What fences teach us.

We live in a typical Phoenix house with a typical six-foot-high cinder block fence that serves largely as an outer perimeter to our fortified family compound. On the massive, steel-framed gate, we have a padlock so that bad guys can’t easily come in and overactive boys can’t escape.

In St. Louis, our back yard was on two sides a four-foot wooden slat fence and on the third side chain-link, almost barbarically permeable to air, bugs, and eyes. On the gate, we never installed a lock. It never seemed necessary. Kids freely left and neighbors entered, and a lock would have just be a nuisance.

Is there a difference between the people of the Midwest and those of the Southwest? I’m reluctant to draw sweeping implications, but isn’t it na├»ve to ignore the influence such architectural differences can have on how we feel about our neighbors; whether they should be trusted…or feared? And doesn’t believing such tutelage eventually form us (and our children) into a particular sort of people?

Postscript: In The Mending Wall, Robert Frost did indeed say, “Good fences make good neighbours.” But this was carefully placed in the mouth of a neighbor who clearly did not grasp the point of Frost’s poem.

The other cost of your freedom.

“If you don’t want your kids playing violent video games, finding porn on the Internet, or hearing profanity on television, then just do a better job of controlling what they watch.”

For decades now, our society’s refrain on moral-cultural questions that might affect children has been that parents are the true guardians of the home. That part I agree with. The part that’s dead wrong is the idea that they are the only guardians, usually paired with a nonsense premise that it’s just as possible to parent effectively in a decadent society as in a vibrant one.

As a parent, I’ve learned how stupid this really is. I’m a vigilant parent, and I find myself often feeling like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke trying to protect my homeland. And if I feel often overmatched by the threats from this toxic society, how many of those threats rush in unopposed in to the lives of children with average or below-average parents?

There’s something profoundly dishonest about a culture which lets itself rot in the name of personal freedom, tells parents to hole up inside their homes if they don’t like the smell, and then blames those parents for not effectively protecting their kids from the zombies clawing at every door and window.

The right of children to a civilization that isn’t trying to defile them is no less real a human right than their freedom to go outside and breathe fresh air. And just imagine how foolish someone would look for saying, “Well, if you don’t want your kids breathing air pollution, then just don’t let them play outside.”

What's the point?

Probably the single greatest misconception people have about Christianity is that it is primarily a moral system. Even a great many Christians believe that the purpose of Christianity is to live a better, more exemplary life. As a result of this misconception, the main thing that so many people seek from a sermon and, tragically, the main thing that so many preachers seek to give in a sermon is moral guidance.

The truth is that Christianity is about adoration. God wants us to be in love with Him, and the purpose of a sermon, therefore, is to reveal the glory of God in such a way that we find ourselves enraptured by Christ, our Lord. The purpose of everything we do, especially church, is to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Any other agenda severely misses the point, by definition replacing it with something far less important.

That’s why a sermon properly conceived is the crescendo of a worship service, not some secondary instructional appendix to it.

Is video better?

When approaching the Bible, it’s vital to realize what cultural assumptions we do not share with the audience it was written to. For instance, raised on newspapers and , we Westerners think that the most important truth is the simple reproduction of whatever happened. Thus, when we read the Bible, we’re first and foremost interested in knowing the facts of the case.

The reality is that they were much more concerned with the significances than with the facts. There was simply no felt need to put a premium on accuracy if instead small changes would better serve to bring out meaning. Like painters each portraying their subject differently, Bible authors are interested in revelation, not mere replication.

That’s why when two or more of them, all inspired by the Holy Spirit, quote Jesus differently, they’re doing it to bring out more truth not less. Unfortunately, we always want to ask, “But what did He really say?” when we should instead be asking, “But what did He really mean?” a question presumably better answered by their artwork than by a mere reproduction.

On being judged fairly.

How would you like it if other people judged your entire life by your very worst moral moment? Pretty depressing, right? We’d know we’re not as bad as that, and it’d be galling to think people only knew our bad stuff. Well, one source of solace would be that some people (usually our family and friends) would at least know the good stuff, too.

What about the opposite “problem?” What if your entire life were judged by your very best moment of moral victory? Pretty exciting, right? Although, it must be admitted that our friends and family also know the bad stuff, too. But have you ever thought about why people don’t qualify for heaven?

See, we tend to think that the reason we don’t get into heaven is because God knows our worst deeds. The truth is that Christianity really begins with the realization that, even if our very best, bright shining star moment was the only evidence at our Divine Judgment, we’d still be found completely deserving of hell. And yet, precisely in that condition, God loves us not the least bit less because of it.

Not necessarily the perversion you think.

The city of Sodom in the Bible is infamous for being judged and destroyed by God with fire and brimstone. But the interesting part is why, exactly, He did this.

See, most people think that the big sin of Sodom was sexual immorality, and that aspect is certainly true (Genesis 19:1-9, Jude 1:6-7, 2 Peter 2:6-7). But there is a little-known passage in Ezekiel 16 which brings an entirely new perspective on things.

In verse 49, the Lord declares “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.” Keeping this in mind, if you go back and read the story of Sodom’s destruction in Genesis, you notice a curious expression, where God says He has come in response to the “outcry” of Sodom, which can only mean the lamentations of the poor and needy there.

So why did God destroy Sodom? Because of both its sexual wickedness and its social injustice. It’s a pretty sobering thing to ponder in a nation of economic prosperity and “sexual liberation.”

The evangelization of Han Solo

When we first meet Han Solo, he’s a greedy, egocentric smuggler. He only agrees to help Luke and Obi Wan for the money, not because he supports the rebellion. On the journey, he expresses open skepticism about everything relating to the Force. Then, after being captured on the Death Star, when they discover Princess Leia is on board, Han isn’t interested in doing anything about it until Luke explains, “She’s rich….If you rescue her, the reward will be more well than you can imagine.”

After rescuing her and escaping the Death Star, there is a poignant scene in which Solo tells Leia, “Look, I ain't in this for your revolution, and I'm not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I'm in it for the money!” for which he earns the contemptuous reply, “You needn't worry about your reward. If money is all that you love, then that's what you'll receive!”

Then, in the buildup to the final battle, as Han is packing up his massive reward, Luke tries once more to recruit him to the rebellion, to which he quips, “What good’s a reward if you aren’t around to use it?” Feeling guilty about this (in the first signs of a new heart), he lamely tells his disappointed friend, “Hey Luke,…May the Force be with you.”

Solo then leaves, and the rebels are off to their impossible mission. But of course, at the climactic point of the movie when all seems lost, Solo and the Millennium Falcon whoosh down from out of nowhere to shoot the Tie Fighters, allowing Luke to destroy the Death Star and win a huge (though temporary) victory.

He didn’t come back for the rebellion, he came back for his friends. But his friendship with them eventually led him to become an active participant in the cause they had devoted themselves to. Money led to friendship. Friendship led to loyalty. Loyalty led to devotion. And devotion became conversion to a cause.

As a pattern for evangelism, this is a pretty instructive example.

Why are you surprised they're surprised?

When most people look at a sunset or the ocean or a tree or a child, they think of how amazing God is. The natural world proclaims His artistic ability so magnificently that it routinely moves people to weep in joy. This is why so many of them feel connected to God when they visit nature.

But when these same people look at an earthquake or a piranha or a cancer cell or maggots, they rarely think of how amazing God is. In fact, if they ponder these things, they often find themselves doubting either His goodness or even His very existence.

Clearly, one of the most confounding aspects of God is that some of His acts in this world look exquisitely beautiful while others look monstrously awful. But if that’s true, then it should really come as no surprise that, as we draw closer to Him, our ideas and behavior will sometimes look virtuous and sometimes look vile to a world that couldn’t comprehend God long before it couldn’t comprehend His followers.

Fathers, don't exasperate your sons.

Last week I had a chance to go to the Suns game with my uncle, and part of my decision was whether to offer to take my oldest son, Spencer, as well. See, I knew he would love to go, but I also knew this would really upset my middle son, Ethan. In consultation with my wife, we decided it would be acceptable, but of course I still had to break the news to Ethan.

So I sat him down and explained that Spencer was going to the game, but he would be staying home with mommy.

“But I really want to go with you, Daddy.”

“I know. But the thing is, you’d be miserable there. Whenever we go to baseball games, you hate it because there’s nothing for you to do. And if you’re miserable, you’ll complain and make us miserable, too. I don’t want that for you or us, so you’re going to stay home. When you’re older, maybe we’ll take you.”

“But I promise to sit still and be happy.”

“Oh, sweetie, I know you want to believe that, but it’s just not true. And it would be unloving of me to put you in the position of trying to keep that promise when you aren’t really able to do so.”

Asking the wrong question, part 2

In Matthew 12, Jesus first mentions and then refuses to clarify just what the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is. Yesterday we learned that this deliberate omission means we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking what the sin is, we should consider what the Holy Spirit does.

The major work of the Holy Spirit in our salvation is to convince us of our sin and lead us to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible talks about some people receiving the Holy Spirit in this way and others rejecting Him. But if the Holy Spirit is God, then the only proper label for refusing to listen to Him is blasphemy, since our rejection so clearly implies He isn’t really God.

At this point in the book of Matthew, the Pharisees are encountering Jesus and His miracles firsthand. And since we know that the miracles were performed to testify to them about Jesus’s authenticity, this was the mechanism by which the Holy Spirit was reaching out to them. But they refused.

It’s not that they did some particular thing wrong, it’s that they did everything wrong by this one act of blasphemous resistance. They rejected the gentle, loving, divine hand of the Holy Spirit, and this is the one and only thing which we must all not do.

To the man who receives the Holy Spirit, any sin may be forgiven. But to the man who rejects Him (and His God-sent-ness), no sin can. That’s why blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the one unforgivable sin that makes all others equally unforgivable, whereas hallowing the Holy Spirit leads to the expunging of any other violations.

Asking the wrong question, part 1

In Matthew 12, Jesus proclaims one of the most worrisome and perplexing doctrines in the entire Bible when He says, “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Anyone who has ever read this passage immediately asks two very obvious questions: What, exactly, is the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and have I committed it?” After all, if there is an unforgivable sin, it’s understandably natural to want to be sure you haven’t done it.

In answering the question of what it is, people have offered a variety of creative suggestions. Perhaps it’s denying a miracle was done by God. Perhaps it’s declaring your hatred for the Holy Spirit. Or perhaps it’s denying the Trinity. These and other suggestions are very clever. But what if they are all predicated on a mistaken assumption?

The most glaring feature of this passage is its failure to specify the sin, an omission so obvious that it must be taken as deliberate. If we’re honest, most of us read this passage and get angry at Matthew for not his colossal flub in first telling us there is such a sin and then forgetting to tell us what it is. But if the entire Bible is inspired by God, then the omissions are as much a part of the message as the inclusions.

If the Bible tells us what it tells us for a reason, then we can safely assume it just as certainly refuses to tell us what it refuses to tell us for a reason as well. God surely knew we would eagerly ask what this sin is, but He chose not to say. And rather than assume His silence was an editorial oversight, we should instead interpret it as a clear message that we’re asking the wrong question.

Tomorrow, we’ll see which one we should be asking.

A false dilemma.

The other day, a friend of mine confessed that he feels less dogmatic about doctrine recently even as he also finds himself becoming more loving of other people who disagree with him. I told him he was needlessly worried, mostly because he was making a very common but false assumption.

See, most people believe that you can either be dogmatic about doctrine or else you can be kind and generous to people who disagree with you. In essence, they think you can either have firm beliefs or else treat people lovingly. And the reason for their view is simple: the vast majority of people with firm beliefs are mean to others who disagree and the vast majority of people who treat others lovingly don’t have firm beliefs.

But the good news is that if an increasing commitment to your doctrine makes you arrogant and mean, that’s just evidence that it’s bad doctrine. When your doctrine is good, the more adamant you become about it, the more humble, charitable, and flexible with others you become. You don’t have to weaken good doctrine to love others more. You have to strengthen it.

If your doctrine makes you obnoxious, it’s not doctrine from God.

Who loves him more?

A friend of mine recently wrote me an email explaining how difficult his son is being and how frustrating it is to see him turning out to be such an incorrigible brat. He has tried everything and doesn’t know how to get through to him and of course is worried that he’ll never get any better.

I consoled him, knowing how difficult parenting can be. Then I admitted I didn’t have a solution for him, but I did have a new perspective that I thought might help.

“As much as you love Brian, you need to remember that God loves him more than you do. And precisely because He is such a good God, we know he wouldn’t let you guys be solely responsible for the outcome of Brian’s development.

“It’s frustrating to you because it feels like if you don’t get through to him and see progress soon that he’ll never come around. But the God who loves him more than you do is far more in control of his life than you as his parents ever will be.

“Unbelievers worry about their kids in part because they’re parents but also because they don’t have a God in whom they can trust the way we can. God is our good Father, and He loves Brian infinitely more than you do. He rescued you and He can certainly reform him. And remember, His very favorite thing to do is to show people how amazing He is so that everyone comes to believe it more.”

The problem is significantly larger than you think.

Why does God allow good people to suffer?

This problem terribly perplexes pretty much everybody who believes in a loving, generous, powerful God. But in a way, that fact alone should worry us about our theology.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say a man walks into a doctor’s office one day to get a physical. After the exam and lab results are taken, the doctor says, “Okay, we’re going to give you these pills for your high blood pressure, we’re going to do some physical therapy for your knees, and I want you to cut down on caffeine for the headaches.”

But imagine the man replies, “Well, doc, that’s all fine and good. But what are you going to do about the fact that my right hand is three times normal size and bright purple?”

“Unfortunately, son, I can’t explain that and I’m not sure how to fix it. But trust me about the rest of what I’ve said.” Naturally, the man might be skeptical of medical advice that can’t even address his most glaring problem. What’s the point?

Not only does God let good people suffer, but God caused the very best Person in history to suffer more than anyone else ever has or ever will. And if our theology can’t explain that oversized purple hand of a historical fact, it’s surely not equipped to explain more routine forms of injustice.

What scrapes prove.

This weekend, we were outside with the boys while they rode around on their bikes. Over the course of about half an hour, Spencer, who never falls, managed to take two spills: one on the asphalt and one on some rocks. He wasn’t seriously hurt, but both legs got a number of mild scrapes. When I was cleaning them off, he offered a sophisticated medical opinion: “Scrapes are bad, daddy.”

After a moment of thought, I asked him why they were bad. Looking at me like I was a bit of an idiot, he said, “Because they hurt.”

“Of course,” I said. “But how would you make sure you don’t get any?”

“Well, if I didn’t ride my bike, then I wouldn’t fall down and scrape my knees again.”

“That’s true, “I replied. “But does it hurt enough that you want to give up riding your bike for the rest of your life?”

“No, not really.”

“See, Spencer, I know that scrapes are bad. And I’m sure that some little boys don’t have any at all. If this is because they got really lucky, that’s okay. But if it’s because their parents don’t let them do anything risky, that’s really bad. If we didn’t let you do anything risky, what would be left for you to do?”


“Right. So you might say that even thought scrapes are bad, they’re evidence that you’re actually living an adventure-filled life, which is good, right?”


“So in a weird way, scrapes are actually sort of a good thing, aren’t they?”

“I guess. But they still hurt.”

“I know.”

Rescuing everybody

The parable of the Prodigal Sons is one of the most famous in the Bible. Nevertheless, most people who notice the wonderful story of redemption for the younger brother miss the more powerful story of the elder brother who rejects the father precisely because of his flagrant grace.

This was meant, of course, to show the Pharisees just how wrong they were for refusing to welcome sinners back into God’s fellowship. In fact, the more we study this parable, the more evil and outrageous the elder brother attitude looks because it stridently rejects the most amazing part of God’s character: His mercy. Properly recognized, his sin is far greater than that of his younger brother. However, there is a very dangerous trap here.

The trap is that we who love grace become elder brothers ourselves by despising elder brothers who despise grace. In our contempt for their contempt, we can easily miss the fact that the same father who ran to greet his repentant son later left the celebration to go plead with his unrepentant one.

God wants to rescue the righteous from their righteousness every bit as much as He wants to rescue the sinful from their sin. And only when we are lovingly reclaiming both kinds of outsiders are we truly imitating Him.

Are you still rich?

If I take away your iPod but you still have Christ, is He enough for you?

If I take away your television, your Internet, and your cell phone but you still have Christ, is He enough for you?

If I take away your car, your house, and your savings but you still have Christ, is He enough for you?

If I take away your skills, your knowledge, and your job but you still have Christ, is He enough for you?

If I take away your friends, your children, and your spouse but you still have Christ, is He enough for you?

If I take away your health, your reputation, and your country but you still have Christ, is He enough for you?

Until Christ becomes so precious to you that the difference between having all of these things or having none of them becomes as insignificant as five dollars to a billionaire, you still haven’t yet fully grasped the riches you have in Christ through the Gospel.

What's my bargaining position?

Sometimes when I visit my grandmother’s nursing home, she’ll be in a group of seniors listening to a pastor explain the Gospel. Since my grandmother is a lifelong Christian, I’m not worried about her.

But in thinking what it might be like for the others, I imagine they might struggle with comprehending the offer of a free pass after such a long, sinful life just because they’re suddenly afraid of getting what they deserve in hell. “Why would God want me so late in life when I have nothing left to offer him?” The funny thing about such normal questions is how frequently they betray basic misunderstandings of the Gospel.

See, the 80-year-old who asks God’s forgiveness with nothing to offer Him isn’t in any substantially different position than the 20-year-old who does so. Neither of them have anything to offer in their bargain with God. And the only thing that prevents any of us from coming to God is the persistent mistake of thinking that we do.

In a very real sense, we are all deathbed conversions. And until we are, we aren’t really conversions at all.

When the inspector comes.

When I worked in restaurants, health inspections always cracked me up. At 3:03 on a Tuesday afternoon, the health inspector would come in the front door. By 3:03 and 30 seconds, every employee in the restaurant was aware of the fact and already tidying up the place: spot cleaning, checking for expired or missing labels, etc. By the time he made his way back to the kitchen, it was a completely different restaurant.

Even then, we were always hoping for a couple of basic things to go right: that this person was not going to see everything he could possibly see and that even if he did see some stuff amiss he would grade on the side of generosity because he wields so much power. And keep in mind that this was true even in the best of restaurants. Usually, being prepared, acting quickly, holding your breath, and getting a bit lucky paid off.

If we’re honest, most of us think of God like He’s the cosmic health inspector. We hope we can fool Him by hiding things or quickly cleaning up on short notice. Between the uncertainty and (even worse) the certainty of what He will find, it’s terrifying.

But the reality is that if we have Christ, then even God as the strictest, most despotic health inspector isn’t frightening at all. He will come in with a white glove and no advance warning, but when He looks under every counter and behind every cabinet, He will always grade us 100% clean by the power of our Savior.

On not divorcing English.

As I overheard a volunteer teaching a non-English speaker irregular verbs this morning at the library, I was moved with compassion to tell him, “Don’t give up. English is a horrible, wicked, and ridiculous language. But it can be learned.”

Naturally, the reason I’m both qualified and entitled to say such a mean thing about English is because it’s my language. I can objectively admit that if you wanted to design a language impossible to learn, you could scarcely produce by design anything as sadistic as what we actually have. And yet I also believe that English is beautiful precisely because of those complexities which make it torture to learn.

No loving person would ever choose to inflict English on himself or others. Still, this undesirable misfit language is dear to me precisely because my lifelong relationship with her was an arranged marriage. I have the option of acquiring others, but I can never forsake my native tongue. Though English is certainly an abusive spouse, we are nevertheless together until death do us part, and maybe even after that.