Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Then Again, Marisa Tomei and Three 6 Mafia Won Oscars

In what might be one of the most unlikely accomplishments in the modern age, I got published. That's right, recently I found out that my article "Living the Corporate Life Right" (frankly a thinly veiled testimonial about Synergy Ministries) was in the February Issue of Relevant Magazine, a Christian magazine aimed at Gen-X hipsters and college kids.

I actually used to subscribe to Relevant's podcast and appreciated the discussions, commentaries, and interviews probing culture and faith, so when the current Director of Business Development of Synergy asked me to pen an article for submission last year, I happily agreed.

A couple of notes, the title of the article was a creation of the Relevant editorial staff. The title can come off as a little pompous, and I am certainly not a self-declared expert on living out faith in the workplace. Honestly, without a drop of modesty, it's really not a well written article (I can see my wife especially nodding in assent). It's sort of like that phenomenon when you listen to you own voice - read your own published writing and there's a twinge of embarrassment a'la "Man, couldn't I come up with a better analogy or phrase than that? My 6th grade book report on 'The Diary of Anne Frank' was more compelling."

But I'll take it, and cross it off my list of things to do before I die. Let's see what's next on the list... apparently something about stock-car driving...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Disdain Towards Evangelical Intellect

I read with some interest a recent article in the New York Times about a science teacher in Florida and his attempts to teach evolution to students who have been resistant because of their Christian beliefs. The article is predictably paints the evangelicals to be complete morons who are, to use ironic language, clearly dragging down the genetic pool and will be inevitable victims of natural selection in the future. Hey, it's the New York Times, after all, which has never shown an affinity towards evangelical perspectives.

I won't go into detail about it, and I don't profess to be a biologist or anthropologist, but I have never seen evolution, in its proper context, as being a in conflict with faith. Evolution is a scientific tenet, not a philosophical reality. It does not (again, I stress, in its proper context) explain the heart of our purpose, existence, feelings, and beliefs any more than the Bible explains the geological formation of the earth's core and crust. There are other books that go far more in depth in terms of the relationship between faith and science, and specifically the Genesis account of creation and evolution.

But there are some Christians that have drawn a line in the sand and have made this a key battleground in an attempt to save the Christian faith. And there are some evolutionists who have similarly found this to be an opportunity to somehow completely eradicate Christian faith. I think both groups have greatly overestimated the stakes in this game.

What really saddens me is just how much disdain and scorn existed in the posted comments by some of the readers, many along the vein of painting Christians in a broad brush as best, nimrods and at worst, the scourge of society. The contempt and condescension of many of these readers was palpable. Here are some examples:
  • I am getting really sick of the need to continue justifying evolution, or the teaching of the subject, to a bunch of people who have - by definition - irrational minds. Some things are just wrong, people, including a belief in some all-powerful man in the sky. Use your brains. Try to think. Please.

  • Evolution is real, deal with it. These religious christian groups need to accept certain realities and stop living in their lala land. Else there's no difference between them and Al Qaeda trying to influence the hearts and minds of young individuals with lies that sets them up for failure and harms the nation.

  • Something I've never understood about the rationale that evolution is no better than creationism (since both are technically theories) is why other creation myths aren't then allowed to be taught in school. Maybe you're right--maybe life did spontaneously appear at the will of God. Or maybe at the will of Brahma. Or the voodoo sky serpent. Or the infamous Flying Spaghetti Monster (may we all be touched by his noodly appendage).
    Why can't we just step back and let the Creationist retards get stupider and stupider until they can't even feed themselves and they eventually become extinct?

  • Well, I suppose that in about 200 years Americans will have evolved enough to accept the theory of evolution non "alongside", but instead of religious faith. I believe Europe has some advance on this issue..."
Wow, can you feel the love?

It's unfortunate that there is such rancor around this, and this belief that Christians are complete idiots is so pervasive that I often get backtracking and embarrassed acquaintances and colleagues who are stunned when they find that I'm an evangelical Christian. Look, Christians over the years haven't always had moments of glory when it's come to intellectual thought or theory, and some of our most backward-thinking breathren have unfortuntately been the most loud. But just as I'm sure there are intelligence-challenged believers in Christ, there are also legions of numbskulls who are humanist, agnostic, or atheist. Do you really believe that every atheist can deftly defend their philisophical poisition like Richard Dawkins? The different between the Christian dimwit and the non-Christian dimwit is that the Christian dimwit has at least subconsciously acknowledged that there are limits to human knowledge and reason. That seems in of itself a pretty intelligent starting point.

I have to say that I find the comments a little alarming, because it does little to dispel the suspicion of hard-core Creationists that there actually is a "culture war" out there where those who seek to champion evolution are allied with those who not only have strong antithapy and disrespect for the Christian faith, but are people who are bent on creating a world where faith is marginalized and religion is widely accepted as a foolhardy fraud. The result? An increasing arms race as both sides dig their heels in and sharpen their swords.

It also seems to me that Christians in do need to stand up and be counted in their fields. It's not that different than other forms of bigotry, but as people come into real-life contact with Christians who are well-spoken, intelligent, and can articulate their worldview and positions well, this myth of Christian irrationality will slowly, pardon the ironic term, evolve as people's views shift from media and television caricatures to "the brilliant colleague in my chemistry research lab" or the "sharp director in my fixed income group" who also happens to be a devout Christian.

My hope is that with these relationships, there will be greater dialogue and respect, free from the suspicions that "Christians are trying to create a brainwashed theocracy" and that "Evolution teachers are trying to turn your kids into atheists". And maybe, just maybe, that dialogue will touch on a far more core issue than the establishment of humankind: the need and hope for redemption for each member of that species.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Sad End for a Lonely Humpback

The sad news came this morning that Colin, the baby humpback whale who was abandoned and had been found trying to nuzzle and nurse on yachts in an Australian harbor, was euthanized when wildlife officials determined that the increasingly weakening whale could not survive on his own.

The story, especially if you're a parent, is especially poignant, because of the familiarity with the helplessness of an infant, and the utter dependence that a baby has upon its mother for survival. The thought of Colin going from boat to boat, trying desperately to find his mother, or at least a nipple to latch onto is heartbreaking.

Sadly, this was not one of those stories in which the animal kingdom shamed the human race in terms of social benevolence, though there are many other examples of animal altruism where individuals sacrifice or exhibit behaviors that promote the common good. Wildlife officials had tried to bring Colin out to passing herds of humpback whales in open water, but were unable to find a calf that would "adopt" him or let him nurse. For all intents and purposes, his pretty much sealed his fate.

I can't speak for the moral obligations of animals, but this account is a reminder to me that those of us who are humans, particularly those who count themselves as Christian, have an obligation to the fatherless and widows. The Bible reminds us that, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world," (James 1:27) and there are a number of other references in Old Testament that speak specifically about justice and mercy towards orphans and widows. As we look to care for those who have nothing, we need to make sure that we're also looking out for those who have nobody.

I think about this in the context of the pro-life movement. I am proudly pro-life, and my belief as an evangelical Christian that birth begins as conception certainly influences that conviction. What I'd challenge myself and everybody who considers themselves pro-life is to consider that when unwanted pregnancies end in births instead of abortions, there are many cases where the birth mother may have absolutely no interest in raising a child, and immediate adoption isn't feasible (though I wonder why this is given my limited understanding of the massive demand to adopt babies here in the United States). The net result is that you're going to have a lot of babies who are unaccounted for with nowhere to go but orphanages and similar temporary (hopefully) living arrangements. What can we do to to make these the best places possible? What can we do to love the orphans? What can we do to take the air out of the rationale from a single mother that, "It would be more cruel to bring an unwanted child into this world"?
This is why I believe the challenge of the pro-life movement isn't simply, or even primarily the overturning of Roe v. Wade. What a victory it would be to make a mother's decision to carry a baby to term such a no-brainer, knowing that she will be freely given every ounce of necessary pre-natal care, and her child can look forward to a life of love, dignity, and wonderful opportunities - even if it's not with her.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Ridiculous Diversity Double Standard

A recent article in the New York Times offered a glimpse into Kisik Lee, a coach of the US Olympic Archery Team who has generated a little buzz due to his Christian faith, or more accurately, his exhibition of that faith in the course of his work as a coach and mentor.

Lee, who was formerly the coach of South Korea's archery team and brought in to help the US kickstart its flailing national team, became a Christian in 1999. According to the article, his "proselytizing" consists of praying with his Christian athletes, inviting his athletes to go to church with him, and giving newcomers to the team a copy of The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren.

Richard Lapchick, the director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport felt that Lee crossed the boundaries, citing Lee's “responsibility to be inclusive and to embrace diversity, and we often think of diversity as a racial or gender thing. But religion is definitely a big part of it as well.” Lapchick goes on to say, “An athlete has a hard time resisting a coach. There’s always a fear that you won’t get picked. You won’t have much support if a coach doesn’t like you.”

Here's where there's a massive double standard when it comes to diversity. Lapchick has made it clear that there's a responsibility to include religion as on par with race and gender when it comes to diversity categories. At the same time, the United States Olympic Committee (U.S.O.C.) promotes athlete-generated religious gathering (e.g. Bible Studies) but encourages the coach not to attend, much less lead.

Ridiculous. So essentially, if a number of black athletes wanted to create an African-Amercican Track & Field Network, black coaches would be expressly forbidden to participate because of the appearance that being part of that group would imply preference and a lack of objectivity towards non-black teammates? From everything I've seen, and I've been active in diversity and inclusion circles, senior (management) participation and leadership in racial-based, gender-based, and sexual orientation-based diversity group is highly encouraged. Why? Because in the name of diversity, there's a desire for people to be "Hispanic and proud" or "gay and proud", and seeing senior leaders and role models exhibiting that pride promotes this.

There's the double standard. If religion is truly an area of diversity, be consistent in terms of the guidelines.

For those who would claim that Christians don't comprise a true diversity group due to its "majority status", I'd challenge that, especially if you take into account that those who wish to congregate tend to be evangelical in nature, which is definitely a minority in the United States. Women (which I'd point out is a majority population in the United States) have their "diversity" status largely on the merits on their marginalized status as manifested by their delayed rights to suffrage and glass ceiling issues. For those who don't think evangelical Christians are marginalized and mocked by society, try watching some television for a few hours (e.g. Ned Flanders).

Finally, let's look again at what Lee is actually doing and judge the proselytizing "punch" in each of these actions:
  • Praying with his Christian athletes - we touched on this before, but are you seriously going to forbid a coach to meet by invitation with athletes who share a common affinity simply because he's the coach?
  • Inviting his athletes to go to church with him - should this be any different than inviting people than going to any event specific to to their ethnic or sexual-orientation? Should I write up my Indian friend for inviting me to a Diwali festival dinner?
  • Giving newcomers to the team a copy of The Purpose Driven Life - this is arguably the most brazen act, but this book didn't top the New York Times best seller list because it only appealed to evangelicals or only Christians for that matter. It's a broad-market appeal book - we're not talking about Grundem's Systematic Theology here.
Sadly, the "diversity and inclusion movement" has some blind spots that hinder its inclusiveness.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Six Years of Joy

August 17th, 2008.  That's six years that Sarah and I have been married.  Six years since the day that we made vows to each other to love and cherish as long as we both shall live.

I am a very blessed man beyond words.  Thank you, Sarah.  Thank you, God.

The Long-Awaited Triumph

Perseverance.  Determination. Teamwork.  A Triumph of the Human Spirit.

No, I'm not describing any gold-winning victory in the Beijing Olympics. I'm not talking about Michael Phelps' historical sweep of gold medals or the great comeback of the 4x100 men's swimming relay. I'm describing a milestone win for the Emmanuel Fightin' Reformers on August 17, 2008, which despite the glory of this win, ranks a distant second on the importance of this date (more on this on an adjacent post).

Here's a little background for our readers. A few years ago, a friend of mine Dave was kind enough to invite me  and my church to scrimmage his church in softball.  We were excited to play, and despite our enthusiasm, we got stomped 15-4, and that was after they had mercifully wiped out an opening 8-run rally and let us restart the game.

We didn't know it at the time, but that would actually be one of our more competitive games. In the next year or so, we continued to be practice fodder for my friend's team, and we would get slaughtered.  As I joked around in one of my e-mail recaps of the games, "besides the fact that we couldn't hit, run, or field, we were pretty equally matched."  The scores that we were losing by looked like "anyone versus Columbia University" college football scores: 26-8, 18-4, etc.

This year, we regrouped a little and formalized our team, and squared up for a series of games against my friend and some of his colleagues and friends (let's call them "Team Kang").  The games were a lot closer, but we still couldn't get over the hump. 

Yesterday, we finally broke through. Our teams were deadlocked in a 3-3 defensive struggle with both teams missing key opportunities to break through.  On the top of the 7th inning, Team Kang put runners on first and second base with one out.  A slow grounder dribbled between the mound and second and I, playing first base, snared it.  Instead of just pocketing it realizing that I didn't have a play, I forced a throw to third and air-mailed it over the third baseman's head.  Ugh.  The go-ahead run came in, and Team Kang tacked on two more to take a 6-3 lead.

Fast forward to the bottom of the 8th, where we countered with two quick hits followed by a flyout.  Taking advantage of a little sloppy fielding, we put six consecutive batters on base, and took an 8-6 lead heading into the 9th.  With my buddy Paul on the mound, Team Kang nailed some long flies, but with a slick fielding duo Steve in LF and Andrew in LCF, we kept things in check.  With two out and the tying run on 2nd, a long drive eventually settled in Andrew's glove.  Game over.  Reformers Win!  Reformers Win!

Congrats to the EPC Fightin' Reformers for a great win.  To coin an expression from ex-Mets manager Willie Randolph, who was sanguine as his team choked away a 7 game lead with 17 games to play: "Losing all the time is what a pennant race should be.  Now that we've finally won, it makes the champagne taste a little sweeter."

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Immorality of Social Security?

A friend recently sent me an article written by Alex Epstein from the Ayn Rand Institute arguing that Social Security is immoral.  It's an interesting point, and it basically centers around the rights and the responsibility of the individual balanced against the responsibility of the State.  Bluntly put, why do we compel hard-working people to give part of their salary to the State for government stewardship, when (A) the money is not always maximized for use in their own retirement, but instead used to finance immediate federal needs, and (B) it essentially is used as a safety net for those who are too irresponsible to save for the future?

I have another friend that works in the Social Security Agency, and this friend has attested to the profligate nature of how funds are disbursed.  The present laws governing the eligibility of individual payments leads to a culture of entitlement for many who choose not to work, but to happily take from the government without any real incentive to work and put back into the system or society.  As taxpayers, there's understandably some angst when hearing stories like this.  Even friends that work in health care clinics have told me that they've been asked for free drugs because "have no money" (the same drugs that can be purchased for $4 at Target or Wal-Mark), but need them up front since they're going to Florida on vacation.  Hmm... isn't it hard to go on vacation when you have no money?

It's clear that for some, there's an entitlement issue which is at play here.  Essentially, things such as cable television, a Nintendo Wii, designer clothes, vacations, and brand new Nike sneakers are not considered things bought from discretionary income - they're considered as entitlements, and society must make adjustments so I can afford things that are truly deemed as necessary, like healthcare, gas for your car, and groceries.

Epstein points out: "The rational and responsible are shackled and throttled for the sake of the irrational and irresponsible."  That is, those of us who act judiciously with good stewardship pay a price financially for those who do not.  Naturally, it's grossly unfair to paint all those who are poor as irresponsible, irrational, and almost predatory in their use of social systems.  There are those who have been affected by situations our of their control who need help.

But even for those who have been careless with their finances, what role, if any, should society play in their rescue?  Epstein argues that there's a place for that in personal charity, but it's wrong for the government to enforce such giving on its citizens.  He may have a point here, though I'd like to think that part of personal responsibility is to care for, and to encourage others to care for those who have, frankly, made mistakes.  There is a fundamental issue of grace here.

For the Christian, we have all the more reason to be agents of this grace.  We are told in Galatians 6 to bear one another's burdens, without any mention of whether these burdens were self-inflicted or not.  In Matthew 25, we are charged to care for strangers, the sick, the hungry, the naked, and those in prison, without any qualifier on whether these people were hungry because of their own poor stewardship or in prison because of their own lawlessness.  We do not love lavishly because the world tells us that it is just to do so.  Christians are called to love and provide for the needs of others as a reflection of the undeserved love that we have received ourselves.  The core of our faith attests that He who was without sin bore the punishment for those who were guilty.  This is grace.

My point isn't to assess the effectiveness or the morality of Social Security as much as to temper the visceral reaction of anger that even I feel when I think about the concept of a "bailout of the irresponsible at my expense."  I simply think it behooves those who count themselves as Christians to remember that there is a far greater bailout that they have been given at a considerably greater expense.

Adios to Mike and the Mad Dog

I'm going to pour one out on the curb for Mike and the Mad Dog sports radio program, as Chris Russo left the show and radio station WFAN.

Since 1989, Mike Francesa and Chris "Mad Dog" Russo have been doing their schtick since 1989, taking over weekday afternoons in the place of Pete Franklin, who forever will be an moron in my mind for his idiotic comment after a news break providing an update on the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and shooting of unarmed students, flippantly encouraging people to "go out and buy an eggroll" as as sign of support. 

The Mike and the Mad Dog show opened with Russo shouting "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAND GOOD AFTERNOON, EVERYBODY!!! HOW ARE YOU TODAY???"  They knew their sports, and you could always count on some good back and forth arguments.  Russo, an avid San Francisco Giants fan, was a member of the anti-Yankees "Crack Committee", and thoroughly enjoyed sparring with Francesa, who was a devout backer of the Bronx Bombers.  Some people I know have mentioned that they've grown to dislike the show, feeling that both Mike and Chris have steadily gotten more and more antagonistic, pompous, and condescending towards callers to the show that dared to disagree and not genuflect in the shadow of their greatness.  I tend to agree with this, though I think they've actually gotten a little more listener-friendly in recent years.

I have a special place in my heart for this radio show, as it really was a staple through high school as I sat at my desk each afternoon and poured through Calculus, Earth Science, Global Studies, Physics, and Chemistry homework.  There's nothing that kills brain cells like balancing formulas and developing proofs, so I'm really glad I had the chance to hear Mike and Chris debate about topics such as Will Clark's merits as an MVP candidate while I plowed through the drudgery of high school busywork.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Playing With House Money in Your Father's Casino

The day returning from vacation is often a little tough for me. There's something wonderful about putting aside all the cares of the world aside for a few days and spending quality time with the family, without the ambient noise of deadlines, office politics, competing priorities, conflict mediation, and the always looming pressure of having to make a good impression which will lead to the next raise and next promotion. In essence, the angst I experience returning to work after time off is when I think my idolatry of work becomes most obvious.

When I was at Wharton, I learned a well known marketing research technique known as "laddering" which helped ascertain the true root cause around why people liked a product. So a rough example would be:

"Why do you like that sports car?"
"Because it has a lot of horsepower."
"Why do you like to have a lost of horsepower?"
"So I can drive fast."
"Why do you want to drive fast?"
"So I can speed past other cars on the highway."
"Why do you want to speed past other sports cars on the highway?"
"Because chicks dig it when I pass other sports cars."
"Why is it important that chicks dig it?"
"Because when chicks dig it, they want to ride with me in my car."
"So why is that important?"
"Because I seek female companionship."

So through a number of follow-up questions, you've essentially boiled down a man's desire for a sports car into a desire for female companionship.

In that same way, the search for significance at work, when boiled down, emerges as a longing for things that a Christian knows for a fact they cannot ultimately attain through promotions or raises. I've done this laddering exercise a few times when I've been stressed at work and ultimately, even at most altruistic, it comes down to "I want to provide for my family" or worse, "I want the freedom to retire early and not spend my best years running the rat race." Ultimately, these well-intentioned goals are things that God can give me in His perfect providence and will. Matthew 6:16 is clear in admonishing us not to worry, but to instead trust in a God who has provided food for the birds and has adorned the lilies in majestic splendor.

This isn't a license to be irresponsible at work, but rather a reminder that it's fruitless to drive oneself to grief over much of which we have little control over. Quite plainly, I need to constantly remind myself to be faithful, and let the Lord handle the results. I am reminded in Daniel 1:9 about God's dominion over the hearts and minds over those even who don't acknowledge His lordship. In that same way, I can find peace in knowing that God ultimately can propel me as high or as low in my career as He sees fit. And my prayer is that if the price of earthly glory for me is to be pulled away from my Lord, I'd rather wallow in career mediocrity.

In a much larger sense, it's good to be reminded that the upside on this side of glory doesn't compare to that which we can look forward to. I am infinitely blessed to have the opportunities I do and the material possessions that I have. To coin a casino phrase, I'm playing with "house money" - with chips that I did not earn to play in this game of life. I'm also playing in my Father's casino, where the river card will turn me into a winner whenever He sees fit.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Flawed, but Wonderful

I finally finished Stephen Ambrose's To America, a collection of musings and memories from one of the more accomplished historians in my lifetime.  Unlike my wife Sarah, I'm a terrible reader, so in the four years it took me to read this book, Sarah probably read around one hundred books. This is not an exaggeration.  But in fairness to me, it's not as if I wasn't reading other things in drips and drabs during the past four years.

One of the points that Ambrose makes in his book constantly, is that with all the flaws and faults of the United States - from slavery to the despicable treatment of Native Americans, from incarceration of Japanese-Americans to our still existing struggles with racism and classism - is still the greatest country in the world.  The book pulls no punches about missteps that have been made, but makes clear that the role that the United States has played in the world has been overwhelmingly positive, from the fight of fascism during World War II and the nation building of post-war Japan, Germany, and South Korea.  Despite harsh criticism from those outside and inside this nation, the American evangelism of individual rights, freedom and democracy has been a force which has ultimately served the good of this world.

The same can be said for the Church.  The beloved bride of Christ is not without flaws and faults, but to still endures to proclaim, administer, and to enforce the law of Christ, gathering and building up of the saints, and advancing the Kingdom of shalom in every area of life.  I've heard too many stories of people who have been wounded by bad experiences in a church. Maybe they've felt unfairly judged or marginalized.  In some cases, they've tried to reach out for help and have felt ignored.  Others might have been used, exploited, and discarded.  Sadly, I have friends who have experienced this.

I remember once hearing that "Christians are the only people who shoot their wounded."  I cringe at the truth of that statement.  There are people who have sinned and have repented, only to have grace not extended.  Too often, I know of churches who preach grace as people come in the door, but in practice, eliminate grace for those who are inside the church.  As a result, there are communities of faith where there is little authenticity or depth.  Forgiveness is a one-time deal, and if you sin once inside the church, keep it to yourself or suffer the consequences.

Yes, there are churches that don't care about the poor.  There are churches which are far more concerned with outward appearances than that which defiles within.  There are churches which are fraught with corruption, power struggles, divisions, and slander.

But it still is the primary vessel which God uses to bring redemption to this world.  The Church will continue to progress in its mission to call people to repentance and salvation in Christ. The Church will continue to bring spiritual, emotional and physical healing in Christ's Name. It is still the beloved bride of Christ.  And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

So You'd Prefer Little Gymnast Robots?

I caught a couple of minutes of the women gymnastics competition tonight, specifically a less than stellar balance beam routine performed by a young Romanian gymnast.  Bart Connor, a former Olympian and NBC gymnastics commentator spent about five minutes observing (or lamenting) of how the Romanian gymnastics program has lost its edge since its years as a powerhouse which churned out the likes of his wife, Nadia Comaneci.

Connor mentioned the "lack of intensity" of these new Romanian gymnasts, and how in the past they would spend the time before their performances constantly practicing their routines with razor-sharp precision and focus.   These new Romanian gymnasts had the audacity to make conversation amongst themselves around the chalk stand.  The horror!  You could almost hear Bart Connor with his SNL grumpy old man voice: "The Romanian gymnasts used to be unsmiling silent automatons rotating like a hinge and we used to like it that way!

And here's the kicker.  The poor gymnast, who admittedly wasn't that good, fell off the beam and was subsequently hugged compassionately by her coach.  This led to a flabbergasted Bart Connor sputtering, "That wouldn't have ever happened in past Romanian teams!" and I'm convinced he was disappointed, as if he would've preferred the coach to slap the girl across the face and stuff her in a suitcase on the first flight to Bucharest.

So let's assume that while you need to strive for the best of both worlds (you want nurturing guidance which also drives people to success), there comes a point where there's a trade off between iron-fisted discipline and a nurturing and comforting "I'm proud of you no matter what" graciousness, I'll take the latter every day of the week.  If the price of freedom and a teenager's joy is that she misses out on a gold medal, so be it.

Now please excuse me as I force Daniel to practice piano for another hour.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Let the Games Begin

The 2008 Summer Games have begun, and Sarah and I are watching Bob Costas and Joshua Cooper Ramo provide color commentary as over 15,000 Chinese performers put on a spectacle for the ages.  I have to admit, it's pretty awesome, and I can't imagine how amazing it must be to actually have the chance to witness this live.  Heck, Cirque du Soleil takes my breath away, so this would probably give me a coronary.  So Jason Lin, Sam Byun, and Grace Jan - if you happen to be there at the stadium, I'm pretty envious.

Just for kicks and giggles, I decided to find out who this Joshua Cooper Ramo actually is.  Apparently, he's a guru on the political, economic and business environments in China and has some lofty credentials, serving as a Senior Advisor to Goldman Sachs and as a Managing Editor of Time.  I always find interesting this phenomena of Caucasian guys who are fascinated by all things Chinese, and to their credit develop a mastery in the subject matter and the language that puts people of Chinese heritage like myself to shame.  Of course, the snide explanation is that Joshua Cooper Ramo is a guy with yellow fever that wanted to impress a Chinese girl he had a fascination with in high school, but surely there's more to it.  I have to admit that there's something alluring and mysterious about the Chinese culture.  Maybe since it's in my blood I can't appreciate it.  

I wonder if there are reverse scenarios, where renowned American expert Wu Xia-Ping is brought in to provide insight on Americans, and his Chinese co-host giggles with respectful fascination because Wu seems to speak intelligently about Jessica Simpson and Johnny Knoxville and can pronounce things like "Double Whopper with Cheese" without an accent.

Wow, I just saw a decked out Sarah Brightman singing a song in Mandarin with (presumably) a famous Chinese singer.  What hit the unintentional comedy scale was the wild contrast between these two performers.  On one hand, you have a statuesque Sarah Brightman wearing a Oscar de la Renta dress with diamonds and silver ornaments.  Standing to her left, you have this pudgy Chinese dude wearing what seems to be a black t-shirt and gray sweatpants.  I'm serious, you wouldn't be shocked if you read in tomorrow's paper that the original Chinese singer got sick at the last second, and one of the stagehands in a burst of nationalistic pride ran up to sing with Sarah Brightman.

By the way, has anyone noticed that while we're watching everyone sing songs and in a demonstration of global peace and goodwill, there is a brewing war going on between Russia and Georgia?  Goodness, people are getting killed as tanks and planes continue to lay havoc in South Ossetia while we watch acrobats dance around with candles on their heads.  There was a quick video shot of George Bush having some words with Vladimir Putin, and Bob Costas made a borderline idiotic remark about how they were probably talking about how much they like the drum demonstration.  Yeah, I can see that:

George:  Hey, Vlad, how about those Chinese and those drums?  By the way, you're not going to bring out nukes against Georgia are you?  You'll keep it non-radioactive, right?

Vlad: Very impressive percussionists, indeed.  No, I think we'll just continue a steady stream of air strikes in key military targets and take out some barracks.  Maybe we'll talk more at the emergency United Nations Security Council meeting.  I'm going to the snack bar to get an egg roll - you want one?

Seriously though, I pray that peace prevails, especially in the shadow of an event which stands for the antithesis of international war.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Brett Favre Brings His Gunslingin' to the Meadowlands

I was pretty surprised to hear that the Jets completed a trade for now ex-Packers legend Brett Favre. The guys a far ways off from his vintage years, but the guy can still gun the football and he'll bring some much needed excitement into a franchise that went 4-12 last year and is going to have trouble getting out of the shadow of the Super Bowl champion Giants.

The pundits seem to disagree in terms of whether he'll be a good fit. John Clayton seems to think it'll be a bad fit, but others maintain that it's not going to be a step back in talent, given that you had noodle-armed Chad Pennington and erratic Kellen Clemens as the alternatives. I have no idea how Favre will do in the swirling winds of the Meadowlands, but it'll at least be interesting. I'll give fearless predictions later, but I'm inclined to think that this puts the Jets in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Here's something interesting. I hear much this morning about how Favre and his wife are really small town Mississippi folk who aren't that fond in the big city, but members of Jets management reminded him that the Jets play games in the Meadowlands and practice in Florham Park, which are both in New Jersey. Many of the Giants and the Jets make their residence in Jersey, such as recently retired Michael Strahan who lived recently in Montclair. Wouldn't it be a kick in the head to find out that the newest resident of Short Hills is Brett Favre, and bumping into him frequently at the Short Hills Mall. I can see it right now: "Brett, I loved you in There's Something About Mary, but you really should be calling some more slant and go routes..."

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Most Segregated Day of the Week

There's a fascinating article on on "Why many Americans prefer their Sundays segregated," which is an issue which I have wrestled and lived through during much of my life as a Christian.

When I was a university student at the University of Pennsylvania, I largely chose InterVarsity over Living Water, the college fellowship associated with Chinese Christian Church & Center because I wanted to attend a multi-ethnic fellowship.  In high school, my friends were almost exclusively Asian and I anticipated that I would marry someone who was Asian and likely go to an Asian church post-college, so why not take these four years to experience the fullness of the diversity of the Body of Christ?

I had a blast during my four years at InterVarsity, where I experienced some of my deepest growth.  I was discipled by Lee Huang (who was Taiwanese) and had rich friendships with people whose last names included Yu, Lu, Park, Lai, Tan, Ng, Shih, Tsai, Tong, Chen, Hsu and Cho.  I was very proud of myself for extending myself out of my comfort zone to reach out to strange and interesting Asian-Americans who were not from Tappan, NY.

But seriously though, I did forge friendships with non-Asians who certainly broadened by view of not just race, but how different people experienced sonship with Christ.  I hung out with people like Lisa Stellino (caucasian), Ian Sneed (caucasian), and Steve Russell (Jamaican).  After college I went on missions with another InterVarsity friend, Eric Dicus (caucasian).  My theology and study of Scripture were led by staff workers such as Dave & Shannon Lamb (caucasian) and Hamlet Vasquez (Hispanic).  Were the bulk of my deeper friendships Asian?  Sure they were - but my experience wouldn't have been as rich if I didn't have the chance to grow in Christ with those who were not.

After graduation, I ended up in Chinese Christian Church of NJ (CCCNJ), largely because my father was friends with an Elder there, and I was looking to join any decent evangelical church in a location which, at the time, to me seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.  I think the "ethnic" composition of the church was less of a driving force than the fact that I had a personal introduction into the church.  If my father's friend were an elder of a multi-ethnic church, would I have gone and stayed?  I think I probably would have.

That's not to say that being part of a Chinese church didn't have it's share of, let's say, comforts.  Going to lunch at a place like Hunan Noodle House was never a bone of contention, and with a shared heritage, background, and in some cases, second language, there was a degree of familiarity that made relationships easy.  Cultural misunderstandings never got in the way of making decisions or making observations that might otherwise offend.  There was a tacit chain of command and respect for elders that was inherent of the DNA of the church.  Young adults would listen to the older folks, and teens would obey the commands of the young adults without question, or else parents would be informed and would act accordingly lest the family lose face by harboring a "bad kid".

I've heard on more than one occasion that there have been studies done that have shown that "uni-ethnic" churches (I'm including an overwhelmingly "white" church in the category) tend to grow faster (numerically) than churches which have a significant diversity in the pews.  The reasons that are given make sense to me.  People find familiarity and "comfort" being with people with whom they share a lot in common, and the this lends itself to deeper friendships, and even marriage for single Christians who hold the value of wanting to marry someone within either own ethnicity.  Members bring visitors of the same ethnic group, and the cycle simply perpetuates itself.

Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, where I serve as an Elder, has around a 50% Asian, 40% Caucasian, and 10% other composition.  I think it's also fair to say that the Asian population as a percentage has increased over the past couple of years.  When I mentioned this to in passing to an Asian member, she hypothesized that the increase in Asians and corresponding decrease in Caucasian phenomena would continue because "Caucasian Americans can't deal with being the minority.  Most Asians have dealt with being the only Asian kid in class, but Caucasians aren't used to that, and they don't like it."  A fellow Elder, on the other hand, speculated that one of the driving forces might be "how we do service", most notably the way we do praise.  Perhaps too much Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Matt Redman, and Parachute Band?  Maybe, though the last time I checked, those musicians are all white, or play for predominantly white congregations.

At the end of the day, I don't think we can bind the consciences of people who opt to worship in congregations where they feel they can enjoy greater depths of relationships with fellow Christians of the same ethnicity, as long as by doing so, they neither devalue nor marginalize other Christians of other backgrounds.  Does it take an effort to relate to people who haven't been raised with parents with similar idiosyncrasies, having battled the same spiritual idols, or having eaten the same strange foods?  Sure it is.  I will say that I am spiritually richer having served, worshipped, and lived in communities with non-Asians friends.  Others eschew this opportunity at their own cost. 

Frankly, I think the even bigger dividing wall in churches is socioeconomic, not racial.  But that's for another day.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A View of Ocean View (Presbyterian Church)

Our family attended Ocean View Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) today as our vacation venue for Sunday service.  It's pretty much identical to Emmanuel, except for the absence of Asian people and people under the age of 50, having no contemporary praise music, and most importantly, the use of "debts" instead of "trespasses" in the Lord's Prayer.  In fact, the bulletin actually listed:
  • The Lord's Prayer ("debts")
... to make this absolutely clear.

The bulletin was also clear in communicating that outer ring of the communion cups contained grape juice and the inside rings contained wine, lest they stumbled the poor unsuspecting recovering alcoholic, or purists like our Will Fehringer who insist upon having wine.

But seriously, it was fantastic to worship this morning.  One thing that Pastor mentioned in the congregational prayer was the need to "rest from our labor and abide in the work of God through Christ."  That's so important, and personally I struggle with this given my achievement-orientation and "do it myself" attitude.  I am utterly frustrated unless I'm "doing" something.  I suspect this is why I'm constantly multi-tasking.

What was difficult was trying to sit through the service with Daniel and Sophia, which is sort or like trying to guide a bull through a china shop.  Thankfully, we made it with a minimal amount of grumbling and irritated glances from those who were sitting around us.

But the folks at the church were mostly wonderful and warm.  It dawned upon me that when we talk about the (big "C") Church, these are the people who I will worship with together on the other side of Glory.  To these friendly octogenarians with warm smiles and hearty handshakes, my thanks for letting our family worship with you all on a summer day.

Between the boardwalk in Rehoboth and hitting the beach here in Sea Colony, I did catch the Yankee game on television and found myself:
  1. Thrilled, upon turning on the TV, that the Yankees had battled back from a 5-0 deficit to take a 8-5 lead.
  2. Furious and crushed after Mark Teixeira hit a grand slam to put the Angels up 9-8.  When the bases were loaded with Teixeira coming up to bat, I was screaming "Why are you letting Edwar Ramirez pitch to their best hitter with the game on the line???  Put in Rivera!!!"
  3. Thrilled as the Yankees rallied back in the bottom of the eighth to win the game 12-8.
Vacation's great.  Gotta hit the books and do some reading eventually.

The Frailty of Life

I was chilled to read of the story of a bus passenger who was apparently randomly stabbed to death by a fellow passenger.  I actually picked up this story on my Blackberry reading myself to sleep a few days ago, and couldn't help but think of how this reflected the frailty of life. Naturally, my heart went out to the the family of the victim, Tim McLean.

Think about it, you're taking a bus and lean your head against the window as you listen to your iPod, slowly drifting into a well-needed nap.  You wake up to your last seconds of life screaming in agony as a deranged maniac repeatedly plunges a knife through your neck.  To top it off, your assailant proceeds to separate your head from the rest of your body.  Terrifying.

On many occasions I'll nod off on my train ride home from work, and the last thing I'm thinking about is whether my seat mate will pull a butcher knife from his or her briefcase and perform involuntary life-ending surgery on me as I'm listening to a podcast.  The story served as a reminder of the frailty of life and how death can lurk around the corner undetected.  To be clear, I'm not advocating that people should live on eggshells and update their obituary on a daily basis.  But there tends to be a state of mind that we have that lives outside of the reality of death.  People often life with a world view and perspective that is completely out of whack with the fact that (A) life is precious and (B) given that life is precious, we should treasure those things that are eternally important.

So as a Christian, it boggles my mind when people hear the gospel and respond to it with, "Eh, I'll deal with that when I'm older and I have time."  Wait a second, you've been told that you can have eternal life through Christ's death on the cross and be saved from the depths of hell, and you're going to put it on your "to-do" list twenty years down the line?  People need to realize that car accidents, aneurysms, plane crashes and even psychotic bus seat mates happen.

It never makes sense to put off something that has eternal ramifications with the presumption that you'll always live to the 77.8 years of average life expectancy of an American.  Look, I'd like to drive across the United States in an RV when I'm older, but if God calls me home early, I can live with the consequences of not having gone through that excursion.  The decision for Christ is slightly more weighty, I'd say.

On the other point, here's an example of the lack of perspective on life thing.  During a time of tragedy or every time an athlete is diagnosed or succumbs to a disease, sports journalists will use the "this really helps put our sport into perspective" line, and then pontificate for a minute or two around how in the big scheme of things, sports aren't that important and life is bigger than the Super Bowl and World Series.  

Here's a novel thought - why don't we always keep that perspective without the aid of people dying to remind us of it?  Hey, I love sports, and anyone who knows me will peg me as a big-time sports fanatic.  But even I recognize that the exposure to all things athletic gets a little over the top.

Another thought on the tragic incident.  The suspected perpetrator is Vince Weiguang Li, a 40-year old man who delivered newspapers and worked at McDonald's - not exactly the picture of the stereotypical Asian success story.  I couldn't help but read one reader comment which somehow found a connection between Li and Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter, arguing that the emotional repression of Asian culture leads to mental health problems and explosions of rage.   Not sure I'm buying that one.  What I will say is that the Canadian reader comments are tame compared to those of their American counterparts during the Virginia Tech shootings, where at least one user kept putting up posts about "BRING[ing] BACK THE GOOK EXCLUSION ACT!!!"  

How about those understanding Canadians, eh?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Pride of Taiwan Won't Be Coming Back Soon

It looks like Chien-Ming Wang won't be riding in on white horse to save the Yankees season, with Joe Girardi nixing any hope of Wang returning from his injury to pitch in September.  This is another blow for my Yanks, who are banking on pitchers like Darrell Rasner and Sidney Ponson to keep their streak of twelve post-season appearances alive.  As for Wang, his disappearance from Yankees Universe has also rendered my parents (and probably millions of other Taiwanese people) apathetic about baseball.  

In fairness to Sidney Ponson, he was lights out yesterday, pitching a scoreless seven innings, only to have the Yankees bats go silent in a 1-0 loss to the Angels.  Goodness, if Sidney Ponson pitches shutout ball against the Angels, you have to win that game.  Thankfully, we're presently winning 5-2 with Mussina on the mound so we might take today's game.  We'd better.  Given tomorrow's matchup is John "I almost threw a no-hitter against the Red Sox on my last start" Lackey versus Darrell "what am I doing starting for the New York Yankees" Rasner, we might be looking at getting swept.

As I said to fervent Red Sox fan and friend Dave Chamberlain recently, I've pretty much conceded that this is the year that the post-season streak is going to end.  No Wang, Posada, Matsui, Hughes, or Kennedy for the bulk of the season.  There are hospitals that are healthier than the Yankees' roster.   If the Yankees somehow squeeze it out and make it, it'll be gravy.

Of course, there are two other interpretations of my concession to Dave.  First, I'm setting expectations low to protect myself from profound disappointment.  Second, the last thing I want to do is set myself up for gloating from a Red Sox fan.

Look, I have a couple of good friends who are big-time Boston sports fans, but can you think of a faster transformation of people turning from self-effacing lovable losers to pompous blowhards than Red Sox fans?

Vacation Church Shopping

One of the early traditions we've established as a family is taking a week-long beach vacation.  Two summers ago we did Wildwood Crest, last summer we went to Cape Cod, and this summer we find ourselves in Bethany Beach, Delaware with my parents, brother, and sister-in-law.

I try to find a place for us to worship on the Sunday morning while we're on vacation, lest it seem that vacation means vacation away from the important discipline of meeting together and worshipping with God's people, even if it's a community of believers who we'll see once and never again.  So with the help of the Yellow Pages and Google Maps, I scour our vacation venue to local churches.  Then I do the brain-intensive work of considering a number of criteria:
  • What is the church's denomination?
  • How far is the church from us?
  • What time is the service?
Note that these are the criteria which are readily available on a website.  In reality, I'm still pretty much making a decision in the dark.  Churches within the same denomination have wildly diverse types of worship services.  Even within the PCA, a service at Redeemer in NYC and Covenant Presbyterian Church in Short Hills offers significant differences in terms of preaching styles, music, and use of liturgy.  Dare I say it, there are some things that Redeemer would do "between the lines" within the Book of Church Order that Covenant would absolutely forbid.

Who knows?  We might find ourselves in a church service tomorrow as the only Asian attendees of a Pentecostal service.  For a Sunday, I'll be quite content with hearing the Word, singing a chorus or two of praise, and praying with others under the lordship of Christ.

What these vacation church visits also does is give me an appreciation for the concept of the "home church".  Very much like home itself, there's a wonderful sense of familiarity and belonging.  As the Cheers theme song goes: "Where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came. You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name." 

Naturally, there's much for that "good community" that makes our church, or any church, tick.  But maybe I'll save that for another post.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Launching the Suburban Family Guy Blog

When I was at doing my MBA at Columbia, I sat with many friends (in a place we self-effacingly called "Slackers Row") near the back of the classroom listening, taking notes, and occasionally instant-messaging and tweaking our Fantasy Sports rosters.  I wasn't like "Mitch", who was brilliant and would constantly raise his hand and offer pithy comments.  I wasn't even like my friend Henry, who would offer insightful comments every now and then.  I was one of the guys who hardly spoke up unless the professor cold-called me or I was slated to "breakdown" a Harvard Business School case to open the class.  To be clear, my grades were fine, thank you very much.

This is what I think happened: I entered business school being relatively young compared to my new classmates, and that caused me to be a little more reticent that usual (people who know me would attest that I rarely run out of things to say or opine on).  Once that tone was set, I felt increasing pressure that if I was going to raise my hand and share something with my classmates, these self-styled future masters of the the universe, it better be earth-shattering and brilliant, something along the lines of a Nobel Prize-quality economic corollary or an iron-clad challenge to the Markowitz capital markets theory.  Otherwise, my classmates might look at each other incredulously and say, "We waited two semesters and two months for that?" Unfortunately, that moment of enlightenment never came, and I remained the quiet classmate.

In a similar vein, I've held off on starting a blog.  Well, at least that's one reason.  A few years, my friend Victor asked me if I blogged.  As I was under the impression that he was actually doing so, I said (with a smile), "No, I'm not so arrogant and self-important to think that someone actually cares to read my musings."  I still believe that, by the way.  I don't write for an audience - I write to put convoluted thoughts on screen so it has an appearance of clarity.  It's cathartic.

And yes, there was the "My goodness, I've been holding out on blogging for such a long time, that I'd better come up with some heavy musings that would rival Plato, or at least Lee Huang's Urban Christian blog."  I think I've gotten over that.  My wife Sarah is a wonderful writer and I think she derives a lot of joy from blogging, and while she cares that people are edified by what she writes, I think simply the act of writing and organizing thoughts in the midst of her crazy life serves as an outlet for her spiritual and creative being. 

So my blog will be about anything and everything.  It's not going to be exclusively about my marriage (I think Sarah would have an issue with that), my kids, my faith, my sports teams, politics, my church, or my pop culture.  I just want to write.