Friday, October 31, 2008

Your 2008 World Series Champion Philadelphia Phillies

Congratulations to the Philadelphia Phillies, who won the World Series after a tremendous 24-6 run to end the season.  The starting pitching was great, and the relief pitching was even better, and the combination of those who things will rarely fail you in the postseason. To take nothing away from the Phillies, the team got hot at the right time, and they have a World Championship to show for it.

As I had mentioned in an earlier post, I was pulling for the Phillies in light of the Yankees being out of the picture and my fond memories rooting for the 1993 NL-pennant winning team while I was at Penn.  I have a couple of buddies who are big-time fans and are relishing the victory.  One business school friend who actually was there to see the Game 5 clincher texted me with a simple "I'M SO HAPPY RIGHT NOW." Another friend wrote openly in his Facebook page that "in interest of public disclosure to his kids' teachers, [he was] announcing that his kids were not going to be in school if there was a victory parade." Sure enough, the Phillies pulled it off, and his kids witnessed something that hasn't been seen in Philadelphia in 25 years. That's a long time considering the city has four major sports teams.  That being said, Yankees fans will continue to mourn their eight year drought without a championship.

So now Phillies fans can look back and have a championship that nobody can take away from them.  If Adrian Cardenas and Josh Outman, key prospects the trade to bring Joe Blanton to the Phillies, end up developing into Miguel Tejada and Tom Glavine, you can always hold onto this moment.  If Brad Lidge suddenly gets haunted again by the memory of Albert Pujols taking him deep in the NLCS and forever plunges back into mediocrity, you can always hold onto this moment. If Ryan Howard suddenly turns into Rob Deer and Cole Hamels turns into Shawn Estes, you can always hold onto this moment.  Congrats - enjoy it.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Native Missionaries and the Short-Term "Tourists"

Recently, our associate pastor forwarded over to me an article which questioned the value of short-term missions, both to those who went and those who were who "ministered to". This article was of great interest to me, given my role as the chair of our church's missions committee as well as my creation of and board membership with Synergy Ministries.

I agree with many of the points made in the article.  Clearly the effect of a one or two-week missions trip is going to limited, especially if the person who is sent has expectations that his or her direct interactions with natives without speaking a lick of the local language is going to be the impetus for mass conversions.  

But short-term missions can definitely be valuable, largely if they (as the article suggests) focus on human capital, or equipping native missionaries to do things that they wouldn't otherwise be able to do.  The Synergy Ministries credo is to "oil the tractors in the harvest" by helping native missionaries be more efficient and cost-effective in running their ministries so they can, for example, spend less time buried in administrative busywork and more time in the field. There needs to be some recognition that as the native church grows, there's a stewardship question around whether if money spent sending people overseas for one or two-week stints (or even longer) would be better off given to native missionaries.

In his book "Revolution in World Missions", K.P. Yohannan hammers the foolishness of sending a Western missionary who is ignorant in terms of language, culture, and requires a certain lifestyle which is in any way different than that which is considered normal by native standards.  Neither the (wasteful) economics nor the (lower) impact makes sense.

As someone who leads a Missions Committee, this always leads to me ask the question (in a nice way), "Why should we commit $100,000 to send you to foreign country X when we can support ten native missionaries who actually speak the language?" or put another way, "What is unique about what your expertise which requires you to go forth so far away?  How do you plan on teaching these skills to the native church so you can 'work yourself out of a job'?"  And of course I want to see commitment and a strong sense of calling, not someone who is having trouble finding direction in their life and figures, "Hey, I think I'll do some Christian work overseas.  I love to travel and meet new and interesting people.  That'll be new and exciting..." and then quits after a year or two.  

From a short-term missions perspective, I think these questions still apply, though I do believe that there is value in using short-term missions as a means of providing what the article alluded to as learning opportunities which can impact for a lifetime the importance of the Great Commission and the vital components on praying, sending, and going.  I'd still want to see some investment in human capital and equipping the native ministries while that's happening. 

At Emmanuel, I really would love for people to wrestle about some of these questions.  But first people need to fundamentally have the Great Commission front and center in their hearts and minds so they can actually do so.  We're not there, and we need to get there.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Breaking the MLB Bamboo Ceil... Never Mind

As a big-time sports fanatic, I've always dreamed about being the GM of a baseball team.  That's right, while most normal folks dream about being the star pitcher or clutch power hitter, I wanted to watch the games from a box with my laptop while trying to identify good waiver wire pickups and shrewd trades.  This is probably why I'm such a sucker for playing fantasy sports, despite the fact it's an absolute waste of time.

When I was a freshman at Wharton, I figured I'd shoot for the stars and apply for a summer internship for a professional sports team.  I ended up sending out a bunch of resumes and cover letters, and actually got a call back from the New Jersey Nets.  I had a chance to interview for an internship in the front office, and I remember talking in my interview around how Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson might be an intriguing focus of marketing efforts. Unfortunately, my father absolutely forbid me to enter the field of sports management, calling me naive and telling me, "there are no Asians who succeed in this field, what makes you think you'll be the first?"  The dream over, I ended up working at Wyeth instead and the rest is history.  I love my dad, but that wasn't exactly the "reach for your dreams, son - I believe in you" moment that I'll be sharing at his next milestone birthday or eulogy.

However, there is a pioneer in Kim Ng, the assistant GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers who was previously the assistant GM of the Yankees.  Ng is highly esteemed in the industry and is a strong favorite to be both the first female and first Asian to become a GM of a major professional sports team.  She also gained some (probably) unwanted publicity when then-Mets scout Bill Singer made some racist remarks to Ng during an off-season baseball meeting.  She handled the episode with class, Singer was appropriately canned, and life went on.

Ng emerged as a strong candidate for the open GM position for the Seattle Mariners, and while it looked like the fit would've been intriguing on a couple of levels - in addition to being highly qualified, she'd be working in large Asian market for a team with Asian ownership (Nintendo). Alas, the Mariners announced today that they hired another guy, and the bamboo ceiling remains intact.

Keep at it, Kim.  I'm still rooting for you on behalf of all the Asian sports geeks who didn't get their shot.

Lighter Pockets, But They Still Have the Best Bun Xao in Town

Sarah and I were big fans of Saigon Grill, a Vietnamese restaurant which had a location only a few blocks from our condo in the Upper West Side.  The food was delicious and the prices were incredible given the quantity and quality of the food.  One of guilty culinary pleasures was to mosey down to 91st Street and feast on Cha Gio (spring rolls), La Sa Ga (coconut soup), and Bun Xao (stir fried noodles).

It looks like those bargain prices might have come at a cost.  A judge recently awarded Saigon Grill delivery workers, many who are illegal immigrants, $4.6 million in back pay and damages for being cheated out of their wages and subsequently fired.  Apparently, there was some funny business going on in terms of wages being forcibly kicked back to the owner and garnished with arbitrary fines.  I did find it interesting that the delivery workers were somehow picking up between $3500 to $4500 in tips per month, which tells me that either they cram an amazing number of deliveries in a month, or I'm a stingy tipper.  That's remarkably more than I figured your average bicycle delivery guy was making.

Insomuch that the usage of illegal immigrants was a major factor in the ability to keep prices low, it brings to light what we often hear as a fundamental question of economics in the immigration debate.  The theory goes that the owner of Saigon Grill is able to negotiate a lower wage with delivery workers because he is able to use a larger hiring pool (namely, illegal immigrants) who are not subject to artificial price floors (namely, minimum wage).  He gets to set a price point for his food lower because the lower cost of labor allows him to protect his margins.  Those wage savings are essentially passed along to the customer.  Do I like to see workers get exploited? Absolutely not, but I do like inexpensive Vietnamese food.  I'd predict that those bargain prices at Saigon Grill will slowly creep upward, if for no other reason, to start paying off that massive lawsuit.

Simon Nget, the owner of Saigon Grill, is actually a Cambodian refugee.  The long tradition of Asians running restaurants serving other Asian cuisine continues. As another example, Chinese and Koreans dominate the ownership of Japanese restaurants and there are many Filipinos who own Panda Express mall eateries.  Long live pan-Asianism!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Christians Without Community

As former parishioners at Redeemer, Sarah and I receive the monthly Redeemer Report, which outlines happenings in the mother church and musings from Tim Keller.  In the latest issue, Tim writes about the difficulty of community and urges Redeemer attendees to be fully vested in the lives of neighbors and Christian brothers and sisters, as opposed to merely showing up at a church service.  He actually cites a specific example which I think is far more common than we'd like to think:

I recently learned of a man who lives about three hours from NYC. He has not found a church in his area that he likes. So one Sunday a month he takes a train to New York, goes to Redeemer, eats at a restaurant and sees sites, and then goes home. The rest of the Sundays he watches or listens to religious programming. Sound extreme? It’s not too distant from the experience living in the city, but only attending Redeemer services, and not becoming involved in the life of the community — becoming personally accountable and responsible for others.

Tim hit the nail right on the head.  If you're simply attending services at a church but are for the most part completely divested from the lives of others in the church, never providing an opportunity to share your life with others and vice versa, and refusing to give of yourself in service to the church, it's functionally the same as that three-hour commuter (who I'm sure actually exists).  

Engaging in community is difficult.  Sarah and I, by nature of our distance from our church, have done everything in our power to plug ourselves into the life of the church, whether that be through getting into a discipline of serving regularly or initiating with others to ensure we're not allowing distance to pull us away from encouragement and accountability.  We've never allowed ourselves to use geographical distance as an excuse for lack of engagement.  If we ever find that the commute becomes an insurmountable barrier for us to engage sufficiently in the life of the church, we're committed to talking about it honestly and move to a closer church if that's what's best.  But the effort it takes in being part of a faith community is overwhelmingly worth it.  It's not just the warm and fuzzy feelings of having friends - it's a critical component of the means of grace and our spiritual growth.

Those who opt out of community do so at their peril.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Shame of Parental Challenges

At church this past Sunday, one of our members courageously spoke of his struggle with Internet pornography, and one of the things he correctly noted was that we need to be able to speak honestly an openly about our struggles with sin and temptations without a pressure to put on the phony face of a Christian who has their life neatly in place.  

Pornography is one area, and I think another area is similarly stigmatized surrounds family problems, including the difficulty in raising children.  

A recent New York Times article reported that there are older children who are being abandoned under a law in Nebraska that was intended to provide safe haven to parents who felt they couldn't care for infants.  I wonder how much of this is a result of parents not crying out for help earlier on in a child's life when patterns of rebellion and misbehavior start to emerge. Before soon, a kid that you used to be able to influence, reason with, and discipline is a teenager who is bigger than you, semi-independent, and has no qualms about throwing you and your wife through a wall or burning the house down.

Part of the reason why I suspect that this happens is because there's a certain degree of shame over parental challenges as it relates to the raising of children.  As a father of two young children, I can testify that there are few things as embarrassing as having a child throw a tantrum in front of all your friends to see.  The judgment of other people is almost palpable: "Tsk tsk... it's a shame they can't control their child.  They ought to [insert self-righteous advice here].  What terrible parents; what terrible people."

The reality is parenting is really hard.  If you have no children and you think otherwise, you have no idea what I'm talking about.  I'll restate it so I can emphasize my intentional harshness - you have no idea what you're talking about.  Even people who have children who think it's easy are giving way too much credit to themselves to the point of being delusional.  

Look, I believe that there are principles to good parenting.  I respect what people like Paul Tripp and James Dobson have to say.  But there's no paint-by-numbers formula that punches out faithful and well-behaved kids.  I am certain that there are parents that do everything "right" and the kid still rebels.  I am also certain that there are parents who make many parenting mistakes that are blessed with well-adjusted kids.  The fact that kids who are well behaved due to "behavior-manipulation" as opposed to a true understanding of grace and faithful obedience is a whole other ball of wax I won't even tackle now.

The reality is that while parents have a duty to parent responsibly, the outcomes are God's work.  But the failure to acknowledge this leads to judgment, leading to a stigma to admitting your kid is having behavior problems, which I believe leads to situations like we're seeing in Nebraska.

Anyway, flights from Newark to Omaha are how much today?

Finding Religion, Hopefully Worshipping the Right God

There's an article in last week's Economist about the growth of the Christian church in China.  I find it extremely encouraging that the Gospel is going forth despite attempts by the government to control its message and curtail its growth.  It seems as if the Chinese authorities didn't do a routine check of church history and realize that driving the church underground and persecuting its members wasn't so effective in suppressing growth in 70 A.D. either.

What I find intriguing is what happens to the church in the near term.  The article speaks of the need for discipleship, which is why I am strongly supportive of missionary efforts to provide theological training and and discipleship training the underground church leaders. My concern, maybe even more than the legitimate worry of heresy as an unstructured church movement teaches without safeguards against bad theology and opportunists, is that the other burgeoning movement, namely the Chinese economy, will lead to the same spiritual stagnation that has occurred in the Western world.  How many Chinese who rightfully recognize that they cannot put their hopes in the State, and have turned to God, will be enticed by affordable consumer goods and the promise of Western-style affluence?  How many Chinese will wrongly intertwine "Western" (in their minds) religion with the American dream, and thus succumb to variations of the prosperity gospel?  Will the comforts and security of middle-class living numb the need for a Savior?

Ironically, we may very well be going in opposite direction here in the United States.  I understand that Friday after the demise of Lehman Brothers  and acquisition of Merrill Lynch, there was an attendance boom at a Redeemer's Financial Services Ministry event, and I heard many people who attended it talking about what an eye opener it was, and how people needed to get back to their first love in putting God first.  Not to be at all pessimistic or cynical, but I saw with my own eyes how church attendance exploded after 9/11.  Two years later, those crowds were largely gone, and people went back to their lives.  We can only pray that the lessons of the folly of greed and career idolatry are lessons truly learned.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Christian, Not Apolitical

At our church, we're trying to promote a message that being a person of faith doesn't provide a license to be politically unaware.  This is has been very difficult to put into practice, and I can even list out the understandable reasons why a church often tries to not even stick their toe in the water:
  1. Churches often get too political, and essentially become political action committees with a cross in the front of the room.  This includes pastors which essentially say, "You better vote Democrat because God help you if you are complicit in bringing into power a bunch of evildoers who don't care about the poor," or on the other hand "You better vote Republican because God help you if you are complicit in bringing into power a bunch of abortionists that want to legitimize gay marriage."  So many churches have lost their way, so let's not talk about politics.
  2. We're Christians, and our devotion to Christ and the gospel is what unites us and defines us, not whether we're Republican, Democrat or Libertarian. Politics can only divide, so let's not talk about it.
  3. Given the divisive nature of politics, it would be counterproductive for a church to even discuss it. What if someone who visited a church came along and heard someone espousing a political opinion? Even if the point was couched as an opinion, the visitor might have an opposing view and take offense, damaging the relationship with that person and that church forever.
So the challenge remains, how do we communicate the very positive and real message that people can be united in the Kingdom and Christ yet have different political views?  What does it look like for a person of faith to wrestle over key issues and make an informed decision which resonates with their conscience?  The answer, at least to me, is not to bury our collective heads in the sand and not talk about it.  What we need to do is have some open dialogue about how faith can and should inform political thinking, and realize that people may end up on different sides.

This is one of the things that I love about my denomination.  The PCA has a conservative label, but it's also extremely careful about the concept of "binding one's conscience", that is, compelling someone to do (or not to do) something which is extra-biblical and not stated or reasonably surmised from Scripture.  I think there's sufficient latitude to agree to disagree in terms of one's desire to vote for either John McCain or Barack Obama.  What I'd challenge Christians to do is care a great deal more about the prayer and thought that goes into such a decision.  Faithfulness and consideration in one's internal political decision making is what we're looking for, and as long as people equate spiritual obedience into voting for one specific party over another, these discussions will turn into secular debates where people will feel the need to get in the last word.

We need to talk about politics in a way which generates a lot more light and a lot less heat.

The Fighting Phils and the Curse of the Billy Goat

I'm throwing my support behind the Philadelphia Phillies for the baseball playoffs.  I grew and affinity for the Phils during my four years at Penn, and even got to catch the 1993 NL pennant winning team during my time in Philadelphia.  The energy of this team reminds me of the "Macho Row" team of John Kruk, Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, and Curt Schilling, just minus the heavy drinking and steroids.  Well, that and the fact that they're playing in the beautiful Citizens Bank Park as opposed to that monstrosity formerly called Veterans Stadium.  I'm glad to say that the Phils are firmly in control of their series, going up 2-0 after taking down Brewers ace C.C. Sabathia.

I'll also send my condolences to all you Cubs fans out there. The Curse of the Billy Goat raises its ugly head, and a 99-year old drought will get a year longer.  I had told a number of friends that the Cubs ought to have buried the Brewers in the last week of the regular season, thus opening the door for them to play a terrible Mets team in the first round of the playoffs.  But no, Lou Pinella decided to tank the games and rest his regulars, and the result is that the Cubs had to play a dangerous Dodgers team which is about to knock them out of the playoffs.  So for all of you bitter Mets fans out there, feel a little vindicated.

Naturally, I'm rooting for anyone to beat the Red Sox.  I will be very grateful if any team can silence all those insufferable fans from the Nation. 

The Pit Bull with Lipstick Has a Bite

I watched, with great interest, the debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden yesterday, and I have to say I was extremely impressed with Governor Palin's performance.  Apparently the analysts disagree with me, but I think Palin beat Biden.  Consider that the winner of the debate isn't simply about the content of responses to questions, it's about the connection that a ticket makes with undecided voters, and that was clearly a Palin strong point.  I believe that one undecided voter said of Governor Palin, "She's Main Street; she's one of us."

It's unfortunate that Palin has received such negative press that even celebrity Obama-backers like Annette Bening have stated that Hollywood should give Palin more respect.  Palin's been getting it from all sides, from conservative commentators who have called on her to quit, to people like Tina Fey and Chris Rock who skewer her behind a veil of "comedy".  Yeah, I admit that some of that stuff is pretty funny.

I have to say that between the clips that I saw of Katie Couric's interview and some of the other sound bites I've heard of the Republican VP nominee, my psyche was pretty much on end waiting for a spectacular disaster, the way I used to feel when Kyle Farnsworth would take the mound for the Yankees in a close game.

But to my pleasant surprise, Governor Palin was articulate, charismatic, and deft in her handling of some very tough questions.  She also did a wonderful job of connecting with the audience on an emotional level and creating a "we're all common folks in the same boat" vibe better than Joe Biden.  Then again, Senator Biden's "I'm smarter than you and I'll use an hour to explain a concept that can be explained in five minutes" disposition didn't make that all that difficult.