Friday, September 19, 2008

Success and Spiritual Growth

I wanted to expound upon a friend's comment during the financial crisis that "A lot of people lost tons of money--probably good for their spiritual lives," in the previously posted "Financial Meltdowns and Moral Hazards".

I hate to say it, but I absolutely have seen an inverse correlation between my own success and my spiritual discipline. My heart is deceptive that it overrides my intellectual knowledge of my constant reliance upon God with the belief that things are good and I can handle things by myself. There's a reason why Jesus said that "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19), and a large part of that is that the illusion of self-sufficiency pulls people away from the Gospel, which is at its core a humbling message that we actually need One outside of ourselves. At least I'm in good company - the Israelites frequently fell into disobedience and rebellion in times of plenty. The bad news (or maybe it's good news) is that God often brought them back though loving discipline through a brutal foreign occupation or similar attention-getting event. But that's sometimes what we need, isn't it? If I'm honest with myself, many of the greatest times of spiritual growth have been in the midst of intense emotional hardship, when I am figuratively and literally face down on my knees in surrender.

As an old InterVarsity staff worker friend once mused to me, "Don't you hate it when you ask God to break you and He does?"

Patriotism and Racism

I recently read of Dallas Mavericks forward Josh Howard's disrespectful treatment of "The Star-Spangled Banner" during a charity event and what saddened me was both the act itself as well as the response from some people after a clip of his offending comments were posted on YouTube.

Howard states during the playing of the anthem, "'The Star-Spangled Banner' is going on. I don't celebrate this [expletive]. I'm black." I'm not sure if he was trying to make some sort of political statement that the existence of racism, personal and institutional, in this country gives us every reason to disrespect an anthem which represents the country. I'm not sure if he was trying to be funny. But I wish he would recognize that he has greatly benefit from this country which he chooses not to celebrate, as someone who recently signed a 4-year / $40 million contract and enjoys the fruits of a free-market system where we pay outstanding athletes ridiculous amounts of money which dwarf the salaries of teachers, scientific researchers, police officers, and our armed forces. And ironically, the anthem (and nation by association) he doesn't celebrate represents a free society where he can express disdain for his own country without legal repercussion.

As I minority, I recognize that racism still exists in the United States in a number of forms. I believe that there is still a glass ceiling for women and a bamboo ceiling for Asians. In the course of my life, I have been called every racist Asian slur in the book. But I recognize that the life I have been given as an American, with all its warts, is still a privilege to have.  I am proud to be an American, and would like to think I would never show disrespect in the way that Josh Howard has.

Howard's rant also, not surprisingly, exposed that racial relations are still raw underneath a thin surface of calm. Behind the veil of anonymity and cryptic user ID's, words do reveal an undercurrent of distrust, dislike, and anger. Yes, racism is still very much alive.

Here's a comment from one YouTube user, logansGT, in response to the video: "These niggers need to leave the U.S. and go to Africa, sit in a mud hut "crib" and pick lice out of their hair!" This was not an outlier comment.

People like Josh Howard and logansGT are clearly part of the problem. What I will say is that despite the importance of rooting out ignorance, racism is at its heart is not an educational problem but a spiritual one. This is where the power of the Gospel comes in, with the reality that Christ is uniting all things and every tribe under him, and that in terms of discipleship and sonship, He is eliminating the distinctives which divide our human race (Galatians 3). Is the Church doing its part? Can I be doing more?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Financial Meltdowns and Moral Hazards

In the past week, we've seen same remarkable developments in the financial sector with the sale of Merrill Lynch and bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, as well as the $85B Fed bailout of AIG. I'm having trouble viewing this as a pure spectator, knowing that I have friends which work for these firms that are surely reeling over job security and possibly the lost of a lot of money tied up in bonuses, retirement and restricted stock.

I was particularly moved by one friend who sent an e-mail to a small group of people (including me) yesterday morning, asking us to pray for "the financial system to not completely melt down and, on a more personal note, specifically that I remember to honor God in all I do." This same friend wrote later on that evening, "A lot of people lost tons of money--probably good for their spiritual lives." It wasn't a vindictive comment, because this friend was one of those people that lost tons of money. As far as the comment around how financial hardship, especially in the light of excessive wealth, can help people to regain perspective in terms of the purpose of life and their spiritual bearings, I think there's some credence there.

There's been a lot of discussion around the obligation of the government to come to the rescue of these firms, and an article in the New York Times by Joe Nocera outlines a pervasive culture of denial and draws parallels between bailing out firms and bailing out individual mortgage holders. At the end, I do believe that there has to be some degree of accountability to accept the downside risks of these transactions from both an institutional and individual level.

This is where the "moral hazard" argument comes in against bailing anybody out. If you create an atmosphere where there are real consequences from taking on a mortgage beyond your means (losing your house) or from assuming too much risk buying volatile mortgage-backed securities (going bankrupt), you rightfully punish the reckless and affirm the good sense of the people and firms that used better judgment.

But the reality is that especially in the case of firms, as a recent AP article attests, there's an uneven standard governing which companies get a government bailout and which don't. Two key factors seem to be the number of jobs affected and the impact on the economy vis a vis the broader financial and housing markets.

The first factor is best illustrated by the Chrysler bailout in 1979 in which the bailout was clearly done to preserve American manufacturing jobs, but one could argue that this was merely a prelude to a period of government-subsidized incompetence in the American car industry. Furthermore, I don't think any friends of mine at AIG, which did get bailed out, has any sense of job security at this moment.

The second key factor around impact upon the larger economy is also what differentiates the bailout of the firm and the individual mortgage holder. Is this fair? Probably not, and there are millions of angry people screaming things along the lines of “Why does the government continue to bail out the rich companies, but let the ordinary person go without a life preserver, unless you count the little $600 they sent out? Whose home got saved from foreclosure on that?” as compiled on an MSNBC article.

There are no simple solutions. The reactionary thought of "let Darwinism rule and see companies like AIG, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac die", while leading to some vindictive glee picturing a CEO in a three-piece suit sobbing on his desk, would ultimately be worse for everybody. There's no point in holding on to a principle of disincentive which broadly hurts the larger society, which is essentially cutting off the nose to spite the face. Unfortunately, the taxpayers will have to hold their nose (no irony intended), help atone for the misjudgments of others, and try to weather the storm.

When Fantasy Sports Ruin Your Enjoyment of Sports

I'm a big sports fan, so when I was invited to join a fantasy sports league I happily accepted. For those of you who are less familiar with this increasingly popular pastime, fantasy sports are neither a showdown between characters such as Gandalf, Merlin, and Aslan, nor is it a competition with sexual overtones, as the name may suggest.

In essence, participants in a league are randomly allocated (though you can set preferences) real-life players in a draft, and can trade them with other participants and replace them as they see fit. The object of the game is to manage a team which will, when stats are aggregated, "beat" the other teams in the fantasy league. In a nutshell, you're rooting for the individual players on your fantasy team to do well statistically.

A problem arises when you have players on your fantasy team who either are playing for a team you dislike, or are playing against the team you root for in "real life". For example, six years ago I had Roy Halladay of the Blue Jays as the ace on my fantasy team. He was slated to pitch in an early season game against my beloved Yankees.

I happened to attend this game in person, and I was inhibited from completely rooting for a Yankees rout because I was caught up worrying about Halladay's ERA (how many runs a pitcher gives up every nine innings) and WHIP (how many walks and hits a pitcher gives up per inning). That being said, there wasn't a question that "real life" allegiances prevailed, and I was clearly going to root for the Yankees to win, but found myself hoping for a 1-0 Yankee victory with Halladay striking out 15 Yankees in the process. I rationalized that at least I'd get a Yankee win or a Halladay win, so I was ensured of breaking even.

Unfortunately, Halladay pitched a gem, but lost the win (which is an important fantasy sports stat) when Jays closer Kelvim Escobar blew a three-run lead in the bottom of the ninth. Despite being free to completely root for the Yankees to go ahead and win the game, the Blue Jays won in extra innings. So much for me breaking even.

I had a similar situation in the past Monday night football game between the Eagles and Cowboys. I was rooting for the Eagles to win, but with Marion Barber, Jason Witten, and Nick Folk on my fantasy football team, I was a little conflicted. The end result was that the Cowboys sadly won, but my Barber, Witten, and Folk piled on some nice stats that got me a win in my fantasy league.

In general, I think it's better to watch sports without agonizing whether a particular player on a team you couldn't care less about broke 100 yards rushing.

I'm sure someday I'll realize that the enjoyment of pretending that I'm the general manager of a sports team isn't worth the time or angst that comes with managing a fantasy team.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Visceral Reaction of Fear

I've had a handful of fears that I would categorize as irrational. One such fear was a fear of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series, which I found initially engrossing and ultimately extremely frightening.

I was introduced to the series as a six or seven-year old kid, and my older brother would read them to me, and then with nuanced effect, ask me the question which marked the fork in the road, such as, "Do you trust Brutus Clancy and follow him to the attic? Or do you sense a trap and run to the rear stairwell?"

It was great suspense and great fun so I actually had my parents buy me the box set. By the time I had gotten home and the books were put into my room, I was whimpering like a puppy and bawling that I didn't want the books in my room. My brother, being a good sport, was kind enough to put the books in his room, and I proceed to avoid eye contact with them for the rest of the time we lived in that house. So what happened?

Well, I think the fact that a large number of "possible endings" ended in some sort of grim death or other form of despair started to emotionally affect me. When you're a six-year old kid, literature that ends with, "You have enough oxygen in the cedar closet for three hours. Your disappearance will remain a mystery forever" tends to freak the living daylights out of you. Add to that Paul Granger's faux-realism illustrations, often of "just before death" or "scary bad guy" scenes, and all the ingredients were there to send me quivering under the covers in the fetal position. There's actually a fake Choose Your Own Adventure cover here that captures what terrified me so much. I got a good chuckle out of this, but I think there's a little six-year old inside of me that still is a little unsettled by it.

All in all, the fear of this book series is more funny than anything, and it seems silly in retrospect. Such is the case with many fears, I'd say.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Big Dogs and Tall Weeds

There are many surprising joys that I encounter as a young father, and one of those things are magical "father to son" moments with my three-year old son, Daniel. You know, "guy to guy" moments which are special because the bond of the gender where I can teach him what it means to be a man. "Peeing" is sort of one of those things, and I find that Daniel now treats it as a competitive sport. So when we pee in the toilet (feel free to stop reading right now if this is completely grossing you out), Daniel will say "I win!" after he finishes. I have no idea what his criteria is, whether it's who started first or who ended first. Personally, I think if there's going to a peeing contest, the only real criteria is how long or how far you can pee.

We went to the mall this afternoon, and I was charged with accompanying Daniel to the bathroom. So despite the bathroom being pretty crowded, we saddle up in adjacent urinals and do our business. Daniel finishes and shouts, "I win!"

I turn to him and shoot back, "Oh yeah? Whose is longer?" ... in front of a bunch of strangers who obviously didn't know I was referring to the length of the "peeing".

Embarassment city.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Transitioning to the Real World

You might have heard recently that NBA rookies Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur were recently busted with marijuana and women in their hotel room during the NBA's rookie transition program. The program, instituted by NBA commissioner David Stern (who deserves due credit for being one of the most brilliant men in professional sports), helps players who are breaking in adapt to the NBA around topics such as media relations, drugs, guns, financial stewardship, and groupies. If only Chalmers and Arthur were simultaneously broadcasting their escapades during an interview with ESPN while using their signing bonuses to buy illegal handguns for these groupies with drugs, they'd manage to violate everything they were going to learn at the conference.

The program is a terrific idea because it gives people who are fresh out of college (many who have only attended a year or two) a little perspective and guidance around what is certainly a brand new world. If you take into consideration that many of these rookies didn't grow up with much money or a lot of guidance, it's naive to think these kids will figure it out on the fly. Suddenly a young man is given a lot of money and surrounded by bad temptations, bad influences, and it's a powder keg ready to go off. Frankly, the reality is that its not just NBA rookies that need this training. I'd argue that college graduates of all types and backgrounds have numerous "transitional" blindspots as they enter the working world - it's just that the blindspots vary in number and type.

I'd say, for example, that Christian college graduates, particuarly those who were active in Christian parachurch organizations such as InterVarsity, Campus Crusade, and Navigators, often struggle spiritually adapting to a new discipleship and ministry model where you don't have the benefit of having a prayer partner down the hall in your dorm, or the comfort of the spoon-fed structure of small group and large group, or the ease of needing only to relate to those people who are in your narrow demographic. Community in a church is a different ballgame, one which frankly takes a little more individual initiative and effort. But even for those college graduates who did "church" instead of "parachurch" aren't immune to the jarring new challenges of having a 60-80 hour job and being torn out of a "Christian-only" comfort zone. I can't help but think that the local church has a role to play to ease the transitions for these "fresh out of college" Christians. Hopefully, we can keep such efforts free of marijuana.

But the thing that I found funny about this story is that this whole thing happened Doral Arrowwood resort in Rye Brook, N.Y., where I happen to go every now and then for work reasons, as my company has an adjacent Learning Center and uses the resort hotel. In fact, I'll be there next week. So I might lie in the same bed that Michael Beasley used, or brush my teeth over the same sink that Derrick Rose spat in. I'm still debating whether I should ask the concierge if I can visit the infamous room where the two former Jayhawks made the news. If I smell funny next week, you'll know why.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Getting Ready for Opening Kickoff

So now that my Yankees are starting to catch mathematical-elimination playoff fever, I'm going to divert my sports affections to the NFL, where I'm playing in a 10-team fantasy league hosted by my b-school buddy's brother. A 10-team league pretty much means that every team is going to be stacked, with 8 or 9 Pro Bowlers on each team, thus making the league more about luck as opposed to shrewd drafting or finding a diamond in a rough.

My squad is listed below, so if you hear screaming in the horizon when one of these players tears an ACL, that would be me. Just kidding, it's not as if this is something cosmically important, like church softball.  Here's the roster of the "Millburn Mustangs":

QB Derek Anderson (Cle)
QB Jay Cutler (Den)
WR Torry Holt (StL)
WR Wes Welker (NE)
WR Hines Ward (Pit)
WR Devin Hester (Chi)
RB Marion Barber (Dal)
RB Clinton Portis (Was)
RB Selvin Young (Den)
TE Jason Witten (Dal)
TE Benjamin Watson (NE)
K Nick Folk (Dal)
K Josh Brown (StL)

D DeMeco Ryans (Hou)
D Lofa Taputu (Sea)
DB Marcus Trufant (Sea)
DB Brian Dawkins (Phi)
DB Kerry Rhodes (NYJ)
DL London Fletcher (Was)
DL Lance Briggs (Chi)

In "real life", we'll see the the history making Patriots defend their unprecedented perfect season... oh I'm sorry Patriot-fans, never mind.

So yes, the 2008-2009 season will see the defending Super Bowl Champion NY Football Giants taking on challengers to the throne.  Objectively, it's going to be a tough road for them to repeat.  Here are my picks:

NFC EAST: Cowboys
NFC NORTH: Vikings
NFC WEST: Seahawks
WILD CARDS: Eagles, Giants

AFC EAST: Patriots
AFC NORTH: Steelers
AFC WEST: Chargers
WILD CARDS: Browns, Jets

NFC Championship: Cowboys over Seahawks
AFC Championship: Patriots over Colts
Super Bowl: Patriots over Cowboys

For those of you who know my antipathy towards Boston sports teams, you have to laud my objectivity... or my efforts to jinx.

Jesus, Our Elder Brother

I've always had a harder time putting my head around the concept of Jesus as our "older brother", as opposed to Lord, Shepherd, Redeemer, etc. It's certainly not an incorrect or uncommon reference - Charlie Drew has alluded to Jesus as brother in more than one congregational prayer, and Hebrews 2:11-13 states:

11Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. 12He says, "I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises." 13And again, "I will put my trust in him."And again he says, "Here am I, and the children God has given me."

I think I tend to struggle with the label because at least in my own cultural context and personal experience, there's something about the relationship of a sibling that seems to remove the majesty or authority that Jesus is due. There's a certain degree of familiarity - but maybe that's exactly the point. It very effectively testifies to the magnitude of grace that has been given to the Christian, that the King of Kings would not be ashamed to call fallen mortals "brother".

I look at my son Daniel's relationship with my daughter Sophia as clues to how their relationship might provide glimpses of the "Jesus as brother" relationship. On Saturday we had dinner over at friends' house, and they had a cat. Daniel and Sophia were following the cat around, with Sophia cautiously crawling a couple of feet away while Daniel sat nearby on the foot of the stairwell. The cat suddenly arched his back and turned, and Sophia pretty much threw herself into Daniel's arms in fear, and hugged him tightly as she looked back at the cat. Daniel, who wasn't afraid, held Sophia tightly and you could almost see a smile on his face. He genuinely cared about Sophia and enjoyed making her feel safe and comfortable. And there was something about the familiarity they had with each other that made her turning to him easy. It's something that a parent loves to see, and is a nice glimpse of what Older Brother love looks like.