Starting with common ground

Pro-choice people love to use President Clinton’s famous phrase that the goal is for abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare.”

The brilliance of this phrase of course is the inclusion of “rare,” which reminds people that abortion is generally a bad thing. And although many pro-lifers wonder just how serious pro-choicers are about the rare part, I’ve always said that anyone who is genuinely pro-choice would prefer a world where almost no one chooses abortion.

But something else suddenly intrigues me about this phrase. Instead of leading with what divides us, wouldn’t it be interesting if people reversed the order of words? Since the real point of commonality between the camps is “rare,” why not emphasize it by saying “rare, safe, and legal?” In fact, if we’re really shooting for emphasis, why not leave the latter bit off entirely?

I don’t know how much difference it will make, but wouldn’t it be fascinating if both sides started reinforcing to this culture a message in unison that our common goal for abortion is simply to make it “rare?”

What's the lesson?

In my house, my children are lucky enough to be afflicted with parents who are always challenging them to think about everything. The question they have learned to dread hearing is, “So what did you learn?” The reason they dread this is because it always follows a mistake they have made or else a mistake they didn’t even realize they made. Either way, bad things happened.

For instance, just this morning, Ethan (my four-year-old) was climbing on top of their fort, stretching to reach something at the top of the closet. (For those without boys, yes, this is pretty normal behavior.) Well, as I watch him, sure enough, he loses his footing and falls in that slow-motion way monkeys learn to do. When he’s reached his landing (one leg on the fort, one on the floor, and his head laying on some boxes in the bottom of the closet), I first ask him if he’s okay.

“Yes,” he replies.

“And what did you learn?” I asked, anticipating a safety breakthrough.

“Not to fall.”

Indeed it is important to remember to think about what we’ve learned from a mistake. However, it’s also important we succeed at identifying the right lesson.

There's nothing "merely" about it.

One of the great modern lies is that sex is just another bodily appetite to be satisfied however one pleases. “We eat when we’re hungry, we sleep when we’re tired, and we have sex when we feel like it.” Ignoring the obvious fact that even mere bodily appetites entail ethics (nutrition differentiates between good and bad eating and there are many situations where sleep is not an acceptable course of action), there’s something much more profoundly inaccurate here.

See, the view of sex as a bodily appetite is inherently degrading to sex, reducing it to something “merely” bodily. And yet, everyone knows that there is nothing “merely” about an activity which has inspired millions of works of art from poems to songs to paintings to sculpture to novels to movies. Someone may dislike being hungry or tired, but healthy people don’t weep in agony over a bad lasagna or a missed nap. Yet, emotions strong to the point of artistic expression are precisely the normal result of sexual fulfillment or frustration.

Thus, it is precisely because this human endeavor is so uniquely powerful that it must be treated so carefully and protected so vigilantly. We do no one a service when we encourage them to believe that something this precious may be treated with such casual contempt.

What a good director does.

I love to watch movies. Unfortunately, one of the problems of having watched a lot of movies is that it becomes harder and harder to surprise me. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that I generally want a movie to end in a satisfying way, which of course further limits the options a filmmaker has when creating his art for me.

A good movie thus manages to do several different things. It identifies a character with whom I can bond and vicariously live through. This character will then have some significant struggles which create tension and the hope of a final triumph to overcome them. Most importantly, the means of this triumph need to be plausible after the fact but so unforeseeable in advance that you actually start to worry it won’t turn out right. When all of these factors come together properly, we say that a movie “pays off” in giving you what you really want from it.

And when you find a director who can consistently do this, it’s a real joy to experience his movies. Of course, the real question is whether I believe God is as clever and reliable at directing my life as these men are in making their films.

On missing pieces.

I grew up doing lots of jigsaw puzzles. In fact, I believe it’s one of the things that trained my mind to work as it does.

One common experience in doing a jigsaw puzzle is to become irritated over not being able to find a particular piece. As you scour for it in the pile, it’s easy to get so frustrated that you actually come to believe it’s simply missing. Obviously, in a used puzzle this can happen, but not so much in a new one. Nevertheless, what you do is you keep going with the rest of the puzzle. And a funny thing happens.

When you work on the bits you can do, you make progress. Then when you get to the end, somehow the piece you were absolutely sure was missing just suddenly appears. Of course it was there the whole time. You just couldn’t see it for whatever reason. And you feel a bit sheepish for having been so sure it wouldn’t work out in the end.

So if I can rationally learn to have faith in a puzzle manufacturer, why do I so often still struggle to believe my heavenly Father will make sure my life has all the pieces it needs to be finished properly?

On artistic license.

Having been asked to preach several times recently, I’ve had more reason than normal to consult Bible commentaries. In the process, I noticed that they all say things such as, “Matthew likely rearranged the material in this section to suit his purpose in writing the Gospel.” This initially bothered me because it implied the Bible’s authors were playing fast and loose with the facts, an assessment which seems to undermine the reliability of my beloved Scriptures. But these commentators were really serious about the Bible’s authenticity and its authority. They were not liberals. So how could this be?

I finally figured it out. As a modern American, I presume truth to be a matter of chronological fact correspondence. But this is a huge bias. The artist in me knows better than to think that truth can only be communicated or even best be communicated in such a realist style. The Gospel writers, under the influence of the greatest Muse of all, were revealing truth that a merely chronological account would have left hidden.

This is why their portraits of the same Person are all so distinct. But far from being evidence of fraud or forgery or even error, this is simply the natural result of men overcome with Beauty wanting to share that rapture effectively with others.

Christianity is not an item on the menu.

I suppose there are numerous misconceptions about Christianity. But whereas some of them can be brushed off as minor sundry details, others matter tremendously because they concern the very essence of what our faith is.

For instance, some people think Christianity is basically a belief system, but this is a mistake. Although Christianity produces beliefs, it’s not essentially about beliefs. Some people think Christianity is basically a way of life, but this is also a mistake. Although Christianity produces behavior, it’s not essentially about behavior. Some people think Christianity is basically membership in a group, but this, too, is a mistake. Although Christianity produces community, it’s not essentially about community.

See, you can believe new things without becoming a new person. You can do things a new way without becoming a new person. And you can join a new group without becoming a new person. But unless you do become an entirely new kind of person, you aren’t actually a Christian.

On not jumping to Biblical conclusions.

Did you know a person can actually know too much about the Bible to understand it properly. I know that may sound absurd, but allow me to give you an example.

In the Sermon on the Mount as recounted in Matthew 7, Jesus tells his audience that they will know true from false disciples “by their fruits” as if they are trees. Since this statement isn’t clarified, one naturally wonders what the “fruit” would be. Well, anyone familiar with the New Testament immediately thinks of Galatians 5, where Paul talks about the Fruit of the Spirit, which shows up as things like love, joy, and peace.

But here’s the problem. Reading the Bible this way treats it as a mystery scavenger hunt that can only be solved by people like us who happen to have the whole thing. When Jesus preached on that mountain, He meant His audience to understand Him even without the decoder ring of Paul’s writings twenty years later.

Although Paul was probably building on Jesus’s theme, the real question is whether the message Jesus delivered would have had this meaning in itself or not. Perhaps so, but we can be too eager to make that leap because, ironically, we know too much.

An explanation that isn't.

One of the most fascinating (and frustrating) things about baseball is it’s essential unpredictability. Good teams lose to bad teams and weird things happen often enough that there’s actually an expression for it. We say, “That’s baseball.”

Oddly, although this feels like an explanation, it really isn’t. No team has yet lost a game because of some voodoo endemic to the game. Rather, they lose because of specific reasons on that particular day.

Also, there’s a bothersome asymmetry here. When good teams win, we don’t say, “That’s baseball,” since the more obvious explanation is, “They were the better team.” Thus, on those less likely days when poor teams play well, we actually rob them of the credit by chalking their win up to mischievous metaphysics.

Call it luck, call it the variables of individual contests, or call it the seductive deception of statistical reasoning. In the end, the one way to describe all of it including the silly propensity to come up with vacuous statements to explain it all is by saying, “That’s baseball.”

What's your consolation?

The term “consolation prize” was coined to describe something we give to a person who loses a contest as a way of consoling him in his sadness at failure. It may seem a bit silly, but everyone practices consoling, especially ourselves.

For instance, imagine a man who is worried about losing his job. Perhaps he consoles himself by saying, “Well at least I have a great wife.” But what about the unemployed who are divorced or single not by choice?

Perhaps he consoles himself by saying, “Well at least I’m in good financial shape otherwise.” But what about those who are in debt?

Perhaps he consoles himself by saying, “Well at least I have my children.” But what about those whose children have been lost, are angry at him, or were simply never born in the first place?

Perhaps he consoles himself by saying, “Well at least I have my health.” But what about those who are ill?

Perhaps he consoles himself by saying, “Well at least I have Jesus.”

When we get to the end of everything else we think is valuable, we eventually come to the consolation prize of knowing Christ. And when we do, we discover that what we thought was the littlest of consolations turns out to be the greatest prize of all. And, if the Bible is correct, one which we never need worry will be taken from us.

What's a moderate?

Words have meanings, which is why it’s so important to use them accurately. For instance, when we talk about Muslims, we generally refer to people who sympathize with Al Queda as “extremists.” But the large majority of the Muslim world which opposes them we label as “moderates.” But this is a very misleading word choice.

Having known a few Muslims, I don’t think I’ve ever met a moderate one. They pray, they fast, they study the Koran, they attend worship, and they live by a very strict moral code. Calling such devotees “moderates” is a sort of insult. I would hate for someone to call me a moderate Christian, since I prefer to think of myself as a committed or serious one.

The problem here is that our modern culture is fond of the error that devotion is danger. But as should be obvious by considering the Amish, the particular shape of devotion is vital in assessing its danger.

So, to make things clearer, perhaps we ought to distinguish between “violent Muslims” and “peaceful Muslims.” That way people are reminded that it’s not the depth of belief that matters, but the direction. After all, what would you rather have, a moderately violent Muslim or an extremely peaceful one?

Looks can be deceptive.

People who travel to really poor areas of the world consistently report some of the same feelings in those places. They always stand out as Americans, which means they are constantly begged for money. Further, because the prices are so low, their American dollars represent a tremendous amount of wealth. This means that even when getting services like taxi rides, the inclination is to lavish fabulous tips on the natives because it would be so easy to do.

But what’s interesting is that most people familiar with these countries will tell you that it’s actually a bad idea. Whether overtipping or giving to beggars, the problem is that you disrupt the local economy and cause additional problems with such simple generosity.

In other words, they say to act like a stingy person, behavior which observed at a distance would seem almost callous and cruel. But sometimes that which looks superficially loving can be harmful and that which looks superficially mean can be the most loving.

Perhaps this is why a wealthy God doesn’t just give us everything we beg Him for, even though He wishes He could.

Compared to whom?

I have to admit that I feel pretty constantly like a failure as a parent. I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone in this. In fact, part of the reason I wanted to share this with you is that I know some of you consider me a good parent. But even good parents feel like failures.

And why wouldn’t we? There is only one good parent, and that’s God. By comparison with Him, we are all terrible, with only minute differences of terribleness between us. And the more we look at Him, the more each little interaction with our kids shows the truth about us. That’s in fact why part of the evidence that you are a good parent is that you feel so bad at it. Because it shows you’re comparing yourself to the right standard. And it’s also why the notion that if you were just a little better at it you’d feel good is such a destructive myth.

So how do we solve the problem? Simple. Although we can never fully measure up in our parenting, we know that we are made perfectly righteous in God’s sight by the gift of His Son. Thus, even in our terrible parenting, He accepts us just as we are. And if God has accepted me and my imperfect parenting, who am I to argue with Him about it?

Who does your decorating?

Is Jesus your interior decorator? What I mean to ask is whether Jesus has done some rearranging in the rooms of your life?

You see, an interior decorator comes into your somewhat shabby home and asks you what you want to do with the place. He discovers your tastes and clarifies what makes you happy. Then, with his vast expertise in fabric and paint and furniture, he assists you by extrapolating your personality into your surroundings so you feel like your house is a vibrant expression of who you are, pleasing you whenever you inhabit it.

So, has Jesus has done this for you yet?

Because although this is the way many people think Jesus works in our lives, they are eternally mistaken. You see, Jesus doesn’t show up with swatches and an attentive ear. He comes with a bulldozer and a wrecking crew.

When the real Christ comes to visit the lives we call home, He razes them to the ground in the most violent fashion imaginable. Sometimes only explosives will do the trick. And if you have never experienced the horrific joy or of seeing all you prized about your life blown apart to be reformed according to His blueprint, well, perhaps that nice chap stroking your tastes so pleasantly isn’t at all who you thought he was.

Of emailers

I receive emails from three sorts of people about my show.

The first type is the either/or. This person sometimes writes to praise me and sometimes to criticize me, often both in the same email. This is by far the largest category.

The second type is the reliable critic. This person only writes to disagree with me about something or other, rarely communicating when things are to his liking. He apparently thinks that silence is a form of praise. Although these are valuable, whenever I see this person’s name in my inbox, I sigh with a mixture of dread and disappointment.

The third type is the encouraging advocate. This person always has something positive to say, even when it’s critical, and often just wants me to know how much he appreciates me. My dad, my pastor, and a handful of others fall in this category, and I obviously delight to see their names in my inbox.

All three categories include Christians, but which of the three do you think make me want to know more about the God they say overflows with love for me?

If you can't say something well....

“The sky was red.”

“The lips of every maiden wept with jealousy for the crimson stain smeared across the clouds that night.”

To a logician, these two sentences are identical. This alone should testify to the deep imbecility of that discipline.

You see, logic cares only about truth and falsity. But in human experience, the inescapable truth about language is that truth is not the issue. Simply put, men respond to beauty, not merely to truth. This is because the distance between a falsehood and a mere truth is meaningless compared with the gulf between a truth and an eloquence.

Yet when we make our proclamations, we often think we have done enough to merely say what is true, thus satisfying the logicians. But only a logician could be stupid enough to believe that poetry can be reduced to propositions…or to believe that propositions alone have ever changed the course of history…or even a man’s heart.

Same name, different family?

My children do not live in the same family. Although this may seem like a nonsensical statement, it’s actually so obvious that most of us never recognize it until it’s pointed out.

In his six years, Spencer has experienced two years as an only child of novice parents, two years as an older brother of one boy with slightly more able parents, and two years as an older brother of two boys with yet even more competent parents. In his four years, Ethan has always had an older brother, and his parents were never amateurs. And in his brief 22 months, Sage always had two older brothers and basically expert parents. One simple implication of these facts is that whereas Spencer sort of knows what it’s like to be alone and then to lose aloneness, Sage will never even have a mental picture of privacy.

But more important than the fact that each boy is raised by very different parents and accompanied by different siblings is the fact that even in the same family at the same time, every child experiences it from his own point of view, a unique vantage never quite replicated in anyone else. And, of course, all of these differences are only compounded in families with divorces, remarriages, larger time gaps between children, or radical changes in location of residence or the occupations of their parents.

And once I realize that none of my children really live in the same family as each other, I become more aware of how I must adjust my own expectations and treatment of each of them as individuals who might just as well come from three different families rather than from the same one.

Should a Christian ever boo?

Brandon Phillips, the second baseman for the Reds, shot his mouth off about the Cardinals when they played in Cincinnati last month. This led to a fight in which Johnny Cueto, a Reds pitcher, started kicking wildly into a bunch of players, giving the St. Louis backup catcher Jason LaRue a concussion that ended his season.

When the Reds came to St. Louis Friday, the fans booed Phillips so loudly that the announcers couldn’t be heard over the noise. These boos only became louder as he proceeded to make four outs. In the words of one commentator, the crowd was “merciless.”

As a Cardinals fan and a Christian, I found this particular word choice fascinating. Of course, it’s correct. They showed no mercy. Just as clearly, he was only getting what he deserved. But should they have been more merciful to him?

As a fan, I would have been willing to give him applause rather than boos under one and only one circumstance. If he had apologized, contritely admitting he was foolish and that words have consequences, I would cheer him. Punishment encourages repentance, and repentance encourages mercy.

Why humility matters.

Humility really needs a better press agent. Those people in our culture who might be in a position to promote it have for the most part long since decided that arrogance pays better. But like so many other Divine virtues, that’s sort of the point.

Humility comes from the premise that your ideas may be flawed because you are a sinful person in your very nature. Thus, you share them cautiously, carefully, and with an ear eager for criticism. But what happens when we don’t speak humbly?

Well, last week, an unstable man attempted to destroy the Discovery Channel headquarters because he believed they weren’t doing enough to stop the parasitic virus we call humanity. Who inspired him? Environmental activists former Vice President Al Gore and author Daniel Quinn. Are they at all to blame? Of course. Why? Because they have been consistently unhumble in their pronouncements regarding humankind and the earth.

Now, of course James Lee was an unstable person. But when unstable people act on the warnings of alarmists, those who used the most extreme language must bear some degree of blame for the evil done in the name of their ideas. To conclude otherwise is to deny any moral responsibility for what we say and how we say it.

Good and true is not enough.

RC Sproul recently reminded me of an essential paradigm in the way Christians think about the arts. He admonished us to promote the good, the true, and the beautiful. Good, of course, means morally good (as opposed to being of high quality). True means doctrinally or evidentially correct. And beautiful means captivating and enchanting.

It reminded me of why I find myself so frustrated with the way Christians tend to evaluate the definitively modern art form: films. In order to approve of a movie, they want it to show morally good behavior, forgetting that the Bible often preaches virtue by contrast. They also want it to teach true ideas, forgetting that error spoken by a villain can be edifying and that truth spoken without love can be destructive.

But beyond both of these, this sort of Christian completely neglects beauty, clamoring instead for cleanness. He mistakenly believes that clean and beautiful are synonyms, an error immediately dispelled by the Cross.

As Christians making and discussing art, we must demand better than merely good, true, and clean, just as we must earnestly warn others against that which is evil and false but beautiful.

The wonder of wonder.

When I look around this world, I am regularly amazed. I stand in wonder at sunsets, stars, mountains, trees, birds, fireflies, and thousands of other features of our universe, in addition to being amazed by humanity, language, love, and art. And of course, such thoughts always lead me to an amazed wonder at the God who gave it all to me. But doesn’t it seem a bit wonderful that we have wonder at all?

I mean, if the naturalists are right, then I am very well-tailored to this world. That’s why my species survived. But well-tailored is what we call clothes that fit just right. You never notice them, just like fish never notice water and ants don’t marvel at dirt. Besides, how would such a capacity help them survive? If anything, wonder slows us down and makes us vulnerable.

On the other hand, if God made me to love Him and be amazed by Him, the fact that I find Him and His creation wonderful seems perfectly expected. In a world without Him, it’s hard to imagine why a being like me who wonders about wonder would ever even exist.