Thought of the Day 03.01.10

As a result of never quite fully growing up, I’ve kept a lot of my childhood toys and games. Partially this is because I just like them, but it’s also because I wanted my own kids to have them to play with. As a kid-parent, then, I get great pleasure from each new opportunity to share a game or toy with my boys as they become old enough for them.

Now, naturally I realize that some of these things are going to get broken in this process. And, of course, I also know that replacing them may be impossible or at least fairly difficult. Thus, I realize that this sharing process will cost me some of my treasure, and so I don’t really mind when a Lego or a bendy-snake gets broken from normal wear and tear.

What I do mind is when things get broken because my boys were destructive in playing with something contrary to the way it’s supposed to be used, a kind of wanton destruction that shows they didn’t really appreciate their father’s things in the first place. And I tremble to consider that this is how our heavenly Father reacts when He sees how we’ve treated the precious things He’s shared with us.

Thought of the Day 02.26.10

In arguing for the hijab and the burqa, Muslims generally sound very much like American conservatives who criticize our sexually liberal image obsessed culture. They just take it farther than we do. Yet most of us are revolted by their extrapolation of our ideas. Why is this?

Well, we say that the problem is the oppression of women and the hypersexualizing of them which is implicit in treating them as if they are so toxic and needing of protection. (Or we notice that the burden of this solution falls entirely on women rather than men.) But I think the strength of our revulsion belies a different truth: such clothing just looks absurd to us.

Even though we oppose immodest attire in principle, we are so accustomed to it that actually seeing modest dress (let alone a hijab) seems completely abnormal. And that’s the funny thing about ethics. What we are regularly exposed to is far more formative on the viscerality of our sense of what’s normal than any principled arguments ever could be. Knowing what’s right and feeling right when you actually see it are two very different things.

Thought of the Day 02.25.10

We’re all inclined to believe that people like Tiger Woods and the man who flew his plane into the IRS building in Texas are in a completely different moral category from us. But the Bible reveals that these men are in fact just like us. They’re merely farther along our common trajectory.

Some people just can’t see things this way. The suggestion is so absurd as to not even be offensive. (You have to believe something a little to find it offensive.) They probably think I’m exaggerating for effect rather than making a serious point. “Oh, Christians just say that, but they don’t really mean it.” The possibility of what the Bible teaches here is so literally too threatening to their psychological structure to even consider. But it is precisely the self-deception of believing that I am incapable of behaving atrociously (even under the wrong circumstances) which prepares me to behave atrociously when those (or other) wrong circumstances come about.

You see, all men suffer from delusions of their own moral grandeur, delusions only reinforced by believing that bright line category distinctions exist between us and them. “I never thought I would have done anything like that,” is the universal lament of the man who used to be completely sure that, “There but for the strength of my own character and willpower go I.”

Thought of the Day 02.24.10

Our company has a wellness policy which allows us to earn points toward gift cards based on a variety of behaviors like eating, sleeping, and getting exercise. Since apparently $10 a month is plenty of incentive for me to change my lifestyle, I recently decided to start taking the stairs (when I can) instead of the elevator because that’s one of the point opportunities.

Well, the first time I did this, after my show about 8:00 at night, I was very uncomfortable. See, it’s all grey and ugly and a little bit creepy in the stairwell, especially below ground level where it isn’t even painted, and I found myself reliving every scary scene in a movie involving a stairwell and a psychopath. Nevertheless, I kept on, scurrying just a little bit faster out the door to my car.

Over the course of several weeks, I became progressively less bothered by the scary stairwell. And, in fact, just the other day I was pleasantly surprised to notice that I didn’t even notice it anymore. Because I had used it so many times, I had become so comfortable that my irrational fears just vanished without me even noticing. And I had to laugh at how I’d felt before.

Do you think any of this would also apply to encountering unfamiliar people?

Thought of the Day 02.23.10

Consider the absurdity of someone putting any of the following bumper stickers on a car.

“My child is prettier than yours.”
“My child is more intelligent than yours.”
“My child has more athletic skill than yours.”
“My child has more friends than yours.”
“My child is more virtuous than yours.”
“My child has more faith than yours.”

Of course, thinking such things without having the honesty and courage to actually put them on a bumper sticker isn’t much of an accomplishment to brag about. But let’s be honest in noticing what they’re all really saying:

“I derive my identity from my children. Therefore, I’m worth more than you are because my children are better than yours.”

And it may sometimes be even worse than this:

“God loves me more than He loves you since I’m a better parent.”

Instead, what if someone simply put the following message on his car:

“God loves all of His children…even if they’re not honor students.”

Thought of the Day 02.22.10

A couple weeks ago I went to the optometrist for the first time in eight or nine years. Because it had been so long since my last exam, there were all sorts of new technologies I’d never “seen” before. But the one which most surprised and irritated me was the eye drops which dilated my pupils and made it so I couldn’t see properly.

I was close to a Dollar Tree, I just went and purchased a pair of “cheater” glasses to get me by with reading. Of course, half of my irritation with this event was that I needed the right glasses in order to find the right glasses. I succeeded nevertheless.

But for that afternoon, I had a unique experience: not being able to see without help. It was useful for me to experience the distress most people have come to live with all the time. In addition, there were moments where I was worried that the condition might not go away since I’d never had those drops before. Of course they soon returned to normal, but I will say this for the experience. Even a temporary loss of something so precious made me far more grateful for my eyesight than I had been before.

Thought of the Day 02.19.10

Bill Maher recently told Larry King that “[Americans] aren’t really bright enough to understand the issues,” so politicians should just pick a side and stick with it to avoid confusing them.

Now, it’s pretty obvious that no one who hears this is likely to think, “Gosh. You’re right. I am pretty stupid, and I’m so glad you made me realize it.” Instead, those who agree with Maher will share a sneer with him and everyone else will oppose him even more. Since this is obvious, it begs the question of why Maher would choose such a counterproductive rhetorical strategy. It’s possible he doesn’t realize how people react to such tactics, but that seems unlikely.

A better possibility is that he’s far more interested in showing off his wit and taking his shots than actually persuading people. Ego, not viewpoint, is the real agenda. But another possibility is that he likes being hated. Far from really caring about the issues, he simply plays Bill Maher, a “heel” in the cultural wrestling match whose primary purpose is entertainment and income.

Thought of the Day 02.18.10

I have a lot of flaws.

No, no. It’s true. There are a lot of things wrong with me.

And they are frustrating in at least two ways. First, they seem to improve so slowly or not at all. The project of my character is always behind schedule and over budget. Second, just when it seems like I am making good progress, I have entirely new areas of failure revealed to me, making the progress seem insignificant next to the newly discovered scope of the task.

But recently I’ve begun to see my moral development in a whole new way. In realizing that I’m already completely pleasing to God, I’m also finding that I don’t have to be better in order to feel better about who I am. Nor do I feel worse when I seem to be doing worse.

Instead of taking my moral progress so personally, I’m just intrigued and excited to see what part of me God will work on next and what He’ll do to fix it, sort of like a satisfied spectator who knows the ending of the movie will be good and just wonders how the writer will get us all there.

Thought of the Day 02.17.10

“I’m better than that guy over there because I go to church, pay my tithe, support my family, and usually tell the truth.”

Now, no one who’s been around church for any significant amount of time would ever say this out loud, but let’s be honest: we think it. We look at how our lives measure up to what we call an absolute standard and notice that we’re a lot closer than other people. This makes us feel better about ourselves and also allows us to look down on them a little (or a lot).

But what if God judges us not by how we compare to others as they are but by how we compare to ourselves as we could be? What if every sermon we hear and every Bible passage we read just serves to increase the standard applied to us because we now know that much more?

As every parents knows, the standards used to evaluate the behavior of a teenager, a fourth grader, and a toddler are all quite different. Holding all of them to any single standard would be unfair. Yet, if God is a perfectly fair judge and parent, why would we think He wouldn’t understand this concept?

Thought of the Day 02.16.10

There are two basic ways of using reason:

The first is by starting with the conclusion and then employing any analysis you can find in support of it. Because the conclusion is seen as too important to depend on flimsy things like facts and logic, invalid reasoning patterns are accepted, and contrary evidence is ignored. This is probably the most common form of arguing in our culture today.

The ironic thing about this approach, however, is that a person who perverts reasoning this way isn’t actually putting value on the conclusion, but on his own prior investment in that conclusion. The thing being protected is ego, not truth.

This can best be seen by considering the proper use of reason: using only the most reliable sources and then following strict rules of logic to form conclusions from them. This means conclusions are often revised. But this is not because the truth is so lowly valued, but precisely because it is so highly valued. The truth is viewed as far more important than any embarrassment in having to admit you had it wrong in the past.

Conclusions which require bad reasoning to defend them don’t deserve the protection in the first place. And good ideas are happy to be freed from the taint of such “help.”

Thought of the Day 02.12.10

One of the basic pillars of science is the idea that any hypothesis must make predictions which can be falsified by subsequent evidence. This is called being falsifiable. In contrast, if any data at all can be made to fit into the hypothesis, then it’s unscientific and essentially empty of content. This distinction offers one tool for differentiating between good science and, say, propaganda.

Consider global warming. For the last few years, people have said hot temperatures are evidence man is ruining the world. But now that we are experiencing very low temperatures and extremely powerful winter storms in the Northeast, they are saying this, too, is evidence man is ruining the world.

Now logically, it’s possible their claims are right. The world isn’t always simple. But I’m always a bit suspicious of advocates who appeal to common sense when it suits them only to then ignore it when it causes them difficulties. And in this case, I feel like their own efforts to support global warming claims with warm temperatures are responsible for training me to think that cold weather would qualify as disproof.

Thought of the Day 02.11.10

There are four reasons why I don’t speed. First, because obedience to the law is my Christian obligation. Second, because the roads are much safer if everyone drives the speed limit, especially since anyone who can see the car in front of them and sign their name gets a license in this country. Third, because I don’t usually have 20 spare minutes to spend with the cops when I’m going somewhere. But fourth, because a speeding ticket is expensive.

I’m not poor, but the idea of throwing a couple hundred dollars away horrifies me, and even without the other three reasons, that would be enough. Thus, given the choice between the inconvenience of going slower than I’d like and the risk of a fairly minor financial penalty, I choose inconvenience. I know the rules, and I carefully follow them to avoid losing that money. And I think I’m not alone in being willing to endure a fairly significant non-economic cost to avoid a fairly minor economic one, when given the choice.

Nevertheless, governments at every level seem to have no compunction at all about imposing new tax burdens (like 2% on food) that have far greater economic impact on us than a measly speeding ticket. And given that I’m so careful about my money, it’s exceedingly offensive that they don’t seem to feel they have to be.

Thought of the Day 02.10.10

Like all little boys, our three-year-old is at a point where he wants to do everything for himself. He’ll probably outgrow it in seventy or eighty years, but until then, it’s sort of a thing. As a result, he’s always pressed me to let him brush his own teeth, and, being the good-cop parent, I’ve let him…with occasional daddy-brushings for safe measure.

Well, even though Ethan doesn’t have any cavities, my wife (the bad cop) still insisted on asking the dentist when children can brush themselves. She said around 8 or 9, when they can write cursive. As a result (with my tail between my legs), I now brush both boys every night. (The dentist said they can brush themselves for funsies in the morning.)

Ethan just doesn’t like it. But of course he also doesn’t know what an awful thing it is to have a cavity. And if I’m successful, he never will. So, in the end, if things work out properly, all he’ll know is that he missed out on the joy of self-determination and possibly hold that against me for lack of having experienced a filling. Nevertheless, I brush on. Sometimes the fact that they don’t quite believe you’re a good parent is the best evidence that you really are.

Thought of the Day 02.09.10

A conversation overheard at the gates of Heaven:

Gatekeeper: Why should you be admitted to heaven?
Applicant: Because I’ve lived a good life.
Gatekeeper: Could you please be more specific. What do you have to offer us?
Applicant (confidently): I did what my teachers told me. I always got good grades. I worked hard my entire life. And I never cheated on my taxes.
Gatekeeper: What else do you have?
Applicant (still confidently): I never betrayed my wife. I never hurt anyone intentionally. And I always took care of my family.
Gatekeeper: None of that impresses us. What else do you have?
Applicant (less certain): I had many friends and a good sense of humor. I exercised to keep my body healthy, and I looked good for a man my age.
Gatekeeper: Is there anything else?
Applicant (timidly): I loved my children. I went to church a lot. I read my Bible, and I prayed regularly.
Gatekeeper: Anything else?
Applicant (desperately): I served the poor. I visited prisoners. I led people to Christ. And I even performed a couple of miracles.
Gatekeeper: As I said before, none of that impresses us. What else do you have?
Applicant (crying): But that’s everything I have! I don’t have anything else. I have nothing else to offer. What more could you possibly want?
Gatekeeper: What do you want?
Applicant (begging): I want to come be with God.
Gatekeeper: Why do you think you deserve that?
Applicant (pauses): Well, I guess I don’t, really. May I still please come in? Gatekeeper (smiles): Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere.

Thought of the Day 02.08.10

There’s a standard story people tell about evangelizing Hindus that goes something like this:

“We went to these people who worship dozens of gods or more, and we talked to them about Jesus Christ. They loved what we had to tell them, and they eagerly accepted Him. The problem is that, when all was said and done, they simply added Jesus to their list of gods rather than giving the rest of them up for the one true God.”

When we hear this, we chuckle at the theological naivete of such primitive people. But what if I told you about another faraway place where people worship all sorts of different things like money and fame and power and pleasure? Then, when presented with Christ, they eagerly accept Him but think they can just add Him to all the rest of their idols instead of replacing all of them with Him.

It’s not as funny when the polytheistic idolatry is a story about your own country and your own way of treating Jesus, is it?

Beware the laughter of contempt. It usually serves to keep us from seeing that same flaw in ourselves.

Thought of the Day 02.05.10

When I first became a Christian, I must confess that I wasn’t really all that amazed by the idea that God loved me. After all, why wouldn't He love a terrific person like me?

Then, as I progressively discovered the reality of the situation, I became amazed by the idea that a Holy God would love me despite how truly unterrific I really was.

But after several years of growing in my understanding of Who God is and His infinitely merciful goodness, it actually stopped amazing me quite so much anymore. Naturally Someone with His perfect loving character would love a mess like me. Of course, the reality of such a Character still did amaze me.

Finally (for now), after all these shifts, the thing that now amazes me is the realization that God actually finds me terrific, a sort of happy return to my starting point. Only this time around, I know I’m terrific not because of anything about me, but because of what He sacrificed in order to get me.

Thought of the Day 02.04.10

A recent conversation with my five-year-old:

Daddy: Spencer, why do you think God love us?
Spencer: Because we're good?
Daddy: No, God loves us even when we're bad. So why does God love us?
Spencer: Because we love Him?
Daddy: No, God loves us even when we don’t love Him. So why does God love us?
Spencer: I don't know.
Daddy: Well, why do I love you?
Spencer: Because you’re my daddy.
Daddy: Okay. But do I love you because you're good?
Spencer: No, you love me even when I’m bad.
Daddy: That's right. But why do I love you even when you're bad?
Spencer: I’m not sure.
Daddy: Well, because you’re my child and because I am good. See, a bad parent only loves his kids when they behave, but a good parent loves his kids even when they don’t. So I love you because I’m good. Now why does God love us?
Spencer: Because He’s good?

Daddy: That's exactly right.

Thought of the Day 02.03.10

Consider three salvation stories from the book of Acts:

The apostle Paul is riding along one day when Jesus vividly confronts him Himself. There are no intermediaries. Looking at this, someone might say that this is how God saves.

But then there’s the example of Cornelius, to whom God also gives a vision. But instead of revealing Himself, the angel tells him to fetch the apostle Peter (the recipient of his own message from God), who preaches him into salvation. So maybe two visions and an apostle is how it’s done.

But yet another example is the Ethiopian Eunuch. No vision to the lost soul at all this time. Instead, God orders Phillip to go find the man and the evangelism technique is expository preaching from the book of Isaiah.

So which of these three is the “correct” mechanism by which God saves? All of them, obviously. Why doesn’t God use just one formula? You might as well ask why there are different varieties of flowers or both sparrows and eagles. They’re an artist, you see.

Thought of the Day 02.02.10

It’s very useful to know how subtle shifts in the use of language can change the impact of a statement. Here’s an example:

Phrase 1. That show is boring. (The movie itself is at fault)

Phrase 2. I think that show is boring. (By overt inclusion, my opinion and its potential fallibility soften the statement.)

Phrase 3. I was bored by that show. (My reaction is the focus, not the movie)

Phrase 4. I was bored when I watched that show. (Double emphasis shift away from the event onto me and my action)

Phrase 5. I was bored when I watched one episode of that show. (Limiting evaluation to my actual limited experience.)

Phrase 6. Even though I was bored when I watched one episode of that show, I can imagine other people enjoying it or other episodes possibly being more interesting to me.

To the person who recognizes that other people are likely to have different reactions to things and deliberately wants to preserve space for them in the conversation, such nuances are vital. To the person who merely wants to assert his dominance on a subject, they seem like wimpy under-descriptions of the truth.