Thought of the Day 04.01.10

God paid an enormous price to get us, which immediately begs the question of why He would choose such a transaction.

One answer is that we are spectacularly valuable; valuable enough to justify the massive cost. Despite the price, we were a bargain that pays rich dividends, you might say. Unfortunately, I know us. So I know this just isn’t true.

Another answer is that He made a terrible deal, which is evidence that He is basically irrational. He overpaid for a lousy commodity, and this proves that He’s not a very shrewd investor. Since I’m a tad reluctant to call God irrational, this doesn’t seem quite right, either.

The third possibility is that our whole idea of rationality is wrong. If God’s signature act was to squander Himself on us, then perhaps self-destructive devotion to others is the pinnacle of rationality. If so, then God was most fully rational precisely when He was making a mockery of the idea that maximizing self-benefit is the purpose of existence.

Thought of the Day 03.31.10

I was at a friend’s church recently, and he was talking about how parents who give things like affirmation, encouragement, unconditional love, affection, and respect will produce well-adjusted children who grow up to make good spouses. He then asked the audience how many of us felt our parents had given us these things. I was the only one who raised my hand.

Now, obviously his point was for us to realize we all have handicaps bequeathed to us by less-than-ideal parents, and I suspect some people didn’t raise their hands because they sensed his point. But even so, I was flabbergasted at the nearly unanimous declaration of bad parenting.

Not because I think it’s false, but because it forced me to realize how incredibly lucky I’ve been to have had parents who may have done some things wrong but who did all the major things right. Because I never realized how rare this is, I never stopped to think about the burdens other people live under. When you grow up in a wealthy home, it’s so easy to not realize what poverty is like and what it can do to people.

Thought of the Day 03.30.10

The other day, I was driving on Indian School Road when I happened to see a Muslim family walking past a storefront. The mother was wearing a Jilbab and Hijab (head scarf and loose-fitting robe), while the father and two young boys were wearing ordinary American attire, polo shirts and shorts. The mother was walking with one of the boys and they had their arms around each other in the universal demonstration of reciprocal love. All this was quite beautiful.

What I found horrific about the scene was the storefront they were passing, which happened to have a full-size painting of a pin-up girl on the wall. All I could think of at that moment was the terrible frustration for these parents, and especially this mother, having to daily expose their sons to a culture with such flagrant disregard to the moral-visual development of young boys.

I don’t endorse the Muslim view of women, but I certainly share their concern that sexual imagery is very dangerous to both women and men. And at that particular moment, I was embarrassed by a culture which claims to be Christian in its heritage.

Thought of the Day 03.29.10

Have you ever heard that what goes around comes around? You know, that if you put good stuff out into the universe, you’ll get good stuff back; same for bad? You reap what you sow and all that? Well, this is the basic idea of karma. But there’s a problem.

Haven’t you also heard that one of the great flaws in this world is the fact that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people? Innocent children get terrible diseases, whole groups of people are the victims of oppression and genocide, and many of the most wicked people imaginable seem to live fairly cushy lives. This is the basic argument in what philosophers call “the problem of evil and suffering.”

So which is it? Do people always get what they deserve or do people sometimes (perhaps often) get precisely what they don’t deserve?

Now, my purpose for today isn’t to pick or resolve any of this. I just want you to be aware that you can’t hold both. That way the next time you hear someone use the problem of evil to discount God and then talk about karma, you’ll know what to say.

Thought of the Day 03.26.10

I went to get my cell phone replaced the other day, expecting to take advantage of the deal I had been offered previously. However, the woman who took care of me informed me that the other guy had been mistaken and that deal wasn’t actually available. She said she was sorry for the mix-up and that I was free to speak with her manager if I wanted. I could tell from her tone that she would have loved to give me the deal, but it wasn’t within her power.

So I did speak with the manager, and after explaining the events to him, he gave me what I wanted. This of course made me happy, and the manager got to enjoy satisfying a customer. But this seems unfair, right? She knew what needed to happen, and she didn’t get to enjoy helping me at all. Because of her position, she actually had to sort of be the bad guy.

But you see, that’s the basic nature of authority. To acquire the power to make people happy, you have to show that you won’t use that power foolishly. So the key is to use what you have as well as possible and not resent the greater good you think you could do with more. And sometimes a person who grasps this will thank you anyway for doing what you could.

Thought of the Day 03.25.10

As the father of three boys, let me share a secret no other parent will tell you: kids aren’t worth it. I’m absolutely serious. They aren’t worth it. The money, the time, the frustration, the rejection, the stress, the anxiety, the loss of sleep, the fights they cause with your spouse. If the return you seek for your investment is happiness, I strongly recommend you invest elsewhere.

Nevertheless, I intend to have more of them, and I fervently hope all of you will experience the magnificent horror of becoming a parent. You see, we get it wrong about kids for the same reason we get it wrong about salvation. God doesn’t save us because we’re worth saving, but because He is the sort of loving Being who wastes His resources on wretched things. And make no mistake, children are wretched things.

No child will ever pay us back as much as his life cost to form. And that’s exactly why giving such life is the most gloriously divine thing any human can do. It’s also why couples who deliberately avoid having children for such reasons are inadvertently confessing a profoundly mistaken theology.

Thought of the Day 03.24.10

A caller said something the other day which I know is true and is very troubling. I was explaining how pro-choice and pro-life people generally agree that abortion is bad and that an ideal world would have very few of them. In contrast, the truly pro-abortion people (who think abortion is good) are only 5-10% of the population.

Since the rest of us agree about common sense things like waiting periods, mandatory sonograms, counseling on alternatives, and viewing educational films showing the true nature of the procedure, it should be possible to use these measures to educate women into not wanting abortion. Ideally, this would also lead to them avoiding sex itself once they start to view abortion as morally unacceptable.

The caller asked why he doesn’t hear more pro-lifers talking about such common sense approaches. Sadly, the answer is that many pro-lifer commentators are all too satisfied stridently reconfirming the beliefs of their pro-life audiences instead of appealing effectively to pro-choicers. This means that the people most in need of hearing what we are saying are unlikely to ever hear us because of our unwillingness to create an environment in which they want to.

Thought of the Day 03.23.10

You know how when you’re driving you can sometimes just sense that the other driver is about to do something stupid and dangerous? I think it comes from just driving for so many hours and seeing things hundreds of times. Well, every so often when this happens, I have a rather disturbing response. In that brief interval between idiocy suspected and idiocy manifested, I have just enough time to imagine what it might be like to just let him cause the crash…you know, since honking a horn doesn’t really seem to have much educational effect.

Now obviously I always yield to the fool in the other car rather than to the maniacal fool inside my head. But why do I even think this way? Well, today I finally figured it out. On the road, I basically feel like I’m in a really unhealthy relationship with an abusive partner. And after years of unacceptable treatment by the aggregate entity who goes by the name, “the other driver,” I sometimes just want to deck him for endangering me and my family.

Rationally I know that this particular fool isn’t the same person as all the other fools, but in never knowing any of them personally, I think my brain just tends to think of them as one single rude, selfish, disobedient, unskilled punk who only apologizes for himself about one in a hundred times. And so I kind of want to blame this guy for all the actions of all the other guys combined.

Thought of the Day 03.22.10

It’s so easy to get the Gospel wrong that many people can’t even tell the difference between proper and improper formulations of it. Consider a simple question like, “Why does God love us?”

Well, one common answer is that God loves us because we are loveable. We are so precious that Jesus went to the Cross as the necessary bargain to get what He truly wanted. But if we were really so loveable, why did it take a Cross to get us?

The truth is that God loves us because He is loving, and the outrageous price he paid to get us proves something about Him, not about us. Of course, we then acquire tremendous worth precisely because a God that loving wanted us. His wanting, not our wantableness, is what makes us precious.

See, there’s all the difference in the universe between saying the heresy, “You are so valuable that Jesus would die to get you,” and saying the Gospel truth, “You are so valuable because Jesus died to get you.” Sadly, millions of people think these two sentences are saying the exact same thing.

Thought of the Day 03.19.10

Apparently flip-phones and I do not get along, since every one I’ve ever owned has eventually broken at the hinge. The one I bought a year and a half ago broke after six months. When I had it replaced, the salesman admitted they had a design flaw, which had been corrected in the replacement. So naturally, I went back to the store expecting another free phone since it had been less than a year for this one.

But the salesman told me that the warranty was only for one year from the original purchase date, which I complained was pretty lame. But then I realized that I essentially wanted the company to supply me with an infinite stream of overlapping phone warranties rather than just one year of proper functioning, which is more fair.

I caught myself wanting all the benefit on my side of the transaction, and so I apologized to the clerk for complaining about not getting enough for free. In a society where I already get so much for so little, I still have to constantly fight my impulse toward ingratitude when I don’t get everything on the best possible terms for me.

Thought of the Day 03.18.10

Some of the historically obvious dangers of people celebrating their own culture are inter-tribal arrogance, xenophobia, and even violence. One proposed solution to this problem is to teach people to become essentially blind to the things which differentiate them historically, racially, and culturally. But this is just to lean to far to the other extreme.

See, the Bible clearly teaches us that God loves diversity. Indeed, He likes it so much that He not only institutionalized it in ancient Israel with the twelve tribes but also at the end of time we will still be distinct nations, tribes, peoples and tongues even while we are all completely united in our worship of Him. (Revelation 7:9-10)

So how can we thread the needle between bland sameness and divisive difference? Just look at the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all uniquely different and yet so totally in harmony with each other that they make just one God. They are eternally distinct and yet eternally united…just as we should be.

Thought of the Day 03.17.10

We recently ordered pizza, and when it arrived, I let the boys select which slice they wanted. Well you would have thought I’d set before them the greatest problem Solomon ever saw. They were considering how many pieces of pepperoni were on each slice, how large the slice was, and what sort of cheese to sauce ratio could be inferred from the surface of it. All this at ages 3 and 5, mind you.

Oddly, by giving them such freedom, I actually made them miserable. Being so aware of what any choice would cost in forsaken alternatives meant they almost couldn’t enjoy the one they would eventually have to settle for. Of course, if I had merely picked a slice for each of them they would have been perfectly happy with that.

Unfortunately, my kids aren’t exactly alone. Whenever I’m picking which movie to watch or which phone to buy or which car to drive, I sort of go through the same basic motions. Part of the burden of having so many options is the difficulty in excluding any of them, but the other part of the burden is that in wasting so much time maximizing any one decision, I’m actually costing myself the chance to even make other ones.

Thought of the Day 03.16.10

People are often confused about virtues, and one of the most common confusions is mistaking a necessary component of some virtue for an obstacle to is. Here’s what I mean.

We all believe in the virtue of courage, but people often mistakenly think that courage is the absence of fear when in fact courage is precisely the virtue of doing something you are afraid of. If there is no fear, there can be no courage.

Similarly, many people wrongly believe that obedience is based on agreement. But the reality is that agreement precludes obedience because you are merely doing what makes sense to you rather than what you have been instructed to do by some authority. Only when you disagree can you rightly be said to obey.

Yet again, when people think of forgiveness, they commonly think that forgiving is the same as saying that the person didn’t do anything wrong. But forgiveness is actually a firm declaration that wrong has been done. Without a wrong, there can be no forgiving.

Thus, virtues are usually not the absence of problems, but the right response to them.

Thought of the Day 03.15.10

I didn’t really know what to expect at Spencer’s first soccer game for 5-8 year-olds, and it turned out to be pretty much that. But one thing about the game really bothered me. See, our coach had taught the kids to play positions as required by the rules, but the other coach had not. And the referee, at perhaps age 10, wasn’t into enforcement, which I completely understand. They are there to have fun, and the games count for nothing at all.

But as the swarm of five opponents followed the ball everywhere it went, I kept being bothered by it. Not because of scoring or fairness, but just on principle. I remember having the same issue when I coached kickball because some (but not all) teams were stunned to discover that the rest of us actually played the game with outs.

I guess I just figure that they aren’t there to merely have fun and get exercise, but to learn some skills and what it means to play by rules, which is made harder when the adults don’t expect this of all the kids equally. Then again, when some do and some don’t, it’s a different sort of opportunity: to practice doing what’s right even if not everyone does.

Thought of the Day 03.12.10

Being home sick one day this week made me realize something: I love being sick!
Oh, don’t get me wrong. Of course I hate both the experience of illness and also the truth about a world rendered defective by sin that we have such a thing as illness. But, taking these for granted, there are still a lot of great things about being sick, at least for me.

For one, staying home from a job I love to do reminds me how wonderful it is to have such a job and that it’s the sort of American job which allows me to take days off for being sick, a luxury most humans throughout history wouldn’t comprehend. For another thing, in lounging around doing nothing all day because I feel so bad, I am reminded of what a privilege it is to be productive most of the time. Feeling useless is psychologically exhausting.

Obviously, other perks included having a home I could relax in, the appreciation of proper bodily function once it returned, and even things like ibuprofen and chicken noodle soup. But I think one of the neatest benefits of being sick is the discovery that I am unnecessary. The world turns, someone else does my job, and so many of the things I think depend uniquely upon me doing them instead reveal this to be a self-glorifying delusion.

It’s good to feel important, but it’s also good to not feel too important.

Thought of the Day 03.11.10

One of the websites I find fascinating is Post Secret, where people share their secrets on self-made post cards. I recently read one which said, “The real reason I don’t want to have kids is I’m afraid if my husband and I divorce, no one will want to be with a woman who has children.”

The tragedy of such an honest self-disclosure is not so much what it says about this woman’s view of children or her self-centeredness, but what it says about our culture’s view of marriage. We have so degraded the idea of permanent commitment in marriage to the point that it has actually become a matter of prudence to plan for a divorce just like any other undesirable event. Sometimes they do this even before getting married, as with a pre-nuptial agreement.

What should be obvious to this woman, but apparently is not, is that by planning to preserve her options she is actively violating her vow to forsake all others (even hypothetical future mates who wouldn’t want her with kids). Although this woman has already made a covenant “’til death do us part,” she wants to be sure that she is most easily able to find another man with whom to make that covenant again in case she breaks this one. She’s of course also actually increasing her chances of needing to find such a man.

Is she foolish? Is she evil? Or is she merely a product of her culture? And if so, how much responsibility do the rest of us have for allowing this mindset to develop all around us?

Thought of the Day 03.09.10

As a competitive person skilled in problem-solving, it’s fair to say I try to “win” in every situation. When it comes to parking lots, of course, this means finding the space closest to my destination (allowing for the fact that parking near a cart return rather than the storefront at a grocery store may save walking, which is just another way of winning). Since I’m also quite lazy, I naturally get irritated when I have to park far away because of congestion.

But then my company started this wellness program that gives us a point for parking far away, which I began doing. I became accustomed to routinely passing “good” spots in the process. That’s when I noticed something fascinating.

On those days when I didn’t need the points but there also didn’t happen to be any close spaces, it didn’t irritate me. Deliberately parking far away had undermined for me the importance of parking close even when I wanted to. So, a neat little byproduct of this habit was greater indifference about where I parked in general and therefore peace about the game’s results.

I wonder what other things that seem important would lose their grip on me if I only practiced not needing them for awhile.

Thought of the Day 03.08.10

Even though we only have three so far, I can already see some of the benefits of having numerous children. There’s the obvious benefit to them of social interaction and having built-in friends. To us, there’s the benefit of really being forced to master parenting skills across diverse children. But just the other day, I discovered another one: wonder.

We were out to dinner somewhere and Spencer was playing around on the curb, and I suddenly found myself captivated by watching him move and study his universe. Just seeing his motions and grasping how advanced they had already become at age 5 was amazing to me. But part of the reason I was impressed with him was because I still have Ethan and Sage to compare him to.

See, I tend to quickly forget what each child was like at previous stages, but when I see how Sage and Ethan move around at their ages compared to Spencer, it’s as if I’m seeing his own history right in front of me. So in addition to being their own sources of wonder, the comparison between them as individuals and over time is amplified by having all of them together in one family.

Thought of the Day 03.05.10

Every argument advanced for a position appeals to some standard of evaluation. But when someone enlists a standard because it supports him but won’t endure its subsequent criticism, you know he’s just making an argument of convenience and shouldn’t be taken seriously. This is why people who refer to the Bible only when it helps them are properly described as religious hypocrites.

Just the other day I realized that self-described political “liberals” have been effectively guilty of this problem with one particular line of argument. In the debate over abortion, I have often heard that “Roe v Wade is settled law after 37 years.” Likewise, in the recent criticism of the Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance, the allegation was that it, “overturned 100 years of legal precedent.”

Although I had never quite noticed before, I suddenly realized that these were conservative appeals, not liberal ones. It is conservatives who defer to traditions, and that’s why we might never have noticed the shameless irony of people trying to tell us on the one hand that legal abortion is a long-settled issue while on the other hand they tell us that a completely new definition of marriage is in order. It’s interesting, I think, that anyone calling himself a “progressive” would actually appeal to tradition this way. But then again, as in so many examples, people will say whatever they think will work.

Thought of the Day 03.04.10

My oldest son, Spencer, has been riding a bicycle since he was three years old. However, he’s always had training wheels. Well, a few months ago, I decided he was old enough to try riding without them. It was a disaster. He simply had no sense of balance whatsoever, so we put them back on. Then just this week, he was begging to try again, so I agreed.

Whenever he would start to fall over, I’d yell at him, “Balance! You’ve got to balance!” But even as I said this, I realized that it’s not as if he’s forgetting to do so or disobeying me. He doesn’t know how. And if he doesn’t know how to balance, then sternly commanding him to do the impossible doesn’t help. Only now have I grasped that the fault here was mine. Not because there are four steps to balance I should have taught him. There aren’t. It’s an indivisible physical skill, learned by doing. The fault is I never realized why they’re called “training” wheels.

It’s because you’re supposed to raise them gradually over time so the child learns to balance with diminishing assistance. And leaving them all the way down, I had essentially ingrained in him bike riding with no need to balance whatsoever, a highly counterproductive habit to real riding. So I had trained him to be inept and then was frustrated at him for not doing what I hadn’t equipped him to be able to do.
Oh, the dangers of avoiding dangers!

Thought of the Day 03.03.10

My recent visit to the optometrist naturally got me thinking about vision and glasses.

For most of human history, people have had vision defects. Perhaps short lifespans or the lack of experts to quantify the severity of their impairment served to keep them from knowing just how bad the problem was. But then again, even if they knew they had bad eyesight, what could be done? The lack of any solution sometimes makes it easier to avoid even becoming aware of a handicap, and certainly makes it easier to accept it if you are aware.

Well, eventually, someone discovered how to make glass into lenses and assemble them into a frame. (Ben Franklin made bifocals from existing glasses about 500 years after Salvino D’Armate made the first modern glasses.) But only the rich had access and they were still fairly primitive. Then, in this past century, the quality and individuality of them leapt forward even as they became so common that virtually everyone with eye problems now has glasses. I can actually purchase a basic pair for one dollar.

From non-existent, to rough and rare, to high quality and cheap, to virtually free. This is the natural progression of any technology, an illustration of how our quality of life can be significantly higher despite our personal wealth seeming quite ordinary.

Thought of the Day 03.02.10

Yesterday, I saw a bumper sticker which said, “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading it in English, thank a soldier.”

Now, being the snarky-snark philosopher that I am, I was immediately bothered by the use of “If.” Since there is no chance that a person who “is” reading this “can’t” read it, there is no if-ness here at all. Likewise, since the message is obviously in English, there’s a zero percent chance that someone is actually reading it in, say, Hebrew. Thus, the word in both cases should be “Since” rather than “If.” But that’s not the real issue.

The real issue is that, whereas the meaning of the first half is obvious, the second half is more ambiguous. I’m about ninety percent certain that the intended message was, “as opposed to Russian or some other invading country’s language.” But living in Arizona with a heavy Hispanic population, all language statements are tainted with the taste of the English-Spanish debate. So, there’s maybe a 10% chance that this person is talking about protection against Spanish-speakers, not communists.

I think this isn’t the intended message, but it raises the issue of knowing your context. Statements always get made in particular places, and part of making them wisely means understanding how message ambiguity can allow a biased reader to misunderstand you. In this case, “Since you’re not reading it in Russian or Chinese, thank a soldier,” would have worked much more effectively.