The grief before the grief.

I hate being separated from my children. There’s really no other way to say it. Not only do I miss everything about them and also my normal ability to be with them at a moment’s notice, but I especially despise the way the vividness of who they are tends to fade away a bit each day the separation prolongs.

But whenever we must separate for any significant period of time, the days just prior to that separation are especially unpleasant because I experience such mixed emotions every time I see them. On the one hand, I love seeing their smiles and receiving their hugs and watching their antics. But the very things I find most dear about them remind me that I will soon be missing precisely such moments. And so the stimulus to joy is equally a prompt for sorrow.

The realization that this is happening, of course, only makes matters worse because the whole point of those final few days is to stock up on the happiness and not have it ruined by thinking too much of the coming deprivation. But alas, understanding a thing is not the same as conquering it.

Good interpretation must begin with accuracy.

As someone who grew up reading and loving all sorts of fantasy stories and fiction, I still have a special fondness for the Greek myths. But one of the things I’ve begun to notice over the years is how dramatically misinterpreted they often are.

Consider Narcissus, the youth who was so beautiful that everyone fell in love with him just by seeing him. Then one day he was led to see his own reflection in the water and he was enthralled to death, literally. So narcissists are people who are self-absorbed and sexually exploitative. But in the story, Narcissus rejected all suitors, and he only fell in love with the image because he didn’t realize it was his own. So it was the truly dangerous beauty of Narcissus, not his self-obsession, that proved so ruinous. A true narcissist, then, isn’t someone who is in love with himself, but someone who is hopelessly love-engendering in other people and yet avoids romance with them.

Or take Oedipus, the abandoned child who returns to his homeland as an adult and then blinds himself after discovering he has slain his father the king and married his own mother the queen. Freud famously used this to illustrate how all boys have latent sexual desire for their mother. But the whole point of the myth is that Oedipus only desired his mother when he didn’t know that’s who she was. His self-mutilation upon the discovery proves the naturalness of incest taboos, not the latent desire to violate them. Freud got it exactly backwards.

Perhaps I’m just a stickler for the details, but it seems to me that the first part of properly interpreting any story is at least knowing the facts and keeping them straight.

What are we preparing them to love?

Eating is one of the great bodily pleasures of life. It involves four of the five senses (all five if you’re eating fajitas) in a highly intense orchestra of sensuality…at least when it’s done right. And yet, as someone who loves to eat, I learned a vital food lesson when I was a waiter.

No matter how good a food is, when you see it, serve it, and eat it every single day over and over again, the desire vanishes. One of the most regular gripes by people in the food service industry is that working for a restaurant you love ruins it for you because of semi-forced overexposure. There’s just something about turning a luxury into work that ruins it, even despite the fact that our bodies continuously renew our desire to eat in the strongest possible terms. How much worse, then, is this effect when no such bodily appetite exists?

You see, I have always loved books as much as food, but even my great passion was challenged by being compelled to consume so many of them in high school and college. A book should be savored, not force-fed. But when toil is all some people have known of reading, is it any wonder they never discover its joys at all? Moreover, how does such laborization of reading stunt those who later discover Christ and find themselves facing the Text of God?

The joy of talent scouts

One of my friends is far more into baseball even than I am. And one of his favorite things to do is watch college players and follow them as they progress through the draft and the minor leagues into the big show. The thrill of having found and monitored them when they finally make it is great fun for him, even though he really had nothing to do with it.

Although I don’t do this with baseball players, I do sort of do it with television actors whom I feel are underrated and deserve “bigger” careers. Since a lot of the shows I love get cancelled, I particularly enjoy seeing those actors show up elsewhere, especially in totally different parts. I always feel like maybe someday someone will really give them an opportunity to match their talents. And if they do, it feels as if “Team Tallman’s Picks” scored a victory in some imaginary “Fantasy Actors League.”

If this sort of speculative investing is so much fun for my friend and me, how much more of an interest must God take in the human careers of that unsung team of minor leaguers whom He not only loves but actually drafted and equipped?

PS—If you’re interested, my list includes Garret Dillahunt (Life, Terminator, and now Raising Hope), Amber Tamblyn (Joan of Arcadia and now House), Damian Lewis (Life), Adam Arkin (Life and now Chicago Code), Jonathan Slavin (Better Off Ted), Loretta Devine (Boston Public, Eli Stone, and Dexter), and Jonny Lee Miller (Eli Stone and Dexter).

The science of man?

Whenever we say that people are irrational, we usually mean it as a kind of criticism, as if to say, “If only they could be more easily reduced to a formula, well then they’d be more human.” But what if the irrationality of people (and of course particular persons) isn’t a disorder but rather a key element of their basic nature?

Why does the man raised well do some horrible thing? Why does the person in desperate straits behave nobly? Why is my wife unhappy although I did what she requested? Isn’t the sum total of every person’s experience with others and himself the overwhelming certainty that people are just impossible to explain and predict? And what if this isn’t because of a deficiency in our knowledge, but of a virtue in their essence?

Science, you see, wants us to believe (or at least assume) that people’s choices are nothing more than the complex result of a formula derived from their genes, chemistry, and environment. But what if (contrary to the assumption) we truly can’t be reduced to a theory like any other merely natural phenomenon, regardless of how much data we acquire? Could this perhaps explain why “social science” does so poorly what “natural science” does so well? What if people are truly irrational, which is of course just an unkind way of calling them miraculous?

If so, then what can science really tell us about people? Very little, it turns out. According to science, you see, miracles don’t exist.

On why versus what.

In an article I was reading recently, the author remarked that one thing he regretted about his life and felt somewhat guilty about was “not going to church as often as he should have.”

For whatever reason, although I think this is an extremely common sentiment and expression, it suddenly struck me as odd. And I suppose it’s because someone who says this might mean one of two very different things.

On the one hand, he might be feeling bad because he didn’t do enough of the sort of religious performances one needs in order to be in good standing with God or with his peers. This would be a tragic misunderstanding of Christianity.

But on the other hand, he might be feeling bad because he didn’t receive the transformative benefits that come from worshipping God and hearing edifying preaching on a more regular basis, which would have made him a more effective instrument of God in his life. And this of course would be a magnificently appropriate understanding of Christianity.

Although it is Christian to regularly attend church, both the reason you go and the reason you feel bad when you don’t are better indicators of your faith than the behavior itself.

Should I stay, or should I go?

The other night, we had a great discussion about all the things that bother us in Christianity. Honest Christians will admit this list is quite long. The hypocrisy of our brothers. Our own failure to behave as we know we should. The existence of evil in a world made by a perfect God. The non-return of Jesus after almost 2000 years despite the Bible telling us it will be sudden and soon. Unanswered prayer. The prosperity of false teachers. There’s no shortage of things to frustrate a thoughtful Christian.

But what should we do, given these tensions and the intellectual suffering they cause? Those who reject Christianity sometimes seem to think that only they have realized such problems. But all the Christians I know acknowledge them, too. So why do we stay? Because we love Him too much to leave.

In this way, our faith is like marriage. The difference between a person who divorces and a person who does not is rarely a matter of the problems in the relationship. It’s just that those who stay choose to honor love and commitment. Marriages that survive don’t do so because the conflicts and frustrations are smaller. They survive because the love and commitment of the spouses is greater.

If only it were more clear...

Jeff: I wish the Bible were more clear about certain issues, such as abortion and drug use and polygamy.
Well, that’s understandable, but what do you think that would accomplish?
It would make it a lot easier to persuade people that certain things are incompatible with Christian faith.
This is an interesting complaint. Tell me, do you think the Bible is clear that sex outside of marriage is wrong?
Of course.
And do you think the Bible is clear that divorce is almost always wrong?
Of course.
And do you think the Bible is clear that homosexuality is unacceptable?
Yes! Now if only the Bible could be that clear about everything!
But, Jeff, haven’t you noticed that many people, including Christians, ignore or deny that the Bible is so clear on those subjects?
Of course. It’s very frustrating.
And have you also begun to notice that other Christians seem to ignore other, equally obvious elements in Scripture?
What do you mean?
Well, is the Bible clear that we are to help the poor?
Abundantly clear.
And is it clear that we should be humble and kind in dealing with people who sin rather than angry at them?
And does the Bible teach us to avoid greed and violence?
Yes. Jesus is pretty clear about all of that.
So your original complaint was that the Bible isn’t as clear as you would like on issues that people disagree with you about. But it seems that even when the Bible is abundantly clear, many Christians still seem to find a way to ignore it.
I guess you’re right about that.
So, it doesn’t seem like the real problem here is lack of Biblical clarity after all.

What a reputation!

On August 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found brutally murdered in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. In the trial which followed, Lizzie Andrew Borden was charged with the murders, and she became immediately infamous as the 32-year-old spinster who killed her parents with a hatchet. To this day, almost 120 years later, almost every American knows her name for this horrific crime.

But did you know that on June 20, 1893, Lizzie Borden was found not guilty of both murders after deliberations that only took an hour and a half? There was neither blood evidence nor a murder weapon found tying her to the crime, which Lizzie herself announced to the maid only minutes after it happened.

No one knows who murdered Lizzie Borden’s parents, but we all believe it was her so unquestioningly that finding out she was acquitted probably comes as a great shock. How would you like to be known a hundred years from now for a murder you were acquitted of? The presumption of innocence protects us from abuse by the government. But what protects us from abuse by the press?

“Oh, rats!”

The other day, I had my Civic into the shop for an oil change. When I looked under the hood, I happened to notice that one bundle of wires looked a little frayed, so I asked the tech about it. He said, “Rats.” Finding this a strangely anachronistic form of profanity, I asked for more information.

He said, “It’s probably rats. They climb up into the engine block and chew on the wires. It happens pretty often if you park your car outside regularly. I had a lady in here last month who had $800 of repairs to the wiring, and the very next day after she took the car home it happened again.”

“Seriously?” I asked. What can you do about it?

“Well,” he said, “it’s hard to solve because the rats are after the oil in the joint. See, the companies that make the wire harnesses have gone to using peanut oil instead of a more expensive oil, and the rats are attracted to the smell.”

“So some guy in some manufacturing facility decided to save a tenth of a cent on oil that routinely leads to damage costing the end consumer hundreds of dollars to repair?”

“Pretty much.”

I’m not sure which rats are worse, the ones that eat the wires who can’t help themselves or the ones who make such decisions.

Sometimes bad is more than bad.

As most of you know, I have loved movies for my entire life, and as a result, I watch a lot of them. This obviously means that I wind up watching more than my fair share of mediocre or awful ones, despite my not-quite-best efforts to avoid this happening. But bad movies really come in two very different varieties.

The first sort of bad movie is the movie that merely fails. It doesn’t have a great concept. It has weak writing. The acting is poor. Production is off. Whatever. Movies that simply fail are extremely common. And I can usually tell within about twenty minutes whether a movie will end up being just plain bad. But this kind of movie doesn’t bother me so much.

The sort of movie that really upsets me is the one that has a great concept which is then somehow subsequently squandered in its execution. These are the movies that break my heart because they raise my hopes only to dash them in disappointment. This is the sort of movie I wish had never been made, if only so that the concept could be preserved undefiled until a competent artist could render it to its potential.

Ordinary bad movies that were never going to be good merely waste my time. But great ideas that are ruined, like opportunities missed, make the world itself seem more bleak precisely because they give me a grief-inducing glimpse of how much more beautiful it should have been.

When is skepticism a Christian virtue?

A very good friend recently forwarded me an email lamenting the fact that President Obama this year cancelled the National Day of Prayer, choosing instead to attend Muslim prayers at the White House, an activity which the email shows a photograph of him doing. The only problem with the email is that it’s totally false.

As he has done every year in office, Obama again this year did issue a proclamation for the National Day of Prayer. Moreover, the picture in the email was taken during the President’s visit to Turkey…in 2009…and not at the White House, a fact easily verified by the visible Islamic arches in the background of the photo, architecture difficult to find in the White House.

But my friend’s very first line was quite telling. He introduced the email by asking, “Have you seen or read this before? Hard to believe, isn’t it.” In my reply to him, I answered that when something is this hard to believe, you probably just shouldn’t believe it. But such email hoaxes serve at least two purposes.

First, they remind us that we must always verify what we hear through gossip, especially the 21st Century’s favorite form of gossip: the forwarded email. Luckily, this is easy enough to do at

Second, we must always be on guard lest our biases render us gullible to attacks on people we dislike. Part of loving our enemies is giving critiques of them the same level of scrutiny as we would for our friends and “loved ones.” Eagerness to believe the worst about our enemies is a tendency far too carnal for any Christian to indulge.

Are you a who or a what?

I recently finished “Endgame,” a fascinating biography of the famously eccentric, world champion chess legend Bobby Fischer. It’s a remarkably fair and even-handed account of Fischer’s bizarre and volatile life.

What I found most fascinating about the whole thing was precisely how irrational so much of Bobby’s behavior was, particularly for someone so incomparably brilliant at the supremely rational game of chess. His anti-semitism. His anti-Americanism. His paranoia. And his predilection for conspiracy-theories. In addition to all of this, the man was a consummately selfish jerk. “Troubled soul” is simply far too weak a label.

I kept yearning for something to congeal and organize all the madness. But nothing did. He is a man who simply did not fit. And yet, I suspect that Bobby Fischer seemed just right to Bobby Fischer, which is a good reminder that maybe consistency and predictability aren’t the highest human virtues.

What REALLY frustrated me about his story? That he wasn’t human enough? Or that he was far too entirely human after all? At the very least, I have to admit that Bobby Fischer was no machine, and perhaps that’s a very high form of praise for any human.

Who am I looking at?

When I look at my children, I have an honest awareness of their flaws and failures. But I also have an overwhelming sense of their beauty, value, and significance. I am absolutely committed to them in a way that only seems fitting for a perfect child, and yet I know they are not this. And even in full awareness of their defects, I am able to enjoy them with reckless abandon as if they didn’t have any, even because of them in some sense.

If I’m not mistaken, this is how God views each of us in Christ. He loves us so fully and magnificently as if we were perfect because by His sacrifice we are made so. And yet He is also far more aware of every single imperfection in us than we are. And He revels in our every move and rejoices to behold us. Teaching us this disposition, I believe, is a big part of why He gives us our own children.

But if all of this is true, the next real challenge is whether we can learn to see other Christians through this same basic paradigm. Can we learn to see them through Christ as God Himself does? Can we learn to find their flaws and foibles as endearing as those of our own children? Every day, I hope I grow a little bit closer to being able to say, “Yes,” to that question.

Whence ridiculousness?

I have a theory about the variety and amplitude of outrageous behavior we see in our media these days and the general perception that everything is much more bizarre than it used to be. I think it’s misleading.

See, if you watch or read enough news, you’ll encounter what seems to be an unending parade of ever-sillier events and statements. “Aren’t people becoming stupider?” It’s a fair question, but it’s asking about the average, whereas news always has and always will focus on the unique or rare. Perhaps there are other reasons why things seem so especially strange these days.

First, media generally has shifted from feeling an obligation to lead and educate to pandering to whatever will make ratings. Alone, this alone wouldn’t mean much, but how the shift interacts with the other factors makes a big difference.

Second, the advent of fame as a desirable and all-too-easily attainable commodity means that many people relish becoming instantly finding it any way possible. People used to avoid bad behavior because it was costly. But now bad behavior pays, and it pays in one of the most coveted modern currencies.

Third, modern technology makes any story anywhere available to anyone almost immediately, and visually to boot. Whereas in the past, some loopy behavior in Tuscaloosa might have made the local paper and nothing else, it now gets captured on some passerby’s cell phone and airs ten minutes later on Fox News in Sacramento. Thus, average media bizarreness is raised by the fact that a story can come from anywhere, vastly expanding the pool of circus applicants.

Fourth, there are simply more of us. And more people by definition means more dancers at the fringe of the behavioral bell curve. So, on any given day, you are fed stories by people trying to grab your attention with the most bizarre thing they can find anywhere in the country from a much larger population composed of more eager-or-at-least-wiling-to-be-famous dolts.

Yes, it’s true that we may, in fact, be stupider on average. But it’s also possible that we are just the unwitting victims of science and math.

What is corruption?

There is an extremely large, well-financed organization with unparalleled political clout which has been engaging in atrocious behavior for decades. Although many of its members are wonderful, talented people, there are others who do terrible things to children.

But despite this outrageous conduct by its members, the leaders have turned a blind eye, simply relocating the worst offenders in an effort to hide them. And when the abuses have been raised publicly, they have defended the violators, saying it would be wrong to remove them despite this meaning that children would continue to suffer. Furthermore, the organization’s leaders have adamantly maintained that they are the only true representatives of their field of expertise, officially denouncing competing institutions and movements as misguided and dangerous.

And the worst part of all is that this organization receives almost all of its funding directly from the government, meaning that the institutional negligence of the public school teachers unions is in some ways even more troubling than that of the Catholic Church.

On consistency

A hypothetical conversation with a feminist professor:

Me: Do you think the high price of college is justified by the financial return people get from it these days?
Femprof: What a ridiculous question. People shouldn’t go to college just to make money. They should go to become enlightened, to enrich their lives. If they can make more money, that’s just a nice bonus.
Me: That seems like an awful lot to charge people for a result they could arguably get just as well for free by going to church for free or at least for much less at a good used book store.
Femprof: Your notion that enlightenment can be had at church is adorable. And I think we both know people don’t have the training or diligence to read effectively on their own.
Me: Well, you’re probably right about the laziness problem. But are you really saying that education is about self-development and not earning potential?
Femprof: Of course.
Me: So you can’t measure its value in economic terms alone?
Femprof: Quite right.
Me: But don’t you also say that women who get a degree and then become mere homemakers are squandering their educations because they don’t use them to make money? It seems like they’re doing exactly what you advocate, becoming better humans and therefore better wives and mothers.
Femprof: But what sort of a fool would pay so much to gain enlightenment from us and then choose to not earn money with it, instead doing the one thing we consistently say is beneath her dignity as a person?
Me: That’s a pretty good question.

Drive unto others...

Although I’m sure some of my musings on the subject of driving would indicate otherwise, I do in fact make mistakes behind the wheel. Just yesterday, in fact, I merged right on the highway in heading for the off ramp and suddenly realized I had cut someone off. Despite looking over my shoulder first, still somehow I managed to almost cause a real problem. So what did I do?

Well, when we both pulled up the off-ramp, I deliberately went slowly enough so he could pull beside me, at which point I waved at him apologetically. His response? He flashed me a peace sign. It felt really good to not only take blame for my mistake but to be forgiven. And this is always my practice.

Even in situations when I didn’t do much or anything wrong, I always try to wave or signal my apology somehow. Why? Because it costs me nothing, and it can only do good. If the other person thinks I was wrong, then I have made an effort to appease him. And if the other person didn’t think I did anything wrong, well, it makes other drivers seem just that much more friendly and cooperative to him. See how easy it is to have a civilization?

Which do you hope is true?

As you may know by now, Representative Anthony Weiner gave a sweeping admission of his guilt and apologized for the misuse of Twitter and several inappropriate Internet relationships yesterday. When I talked about this last week, I said he was probably innocent (although I couldn’t be sure), and I also said it was particularly wrong to presume him guilty as the media had done. This means I was mistaken in my judgment about him.

But I must be honest. I’m proud of my mistake.

Oh, sure, in some sense I’d prefer to have been more savvy at discerning the matter. But when I didn’t know the truth for sure, I chose to give him the benefit of the doubt and hope for his innocence. And isn’t this exactly what Christians are supposed to do, especially for those with whom we disagree politically or culturally? And isn’t it a bit disturbing that so many of his critics seem so gleeful to have had their pessimism validated?

See, for my part, if I ever meet Anthony Weiner, I like that I could tell him that I believed him and hoped it wasn’t true. How much more likely is it that we might become friends that way?

The measure of civilization.

After I’ve loaded the groceries from the cart into my car, I often face the irritating realization that I have once again parked near the entrance rather than near the cart return, as I should have done.

But for whatever reason, as soon as I’m done with the cart, I suddenly have this weird sense of feeling entitled to simply discard it like litter, even sometimes wanting to blame the store for my own miscalculation. “They should have convenienced me better with more returns! Who do they think they are forcing me to walk an extra forty feet?” This despite having just walked over a hundred time this far with no complaint at all while shopping.

It’s at this moment that I decide to be civilized rather than selfish. Sure, I’d rather just leave the cart in the middle of the parking lot or hang it over a landscaped curb. But am I really so sniveling and lazy that I can’t walk a few yards to put something back where it belongs?

It is precisely the absurdity of this question that confronts me every time I see a parking lot littered with the carts of my fellow citizens who apparently couldn’t pass even so basic a moral test. In all honesty, if there’s a more reliable indicator of the moral development of a community than the ratio of carts returned properly to those not, I’m unable to imagine what it would be.

Stop fighting the wrong battle.

The Theory of Evolution claims that everything about humans can be explained by slow steady natural developments over time from other forms of life. And Christians (myself included) have expended countless hours and pages refuting the archaeological and geological evidence. But in the process of denying that man physically descended from other animals, we have missed the point entirely.

It is not man’s physical make-up that make us unique. In these things, we are very much in the animal kingdom, even according to the Bible. What makes us unique from animals are things like music, art, reasoning, games, religion, morality, tools, monogamy, and generosity.

And whether you believe Evolution gives a dubious or a credible account of our physical heritage, it gives no account or evidence whatsoever of how these things might have gradually developed from animal ancestors. For all the similarities we share with beasts in our bodies, we are incomparably different in every other area. And it is this radical distinctness which demonstrates us to be that mixture of the natural and the Divine on which the Biblical story really depends.

It's bigger than anyone realizes.

Everybody underestimates the Gospel. Non-Christians do so because they don’t yet accept its reality or grasp its importance. But Christians do so precisely because we think we already have. If the Gospel is God’s plan for putting right everything that’s wrong with the world, well everything is a lot.

For instance. We know that sin alienates us from God, poisons our relationships with others, leads us to harm ourselves, and even ruins our bodies. So we believe the Gospel reunites us with God, transforms us with others, reforms our own behavior, and even promises to give us new bodies eventually.

But don’t we also know that sin has wrecked this world and the lives of plants and animals who are suffering the ruination we caused? So we should expect (and rightly so based on Genesis 9:10-17) that God’s Gospel is a plan for restoring even these deformities as well. Everything sin destroys, the Gospel restores. And until we see the Gospel at least that large, we see too little of it.

On unnecessary pain and difficulty

I recently had a chance to play some beach volleyball, which I haven’t done much since I played in college. In telling a friend about it, he said, “I bet your arms hurt.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because of how it always hurts my wrists from the ball hitting on the bone.”

“Ahh. You were never taught how to pass or bump properly. This is a common problem. See, you need to rotate your wrists outward until they lie flat next to each other. Then you contact the ball with the flesh of your forearm rather than with the bones. Not only does that way hurt a lot less, but it also makes it possible to pass the ball accurately.”

“Oh, really? Why is that?” he asked.

“Because when you do it your way, it’s like trying to carom a ball perfectly off two hard rails. Every millimeter can make a tremendous difference in the result. But if you do it my way, you’re working with a flat surface that cushions the ball and controls it far more easily.”

“That does seem easier. I’ll have to try it sometime,” he answered.

It’s fascinating how life is full of things that are both far harder and far more painful only because no one ever taught us how to do them the right way.