Why not take it?

For a couple of days now, there has been a Peter Piper Pizza game token sitting on the counter next to the sink in the community men’s room here at work. It’s not something you can easily miss. Nevertheless, no one has taken it. In my mind, there are four reasons why not:

1. People generally don’t want to pick up anything in the bathroom, even when it’s right next to the sink and, thus,easy to clean.

2. Nobody yet has thought they were likely to go to Peter Piper in the near future, either because they don’t have kids or because they’d just as likely misplace it as wind up using it.

3. Realizing it doesn’t belong to them means people don’t want to take it because it feels a bit like stealing from our informal little 5th floor community.

4. Taking something of such little value under these circumstances is an admission of low socio-economic status. Not taking it is worth more in pride points than taking it is worth in monetary value.

For my own part, I didn’t take it, either. I’m just an observer who writes about stuff. But I think it would be interesting to see what might happen to something of greater value.

The audacity of secure children.

The other day, I made French Toast for the boys for breakfast just the way they like it: butter, jelly, and a layer of powdered sugar to top it all off.

When I was back in the kitchen for a moment, Spencer exclaimed from the living room, “Ethan spilled his powdered sugar everywhere!” Rushing to the scene of the incompetence, I discovered the white plague on the table and on the carpet, evidence that Ethan had done something catastrophically clumsy, since I had been the one to put the plate safely on the table in the first place. After scolding him mildly for making a mess, I went to get the vacuum cleaner and a wet paper towel, irritated.

While I was doing this, I suddenly heard Ethan say, “Daddy, I need more powdered sugar for my French Toast.” The audacity of this request even while I was still occupied in cleaning up his mess stunned me. But then I realized what it really meant. That’s how generous he believes his daddy is. And sure enough, after I was done cleaning it up, I got him some more. French Toast needs powdered sugar, you know.

What does legalism look like?

A few weeks ago, Buffalo Bills receiver Steve Johnson dropped a game-winning touchdown pass and went on Twitter to say, “I praise you 24/7!!!!!! And this how you do me!!!!! You expect me to learn from this?? How???!!! Ill never forget this!! Ever!!!” (sic)

I think any of us can understand the frustration someone might feel at such a moment of personal failure. But this outburst has the hidden gift of honesty. In such an unguarded moment, Johnson showed that he doesn’t really know the Gospel. Oh, he may be able to repeat the basic facts of it, but it hasn’t really penetrated to his being yet.

This Tweet shows that he considers his good behavior as “extra credit” to bribe God into giving him the things he wants in his life. In contrast, the Gospel teaches that God gives us things on the basis of His Character, not our behavior. Any obedience is just a meager response to His majestic gift, and whatever He allows in our lives is a pittance compared to the true joy and wealth of merely knowing we are accepted by Him.

Christmas and weirdos.

Christmas has a funny way of bringing out people’s inner weirdo; you know, people with some conceptual axe to grind about Christmas. And much of the time, their favorite Bible verse is, “My people perish for lack of knowledge.”

Unfortunately, this verse doesn’t mean that anyone without every last little bit of insight you have is going to perish for the lack thereof. But sometimes these folks seem to think that the more obscure the idea is, the more necessary it is to being in right standing with God. So they nurture it and even start judging people by whether they accept it, creating a kind of crank Gnosticism, adding it to the Gospel, which is always the preface to full-blown cultish thinking.

But the true Gospel encourages us to fellowship even with people who reject what we believe, including that Gospel. So, the simplest test of any doctrine is whether holding it leads us to a sense of love, joy, and peace which others admit to us having, especially whenever we’re discussing our pet views.

Is ethics a blessing?

Some people view ethics as a set of restrictions or burdens. Others see it as a source of blessings. The latter group sometimes speak of the value of an orderly society, the cultivation of personal character, or even pleasing God. But one thing you don’t normally hear people mention is the benefit ethics gives us in making decisions.

For instance, if I’m in a store and I desire a DVD, stealing it would mean getting it for the lowest possible price. But ethics tells me I can’t do that. When I’m out somewhere and a beautiful woman asks me to get a drink with her, I might be very interested. But ethics tells me I have a wife already. And if I’m trying to decide whether to take my car to the mechanic today or tomorrow since I’m running late already, ethics reminds me that I told them I was bringing it today.

The funny thing about not living by ethics is that life is much more complicated, being so full of open or uncertain scenarios. One blessing of ethics, then, is that so many situations are already solved properly for us.

Are antinomians safe?

The clear message of Matthew 7 (and Luke 6) is that only the man who lives according to Jesus’s words will stand on the day of judgment. Some people, however, have been told that once you say a prayer or walk down to an altar or even get baptized, everything thereafter is optional and you needn’t change your ways. This is glaringly unbiblical.

Think of it like this. If the Holy Spirit of God were actually living inside of you, would He be comfortable with your sins? Of course not. He’d be horrified at them! So if you aren’t horrified by your sins and earnestly desiring to change them, how can you say the Holy Spirit lives in you?

Simply put, anyone who is indifferent to sin in his own life has most certainly not been renewed by the Holy Spirit. And yet, paradoxically, only a person who has been so renewed can safely look the fullness of his sin in the face and withstand its horror because he knows his status with God is not determined by that disfigurement, but instead by the sinless perfection of Christ.

How God Views Sin

The justice of God is something most people really struggle to understand, but I think I’ve found an analogy that may help.

In baseball, we all know that a batter can fail nearly seven times out of ten and still go to the hall of fame. Even pitchers or managers can lose almost half the time and still, if they do that for long enough, go to the hall of fame. Baseball, you might say, is a sport with an extremely low threshold for greatness for everyone on the field. Everyone, that is, except for one: the umpire.

We expect umpires to be perfect. And if they make zero mistakes, they aren’t praised for it. That’s expected. But if, as often happens, they make a big one, that single error can come to define an entire umpiring career. This was the case when Jim Joyce missed the call at first to rob Armando Galarraga of baseball’s 21st perfect game last summer. Despite being widely known as a great umpire, this will likely be his legacy in baseball.

As near as I can tell, that’s how intolerant God is of sin in us.

Freedom and public spaces.

One of the most challenging dilemmas for a free society is what to do with public space.

On the one hand, we want to let people have as much freedom as possible in their lives, including in public. But on the other hand, we don’t want to suffer from public areas overrun with distasteful behavior.

For instance, it’s actually quite difficult to say precisely what’s so bad about loud music, smoking, profanity, litter, and even nudity in public areas. They’re not things that do enough harm to others to categorically outlaw, which is why we allow people do them within their own homes or (possibly) in a private association.

But as a parent, I want to raise my children in an environment relatively free from these things, and we all have a stake in a publicly beautiful society. Yet this requires the cooperation of others. And if people won’t voluntarily restrain themselves in public, then laws come in; laws which preserve the public space from the polluting effects of too much poorly-used freedom in the hands of uncivilized people.

From just dating the Bible to marrying it.

Everyone who has watched a movie more than once has had the experience of seeing things you didn’t notice the first time around. Even on a third and fourth viewing, the same thing happens, and the better the movie, the more pronounced the effect.

But if you’ve ever had the opportunity to go beyond just a few viewings of some movie and see it 15 or 20 or more times, this novelty gap completely closes, but your knowledge doesn’t stop growing. Even though you aren’t really seeing new things, you start seeing the connections and elements in a whole new and richer way, an experience made possible only because you already know them all so well. As with any great art, the longer you look at it, the more beautiful it becomes.

Studying the Bible is like this, and at some point you start to really view it in a whole new way because you’re finally seeing it as a whole rather than as a very long string of pieces. When that happens, it’s like putting down a nice picture of the mountains and beholding their breathtaking majesty right in front of you.

What conclusion would you draw?

About two weeks ago, my wife was rear-ended on the highway by a drunk driver speeding. Amazingly, she was mostly unharmed. My car, however, was totaled. The entire rear end was crumpled, so badly collapsed that we couldn’t get in the trunk, not even from the rear seats inside the car.

I wasn’t sure what had been in the trunk when she was hit, so I went to the body shop to see if there was any way to get inside. Well, in the process of doing the estimate, they had to crack the rear end wide open, so it was easy to see the seriousness of the damage.

Among the things in there were many broken and bent and destroyed items, which is pretty much what I expected. What I had forgotten, however, was that I had put an old, leather-bound, oversize Bible in the trunk months ago. And in the middle of all this debris, that Bible survived without a scratch.

Now, I’m not generally one to interpret things this way, but it seemed almost like that Bible had protected the rest of the car and, far more importantly, my wife, from much worse harm. The Word of God protects us in many, and even unusual, ways.

Foolish or Divine?

Have you ever gone out of your way to give an excellent Christmas gift to someone who didn’t appreciate it?

How did you react?

A perfectly normal way to handle this is to be irritated at the person for being such a jerk. But if that was your reaction, what did you do the next year? Did you give to that person again just as lavishly, a little less so, or not at all?

Well, here’s the ugly little secret. Gratitude is a form of payment. And if you refuse to give to the ungrateful, it’s because you care more about the payment than you do about the person. Think about it the other way around. When someone is lavishly grateful, it makes you want to give them more, right? But why? Because they are really paying off well. Is that generous, or is that just seeking a better return on your investment?

See, God is fascinating. He gives gifts to those who appreciate it and also to those who do not. And He keeps on giving gifts to both year after year. Although He enjoys the relationship crafted with the grateful, I think He enjoys the demonstration of His own goodness in that He keeps on giving unrequited love. In fact, He may even enjoy it more. The question is whether we will join Him in this awesome absurdity.

Special or specially protected?

The story of the first Passover in Exodus is truly an amazing one. As the final plague God sent against the Egyptians, the angel of death would go from house to house killing the firstborn wherever there wasn’t the blood of a lamb over the doorpost, the special protection given to the Jewish homes. But have you ever wondered why they needed it?

I mean the Jews had true religion. They were descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so their pedigree was right. They were God’s chosen people, the people of promise. They lived by the morality of their fathers. They were the weak, oppressed, and impoverished people suffering under an unjust government. And God had already levied nine plagues on their behalf against their enemies in His efforts to free them.

But none of this was enough.

If any of them had not put that lamb’s blood over their door, their oldest child would have died just as surely as any Egyptian’s did. Despite everything else in their favor, they still needed that lamb to avoid death.

When I grow up....

Imagine a son making the following statement about his father: “I love my dad. I admire my dad. He’s a great man, and I’m tremendously grateful to have had him in my life. However, I don’t want to be like him when I grow up.”

Say what?

We all know that kids want to be like their parents, and even before they choose this consciously, they do so automatically, imitating us in all sorts of ways. True, some sons eventually realize their fathers are deeply flawed and strive to not emulate them. But the normal scenario with a good dad is to want to be like him, both unconsciously and also intentionally.

So why is it that we all say we love God our Father, we admire Him, He’s great, and we’re tremendously glad to have Him in our lives, but then turn around and live as if we don’t believe a word of it?

The Holy Spirit has a simple message for us. “You’re Our children. You’re completely accepted by Us through Christ. Now it’s time to grow up and start acting like you’re a member of this Family.”

Who's the better parent?

“Daddy, give me more milk!”

Let me begin by saying that this is not the ideal way for my children to ask me to give them something they need. However, it’s not a particularly uncommon way. And it’s symptomatic of a general demeanor of ingratitude and being demanding. So the question arises, what should I do when they ask me for something this way?

Should I scold them? Should I physically punish them? Should I require them to ask properly? Or should I just get the milk for them?

In answering this question, I first and foremost think of how God deals with me. When I ask Him for something rudely, does He punish me? Does He scold me? Does He withhold His blessings until I ask in just the right way?

No. Of course not. God deals with me by giving me what I need (even most of what I ask for), and then gradually making me love Him so much that I want to ask more humbly. He’s very patient with me.

So, on any given day, I will either remind them how to ask properly and then give it to them or else simply do it, despite their rudeness and ingratitude. It pleases me to bless my children, even when they haven’t behaved properly. And I never want them to learn that a father’s love is part of some bargain they perform into.

Whose language are you speaking?

One of the most natural mistakes in persuasion is to offer the other person statements which you are personally fond of rather than those which will actually persuade him. Sometimes, of course, the two categories overlap, but so many times they really do not. This can be something as simple as presenting logic and evidence when what’s really needed is a good story.

In fact, this particular distinction (between reason and storytelling) is one that all too many modern conservative Christians have neglected. In trying to give people a solid theological foundation, we have tried to argue them into (first) the kingdom and (subsequently) holy living. So why doesn’t it work?

The reality is that humans respond to stories and are motivated by beauty much more powerfully than by logic. We can either whine about this fact or embrace it. For my own part, I recommend we follow the example of the Bible, a book which is itself primarily composed of stories rather than theological exposition.

Why Lego barely advertises.

The other day, Spencer asked me why we see so many ads on TV for cars and almost none for truly cool things, like Legos. This occasioned what was probably an overlong explanation of advertising for a six-year-old. I told him there are basically four reasons a company advertises.

First, to expose people to an unknown product.

Second, to preserve market share against viable competitors.

Third, to improve the public perception of the company or product, usually by correcting false (or true) beliefs about their flaws.

Fourth, to promote specific offers and discounts.

As I explained all this to him, he easily understood why Lego doesn’t really need to advertise. Everyone knows their product. There are no real competitors for what they make. People have a universally positive view of them. And they never go on sale, mostly because of the first three facts.

But all of this did make me wonder which sort of advertising purposes make sense for 21st Century American Christianity, especially since we are obviously not as securely positioned in this market as Legos.

Postscript: Fifth, to remind people in proximity to a purchasing opportunity about the product they like. This, I think, explains most of what little advertising Lego does do.

On being a non-symphony.

Imagine a symphony performing a complicated piece of music, with every instrument playing precisely the right notes at exactly the right time.

Now imagine that same symphony performing, except that a quarter of the members have refused to accept the leadership of the conductor. They’re playing the right music, but not in time with the others.

Now imagine that another quarter of the members haven’t even agreed to play that same selection, so they’re actually trying to play a competing piece of music while half the orchestra plays properly and another quarter plays to the wrong tempo.

Finally, imagine that a third quarter of the members decide that instead of playing their own instruments they’ll sit and loudly complain about everyone else’s performance; a cellist yelling at the bassoons, and a percussionist scolding the flutes. Listening to the pre-performance tune-up would be more enjoyable. Calling it chaos would be an insult to chaos; an embarrassment to the reputation of the orchestra and humiliation for the conductor.

Surely, I don’t need to explain this metaphor.

What is truth?

Imagine you were hired to be the public relations person for a major charity. Then imagine that you made the following comments:

“My charity is the biggest and best in the world. Anyone else doing this sort of work is nowhere near as good as we are. People who don’t give to our charity are losers. And you should be ashamed of yourself if you don’t get on board!”

How long would you retain that job? Not long, obviously. But why? Is anything you said factually false?

Presuming that it is the biggest and most effective charity, it’s all true in a sense, right? But that’s the point. There’s more to truth than just getting the facts right. And in this case, the tone and style of the presentation actually say false things about the character of the charity.

One of the terrible legacies of Greek philosophy is the idea that truth is entirely a matter of getting the facts right. But as Christians, we know that truth means accurately representing God, both in content and in character. That’s why unloving speech, even if it quotes the Bible, falsifies the very content it reproduces.

Do you have standing?

For my work, I stay as informed as I can about what’s going on in the world. It’s a daunting task. But recently this challenge got me thinking about the legal concept of standing.

It’s sort of complicated, but the doctrine of standing basically means that anyone who wants to sue has to show the court that they’ve been harmed personally. You can’t just sue someone because he’s done something wrong. Only the state can do that, and it’s called a crime then. For you to sue, they have to have wronged you. Otherwise the court will dismiss your suit without even considering the merits.

In thinking about this doctrine, I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of things that trouble us are offenses not against us, and therefore with respect to which we have no standing. Of course, this is due to the nature of our massive worry-and-infuriation industry, what some people call news media.

So here’s my suggestion: If you want to be happier, the next time someone tries to sell you outrage, first check to see whether you have standing on the issue. If not, dismiss the case. Like a court, you may then find you actually have resources to solve what does affect you.

Postscript: Someone might reply that we’re supposed to have concerns beyond our own personal harm. I wholeheartedly agree. But another aspect of standing is redressability, the capacity for the harm to be solved by the person being sued. So, the second tier filter here would be whether you have any ability to influence the situation or whether you’re just being asked to get worked up over it for the sake of being worked up over it.

Spoiled rich kids.

We are all well aware of the danger that the children of wealthy parents will become selfish brats. The best way to combat this is carefully rationing what the child receives financially.

But in talking with the mother of a four-year-old today, I saw this same problem in a new context. She mentioned how selfish and stubborn her daughter is, despite money being tight. Over the course of our conversation, I discovered that this girl has both parents, two grandparents, and several other relatives in close proximity, all of whom dote on her, the only small child in the family.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Whereas some children are spoiled by too much stuff, this little girl is being spoiled by too much attention. With that many adults treating her like the center of the universe, it’s no wonder she believes the message.

Her mother and I both agreed that the best gift she could give her daughter was the natural deprivation that would come from having at least one more sibling to defray the focus. Like Augustus Gloop, this little girl was becoming relationally obese from a social diet far to rich in continuous adult attention.