spoke this single sentence, you might risk losing your speaking fee, but you would have very little risk of having exaggerated the truth.

For instance, ever since relativism came on the scene, the Church has been in hyper-correction mode, proclaiming absolutism as the only safe alternative. But the notion that the legitimate expression of Christianity can only ever take one form also has a name: idealism.

Jesus did come as a freeborn Jewish man, but Galatians 3:28 clearly teaches that Christianity will not be manifested only in those categories. The seed of the Spirit will sprout an infinite variety of flowers, depending upon the soil of circumstance. Thus, Christianity will look different in the lives of each person and certainly in the collections of lives we call cultures.

This doesn’t mean that anything goes, but it does allow us to honor the creativity of God while also rejecting whatever He does not create.

Thought of the Day 01.28.09

In the epic poem he is named for, Odysseus tries to navigate his ship carefully between two great dangers. Scylla is a multi-headed monster which will destroy his ship and kill his men. And Charybdis sucks in so much water that she creates a whirlpool inhales her prey. And so it is with the Christian life.

The threat from the Scylla of unholy living is ominous and mostly obvious. Our error is thinking we are strong enough to resist or that we’re not in danger because we aren’t as sinful as other people.

But the unseen threat from the Charybdis of legalism is no less real. Our efforts to avoid sin can easily suck us into trying to succeed by following a set of rules, especially Biblical ones. Here, again, our mistake is thinking that legalism is only a danger to other people.

All human captains will steer into one or the other. Jesus alone steers us safely between them, and living the Gospel means being vigilant to let Him do so.

Thought of the Day 01.27.09

Having attended church for my entire life, I must admit there’s something that has always bothered me. It’s the announcements.

I mean we start by worshipping God in song for 40 minutes or so, sometimes followed by communion. Then we worship God with our money and the pastor delivers a sermon, worshipping God by breaking open His Word for the congregation. And in the middle of all this worship, we have someone talking about home groups and retreats and Super Bowl parties and gift bags for homeless people.

But then one day I realized that announcements are also a kind of worship….the worship of God through friendship, outreach, and service. If a church is properly doing Christianity (as opposed to merely discussing it), then the announcements are the time when we praise God for what He is doing among and through us as a body. So even though it might seem like an interruption, it’s really something much more grand: nothing short of the Incarnation in its current form.

Thought of the Day 01.26.09

The Bible has a lot to say about money, and the main ideas are basically “don’t let money control you” and “demonstrate this by helping the poor.” But money has a deceptive way of controlling us most at the very moment we think it controls us least.

For instance, there are some people who buy themselves very nice things, for which others judge them to be materialistic. And perhaps they are. But consider what happens when you’re extremely thrifty, as I try to be.

I can expend so much effort hunting for the perfect bargain on something that once I’ve got it I can be even more fearful of losing it than the big spender. I’ve invested so much intangible value in finding it that it may appear irreplaceable to me. Thus, being thrifty can produce its own sort of unbiblical materialism if we aren’t careful.

Spending money less freely can start to liberate some people. And spending money more freely can start to liberate others. Let’s just also be sure we help the poor.

Thought of the Day 01.23.09

In the last few years, opponents of President Bush have released a number of movies designed to criticize his policies. That the vast majority of them failed to make very much money probably baffled the makers, but it makes perfect sense to me.

Very few people like to be browbeat into believing something. And if Christians can sometimes be accused of Bible-thumping, we can certainly accuse Hollywood of movie-thumping. But there is a much deeper irony here.

See, these movies usually fashion themselves as advocating freedom and opposing the fascism which they accuse Bush of creating. But the core problem with abusive governments is that they do not trust their citizens to make their own choices. Yet these movies are so blunt and overpowering that it’s clear they do not trust their audiences in precisely the same way.

Such artistic totalitarianism may style itself the champion of freedom, but at its heart it is virtually identical with the political totalitarianism it purports to oppose.

Thought of the Day 01.22.09

On this 36th anniversary of Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court ruling which made abortion-upon-demand our national norm, some are celebrating while others are protesting. The vast majority of pro-lifers are Christians. Yet in our zeal to save babies, we can run the risk of forgetting that Christ is more important than our cause.

Abortion’s awfulness can easily threaten our joy and happiness, especially because we can feel extra guilt over enjoying anything frivolous while atrocity surrounds us. But we must remember that joy comes from Christ, not from making the world a more desirable place, including the prevention of abortion.

God cares more than we do, and He knows the awfulness better than we do. But beware, lest in your passion for this very right and noble cause, you let your bitterness over the death of children poison your passion for a God who can smile in the midst of the very thing you both despise.

Thought of the Day 01.21.09

50 years ago, when Americans prized decency and duty, the greatest sin was doing anything wrong, especially in public. Now, having been so long bent on violating norms that the violating of norms has itself become the ideal, indecency is the only evidence you can show to authenticate your nonconformity.

The irony is that the modern person scoffs at conventionalism as a strategy for the needy even as he painstakingly lays out for your approval all the ways in which he has liberated himself from such neediness. Of course, the truth is that we all crave approval, and we seek it in fame, wealth, family, achievement, and even moral purity.

In the end, however, there is only one proper object and satisfier of our neediness. Our souls really crave the approval of our Maker, which once had (in Christ) immediately puts to shame every misguided impostor the modern culture can offer.

Thought of the Day 01.20.09

Aristotle taught that a thing could best be understood by its four causes: the stuff it’s composed of, the pattern it follows, the being who fashioned it, and the purpose for which it was made. Consider the Christian.

First, a Christian is made of Christ’s own essence, not simply of a better grade of me. This is why it’s so silly to boast of my salvation.

Second, a Christian is made in the shape of Christ, to look like Him, not to look like me. This is why it’s so silly to look to myself for guidance.

Third, a Christian is fashioned by Christ Himself, not by any of us. This is why it’s so silly to be impatient with the process or to meddle with it.

Fourth, a Christian is made to be enjoyed by Christ and to showcase His artistic genius, rather than for sparing us the torment of hell. This is why it’s so silly to live for ourselves.

See, just knowing what a thing truly is can help avoid an awful lot of silliness.

Thought of the Day 01.19.09

Until recently, German industrialist Adolf Merckle was one of the world’s wealthiest men, with a fortune of over $9 billion and companies employing more than 100,000 people. But after several financial miscues and a sense of powerlessness in the face of the global economic downturn, he recently shocked the financial world by killing himself. The final straw seems to have been a loss of around $500 million in Volkswagen shares, a loss most of us would simply like to be in a position to suffer.

Unfortunately, this man learned a lesson we should all heed . When money is important, its loss is painful. But when money is our source of identity, significance, and security, its loss (even to levels most other people would envy) is devastating. And just like every other thing this world offers, money is an unreliable god, which is ultimately the reason that a wise man bases his life upon Christ, the only solid foundation which will never fail.

Thought of the Day 01.16.09

A recent study showed that when surgeons use a simple 19-point checklist (like what pilots use), it reduces complications by 30% and death rates by 50%. Items include asking about allergies and physically counting surgical implements. Seems obvious, right? Nonetheless, advocates worry that doctors will resist using it because none of them think they need it.

The angry response might say, “Well, if you already do everything you right, then you have no reason to resist this plan.”

But a more effective response would be, “Oh, we know you do everything right.But that's exactly why your participation and stamp of approval will be so helpful in convincing other doctors to go along. Not all the patients can be lucky enough to get you, and we wouldn't want them to suffer just because they had a lesser surgeon,would we?”

The funny thing about pride is that it will always allow you to be manipulated, even sometimes for good purposes.

Thought of the Day 01.15.09

The other day, after Spencer had been very well-behaved in a store, I praised him for it as we were walking to the car. In response, he asked, “So, daddy, can I get a special surprise when we get home for being so good?”

Prepared for this response, I explained to him that I wanted him to be satisfied with the fact that I was pleased and to consider my praise as his reward. If he needed something else, that would mean he didn’t value my opinion very highly. I further explained that the single best way to show me he loves me is to obey me and behave well, as he had done in the store.

So now whenever he acts up, my first question to him is, “Spencer, do you love me?” Then my second question is, “And how do you show me that’s true?” I won’t tell you this has solved all our discipline problems, but it is inspiring to see my son begin to grasp the nature of having a right relationship with me, which will ultimately guide his right relationship with God.

Thought of the Day 01.14.09

Imagine for a moment that a new variant on the sport of track and field develops in America, the key difference

Imagine that America develops a new variant of track and field, the key difference being a pre-race lottery which gives some runners a starting lead over the others. So, for instance, while some run 400 meters, others get to run just 380 or even 360, depending on how the individual race is designed.

But there is one particular runner who sort of resists the system. Whenever he draws the advantage, he asks the officials if he can donate his starting lead meters to all the non-advantaged runners, even putting himself behind them sometimes. Also, whenever this man loses in the drawing, he implores the lucky runners to follow his example, usually excluding himself from receiving any of the benefits.

Well, as you would expect, this man doesn’t win many races. Some of the runners and spectators are baffled by him. Others are awed by him. But he soon becomes tremendously famous. Of course, it is easier to remember him than most others because he only goes by one name: Christian.

Thought of the Day 01.13.09

I used to love watching competitive drum and bugle corps with my mom. It’s loud. It’s exciting. But most of all, it’s amazing to see people perform such precise choreography while playing music. If you watched the Olympic opening ceremonies, you know how impressive it can be.

Obviously, this is only possible if everyone cooperates on a single shared program. Sure, if some members execute poorly, the impact is diminished, but if even a couple of participants started marching to a contrary program, the entire show would be ruined.

Similarly, Christ’s magnificent production, called “The Church,” requires that we not all simply be doing our own thing. And though some people think this means strict rules of personal conduct, there’s a much bigger agenda at stake.

Our choreography requires us to share burdens, give generously, and serve the outside world together in unison. Merely getting people dressed up in the uniforms of personal virtue is hardly a show worth watching.

Thought of the Day 01.12.09

Imagine if all of humanity believed that the most important thing in the world was the elevation you lived at, so that those who lived on mountains were considered noble and those who lived in the desert or in valleys were considered wretched. But then imagine that God’s standard of judgment was actually based on how close you lived to the equator.

Obviously the problem would be that there is just no fit between what people are seeking (and sacrificing for) and what He desires for them. As a result, there would be people in the plains of Brazil thinking very little of themselves but being quite pleasing to God and there would be people in the Northern Rockies quite proud of themselves but very offensive to God.

See, one of the key themes of the Bible is that the things we strive for and measure ourselves by just simply aren’t on God’s yardstick. And in the end, many people will be stunned to find out that the way we think about deriving your identity from race or hair color is essentially the way God thinks about deriving identity from wealth, popularity, beauty, or intelligence.

Thought of the Day 01.09.09

My son Spencer recently found himself very badly wanting to play Nintendo Wii with the other kids at a party. Unfortunately for him, they weren’t sharing. So I encouraged them to do so and told him to be patient for his turn. At the same time, the mother of the game’s owner (a good friend of ours) came on the scene and scolded her daughter for not sharing. She was angry at her but also clearly embarrassed by the shame she had brought on the family through her selfishness.

Despite the smallness of the incident, both reactions are proper. Naturally, all parents empathize with the difficulty of training children and with the commonness of them failing. But when they are taught to share (precisely because they own something valuable) but don’t, they dishonor their parents, whose moral leadership is called into question.

What it made me ponder, however, is just how much shame God must feel when He sees us wealthy Christians so reluctantly letting other kids play with all the goodies He has given us…and taught us to share.

Thought of the Day 01.08.09

Somebody recently accused me of being open-minded, and I was totally offended. But, of course, had she accused me of being closed-minded, I would have been equally troubled. Neither term is ideal since both of them embrace what logicians call a false dilemma.

On the one hand, many people have deep convictions, but their attachment comes from a profound ignorance of the alternatives. And convictions which depend upon personal ignorance are almost certainly not convictions worth protecting.

On the other hand, many people know a wide variety of points of view, but they’ve lost the ability to form deep commitments to any particular one. And if awareness only leads to option paralysis, of what use is it?

The real goal is to develop wide awareness while still preserving the ability to be deeply committed to the best things. When awareness is the background to your convictions, it not only helps insure you form the right ones, but it also opens doors of communication to people who don’t yet share them.

Thought of the Day 01.07.09

As a Christian who cares deeply about social issues, I often find myself talking about things that, quite frankly, I wish I could just ignore. But even as I discuss a social ill like homosexuality, I have to note a problem which so many of us have in our thinking about this particular sin: we think it’s special…especially bad. But it’s not.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s very bad. But there are at least two problems in the way so many of us talk about gay behavior. The first is that our emphasis neglects by contrast all the other sexual sins that the Bible equally condemns such as pre-marital sex, adultery, and divorce; evils much more common and thus much more harmful.

But our second error is forgetting just how easy it is to single out for condemnation a sin which does not personally tempt us. Which is why we should tread with the greatest of care in discussing precisely those sins for which we feel no empathy and, hence, comprehend at best incompletely.

Thought of the Day 01.06.09

According to one website, we shouldn’t spank because, “Everybody agrees it is morally wrong to settle arguments between adult people with blows.”

Unfortunately, this standard would disqualify virtually all disciplinary action. Time-outs, for instance, are not common between colleagues in the workplace, though perhaps they should be. Even leading a coworker by the hand away from trouble is probably frowned upon. In short, you rarely deal with unruly adults in any of the ways you deal with unruly children. Why not?

Because children are not related to their parents in the same way adults are. My children are under my authority. They are not my peers. And one of the main lessons we must impart to our children is that there are authorities over them with the legitimacy to punish the body for serious violations.

See, you don’t spank to correct behavior, but to teach children that they are not the ultimate masters of themselves…a reality which only becomes more vivid as they age and, eventually, pass into eternity.

Thought of the Day 01.05.09

If you are among the despondent who have already set, affirmed, and broken your New Year’s resolutions, let me give you some words of encouragement. Don’t give up on your resolution just yet, but perhaps try a different approach.

For the next full month (until February) live exactly as you always do in the area you want to fix, but pay better attention to yourself. When you do the thing you want to quit, pay attention to how it makes you feel, and how strongly. When you suffer the consequences, do the same. In other words, for a month, don’t change anything, just observe so that you can make a better diagnosis of why you do what you do and, most importantly, what it will cost you to change.

See, the Bible tells us to count the cost before we make a commitment, and most people go wrong in changing their lives by not even taking seriously what that commitment will cost them, even if it’s worth it. So do this for a month and then, come February, you’ll know two things: whether you still want to make the change and what it will actually cost you to do so.

Thought of the Day 01.02.09

Imagine that you are engaged, eagerly awaiting your wedding day. Now further imagine that your friends regularly point out flaws in your beloved, things that aren’t necessarily deal-breakers, but problems nonetheless. But your response is to either avoid the subject or deny them, proudly professing your devotion to him. What would such behavior reveal?

Essentially, it would reveal a deep doubt about your fiancée and a real fear that he is not the right man for you. See, if you truly believed he was right, you would be willing to admit his flaws and deal with them honestly. The fact that you avoid them exposes your deep lack of faith in him and your worry that your confidence is misplaced.

In short, this is precisely why we must investigate and confront any parts of the Bible which we do not like or which seem problematic. To avoid them is to admit we’re actually afraid (and therefore believe) that God isn’t who we says He is.