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.