Programming Note

I know I haven’t written in over a week, and I’m sorry for the abrupt interruption in service. However, I think there’s a pretty good reason. I’ve been overwhelmingly busy preparing to move to Medford, Oregon for a new job at Talk Radio Network as an Executive Producer. We are selling our St. Louis house, clearing out of our Phoenix house, and somehow or other trying to triangulate all that stuff and “to do” into a place to live in the great northwest. The short version of this amazing thing God has done in our lives is that I’ve been hired to do a job I’ve never done in a place I’ve never been to, working for people I’ve never met who are paying me better than they usually would. And this job starts 7 weeks to the day after my show was cancelled, the exact extent of my severance package from the radio station. ! Oh, and did I mention we accepted the job on our 14th wedding anniversary? Best anniversary gift ever, Lord!

Sooooo…for the moment, I haven’t been writing for obvious reasons and I probably won’t be for a little while either just because of all the logistics and starting a new job. But I do intend to continue opining, presumably on a regular basis. (Tom Brown nearly forced me to promise I would do so at lunch the other day.) And when I do, I’ll still send these out to all of you either in this format or in some other one.

In the meantime, please be praying for us as we start a new adventure, one that is so obviously God’s doing that I just can’t wait to see how it unfolds. I know this is a terribly unfair thing to mention since I’m not actually giving you the details of it all, but when I recently told some good friends the entire story of all the threads that wove together for this process, it took about 45 minutes of just me talking to tell it all. So, trust me when I say God loves His kids (all of them!), and you can trust Him to do whatever He says He’s going to do. When He works a plan, it’s astounding to behold.

Happy anniversary.

Today is the fourteenth birthday of our marriage. I bought nothing special for my wife. She bought nothing special for me. I didn’t give her a card. She didn’t give me a card. In fact, most of the day, we both worked on things that needed to be done. Then, in the middle of the afternoon, we ran a few errands together with the children and ended up at our favorite burger bar. We ordered and ate in the company of children, alcoholics, and televised sports, and then we played a little corn hole with the kids. After this extravaganza of excitement, we drove home and split up to home-school our respective kids. After that we put them to bed and watched some TV before going to bed ourselves. Sound special? The sort of thing you read about in those ridiculously long British and Russian novels in literature classes? Perhaps not.

Then again, considering that neither my wife nor I care much about gifts, cards, or spending lots of money on anything, it was actually quite nice. We were full, happy, and grateful to God for a decent life with each other. And that’s pretty much the most important thing you have to know about your own marriage: what works for you.

See, a lot of relationship books and experts will give you a whole long list of “the right things” to do to make a marriage work. And many of them are quite useful. But the problem with reading such books is that it can make you think you’ve done what you’re “supposed” to do, hence you’re good. But it doesn’t matter if you do all the things you’re “supposed” to do in a hundred books if your own spouse doesn’t care about any of that stuff or needs something different (whether more or less) from you personally.

Today made me happy. Today made my wife happy. And just the fact that after fourteen years, we know each other well enough to know exactly this about us both is one of the greatest thrills of being married for a little while. Perhaps it sounds far less glamorous than the ads encourage you to imagine, but let me assure you that glamour isn’t nearly everything it’s cracked up to be. Especially when you compare it with the simplicity of sharing a life with someone you love, a rather mundanely exotic thing that I worry far too many people think somehow inadequate because it fails to live up to all their ludicrously epic expectations.

Don’t underestimate the value of a good sedan. There’s a reason it’s the kind of car most people wind up buying…and being satisfied with.

God's view

Whom does God love more: me or Tom Brown? God allowed my show to get cancelled and my only real source of income to go away. But God also allowed Tom to move away from doing a task he doesn’t excel at into doing something he really loves as a talk show host. So when I lost my show, was God blessing His children?

Whom does God love more: me or Chris X? God allowed me to purchase two All-Star Game tickets for $1000 in the hopes of reselling them for a profit. In the end, I sold them for a loss of about $500 the week before the game. The stranger who bought them from me, Chris, used them as a surprise for his wife. They went to the game and the Home Run Derby, sitting in the much better seats than I even enjoyed with my other personal ticket. They were happy to buy them before hand and thrilled to have used them after the fact. So when I lost $500 on a dumb investment to make this possible for them, was God blessing His children?

Whom does God love more: us or the Blanks? All these years, my wife and I have held onto the house we dearly love in St. Louis, believing we would eventually return there as we both desire. In particular, this was always our back-up plan if I ever lost my radio show, which happens unexpectedly in my industry. Just three months ago, He told us to sell it, and it looks like we have a buyer. Now that I have lost the show, we’re suddenly semi-marooned in Phoenix, having no real idea what the future holds or where it lies. So we’re probably selling a house we love near Dani’s mom that was always our safety valve and in which we started our family. But we’re selling it to people who seem to love it, too, perhaps even more than we do. The husband and his friend have already been planning how to finish the lower level which we never did in 13 years. So when we sell it to them (assuming it goes through), was God blessing His children?

When we say that God does things to bless His children, why do we tend to think that means they need to bless us more than others? Doesn’t it make at least as much sense that He might be interested in blessing them rather than us? Isn’t the real question whether I can be as happy to see others blessed (even at my own expense or misfortune) as I am to see myself prosper? Because until I am, can I really yet say I’m seeing things through God’s eyes? And shouldn’t I find the great honor of being such a nifty part of God’s grand plan worth so much more than any of the small things I seem to have lost in the process?

Just to be clear, there is only one correct answer to these questions. And it’s an inexpressibly wonderful joy to be in a position to give it.

How do I get to hell?

If I speak properly, then I am a good person, which is why it is ever so important to show people who do not speak properly their grammatical flaws, because I love them and want them to be better people…like me. Failing this, I must at least be certain others know the difference so they can recognize my goodness for what it is. Thus, I will be sure to publicly criticize those who speak poorly.

If I drive correctly, then I am a good person, which is why it is so vital that bad drivers visibly receive my love-filled gestures of indignation. How else will they know they have driven badly and learn from their mistakes, eventually becoming good drivers and therefore good people…like me. Regardless, I should at least tell my friends about the bad drivers I encountered today so they can honor my skill for what it is. This way we can all be good people together, unlike those other sorts.

If I obey the Bible properly, then I am a good person, which is why it is so essential that immoral people be taught the error of their ways. Besides, God tells me to love them, and what better way to do so than to actively facilitate their moral education? Unable to virtuefy them, I will of course need to exclude them from my closely guarded circle of self-congratulation. After all, if I and people like me to not regularly practice our God-given gift of condemnation, how will we reinforce our holiness and maintain our moral prestige with others?

What's off the menu?

Among theological conservatives, it is common to hear complaints about innovative approaches to evangelism and non-traditional methods of enticing people toward Christianity. The general criticism is that people using these newer styles of Christian outreach are resorting to worldly forms of persuasion and rhetoric instead of relying upon God and God’s message to draw people. This is certainly a concern worth taking seriously.

But the difficulty is that when someone employing one style of presentation looks at someone employing another style, it is easy to mistake different for inferior. And when such rhetorical xenophobia starts wrapping itself in the sanctimonious garb of tradition, we should pause to consider some possible categories for differentiating otherspeak:

1. Rhetoric which is truly incompetent or unclear.

2. Rhetoric which only appears competent because I am familiar with its particular form of incompetence.

3. Rhetoric which is far more persuasive than my own and of which I am therefore suspicious in part because it threatens to reclassify my own as inferior by comparison.

4. Rhetoric which is very innovative and different from my own and therefore tastes a bit strange to me, but which expect from the embodied diversity of God’s creative nature.

5. Rhetoric which is innovative and different in a way which really deviates from the core idea that people come to God because of God rather than coming merely to the projection of their own desires found in enticement predicated upon such an idolatrous appeal.

It's ever so easy to find a pretext for rejecting any approach which is different from my own (or that of my tradition) and then mislabel that rejection of style as doctrinal superiority. But just as we must not remake God in our own image, we must also not try to remake His other children according to the pattern birthed in us. Just because God has truly given me my flavor of Christian outreach, that does not mean every other combination of speech spices is an unsavory defilement of God’s cuisine.

Life in eastern Africa

Dadaab is a city in eastern Kenya that is home to the largest refugee camp in the world. The camp is built to handle 90,000 people, and it currently holds over 450,000. As you might imagine, the conditions are atrocious. Overcrowding, food shortages, no amenities to speak of. To call this a hopeless place is really an understatement, and it is one of four similar refugee camps in this impoverished African country.

The amazing thing to consider, however, is that as bad as the conditions in the camps are, the Kenyan government has been forced to close its border to refugees from neighboring countries like Sudan and Ethiopia as a result of the sheer numbers of people fleeing those areas.

In neighboring Somalia, the drought is a famine beyond imagining. Tens of thousands of Somalis have died of starvation in the past month. It’s a situation not likely to get better anytime soon due to the ruthless oppression from the Islamist militants of al-Shabab, who won’t let aid workers come in or their own people flee. Despite the risk of being killed or raped along the way, however, starving Somalis have been attempting the hundred mile journey from their own country into Kenya across a closed border just for a chance of getting into one of the overcrowded and miserable Kenyan refugee camps such as Dadaab.

It sort of puts the irritation from having a slow computer in perspective, right?

For me to win, we all must win.

One of the greatest hidden pathologies in our thinking is the “zero-sum game” paradigm. For the Cardinals to win, the Cubs had to lose. For Ruben Studdard to win, Clay Aiken had to lose. For Obama to win, McCain had to lose. And for “The King’s Speech” to win, “True Grit” had to lose. Clearly, the ”one-up and one-down” paradigm is sometimes a reality. But the taint which comes from expecting that pattern to hold everywhere easily blinds us to the true character of situations where it simply isn’t so.

Consider romantic relationships. At their worst, they are lose-lose, and at their almost worst they are win-lose. But when romance works properly, both parties gain tremendously from their interactions. On a good date, both people come out happier at the end. Who lost for such winning to occur? No one lost. Both are ahead. What a perversion it would be if all relationships were doomed by structure to produce no net advance for the combined participants!

Consider art. If I invent a new way to perform a dance movement (unlikely) or a new style of brushstroke (more unlikely) or a novel and poignant enwordment of ideas (possible, at least), people will be blessed by it. Others may even copy and duplicate my invention. Who is worse off in this situation? I have gained by knowing I gave the gift. Others have gained by receiving it. And still other givers and receivers will be blessed through the spreading ripples of artistic emulation. What a horror art would be if society gained no net enrichment through its production!

But significantly, consider commerce. Although it is common to think of money as a zero-sum game (since someone always gains the money from someone else paying it), nothing could be further from the truth. When I go to the store and purchase a product, I am happy to buy it, and the merchant is happy to have sold it to me. Who is worse off? The counterimpulsive answer is, “No one.” In fact, we’re both better off. This is the magic of free transactions. The shirt is worth more to me than the money I spend, and the money is worth more to the retailer than the shirt he sells me. We’re both better off. Consider an alternate universe where the simple ownership of money were the only value in the world. No one would ever spend theirs. But of course, they do, most of the time quite willingly. Why? To get something worth more to them than the money from someone to whom the money is worth more than the something.

The tremendous “positive-sum gameness” of these extremely significant domains of human experience should serve as a warning. Since it is possible to misunderstand them as win-or-lose environments if we have spent too long in such arenas, we must constantly beware such paradigmatic bleed-over. Otherwise, we will mistake win-and-win environments for the other kind and practice them accordingly, ruining by perverse expectation what God intended as another way to reveal His own ever-flourishing nature.

Anything in which there must be winners and losers should make us suspect that it may not be God-given. And anything which clearly is God-given should inspire us to look diligently for ways to conduct ourselves so that all players benefit from the endeavor.

National low-paying job day?

When you go to a fast food restaurant, do you appreciate being able to get such a tasty meal so quickly so cheap?

Me, too.

When you go to the clothing store at the mall, do you appreciate being able to immediately purchase precisely your size and the color of clothing you want from an available inventory?

Me, too.

Do you like pens? DVD players? Toothpicks?

Me, too.

The reason I ask is because in our society, we tend to value things largely based on their price tag, if only for the very understandable reason that the whole point of a price tag is to tell you something’s value. But one problem that comes from this is that people who work in a wide variety of retail, customer service, manufacturing, or other relatively low-paying jobs don’t feel valued for what they do and often wind up not valuing what they do themselves.

In part this is because they may feel the work itself isn’t very stimulating. However, I suspect that if helping people buy groceries paid $100,000, very few checkout clerks would complain about the meaninglessness of their work. It’s funny how much more satisfying something can seem when it pays well, a byproduct of both the enhanced lifestyle it enables and also the significance-signal carried by the pay grade. But back in this real world where many jobs pay quite little and don’t fulfill every desire reality TV and self-help gurus have sold our culture, it’s easy to forget that we all enjoy being able to do the things such jobs make possible.

So if it’s your low-paying, under-stimulating task to sell us food, clothes or anything else, ignore the pay and take a moment to consider the blessing of being able to help satisfy people as much as you do. And if you have a “better” job, perhaps the next time you do any of these things, you can convey to that person how glad you are they make it possible. Their sacrifices, so to speak, are perhaps not on par with those of military personnel or teachers, but we do tend to take them just as much for granted even while we cherish what they make possible. And the cool thing about expressing gratitude for people who don’t get paid very well is that it costs absolutely nothing but can still purchase quite a lot.

Denial is not fulfillment

“I want chicken tacos!” “No, make macaroni and cheese!”

“Give me that car!” “No, I was playing with it first!”

Every parent knows that the greatest source of evil in the world is conflicting desires. “Why can’t you just get along?” It’s a problem that obviously does not depart just because those children eventually blow out more birthday candles. Just look around, right? What, then, is the solution to such incompatibility of desire?

Well, some religious traditions have tried to solve this problem by reclassifying desire itself as an evil which should be eliminated altogether. After all, if no one wants anything, then everyone can get along. And the problem with that is certainly not that it reduces conflict. That’s a virtue of sorts. The problem is that it lacks love, which is a relatively serious defect.

See, the kind of low grade harmony achieved by mass-produced indifference is really just the illusion of society. Such people may be in proximity, but they are not knit together. How can you be knit to someone when neither of you want anything, including each other?

Without desire, it is impossible to sacrifice anything, since sacrifice presupposes the suffering of loss. And if sacrifice is the most clear expression of love, then until we are attached, we cannot let go. And if we cannot let go of one thing (like peace and quiet) for the purpose of gaining another (like having children), then how can we know that we love anything at all, let alone identify which things we love most? Similarly, when I desire nothing, what joy is there in others giving me gifts or satisfying my wants? How can I know I am loved by them, and how can I experience that love except in such ways?

So a society which merely stifles desire may have a sort of peace, but it’s the same peace anyone can have all by himself if no other humans existed. But didn’t God declare it was not good for man to be alone? And why so? Because until others and our love for them show up, desire and the guiding of it for their sake cannot produce the true harmony which alone is capable of revealing His nature. So we should be dubious about any moral agenda which says man should be as if alone, safe from the trouble of desires and others, but never producing any art with them either.

And this is why one of the most vital parts of raising children (and an opportunity inherently missing from households with only one child) is not so much teaching children to have fewer desires, but teaching them how to weave their desires into the tapestry of love.

Free beer!

If you accept Jesus, you’ll be financially prosperous very quickly.
If you accept Jesus, you’ll be physically healthy and not get sick.
If you accept Jesus, people will like you.
If you accept Jesus, you’ll have a great marriage.
If you accept Jesus, your kids will start behaving and do well in school.
If you accept Jesus, life will be easy.
If you accept Jesus, everything will always make sense to you.
If you accept Jesus, you’ll never suffer again.
If you accept Jesus, you’ll never have trouble with people again.
If you accept Jesus, you will become physically attractive.
If you accept Jesus, you’ll never struggle with sin again.
If you accept Jesus, your American Idol pick will win.
If you accept Jesus, you’ll be able to lose weight.
If you accept Jesus, you’ll always get good parking spaces.
If you accept Jesus, lots of people will like you on facebook.
If you accept Jesus, your favorite television shows will never get cancelled.
If you accept Jesus, your team of choice will be champions.
If you accept Jesus, your computer will never freeze up or be slow.

See, some people complain that selling Jesus like this is a dangerous form of evangelism because it sets people up for disappointment when the promises don’t come true. Others see it as terrible theology because it treats the things we want in this life as more important than God by making him the means to them rather than the end purpose of having them. But I think our real problem in selling Jesus is we just aren’t being clever enough in the offers we print on our theological coupons.

What is anxiety?

When you believe you have everything you need, you are not anxious. But when you believe you’re missing or in danger of losing anything you think you need, you experience anxiety. Thus, anxiety comes from the gap between what you believe you need and what you believe you have.

But this immediately exposes a major problem with the presence (or lack) of anxiety: human ignorance. Consider the man driving down the road to the hardware store. He has no anxiety despite the fact that he is three seconds from a life-changing collision. Similarly, consider the woman trying to pay her bills with inadequate funds. She is anxious despite the fact that she is about to receive a surprise promotion at work the next day.

Naturally, the most common anxieties come from what we believe about the present and the future, as do the most common calms. But the future is a remarkably elusive quarry. And even when we think for sure we know how it will unfold, mere moments can prove otherwise.

That’s why at some point, thinking people must decide whether they believe God is a loving Father or not. If, on the basis of good Biblical theology, we conclude that God is everything He says He is, then we realize that calm when things are going well and anxiety when they don’t are both equally silly.

But trusting God and deriving calm from that assurance is not as simple as it sounds. In fact, as is the case with almost everything in the Christian life, it is beyond our capacity to do. That’s why those of us who choose to believe the truth about God still often find ourselves at war with insubordinate anxieties. It’s also why those who do enjoy faith-based-calm do a terrible disservice to others when they pretend they somehow earned it by adhering to good doctrine.

The reality is that the ability to derive our mood from God rather than from either good or bad circumstances is itself a gift from Him. And thus pretending we can merely choose it hopelessly condemns those who don’t have it and ridiculously insults the Giver from Whom everyone else received it.

The day before my show was cancelled, I had peace on the basis of the false expectation that no real danger existed on the horizon. The day after my show went away, I had peace in the face of turmoil purely on the basis of God’s grace. And having held the two in such close chronological proximity, I can only say that I would always rather have the peace of knowing God in uncertain times than the peace of knowing circumstances in more encouraging ones. And I wish I could give you a simple formula for having it, too. But then it would be the calm of Andrew’s system for alleviating anxiety rather than the calm of receiving God’s gift. And who am I to presume to synthesize what only God can grow?