Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ambidextrous, or undextrous, issues

Quiz: Is the following a right-wing or a left-wing statement?
"Raising children shouldn't have to be a counter-cultural exercise"
Alternately, was that a liberal or a conservative statement?
  1. Right-wing/conservative
  2. Left-wing/liberal.
  3. Neither.
  4. You have heard that it was said, "there are no dumb questions." But I say to you, this one is dumb; it's got nothing to do with left or right.
I first heard this (the question, not the answers) from Jim Wallis, author of God's Politics—a terrific speaker by the way. His point: many things we care about aren't a matter of left or right. Here's another one:

The younger teen heard about the "post secrets" website. I'm not sure about the spelling, but the premise is that people write their "secrets" (loosely defined) on postcards and send them, anonymously, to this guy. He posts some on his site, and I believe he has a book or two. One postcard had small images of magazine covers -- Cosmopolitan and the like. Scrawled next to them was this message:
I will subscribe if your magazine ever says I don't have to have sex with whoever comes along.
Another right-wing nutcase? I don't think so. Donna Freitas, BU professor and author of Sex and the Soul, was interviewed recently in Christianity Today; (the Winston-Salem Journal also interviewed her; article here). She comments that almost everyone (whether male or female) is dissatisfied with the "hook-up" culture of commitment-free sex. A self-identified liberal feminist, Professor Freitas is no right-wing anything, though she teaches from Shallit's Return to Modesty and its ilk. The CT interview quotes her saying collegiate sexual behavior really isn't a left/right issue.

As a father of teen-age daughters, I'm somewhat terrified about the atmosphere at non-evangelical colleges (according to Freitas's interviews of an admittedly small sample of colleges, sexual attitudes and behavior are bi-modal: evangelical schools are extremely restrained, and the others -- including Catholic schools -- are sexually very indulgent). Yeah, I know, I'm a right-wing nutcase. By the way, it was a mistake to invade Iraq; the government should get involved in lowering health care costs; and we should raise taxes in California right now to relieve the squeeze on essential services! (Uh, make that a left-wing nutcase.)

Seriously, though, we have a real problem in this country with dialogue on substantive issues. Sex, health care, child-rearing, poverty -- even the abortion rate -- are not really left/right issues, but we've let the politicians make them so. And by the way, as Wallis says, both left- and right-leaning politicians "get it wrong" when it comes to God. More important than left or right is -- well, let me take a line from E. Stanley Jones:
Whose you are, not who you are, is the most important question in anyone's life.
As indeed it is. The problems we face are largely not left/right issues. "Ambidextrous" isn't quite correct either (my brother-in-law points out that the "dextrous" there means "right"). Un-handed?

As Wallis says, they're human issues, not left- or right-wing issues. So what can we do? One thing is to treat each other as beings made in the image of God, not economic units or as means to self-fulfillment. To try to be awake rather than sleepwalking through life. To be mindful...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Saturday report, and a counter-cultural view of temptation

Well, I did a bunch of stuff, but until the evening didn't get to the one thing that I really had to do! Things accomplished:
  • consolidated two mailing-lists for our church's outreach to international adults.
  • discovered that when Mi¢ro$oft Word puts a "comment-box", OpenOffice shows only a teeny yellow rectangle. NeoOffice too.
    • found a used copy of M$ Word on ebay, and ordered it (via "buy it now"). I don't mind this so much since M$ already got their money from the original purchase -- my money won't support their dirty tricks (more here, here, here, here and here).
  • fixed the teens' bedroom door (it was sticking, and wouldn't actually latch closed);
  • helped the younger teen rearrange the "studio" -- removed doors from a wardrobe/closet thing, and moved some furniture around
  • hung a laundry pole in the back yard (strung between the house and the detached garage)
The one thing I should have done? Prepare the lesson for today! I'm teaching the middle schoolers at our church's San Mateo campus. The passage is Matthew 6:12-15 -- actually I was assigned just 6:13, but as you probably know by now, I don't think you can really know what a verse is saying outside of its context.

Now I know that this song from "My Fair Lady" isn't really representative of the culture, but the phrase "sinfully delicious", which has appeared in a pile of ads, got about 116,000 hits on Google when I tried it just now.

Sorry, I wasn't going to mention that to the kids. Here's some of what I'm thinking to tell them about, approximately 150 minutes hence:
  • Why do we have to pray that? I mean, is God like planning to lead us into temptation, but if we pray that he won't?
    I don't think that's it. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus says that "your father knows what you need before you ask" -- therefore I think this prayer isn't for his benefit. Whose then? Yours -- or mine, when I pray it. Praying this will help me to have the attitude that temptation is something to be avoided.

    This reminds me of the part in The Karate Kid where the kid is ordered to paint the fence and wax the car. He thinks he's doing a bunch of work for free, but he's actually getting the muscle tone &c that he needs to become a karate champ. Here, Jesus tells us to ask God for this, but the point is to change our hearts and our way of thinking -- not to change what God is going to do. (Randy Pausch, who died Friday, called this a "head fake.")
  • What does "but" mean there in the middle of verse 13?   —and—
    Is there a particular kind of temptation he's talking about?
    To understand verse 13, take a look at verses 12 and 14, or in this case 12-15 -- or even better, verses 5-15.

    The way I figure it, the sequence of
    • forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors
    • lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one
    • for if you forgive... your father will forgive, but if you do not forgive... your father will not forgive
    is no accident. Notice the word "but": I think that "your father will forgive" goes with "deliver us from the evil (one)"
  • So Jesus seems to think it's really important to forgive others. What does that look like? If my friend borrows $10 and later pretends to have forgotten, and I forgive him, does that mean if he asks me for $20 tomorrow I should pretend it never happened?
    That's a really good question. I think you can accept past injury without inviting more injury of the same kind from the same person. Put differently, you can forgive without being a doormat.

Well, that was my shot at it. I'll let you know how it goes.

1pm Update: How it went

Not a lot of interaction from the kids, but I did get some -- which our youth pastor thought was typical. I had a nice talk with a charming brother-sister pair, both seem engaged with the discipleship process; the brother is entering 9th grade this fall, told me about his family life and school and his thoughts about the future.

So it went OK. Our youth pastor preached in "big church" at our San Mateo campus, and did a stellar job. They recorded it but I don't think the MP3 will be generally available.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

unclogging a slow (not blocked) toilet

So the toilet started slowing down. I mean, it didn't overflow -- it just looked like it was going to. I tried emptying buckets of hot water into the toilet, hoping that it would melt any grease that might be causing the slowdown... but no joy.

I have a 15-foot "snake" that looks something like this one but I couldn't get it to go where I needed it to.

After reading a fix-it-yourself book and talking to Pat (aka "The Man"), I decided I needed a toilet auger, so I got one from Home Depot for $7.65 plus tax. It looked approximately like this. These things are terrific because you can push the elbow-shaped pipe into the right place, then feed the cable with the auger-end into just the right place. (If that link doesn't work, try this article. Note, however, that their text apparently came from a different kind of unclogging operation!)

Anyway, I fed the toilet auger into the toilet, and pushed and pulled the cable a few times, and pretty soon got the impression that something was getting broken up. You really don't want any more details than that.

A pail of cold water went right down, and everything was happy after that. I went outside and sprayed off both the snake and the toilet auger with the hose, then with WD-40.

I love a successful home repair; it makes me feel like a Real Man.

here's my caption...

We found this snapshot of Jenny in an old box, and I tried to figure out what the expression on her face meant. Here's what I came up with:
"Daddy, somebody told me today that it's possible for a function to be everywhere differentiable but that the derivative need not be continuous. Can that possibly be right?"

Saturday, July 12, 2008

What is my purpose? part 2

Part 1 was more or less about the purpose for humans in general, which I think we must at least consider (if not fully answer) to provide some context for the question "What is my purpose in particular?"

Which could mean any of at least the following:
  1. For what purpose was I born? Why was I put on this earth?
  2. What do I want to do with my life?
  3. What is the vision, if any, I'm striving toward? What would an objective observer reasonably conclude about my life's real values and priorities, based upon what I actually say and do?
I was thinking about #1 when I started writing this, but of course #2 is also a reasonable question. And essays like this one point out that #3 is may be useful when thinking about the aim of one particular life. That is, in order to answer "Which way to steer?" we need to know both where we're currently headed(#3) as well as where we want to go(#2).

Let me make a few suggestions about #2 and #3 first, then I'd like to talk about #1. There's a thought-experiment that I sometimes call the "man from Mars," which I ran on myself a few years ago, which I suppose constituted my #3 at the time.

Covey's Seven Habits starts off with "Begin with the end in mind." I've often used this -- "Imagine you're at the end of your career (or life)," I begin. "What do you want to see as you look back?" These sorts of questions are great ways to think about #2.
By the way, though I really like Covey's "7 Habits", it seems to send the overall message: "Be a good and wise person" but it doesn't show us how to do that. What we need -- rather who we need -- is a relationship with our creator and redeemer. Otherwise our defensiveness and denial and so on will dog our steps and make it impossible to be as wise or as good as we ought to be. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom," say the Proverbs

As for question #1: why was this particular person put in this place at this time? Well, right now I'm out of time. More on that in part 3

Friday, July 11, 2008

What is my purpose? part 1

The elder teen tells me one of her friends has been wondering about the purpose of his life -- something I started wondering at that age. I've never read Aristotle (What??!?) but my mother told me some decades ago that purpose was tied to the intention of something's creator. Or maybe it was the user.

What is the purpose of a chair? To the manufacturer, there could be any number of them:
  • provide functional, comfortable seating for the buyer;
  • provide elegant, beautiful seating to impress the buyer's visitors;
  • make a profit;
  • get buyers started on the manufacturer's line of furniture;
etc. Whether the chair is successful in its purpose is measured by the manufacturer.

The buyer may have a slightly different (or completely different) set of purposes for the chair:
  • something to sit in
  • prop for a dramatic presentation
  • for certain Microsoft executives, something to throw across the room to express his desire to crush a competitor (I'm not making this up)
  • something to tie a kidnap victim to
etc. The maker's purposes can unfortunately be perverted or corrupted.

Fine, but people aren't chairs! The chair had its essence before its existence; humans are different.

Or are they?

If life and consciousness appeared as a product of unguided accidents compounded upon each other, then there is no objective reality upon which one could base a judgment. (The problem is even worse, but that's another discussion.) Suppose "Mr. A" decided that his purpose was to kill six million (or twelve million) innocent civilians in his country, and "Mr. B" decided to save a comparable number of lives in some other country, upon what basis would one say that one purpose was better or worse than another? (By the way, Mr. B is one of my heroes; he started the green revolution in Central and South America, and has probably saved a billion lives.)

Of course Mr. B's purpose was nobler than Mr. A's, but why? If human lives are just so many random accidents, what makes them valuable? What makes them worth anything at all? The statistical dollar value of an American life is only what the economy (a user of human lives) thinks; it is a perversion of what God (the maker of human lives) intended.

My claim here is that unless we admit there's a creator, a designer, a maker of humanity, then one purpose is as "good" as another. Utilitarianism, the Categorical Imperative, etc., all assume some value system, and the basis of that value system is suspect if it doesn't include the designer's intention.

So suppose there is a designer (or that there was a designer, if you prefer). This raises the question, "What was the designer's original purpose?" And a second question, "What, if any, changes have occurred in the designer's purpose?"

My train ride is almost over, so I'll include a little from Genesis 1:
then God said, "Let us make man in our own image, according to our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over the beasts of the earth." ... And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish of the sea" (etc.)
Well, I think we've filled and subdued the earth. About ruling over other living things, well, maybe we're not so hot at that.

Well, that's a start; I actually have a day job so I'd better get to it. More later...

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Spiritual Friendships - questions, mostly

The lovely Carol bought a book titled Spiritual Mentoring, which has a whole lot more than the questions I've rearranged and paraphrased below. This has been of particular interest to me lately, as I've heard that spiritual friendships are a key ingredient, if not the key ingredient, in spiritual growth. I also know some young people who consider me some sort of mentor, so I thought it might be well to be a little more intentional about these things. So here are some key thoughts (they're not all questions) from the book.

Survey, history:
  • Where am I headed?
    • Who created a safe space for me to tell my story?
    • Whose song of faith, what song of faith, has rung powerfully in my life?
    • Whose life do I want to imitate/emulate?

  • What do I want?
    • What is a key experience you've had? Key relationship?
    • What is a personal fear or weakness?
    • If you could wave a magic wand, how would you change your life?
Reflecting upon a particular moment or situation:
  • What is God up to in this situation?
  • Where is God's hand at work in this?
  • What sacred text is to be read in the moment before us?
  • What might these ordinary moments contain of the God dimension?
A mix of past and present
  • Have you noticed a pattern of God's movement in your life?
  • Did you consider what God might be saying to you in the questions you raise?
  • What might God want you to hear in the events of your life?
Paradigmatic questions:
  • Where was God when...
  • Who am I?
  • What does God want to do with me now?
Prerequisites; terms of reference:
NOTE: These aren't questions (d'oh!)
  • safe space where you can be open
  • boundaries: confidentiality, structure, guidance
    • i won't tell anyone about your situation
    • not to waste your time
    • won't tell you what to do but will suggest
  • questions, struggles, emotions, doubts are acceptable!
  • ideas, curiosity, wonder, joy are to be shared
  • the mundane is a container of holy grace
For weekly updates:
  • What were the highs and lows of your week?
  • Were you faithful to follow the disciplines you committed to last week?
  • What have you heard God saying to you in the experiences of your week?

Envy; Report Cards

There have been some promotions at the office. I did not get one. Actually, most people didn't.

On an absolute scale, this is no tragedy. I'm having fun, learning things, growing, making a contribution, feeling valued, and getting paid! Paid way more than enough (but don't tell my boss). There is really nothing to complain about.

But. Do I struggle with envy? Yes, even though it's silly. Silly to have envy, I mean, not to struggle with it. (The alternative, simply yielding to it, is just dumb.)

Envy is silly for me, for many reading this, and for just about anyone reading this on a computer at home. Because we are richer in an absolute material sense than what, 99% of people who have ever lived? Over 95% of the people alive today? Being able to read, and to read English (the language of the web, of commerce, of Shakespeare -- sorta) in particular, is a wonderful thing. To have a computer, and internet service, at home is something few throughout history could even imagine, and only a few percent of today's world population enjoy.

Envy robs us of the ability to appreciate what we have, instead distracting us by what we don't have (I refuse to say "lack").

So I have a "B" at the office. As I have said many times, there is no shame to finishing one's career as "senior engineer." And there is no shame in getting a "B" (or B+ or B–) either. Because all that stuff is like an elementary-school report card -- mine are long forgotten.

Better, as I have said, to make sure of at least a C– in everything: as husband, father, brother, citizen, follower of Jesus. And some guys can get an A+ at the office and do well everywhere else too, which is a great thing. And if I don't, well, it is good to be content.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

business cards free? $14.99? $3.99?

The folks at VistaPrint have an interesting setup. You can get 250 business cards just for their shipping/handling charge, which I think is $5.72 for 21-day delivery.

If you want the cards to look different from their standard "free" designs, though, you might pay a little more -- or no more, depending on the date on the calendar, the phase of the moon, and maybe (maybe) what other sites you visited. Here's how it went for me.

Some time ago, the lovely Carol said she'd love to be able to hand a card to people with the URL of this blog (and also my comments on Tyndale's One Tear Bible). Remembering that had free cards, I took a look and then got analysis-paralysis while trying to pick the perfect wording.

Well, several months later, she mentioned it again, and this time, as luck would have it, were having a sale -- all designs free! Well, with some help from my teenagers I found the perfect design and was getting ready to place the order, when something happened.

A week after that, no more sale, and that design was now going to cost $15 (OK, $14.99, but that's $15). This still represents a savings of $5.00 off their regular (??!?) price of $20 ($19.99), which I don't think anyone ever pays.

I was unhappy about that so I clicked around and found this offer from "" that quoted $3.99 for 250 cards -- hundreds (thousands?) of designs! That led me back to -- you guessed it -- But now my 250 "premium" business cards were only going to set me back $4 instead of $15. Curiouser and curiouser.

I'm not really sure if it's because I'm ordering today, or because I clicked on that other link, but it's $4 for those cards. I selected the cheapest possible shipping, so I expect to see these cards some time next month.

But it wasn't over yet! There was quite the gauntlet of other stuff they wanted to sell me (special offers they wanted to offer me): refrigerator magnets, return address stamps/labels, rental of a postal scale, etc. etc. etc.

Finally I got through all that (Just Say No) and I think the order is finally in.

Oh! But now they're presenting me with a Reward! And another Special Offer!

Just Say No... and I hope the cards will be on their way soon....

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Judge not -- but then, pigs and dogs?

My friend Linh was reading Matthew chapter 7, and noted the following oddness: Jesus tells us not to judge others, then he talks about not casting pearls before pigs nor giving what is sacred to dogs. I figure this is like what we see in the Psalms or Proverbs, saying the same thing in two different ways.

But wait, first I read I'm not supposed to judge, and then the text assumes that I've already classified people as being either bad (pigs or dogs) or good. What's going on here? So there were a few comments at soulfood4u on the passage. I don't think I have exactly the same view as this person, but neither do I find much to disagree with. soulfood4u seems to be like a devotional, one person's reflections.

Linh also found these comments on This site proposes to give a different translation of 7:6 -- "Don't judge as though you won't be judged" or something similar. While this is fine as a paraphrase for personal application, they didn't convince me that as a translation it's an improvement over what the NIV editors have: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged."

So what is going on here? Well, I think the first thing is to look at the passage in a little larger context, which you can do for example on My take on this is that Jesus is presenting life in the Kingdom of God and showing how the kingdom attitude differs from the attitude common in the kingdom of this world.

But this isn't just a "be like this; don't be like that" kind of thing; by his astonishing grace, he provides us with some pictures so that we can see that these commands are not just the "right" thing but also the "smart" thing. As our pastor has said more than once, it's really not sufficient to believe Jesus is Lord; we must also believe that Jesus is smart -- that what he says is not only authoritative but also correct and true; that when Jesus and I think differently about something, Jesus is right and I'm wrong.

And here he does it! I'll take the sections just before and just after the passage in question... so in 6:25 Jesus says not to worry about our lives. "What?" we say, "if we don't worry about our lives, if we don't plan for the future and so on, who will?" And Jesus answers our implicit question in verse 26 by appealing to God's generosity (emphasizing by the way that we are much more important to God than birds are). And if you don't believe in God's generosity, then he's got another point for us in verse 27: Worrying doesn't do you any good!

Then in verses 28-32 he encourages us not to worry about lesser things like food and clothing (which in verse 25 he said were less important than the subjects he has already covered). And then in verses 33-34, he directs our gaze upward, onto bigger things: the Kingdom of God.

And in the passage afterwards -- Matthew 7:7-11, Jesus urges us to ask God and to trust him for things. Why can we do this? Because God's gifts to us just have to be better than the gifts we give to our children -- because his love is greater than ours. He also urges us -- commands us -- to be like God in generosity (do for others what you'd have them do for you, 7:12)

So now to the passage in question: 7:1-6. "Don't judge", Jesus says in verses 1-2, in a way that's parallel to 6:14-15 -- if you forgive, you'll be forgiven. So I take "judging" to mean "condemning." When we say someone can't be forgiven, when we refuse to forgive them, when we're saying they cannot ever change, that's rendering a judgment.
Ouch! I just poked myself.
Then Jesus says in verses 3-5 to recognize that we have our own faults, which may be greater than our brother's faults.

You can guess that I'm going to invoke an imaginary straight man here: "Wha...? Does that mean I have to pretend that nobody has any faults, that it's just me?" Jesus addresses that in verse 6, by pointing out that we have to discern whether somebody is ready to hear something precious or private, and treat it accordingly -- thus "pearls before swine" as the King James reads. I don't remember where I read this, but when a pig sees pearls, he might think they were something to eat. Upon discovering their true nature (at least as far as his porcine nature allows him to), he might turn upon you, the deceiver, in anger.

So we have to see, as the soulfood4u guy says, that when we share our heart with someone, they're the kind of person that won't abuse our trust. And the folks point out that Jesus himself said in verse 5, "You hypocrite."

To summarize the "judge" vs "pigs" thing, then: "Don't judge" means "Don't decide someone can't ever change; don't consign them to hell"

And the "pigs" thing means "But do watch what you do and who you trust, based on your discernment of what they are like today."

Doing pretty good today, Lord

Heard this before, and again today on "truth for living" (or is it "truth for life"?) -- and by the way Alistair Begg is a tremendous speaker (I think he was in the movies once, too) -- but here's the story.

A man prays, "Lord, I've done pretty good so far today; I haven't been spiteful or envious, haven't used any bad language or lusted after anything (something like that anyway), gotten drunk, or hit anybody. But now I'm about to get out of bed...."

Well, at least he didn't claim not to be slothful.

The story is sorta funny, but it does have a point -- it's hard to avoid doing bad stuff once we get moving! Could any of us even go through an entire day without complaining -- I mean if we were awake and moving? I don't think so!

Anybody who thinks they don't need grace and mercy -- they should try going 24 hours without complaining!

how's that for an "evangelistic tip for the day"?

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


This word gets used a lot, but what does it mean? Well, it's a command given to the children of Israel to praise their God. But what's that? It's to say how great and powerful and generous and loving and patient and kind and just he is.

But why were they told to do that? Why should we do that today? Is God unsure of himself, like he has to be told all that stuff?

Ah, no. That would be a false god, created in your image -- or, rather, in mine. The true God does not need our praise. He is not like the Julia Roberts character in Hook, who would disappear if nobody believed in her.

The Israelites (the Jews) praise the Lord, and we do if we're wise, because it's beneficial to us. If I'm thinking about God's power and glory and grace and riches and kindness and generosity, it's pretty hard to be worried or depressed or self-righteous or proud. I won't be self-absorbed because I'm God-absorbed. And when I do that I recover my sense of wonder; I celebrate my incredible good fortune. How, I ask myself, did I get so lucky? To be born in this country, to my parents; to be married to the lovely Carol; to have such amazing children; to have a great run, 32 years, in the tech sector and great colleagues; to be blessed with friends and health, fellowship at church, a relationship with the Master of the Universe (and assurance of eternity with him), the opportunity to make a difference in people's lives... all these things come from God, not because I deserve them, but because of his generosity and love.

If you can read this, you've got a lot to be thankful for, too; you've received a lot from God, for the same reason (or lack thereof) that I have.

So here is an exercise that I learned from the lovely Carol: to go through the alphabet and make up sentences praising God. For example:
  • Almightly: Lord, you created the heavens and the earth by your great power and stretched-out arm. Nothing is too difficult for you!
  • Beauty: Thank you God for the beautiful things you created in this earth.
  • Compassion: Thank you for having compassion on us, for knowing all our worries, whether weighty or small or silly.
  • The Lord is with us when we're in Danger. He is our God forever and even until Death.
  • His yoke is Easy and his burden is light.
  • He is Faithful and always keeps his promises
  • He is Generous, giving to me things I do not deserve and never could earn.
  • He gives Health
  • ...
You get the idea. As I go through this list, or make it up, I calm down, I breathe more easily, I become more able to listen to others. I get well -- or better at least.